It isn’t a spelling mistake. The quartet formerly known as Nenes are celebrating 25 years since their formation with a new album and are henceforth to be known as ‘Nenez’. This is all the idea of their new record company Tokyo’s King Records whose roster includes pop idols AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z. King has made no secret of its intention to promote Nenez with them in mainland Japan as the exciting new face of young Okinawa. The new Nenez includes Nagisa Uehara who has been with them for around a decade and is, in fact, the niece of original member Yasuko Yoshida, but there are two new members and the group now has an average age of just 23.
This is all a far cry from the early days of Nenes when I squeezed into a packed Banana Hall in Osaka to see an amazing performance by Sadao China’s protégées who had just made their debut album Ikawu. It’s history now that the four women went on to record six very high quality albums and gained further attention touring overseas to create a special niche for themselves in the story of modern Okinawan music. The loss of Misako Koja didn’t dim their spirits and they finally went out on a high in 2000 with the live album Okinawa.
Since then different combinations of a new Nenes have been put together by their mentor Sadao China who sees them carrying on the torch as a kind of China franchise and Reborn is the fifth album to be released in this ‘post-Nenes’ period. All that seems to have happened up to now is that the new line-ups have chipped away at the legacy of the original quartet by seemingly attempting to make each album a little worse than the one before. This culminated in the release of the frankly dreadful Okurimono five years ago.
So what’s happening now? King Records are trying to reinvent them for the Japanese market and on Reborn the new line-up sings twelve of the best-known songs from various periods of the band’s back catalogue. This makes it a kind of ‘best of’ or tribute album to the great Nenes of the past. Included here are such old favourites as ‘Akemodoro’, ‘America-dori’, ‘Bye Bye Okinawa’, ‘Tege’ and ‘Kogane no Hana’ as well as China’s Uchinaguchi version of ‘No Woman, No Cry’. The one traditional song is ‘Kunjan Sabakui’ and there’s another version of Sakishima Meeting’s ‘Sakishima no Tema’ which was also on their previous album.
These new recordings have identical arrangements to their predecessors and only now and then is there a very slight variation with the sanshin playing or a tiny bit more electric guitar. It may well be asked what is the point in recording these songs again when the original Nenes already laid down the defining versions? Or why is there such an obsession in Okinawa (and Japan) with signing to major record companies, with all the loss of creative freedom that this may entail? On second thoughts, no-one in Okinawa is likely to ask these questions at all as there is usually uncritical acceptance and most will happily go along with anything presented to them as long as it’s from Okinawa.
To look at it in a more positive light, there may well be listeners who weren’t even born when Nenes first shook the Okinawan music world in 1990 and the undeniable youth and verve of these young women may act as a way into the music for some of them. Certainly, there is some fine singing from all four women and, if nothing else, listening to this album must be a great experience for anyone who has never heard any of these songs before as it wipes the floor with the four previous albums. These are generally top songs and performances and we are spared any of Sadao China’s more recent misguided attempts to write new songs to appeal to young people.
Nenez are now represented by Misuzu (vocal, sanshin), Nagisa (vocal, sanshin), Aoi (vocal, sanba) and Rie (vocal, taiko). The new line-up contains members from both Ishigaki and Minami Daito islands as well as Okinawa. For the recordings they are joined by Sadao China’s sanshin (China also produced) and by various combinations of sanshin, keyboards, bass and drums. Yukito Ara and Isamu Shimoji guest with sanshin and guitar on their composition ‘Sakishima no Tema’. A new Nenez album of original songs is promised for early next year. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.
Reborn is released by King Records.