Toru Yonaha has done everything. Born in Chatan on Okinawa’s main island, he was introduced to the sanshin as a three year old. After becoming familiar with traditional Okinawan songs and music he took part in Eisa festivals and rapidly became an expert in that field. He appeared as a solo artist at Ryukyu Festivals, toured overseas, became a multi-instrumentalist, a sanshin teacher, songwriter and producer. It seemed no album could be released in Okinawa without Yonaha’s name somewhere in the credits. His collaborations included a joint album in 2009 with Misako Oshiro.
Now at last we have the release of Tunaka which is a ‘Best’ selection of Yonaha’s solo work from the years 2001 to 2014. Despite his numerous musical activities (or maybe because of them) there have been just four solo albums in all that time, beginning with his debut Yozare Bushi in 2001. His fourth album Roots came out in 2008 but this compilation adds some other newer recordings to bring us up to date.
Yonaha has dabbled in pop and rock as well as classical, traditional and shimauta, so choosing just eleven tracks for this album was never easy. He has gone mostly for the fuller sounding band recordings. The final track, however, is a 14 minute ‘Kachashi’ dance workout. There is a nice contribution from singers Mika Uchizato and Chihiro Kamiya on ‘Ashimiji Bushi’ and a good version of ‘Yoake’ a song written by Japanese pop band Spitz. There are also three previously unreleased recordings, one of them a new song co-written by Yonaha. Two other tracks have been remixed for this release.
The final lengthy dance track seems a bit of an indulgence when several more interesting songs could have been included on the one hour album. There is only one track from his excellent debut Yozare Bushi. That album included a fantastic recording of ‘Shin Daisanajya’ one of Yonaha’s finest moments and the greatest version by anyone of this traditional song. To omit it from any ‘best’ album seems a crime.
Yonaha still hasn’t entirely fulfilled that early potential as a solo artist though his contribution to Okinawan music in countless other ways is immense. He is still only 38 (which in Okinawa means he’s just a boy) so there should be many years left to make that really great album. In fact, the title Tunaka is an Okinawan word meaning to be on the open sea. Yonaha sees this as symbolic of being in the middle of his career with still some way to go.
In the meantime, this is a good introduction given the reservations already mentioned. Anyone yet to discover Toru Yonaha will not be disappointed with the extraordinarily accomplished and versatile singer and musician presented on this collection.
Tunaka is released by J’s Records.