Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno

Posted January 20, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

This self-titled album is the second release by American singer, songwriter, and musician Vivian Leva whose solo debut came out in 2018. For these new recordings she is joined by Riley Calcagno, a young musician who learned his trade on the festival scene. In fact, the pair are from the Appalachian string band tradition and Leva grew up in a rural setting in Virginia, the daughter of celebrated old-time musicians.

Their album was produced by Joel Savoy at his Louisiana studio and contains all original songs based on the music they grew up with but with fresh new melodies and singing. Of the eleven tracks, five are composed by Leva, one by Calcagno, and the rest co-written. Leva leads with most of the vocals and plays rhythm guitar with Calcagno on acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle, and banjo.

The press release describes it as ‘old-soul roots music to its core’ and that’s exactly what it is. When they are joined by musicians on pedal steel, piano, bass, and drums it moves into country music territory and this is most successful on ‘Biding All My Time’ and the closing track ‘Good and Gone’. By contrast, ‘You Don’t See Me’ has the more timeless air of a traditional folk ballad that is also reminiscent of Cinder Well.

Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno (Photo: Brendon Burton)

The lyrics of many of these songs explore themes of space, distance, and separation in uncertain times. They were working on the songs well before the arrival of Covid, while attending different universities separated by half the country. They would send each other voice memos, and work on songs during weekend visits.

“We would try to write music in these little spare moments,” Leva explains. “It’s so hard to communicate with someone over the phone. A song is a place that you can map out how you’re feeling and how you want to share your feelings.”

The two best songs are Leva’s ‘Will You’, and the melancholy ‘Love and Chains’ which they wrote with Sam Bailey. This delicate song, with the pair trading vocals, is a reflection on being in the moment even as a difficult parting is imminent. On these and some of the other songs the arrangements move in unexpected directions.

The addition of other musicians allows a bigger range but just listening to the pair on their own is perhaps the most rewarding of all. What cannot be overstated is the skill, care, and love that has been put into the making of this record by young musicians already steeped in a tradition way beyond musical fashions.

The album will be available on CD, LP, and digital, and is scheduled for release on 12th March by Free Dirt Records.

Misako Oshiro

Posted January 18, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

There was sad news today of the death of Misako Oshiro at the age of 84. The singer and sanshin player will be remembered forever as one of the greatest in Okinawan music history.

She will always be associated with another great singer, the late Rinsho Kadekaru with whom she frequently performed and recorded. But Oshiro’s long career continued right up until her death and she was performing until recently at her own minyo bar Shima Umui in Naha.

She remained open to new ideas and in her later years made duet albums with Toru Yonaha, Kanako Horiuchi, the Ainu singer Oki, and then in 2012 the late Seijin Noborikawa. As well as this, she found time to appear in a leading acting role in the film Tsuru-Henry.  

As if that wasn’t enough, her last album Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobu (2017) was made up entirely of guest collaborations. It included ‘Kataumui Remix’ a recording of the most famous song written for her by Teihan China and remixed by the electronic band Churashima Navigator. The original 1962 ‘Kataumui’ single was added as a bonus track.

I was lucky enough to be able to see her live performances several times. And a few years ago, I met her and Kanako Horiuchi at Shima Umui for an interview to coincide with the release of their joint album. (The feature was originally published in fRoots magazine and is now in the Features Archive of this blog). Oshiro was quiet and unassuming at our meeting as well as kind and welcoming as she sipped on her glass of awamori and talked about her life. It was an honour to be in her presence, and she will be greatly missed.  

Tink Tink: Yuiyasa!

Posted January 13, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Yuiyasa! is an album by four young women going under the name Tink Tink. This will ring a bell with followers of Rinken Band as it’s the project of Rinken Teruya who produced this album and obviously had a big hand in cultivating their sound. A previous duo version of Tink Tink made the album Sya back in 2002, and this quartet have taken over the name.

The songs all bear the unmistakable stamp of Rinken Band with their mix of bright and lively shimauta seasoned with the occasional slower ballad. The themes are mostly the familiar ones of island life and celebrations of nature in the Ryukyus.

What makes this a bit different is that all songs are composed by the four members of the group themselves – Natsuki Hanashiro, Nana Yakabi, Seira Ganaha, and Sayaka Fukumura – and all lyrics are in the Okinawan language of Uchinaguchi. Three of the singers are from Okinawa while Natsuki is from Miyako.

The title track which opens the album is a joint effort with lyrics by Seira Ganaha and music by Rinken Teruya. After that, each of the four members take turns with lead vocals on songs composed individually, with three by each of the women. Rinken Teruya assisted with the Uchinaguchi words, and the CD booklet contains both original lyrics and Japanese translations.

Nana Yakabi’s ‘Shima nu Migumi’ sets an early high note and the general level is maintained throughout. ‘Kutushin! Surisasa’ is a lively workout in eisa style, while ‘Tunaka’ has a vocal by Seira Ganaha that sounds uncannily like Tomoko Uehara who is obviously her mentor. Best of all is Sayaka Fukumura’s slower ‘Umi nu Kwamuiuta’ with its irresistibly sad melody. 

Almost all the music is played on sanshin, guitar, and cheren (the hybrid sanshin-guitar instrument). Not credited in the notes but clearly present in a supporting role are other musicians on bass, drums, and electronics.

It would be easy enough to dismiss this as lightweight shimauta aimed at tourists. An obvious comparison can be made with Sadao China’s promotion of new line-ups of Nenes (or Nenez as they are now styled). What makes this more interesting is the emphasis on Uchinaguchi by these young musicians and their enthusiasm for songwriting. They are also fine performers and Yuiyasa! is a joyous album that never descends into some of the plodding pop of recent Nenez offerings.

Yuiyasa! is out now and is released by Rinken Records.

Araki Kodo: Hankyō

Posted January 7, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

It’s not too often that Japanese music is featured here but Hankyō (Reverberation) is an interesting new album of shakuhachi music by Araki Kodo – the name given to Hanzaburo Araki a sixth generation Kinko-Ryu shakuhachi master based in Seattle, Washington.

The Araki family has been playing and passing down the skills and traditions of Kinko-Ryu shakuhachi since the 19th century. Araki began playing the Japanese bamboo flute when he was 17 and made his debut with his father soon after that in a concert in Shimonoseki, Japan. He has been performing now for more than three decades.  

The four pieces played here are mainly traditional and have a special significance for the family. One of them ‘Tsuki no Kyoku’ (Song of the Moon) was a composition of Araki’s great-great-grandfather after whom he is named. The album’s title also refers to the original name of a composition by his father, included here.

With no apprentice, Araki Kodō VI will be the last of the line. He decided to start recording in order “to preserve a style of playing that has been refined by six generations of experience, and to add to a family archive of the music that has been passed from father to son.” He adds: “I hope that you will hear the old stories in the music…and that you will also hear the story that is being written now.” 

For anyone interested in the haunting sounds of the shakuhachi, or in traditional music from Japan, this is an essential listen. Fascinatingly, in another incarnation, Hanz Araki also draws on his Irish heritage, and is known for his instrumental work on both whistle and flute as well as being a singer on Seattle’s thriving Irish music scene.

Mikel Urdangarin: Izurdeen Lekua

Posted December 30, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Just over a year ago I reviewed the new release of a live album by Mikel Urdangarin featuring songs by Leonard Cohen. Now the Basque singer-songwriter is back with a new album of original songs entitled Izurdeen Lekua (The Dolphins’ Place).

A lot has happened since he was in Okinawa two years ago for concerts in what became the Basque Ryukyu Project. Sadly, apart from the successful production of the feature film Margolaria that focused on his life and career, not much of what’s happened since then has been good, with the global pandemic dominating this year’s news, and, before that, a personal loss in Mikel’s own life.

This is reflected strongly in the new set of songs in which, as well as the expectedly powerful vocals, there is an added emphasis on piano, unusually played here by Urdangarin himself as well as by Koldo Uriarte who also produced the album. Talented backing singer Alison Keable also joins to share vocals on the song ‘Ura dakarzut’ (I’m Bringing You Water).

Many songs begin slowly and quietly with vocal and piano then build to an emotional crescendo. Typical of this are the title track and the song that immediately follows it, ‘Enaz beldur’ (I’m Not Afraid). The song’s last line (in English translation) “I will sing it in your ear so that only you will hear” is key to the intimate theme of the album. The longest track ‘Hiru ahizpatatik bigarrena’ (The Second of Three Sisters) is another crucial song that addresses the loss of loved ones and is especially moving.  

The music video for the title track ‘Izurdeen lekua’

The overlapping literary tradition of songwriters and poets has a lengthy history in the Basque Country. While all the songs here are sung in the Euskara language there are both English and Spanish translations of the lyrics on the official Mikel Urdangarin website (see below). These are worth seeking out and reveal a facility with words that could also be read as poetry.

But, even without knowing the literal meanings from just listening to the songs, it’s a mark of the singer’s superlative artistry and technique that his voice and music can affect the listener on a direct emotional level without the need for any resort to translation. 

For all the lyricism that has gone before, the album’s final track is the calmly melodic ‘Agurra’ with piano and a wordless vocal sung almost as a kind of prayer to bring this fine album to its conclusion.

Izurdeen Lekua is released by Zart.

The Music of Okinawa Mix

Posted December 18, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Radio Mixes

Back in September I was asked to compile a Contemporary Roots Music Mix for K.O.L. Radio in Tokyo. Now here comes another mix of mine and, not surprisingly, it’s a compilation of Okinawan music.

With the latest show I’ve put together an hour or so of favourite tracks from the newer Okinawan minyo and modern shimauta releases to reach me. All were reviewed here over the past year or two and reviews of the source albums can be found on this blog.

The songs by Unaigumi and Yasuko Yoshida are both are a bit older, from 2015, but were so good I couldn’t leave them out. Most of the selections are from Okinawa but there are also some from the Miyako and Yaeyama islands. The final track, ‘Corona Bushi’, is a topical update of the traditional song ‘Densa Bushi’ which is from the newly released double album Okinawa Yuumoasongu Ketteiban.

The show is online now:

This is the playlist order with artists and song titles:

Yuki Yamazato ‘Inagu Hichui’

Unaigumi ‘Winagu Dushi’

Hirokazu Matsuda ‘Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 (Jintoyo-gwa)’

Takashi Hirayasu ‘Chunjun Harusa’

Yasuko Yoshida ‘Irayoi Tsukiyahama’

Yuu Yonaha ‘Dirabudi Bushi’

Takao Nagama ‘Yonaguni Kouta’

Rinsho Kadekaru with Misako Oshiro ‘Kaisare (Jintoyo)’

Mutsumi Aragaki ‘Naakunii-Hantabaru’

Satoru Shimoji ‘Kaze no Ayagu’

Yoko Ishikawa ‘Chijuyagwa’

Shinichi Shinjo & Kanako Horiuchi ‘Daisanajya’

Okinawa Americana ‘Chimuganasa’

Akane Murayoshi ‘Hama Sodachi’

Hajime Nakasone ‘Corona Bushi’

Thanks once again to James Catchpole at K.O.L. Radio.

Seersha in Atlanta

Posted December 16, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa Overseas, Roots Music from Out There

It is always good to be contacted – sometimes out of the blue – by overseas musicians with strong connections to Okinawa. Seersha is one of those who I’ve been in touch with this year and is an American singer, composer, recording artist and producer based in Atlanta, Georgia.

The link to Okinawa is that she spent five years on the main island as a child, where she lived with her family in Urasoe, and she retains a great affection for the Ryukyus, its culture and its music. In fact, she first learned piano from a teacher on Okinawa and so the foundations of her own music go back to that time.  

Seersha’s own music emanates from her facility with composition and keyboards. It’s not overtly Okinawan in style but has instead been described as ‘moody indie synthpop’. The lush sound she creates also embraces more than a hint of retro-pop and of electronica in general.

Earlier this year her second EP Metaphors was released independently on her Fox Nose Records label. It contains the song ‘The Beach’ which can be traced back to those musical roots in Okinawa. The song’s video has some fascinating footage taken during her time as a child on the island. Her own family background is also diverse as her mother is from Jeju Island, South Korea, and her father from Indiana.

Bringing us right up to date, she has recently released a new song ‘Save Me Now’ which she says was inspired by Joan of Arc’s words and story. The video for the song is just out and was released yesterday (15th December).

This year has seen her concentrating on producing videos. ‘Lecture Me’ (also on Metaphors) is a particular favourite of mine, but an album may well be on the horizon for next year. In the meantime, more information can be found on her website below.

FC Ryukyu Update 2020

Posted December 14, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: FC Ryukyu

It’s almost the end of the J2 season and yesterday was the penultimate home game for FC Ryukyu who hosted strugglers Ehime. The season has been a bit of a non-event for all but the three teams at the top battling for the two promotion places. The pandemic meant relegation was suspended for one year, and with Ryukyu unlikely to figure in the promotion race it has been a strange season.

Nevertheless – and with a limited number of supporters allowed in the stadium – yesterday was a good day to be a Ryukyu fan. There was very warm sunshine for the late afternoon kick-off and the team put on a sparkling performance to win the game 6-0, with five second half goals, including a hat-trick from midfielder Koya Kazama.  

J.League football is a very different experience from the sometimes tense and confrontational nature of matches in England. The atmosphere is more like a carnival as clubs, including Ryukyu, take pride in welcoming away supporters, putting on pre-match entertainments, and offering a variety of food, drinks, and local specialities outside the stadium.

Yesterday was advertised as ‘Home Town’ day to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Okinawa City becoming the team’s home. The first 3,000 fans to enter the stadium were given specially produced FC Ryukyu shirts and there were gifts of food, drinks, and posters. Inside the stadium there was a pre-match performance by Sonda Seinenkai Eisa, and a live show by Okinawan pop duo D-51. Finally, after the 6-0 win, there was a firework display to send us all home in good spirits.

Easy access to the stadium is still problematic and there is the continual concern that FC Ryukyu will lose their best players after each season ends. The club are currently 17th in the 22-team league. Midfielder Yoshio Koizumi has been outstanding this season but already there are rumours of him moving on. But for now, we can savour the experience of a big win.

The final home game of the season is next Sunday 20th December, kick-off 14:00, when Ryukyu will play Machida Zelvia.

Roots Album Round-up 2020

Posted December 9, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

It’s that time of the year to look back and reflect on the albums that reached me in 2020. Despite the pandemic, new roots music kept on coming and there were several new Okinawan albums to review.

This year, songs from Yonaguni were unusually well represented with new recordings by Ayame Band’s Takao Nagama and a debut album from Yuu Yonaha. There was also the arrival of a welcome second release from Okinawa Americana.

But – and just for fun – these were the Power of Okinawa’s top three joint best albums (together with little quotes from my reviews):

VARIOUS ARTISTS   Okinawa Yuumoasongu Ketteiban (Respect) Nine singers share a double album focusing on the humorous side of Okinawa. “The album is packed with fine songs, and the vocals, sanshin, and general musicianship are exemplary throughout.”

MUTSUMI ARAGAKI   Another World of Okinawan Music (Niinuhai) An adventurous, experimental album from the sanshin virtuoso. It also came with a DVD.  “…essential listening for anyone interested in what is going on now in Okinawan music and in the exciting new directions in which Aragaki is taking it.”

NARISE ARAKAKI   Shinayakani…Shimauta (Miri Records) The debut album of the young singer from Yaese. “Managing to sound fresh while drawing on the living traditions of the islands’ music, she can be rightly proud of this album.”

As for ‘Roots Music from Out There’, there were many to choose from including important new releases from Estonia’s Trad.Attack! and English folk legend Shirley Collins. The collaboration by Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn was a highlight and so was Jake Blount’s Spider Tales. Then there was Cinder Well whose meditative No Summer caught the mood of the times perfectly, as did the album by Emily Barker. 

So, an impossible task, but my personal favourite was:

PHARIS AND JASON ROMERO   Bet on Love The best record yet from the Canadian duo. “The deceptively simple and timeless quality of Pharis and Jason’s music seems more essential now than ever in these troubled times.”

Reviews of all these albums and more are on the blog. Tracks from most of the non-Okinawan ones reviewed can also be listened to on my Contemporary Roots Music Mix at K.O.L. Radio on Mixcloud. An Okinawan music radio mix is also on the way soon.

Floating Room: Tired and True

Posted December 4, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa Overseas, Roots Music from Out There

Floating Room is the musical project of Maya Stoner who describes herself as an Uchinanchu American artist based in Portland, Oregon. Tired and True is her new five track EP on which she is joined by a handful of other musicians. All the songs are composed and sung by Stoner who also plays guitar.

Her vocals are supported by guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, with some slide guitar on one track and a bit of trumpet on another. The opener ‘Freakshow’ is the most pop-like and is a bit of an earworm. For all its melodic catchiness, this is a song about frustration, disillusion, and insincerity – deep emotions bubble under the shiny surface of the music as she sings, “Everybody loves a freakshow / They don’t like the freak though”.

Tired and True (cover painting by Ona Greenberg)

What’s impressive is that every song here manages to create a lyrical and musical palette of its own and each track sounds quite distinct from the one before. ‘Held Open Door’ is presented as a ‘meditation on dimming innocence set to jagged guitar pyrotechnics’, ‘Dancer’ has another strong melody, ‘Warm Death (HIFI)’ flirts with shoegaze, and ‘Gun’ rocks out.

None of this sounds remotely Okinawan so I was keen to learn about Stoner’s connection with these islands after listening to her music, and then reading her astute and insightful contributions on social media where she often addresses Okinawan issues. So, I did the obvious thing and got in touch to ask her about it directly. She got back to me with this answer:

“My ojiichan (grandfather) and obaachan (grandmother) both play sanshin and I think that’s where I got my musicality from. My mother is from Okinawa and that half of my family lives there. Okinawan music never fails to cut straight to my heart in a visceral way. Even though my own music sounds very different from it, when I hear the traditional music of my people it just makes sense to me that it is an intrinsic part of me.”

Floating Room’s Maya Stoner

Stoner was happy to talk more with me about her background, and, like her songs, she has a lightness and ease that is very engaging but also a clear underlying passion and an uncompromising concern about her heritage. Of her time in Okinawa she says:

“One of my favorite Okinawa memories is when I sat across from Misako Oshiro in her minyo bar Shima Umui and watched her perform. Another formative experience was visiting tents where water protectors maintained a 24-hour presence to protest the new US military base in Henoko. I was asked by the activists to share my knowledge about the bases and history of US-Okinawa relations with other Americans. Though I do not have a huge following I feel a responsibility as an Uchinanchu American to always shed light on what is happening there and the atrocities my own grandparents have lived through.”

Despite some of the dark themes that run throughout her writing on Tired and True, listening to these songs is ultimately an uplifting experience. This is a fine thing. Now it will be interesting to see further developments when there’s a full-length Floating Room album. There might even be some sanshin next time…

Tired and True is produced by Mo Troper and Floating Room. The EP is out now and is released independently by Maya Stoner on digital and vinyl.