Okinawa Americana

Posted July 18, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The new album Okinawa Americana by the duo of the same name (Merry & David Ralston) does just what it says in the title. It puts together the music of Okinawa and America to make a champloo mix. Merry is an Okinawan singer and sanshin player while David Ralston is an American singer with blues and rock influences who is also a remarkable slide guitar player. He has been resident in Okinawa for many years. With this set of ten songs the two of them seem to have found their true purpose.

The pair recorded the album in various locations including Nashville, Tennessee, and Los Angeles and they are also joined by some experienced American musicians. Previous Okinawa-America collaborations, such as Hirayasu & Brozman and Oshima & Keezer, have concentrated on the Okinawan songs. This is different in that it’s focused as much on Americana as on Okinawa and many songs feature a combination of English vocals from Ralston and Okinawan singing from Merry.

This works best of all on the traditional ‘Aha Bushi’ a normally austere song which is given a makeover here that totally works. The sanshin and slide guitar play off each other to great effect and the disparate blend of Merry’s Okinawan singing and Ralston’s bluesy-gospel vocal is a treat. ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’ is another success that drives along in the fast lane while ‘Nan Kuru Naisa’ has an English vocal about life in Okinawa and sounds like a distant relative of Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’.

‘Red Wine and Mensore’ is standard country rock until Merry cuts in with a lovely counterpoint vocal to show that she is the duo’s secret weapon and her skill and effervescence lifts many of these songs. ‘Mimura Odori’ has shared vocals and a strong combination of sanshin and electric slide guitar. Meanwhile Ralston’s ‘Okinawa Is My Home’ has echoes of Ry Cooder’s ‘Going Back to Okinawa’ in its celebration of all things Okinawan. But it’s a song with more insight than Cooder’s because Ralston really knows what he’s singing about and isn’t just passing through as a musical tourist.

So we have an album that combines originals with old Okinawan songs; English and Okinawan vocals; sanshin and slide guitar. There’s also a decent version of the popular but too much recorded ‘Amazing Grace’ (renamed here ‘Mumukafu’) and a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. It’s a mixed bag but one that works nearly all the time. Most of all this is a fresh-sounding album in which all involved are obviously having a lot of fun.

Okinawa Americana will be released by Mad Music Intl on 6th August.

http://okinawaamericana.com/

Chris Bromage & End of Empire: Man in a Minor Chord

Posted July 16, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Man in a Minor Chord is the second album by Chris Bromage and his End of Empire band. Singer-songwriter Bromage is from Leeds, England but also lived in Japan for several years and has been based in Canada since 2004. This release follows on from his debut End of Empire an album with a strong political edge.

The new album recorded in Vancouver has a broader agenda described as “a reflection on Trump, Brexit, love, the past and the insanity of the modern world” and Bromage sings and plays acoustic and electric guitars, piano and keyboards. On first listen there is nothing startlingly original about the standard musical line-up and song format but it soon becomes clear that it does work very well with “real” playing that harks back to an earlier analogue recorded sound.

The high quality of recording and production is matched by the songwriting which soon gets under the skin with its rhythms, unexpected changes and rich melodies. The ambitious seven minute opener ‘Belize’ focuses on the dichotomy between tourist paradise and the poverty, corruption and colonial legacy of the Central American country. It could easily have become overwrought but Bromage crucially understands having something to say doesn’t mean melody is neglected in favour of message. As he says, this is “lyrically driven misery you can dance to”.

One of the best tracks is ‘No Forty Acres There’s No Mule’ which touches on broken promises following the Civil War era in the USA. In contrast ‘Empty’ is at the same time about depression and a homage to Glasgow’s Postcard label and its pop bands. One of those, Orange Juice, is referred to again on the album’s best song ‘Tears in the Rain’ an irresistibly nostalgic look back with hindsight to time spent in Japan.

Chris Bromage has been many things in an eventful life including sports agent and entrepreneur. Three years ago he opted out of a conventional work life to concentrate on his music. Man in a Minor Chord deserves and will surely attain a wide audience and is solid evidence that he has made a good decision. It also sends a message that it’s never too late to change direction.

Man in a Minor Chord will be released on 11th August by CB Records.

http://www.numberonemusic.com/endofempire

Christine Primrose: Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris

Posted July 3, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

The full title of this new album by Christine Primrose is Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris: Love and Loss – A Lone Voice and it contains eleven songs of unaccompanied traditional Scottish Gaelic sung by one of the great singers from Scotland who has travelled the world performing and teaching. There are also three bonus tracks chosen from earlier recordings.

It might seem a daunting task to sit down and listen for an hour to such sparse unaccompanied songs rendered in a language that will be unfamiliar to most people. However, if anyone is capable of dispelling our fears then it’s surely Christine Primrose whose long career includes being awarded Gaelic Singer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2009. With these new recordings she is out there on her own with no safety net and that she so obviously succeeds is a great testament to her art.

If there are any parallels with Okinawa it is with some of the timeless unaccompanied songs sung and collected in the local communities of these islands –  particularly those of Yaeyama and Miyako – as well as in the many songs of hardship, emigration and exile.

Primrose focuses here on sad songs of love and loss, some very old, others by known composers. In one case she adds a melody of her own to some words by the poet William Campbell. The final song is by John McGregor (in English: ‘Island of Lewis, I Travelled Afar from You’) in which the singer reflects on his native island after a long time away. As Primrose writes in her notes, “Like McGregor, you may never return permanently but it’s always home.”

Christine Primrose was brought up in a Gaelic speaking culture on the Hebridean island of Lewis where she sang in her native language from a very young age. On this album she gives a master class in how to interpret these songs. There is nothing remotely flashy or showy on display. Instead, the emotions of each song are conveyed with subtlety, clarity and a quiet power.

The album booklet contains Primrose’s explanations in English of all the songs. Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris: Love and Loss – A Lone Voice is released by Temple Records and is available directly from their website.

www.templerecords.co.uk

www.christineprimrose.com 

Uchina Love Song

Posted June 29, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Uchina Love Song is a new compilation of songs from the Ryukyu Islands sung by six different women singers. The album contains 18 tracks and the songs are shared equally between the singers so they have three tracks each. The singers are Lucy Nagamine, Yoko Ishikawa, Kaori Yamashiro, Kanako Horiuchi, Megumi Aragaki, and Mina.

It has been said many times that there are so many Okinawan compilation albums that it needs something rather special or different to justify the release of yet another one. Well, Uchina Love Song is certainly different as it focuses on both Ryukyu minyo and classical love songs all concerned with women’s feelings towards men. (Despite this, all of the songs seem to have been written by men). Generally, the stories told in the songs have unhappy endings and this makes for an unusual theme and atmosphere throughout.

The responsibility for choosing the 18 songs was with Setsuko Kikuyama, a famed teacher of minyo and she gave guidance on singing and sanshin playing as well as appearing on the album along with a few other musicians in supporting roles. The songs are performed uniformly well but among those that stand out is a version of Teihan China’s ‘Kataumui’ by Lucy Nagamine – a song much associated with Misako Oshiro. Megumi Aragaki takes on the standard ‘Shirakumu Bushi’, Kanako Horiuchi sings Choki Fukuhara’s ‘Yotakara Bushi’, and Mina performs ‘Musume Jintoyo’ a song written by Fukuhara’s son Tsuneo and a big hit for Yoriko Ganeko in 1978.

What is interesting about the artists who appear on the album is that only one of them – Megumi Aragaki – was born and raised in Okinawa. Of the others, Lucy is well-known for her upbringing in Peru, and Horiuchi moved to Okinawa from Hokkaido in order to study Okinawan singing and sanshin. Yamashiro was born in Osaka but came back to live in Okinawa, while Yoko Ishikawa is from the Okinawan island of Iyeha-jima but was brought up in Osaka. Mina is Swiss-Japanese and lives in London.

Kanako Horiuchi and Lucy Nagamine may be the best known of these singers and not surprisingly their contributions are outstanding but everyone deserves credit for a new compilation with a slightly different focus and purpose. The release comes with a second CD containing a nine minute recording of ‘Nakuni~Kaisare’ featuring all of the singers. The CD booklet contains Japanese translations and explanations of the songs by the writer Tsukasa Kohama.

Uchina Love Song will be released on 2nd August by Respect.

www.respect-record.co.jp

Irei no hi 2017

Posted June 23, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

It’s the 23rd June once again and so it’s Irei no hi in Okinawa which is a public holiday throughout the Ryukyu Islands. For the eighth year in succession I attended the Memorial Service for all the war dead in the Battle of Okinawa which ended on this day 72 years ago at a cost of more than 240,000 lives. As always, the main ceremony was held at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman.

The rainy season is finally at an end in Okinawa and today, like all the other Irei no hi ceremonies I’ve attended, there was blazing sunshine and sweltering heat.

As before, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an appearance that was about as welcome as a fly in your soup. Tight security ensured that his visit went off without incident but his speech on the need for peace and assurances that he was thinking about Okinawa seemed hypocritical at the very least. His actions and those of his government have been completely at odds with his words today.

The current situation in Okinawa was better addressed by Yonekichi Shinzato, Speaker of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, who said:

“Although 72 years have passed, there are still vast US military facilities in Okinawa, and people still suffer from incidents and accidents due to their presence. The reduction of Okinawa’s excessive military burden has repeatedly been called for. However, considering the number of military related incidents in Okinawa such as parachute drop training in Kadena Air Base despite local opposition and frequent military aircraft flyovers, I have to say the situation has been regressing. Therefore, I firmly request, again, reducing our military burden.”

This was taken up by Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga in his Peace Declaration:

“Especially regarding the relocation of Futenma Air Station to the Henoko area, we cannot tolerate that the construction has been forcibly begun, ignoring the will of the people of Okinawa. I am determined to work closely with the Okinawan people in order to block the relocation of Futenma Air Station to Henoko.”

Onaga went on: “This year marks the 70th anniversary of enforcement of the Japanese constitution and 45th anniversary of its application to Okinawa Prefecture. Considering this milestone, we must reaffirm the principle of pacifism of the constitution and every individual has to firmly pursue lasting peace for the world and make efforts to realize it.”

“Masahide Ota, former governor of Okinawa, passed away last week. He wanted Okinawa to become a foundation for creation of peace and peaceful co-existence. As a vow to prevent the re-occurrence of the horrors of war, he decided to establish “The Cornerstone of Peace” to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa, regardless of their nationalities.”

“We, as citizens living in Okinawa, will strive to pass on our hope for a better tomorrow which is built into “The Cornerstone of Peace” to the next generation. In addition, we are determined to continue making efforts to create a society full of joy, where our children and grandchildren, who hold the fate of the future in their hands, will be able to live in peace and safety.”

Harry & Mac – Road to Okinawa

Posted June 19, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

Road to Okinawa is billed as a ‘Talk Show’ by Harry (Haruomi Hosono) and Mac (Makoto Kubota), who have been for many years two of the most well-established musicians and producers from mainland Japan. Both also have strong connections to these islands. The Talk Show takes place on Saturday in Naha.

Hosono is probably best known for his work as a member of electronic music pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra and he has released many solo albums covering a wide range of styles. Kubota has also had a long interest in the music of Okinawa and is a musician, engineer, and producer. His Blue Asia projects and his work with singers in the Miyako Islands have attracted much attention in recent years.

What actually happens on Saturday is anyone’s guess but it seems likely that the pair won’t just be talking. They also have guests from Okinawa who will be playing live. The guest artists are Shoukichi Kina, Tetsuhiro Daiku, and Banjo Ai. It’s hard to imagine that Kina at least won’t have something to say if he gets half a chance.

Shoukichi Kina

Banjo Ai

Harry & Mac’s Road to Okinawa is presented by Takara Records and starts at 19:00 on 24th June at Sakurazaka Theatre (Hall A). Tickets are 3,000 yen in advance and 3,500 on the day.

http://www.sakura-zaka.com/

Home thoughts from abroad

Posted June 6, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

I am a stranger to the ballot box. Not through choice but because I’m not entitled to vote in elections either in the UK or in Japan the country where I have permanent residency. And although I have no plans to take it up, it would also be nice to have the right to return with my family to live in my native country if we ever wanted to but under current British government laws this is apparently forbidden to us on economic grounds.

Over the past decade or so I haven’t much cared about never being able to take part in the democratic process, especially since the available options through the UK ballot box always seemed so unappealing and lacking in real diversity. However, for the first time in ages it appears that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party offers a glimmer of hope for a better and more inclusive society for everyone and not just for the few.

To my surprise I found myself actually being impressed with the answers of a political leader last week when I watched Corbyn on BBC TV’s Question Time. What was disappointing was the reaction of some, mostly older, members of the audience who expressed indignation that he prefers to talk with dangerous people he doesn’t like such as ‘terrorists’; he is very reluctant to use nuclear weapons; and is wholeheartedly in favour of multiculturalism.

It is encouraging that most of the younger people I’ve listened to have been more positive and open-minded about many issues and some of them are puzzled as to why their elders are so keen to have the nuclear option at all. Young people are often portrayed as naive or irresponsible but many of those I’ve heard have talked more sense than some of their seniors who are more concerned with retaliation and blowing everyone up than with reasoning and understanding.

In Okinawa, where people have suffered invasion and occupation, innumerable deaths and destruction, attitudes are different and it is usually the elderly who are the most vociferous in condemning all forms of violence. They must know from bitter experience that killing people doesn’t make things better and there are only losers in war. Despite this sad history – which continues to this day with American military bases forcibly imposed on Okinawa by Japan – Okinawan people have generally welcomed outsiders and taken pride in their mixed champloo culture. While most Okinawans happily embrace pacifism, the macho British see nothing incongruous about holding military parades at football matches and using any opportunity to celebrate the armed forces.

So I won’t be voting this week and am not optimistic about the outcome of the UK general election, given some of the attitudes I’ve seen among the British public and the reluctance of people to change their ways. Too many also would rather close borders and pull up the drawbridge. But stranger things have happened in the world, not least with the election of the terrible Trump, so I don’t expect, but cautiously hope for a Labour victory.