Minishi is the newly released debut album by singer and sanshin player Mayuko Higa from the Yaeyama Islands. It was around twelve years ago that I first encountered her as a 14 year old when she sang ‘Tubarama’ on stage with Kanako Hatoma at the Hatoma family’s live venue Bashofu in Ishigaki city. Even at that young age it was obvious she was already a talented musician with a love for the old songs. The lively youngster was a regular visitor to Bashofu where she would play her sanshin at every opportunity.
Following in the footsteps of Kanako Hatoma she eventually moved to Okinawa at the behest of Sadao China and was for a time a member of one of his Nenes line-ups. Unfortunately, this was also the quartet who made arguably their worst ever album, Okurimono, in 2010. She subsequently left Nenes and is pursuing a solo career with this album which has been produced by Sadao China and is released by his record company.
Not surprisingly, China’s mark is stamped on the album and he contributes four of his original compositions while the other five tracks are traditional Yaeyama songs. He also plays sanshin on one track and koto on four others. Having the weight of Sadao China behind you can be a double-edged sword as it means that Higa will be immediately noticed in the world of traditional Okinawan song but may have less control over how she actually goes about making her recordings.
The Yaeyama songs are all played straightforwardly and with little in the way of accompaniment to Higa’s voice other than her own sanshin playing. They are strikingly simple and all very good. She has developed into a fine singer and knows exactly how to deliver a satisfying performance. She demonstrates this right from the opening ‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’ to the final ‘Kuroshima Bushi’. The four China songs, by contrast, use guitar and sometimes keyboards to fill out the sound. The title track ‘Minishi’ is the most successful of these.
There is a version of China’s ‘Yon no Michi’ (also the title track of Kanako Hatoma’s debut album 15 years ago) while his ‘Dokyumento’ (Document) is a song written especially for Higa and touches on incidents in her own life. It is probably intended to be the centrepiece of the album but although it’s the kind of song that may go down well with many Okinawan listeners it cannot avoid being just a little too maudlin and predictable.
The juxtaposition of traditional songs and originals is not altogether a smooth one and it left me wondering why the old songs are left as they are but the originals are given more ‘modern’ arrangements, mostly by guitarist Yoshiro Maehama. If it had been the other way around it might have been more imaginative, or at least surprising. And while China is an important singer and songwriter, the whole album might have benefited from a more innovative producer. That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Mayuko Higa’s singing or playing and she puts on an exemplary performance throughout. This is way better than her group work with Nenes and she fully justifies her solo status. She has already come a long way since I first saw that raw 14 year old and she promises to be even better in the future.
Minishi is released by Dig Records.