Ryuichi Sakamoto: Beauty

‘Albums Revisited’ is intended as an occasional series to briefly introduce – or revisit – some of the important albums which have made an impression on me over the years.  Some of these are from Okinawa, and most would be termed ‘roots’ music, but others are not. Here is the first…

Japan’s Ryuichi Sakamoto is well-known around the world for his composition of film soundtracks and also for his innovatory electronic music and techno-pop as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra. He is now based in New York and still very active at the age of 60. He was in the news recently for his organisation of the ‘No Nukes 2012’ concert – a hugely successful two day event in Chiba which gathered together anti-nuclear power protesters and musicians from all over Japan and beyond. The concert included performances from YMO and Kraftwerk as well as Amami singer Chitose Hajime, Osaka band Soul Flower Union, and many others.

Back in 1989 he made the ‘solo’ album Beauty which introduced some Okinawan influenced music to mainland Japanese listeners at a time when Okinawan music was still relatively unfamiliar to many of them. At that time I was just beginning to discover the joys of Okinawan music myself and was probably listening constantly to the early albums of Shoukichi Kina. Sakamoto’s Beauty includes two old island favourites, ‘Asadoya Yunta’ and ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’ (on the album it’s called ‘Chinsagu no Hana’). It was quite possibly the first time I’d listened to either of these songs – hard to believe now as I must have heard them about a thousand times since in all their various incarnations.

What I almost certainly didn’t realise at the time was that three of the very best Okinawan female singers were on this album playing sanshin and providing the distinctive Okinawan vocals to some of the songs. They are Misako Koja (who was soon to become a founder member of Nenes), Yoriko Ganeko, and Kazumi Tamaki. A few years later I would meet all three of them in Okinawa on separate occasions and get to know them much better. In fact, they would all become more important to me than Ryuichi Sakamoto himself. Also on the album is the great Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour whose superb voice and music I also discovered later through his own albums. Brian Wilson, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Robertson all make brief appearances too.

Beauty is a patchwork of disparate ideas put together by Sakamoto and he mixes together pop, electronic, classical, Japanese and Okinawan sounds. Not surprisingly some of the tracks work rather better than others. Sakamoto’s own voice is weak and this shows on the slight ‘Rose’ – probably the least interesting track, while the lengthy re-arrangement of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio’ which closes the album is just a little tedious. The Mick Jagger and Keith Richard cover ‘We Love You’ is more interesting but the album is at its best on ‘Asadoya Yunta’, ‘Romance’, and the N’Dour/Sakamoto co-written ‘Diabaram’. These all stand the test of time very well and the album as a whole still sounds vital after all these years. The album was produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto and released on Virgin.

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