Mako in Seattle

Posted May 21, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa Overseas

Traditional Okinawan music performer Mako has recently been in touch to introduce herself and to talk about her fascinating ‘Okinawa Overseas’ story.

She was born in Okinawa but moved to Hawaii with her family at the age of eleven, and later moved to Seattle as an adult. Her sanshin playing began after she moved away from Hawaii, and this led to the discovery that singing and playing sanshin offered a connection or ‘portal’ back to her roots.

As a member of the Okinawan community in Washington State she frequently plays in the Seattle area. “Sometimes this is at public events like cultural and/or world music festivals” she says, “other times at private events such as fundraising parties, school events, or as a guest speaker in classrooms. I just love to see people’s eyes pop open when they see and hear something they’ve never seen or heard before and to introduce Okinawa to those people.”


She performs both solo and sometimes as leader of the group known as Mako and Munjuru who can be found via their Facebook page. She is also a member of the Honolulu musical troupe Ukwanshin Kabudan.

“With this worldwide pandemic everything came to halt. After more than two months of stay-at-home and a small dip in the bar graph in the greater Seattle area it seems as though people’s wheels are starting to turn. Although stay-at-home was extended to take effect until the end of this month, I’m involved in a couple of projects starting very soon. I’m hoping to be able to keep introducing Okinawan music for as long as I’m enjoying it.”

An album of Mako’s recent recordings of traditional Okinawan songs has been released just this week. The album Portal is a fine example of her work and is available through Bandcamp at the link below:

She will also be doing a live stream on 21st May at 7pm Pacific Daylight Time for 30 minutes or so. It can be seen on either of these Facebook pages:

Mako and Munjuru

SAMA: Seattle Sacred Music and Arts

Takao Nagama: Donan

Posted May 15, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Takao Nagama’s previous album was recently reviewed here. Now comes Donan, another new release from the founder of Ayame Band. Its title is the original Okinawan name for Yonaguni Island where the singer was born. The songs are mainly original compositions by Nagama and they celebrate life, love, and nature on the small and isolated south-western Ryukyu island.

As often the case with Okinawan releases, nothing is that straightforward. Many of the tracks are newly recorded versions of songs from an early cassette tape made before the birth of Ayame Band. The original tape was named Umi Dunan. Now officially recognised as Nagama’s first album, most of the songs were released on CD under the same title in 2006. (It was chosen last year as one of my favourite ‘totally obscure records’).

A tad confusing also is that in the past some recordings have been credited to Ayame Band and some to Nagama. This one goes under the name: Takao Nagama -Ayame-. It’s safest just to assume that he and the band are one and the same. The release of Donan makes it their 12th album. It is also being promoted as Nagama’s 50th anniversary as a musician, since he first appeared on stage as a 14-year old.

As with last year’s release there is that familiar Ayame Band vibe running through the 16 tracks with Nagama’s strong vocals and sanshin backed by hayashi, keyboards, bass, and drums in a style known most often nowadays as shimauta or island pop. It should not be forgotten that Nagama was at the forefront of the genre and this sound created a sensation when it first appeared. Under his leadership it still sounds great today.

From the lively opening song ‘Donan Shima’ through to the final track ‘Fugarasa’ this is another exciting and frequently moving set of songs. (‘Fugarasa’, incidentally, was also recorded by Shoukichi Kina and Champloose. Kina gave it new lyrics and retitled it ‘Maitreya’). Among many outstanding songs are ‘Yaeyama Meguri’ (given a reggae rhythm), ‘Shonkane~Elegy’, ‘Shimachurasa’ and the superb ‘Yonaguni Kouta’.

Once again, the CD booklet (in Japanese) contains some unnecessary information while omitting more relevant details. And so, we are given Nagama’s date of birth and profile but not the sources of all the songs, nor details of the musicians. Never mind. This is a very welcome release and will surely lift the spirits of anyone who listens.

Donan is produced by Takao Nagama. The album is out now and is self-released.

Trad.Attack! – Make Your Move

Posted May 12, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Make Your Move is the third album from Estonian trio Trad.Attack! who gave a superb live show here in Okinawa in 2018. Not even a global pandemic can stop them, and they have an even bigger sound now despite being an acoustic band with Sandra Vabarna’s bagpipes, Jalmar Vabarna’s 12-string guitar, and Tõnu Tubli on drums at the heart of most tracks.

The blistering opener ‘Rikas Sittus / Rich Man Shat’ contrasts the lives of the poor with those of great wealth. It sounds bang up to date but its lyrics, by Sandra Vabarna, are based on a traditional song. The lyrical sources throughout include many other old Estonian songs and chants, and there are wedding songs, children’s games, a prayer for rain, and a Siberian lullaby.

All are played and sung with the expected verve, skill, and excitement that anyone who has listened to a live Trad.Attack! show will already know…and then some. ‘Varesele Valu / Pain to the Crow’ would not be out of place on any hard rock album. At least, if it weren’t for the Estonian bagpipes that come in halfway through.

It’s not all hard and heavy as the band are far too astute for that and some of the best songs are very different. ‘Tehke Ruumi! / Make Room!’ would make a great pop single with the bagpipes taking it to another level. Also outstanding is ‘Kus Mu Suda On… / Where is My Heart…’ on which the trio are joined by a string quartet. It’s a song that derives from the tradition of asking the ladybird that lands on your hand for a wish to come true.

And so, Trad.Attack! still push the boundaries as they make great music and revitalise traditions. Their inspiring notes are a manifesto that cajoles others to follow. They say: “We are born from courage to jump right in at the deep end of the pool. We took something sacred and dragged it out to the daylight of the 21st century. In our hands this mystical something has revealed its long-forgotten roots in a graspable modern way. In-your-face, no begging, no pleading.”

There isn’t much to add to that except to mention that the album comes with English translations of all the songs as well as the original Estonian lyrics. Unlike so many Okinawan releases, this is available in various formats and the band’s website has music videos plus vlogs of their tours around the world. You can also listen to their albums before buying.

Make Your Move is out now on CD and vinyl, and is self-released by Trad.Attack! The digital version is self-released in conjunction with Made in Baltics.

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn

Posted May 8, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

American singer and banjo player Abigail Washburn is a great favourite of the Power of Okinawa and two of her previous albums were reviewed here. Now she is back again with an album on which she plays in a duet with Wu Fei, a Chinese musician originally from Beijing but now based in Nashville.

The album was released last month and has already been drawing a lot of positive reactions from critics. It’s an unusually successful mix of two very different cultures and, as Washburn’s website states, it merges “American old-time music and Chinese folksong, from the hills of Appalachia to the prairies of Western China, each tune flowing seamlessly into the next.”

Washburn’s Chinese influences were hinted at on her earlier solo album City of Refuge but this new release takes it much further. She has gone on to become a kind of musical and cultural ambassador for uniting American and Chinese relations – something sorely needed now when the president of her country is doing his best to destroy them.

On these recordings she plays clawhammer banjo (an instrument most associated with Appalachia but originally brought to the US by West African slaves) alongside Wu Fei’s guzheng, an ancient 21-string Chinese zither-like instrument that also has an affinity with the Ryukyu koto.

The songs are both American and Chinese, with music and languages frequently overlapping on the same track. This is typified from the outset with ‘Water is Wide / Wusulu Boat Song’. The traditional Scottish song has been recorded by many, including an Okinawan version by Chihiro Kamiya. It blends here with the Chinese song that follows it and the interweaving vocals are spellbinding.

There is one instrumental track, and an unaccompanied song ‘Who Says Women Aren’t as Good as Men’ with the two singers uniting on vocals. The album’s centrepiece is the eight minutes of ‘The Roving Cowboy / Avarguli’. This manages to mash-up a 1920s composition from North Carolina with a song from the Uyghurs of North West China. (The official video for the song is on Wu Fei’s website).

It all adds up to a very superior mix of banjo and guzheng with intertwining voices singing in English and various Chinese dialects. It’s an album that deserves a big audience. And as the press release rightly says, this is “music of our shared world, highlighting our shared humanity and the transformative power of song.”

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn is produced by Bela Fleck and released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Takao Nagama: Niraikanai Kara No Uta

Posted May 2, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Ayame Band were founded in the 1980s by singer and sanshin player Takao Nagama, a native of the southern Ryukyu island of Yonaguni. Prior to that, Nagama was a member of Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose. In fact, he rejoined the Champloose line-up briefly and was playing sanshin with them the very first time I saw Kina’s band perform live.

In 2004, Ayame Band released a Best Album compilation and it seemed they had called it a day. However, two years later they were back with another release, and last year’s Niraikanai Kara No Uta (despite going under the name of their leader) is in effect Ayame Band’s 11th album. The cover announces it as their 35th anniversary. Yes, it can be confusing… Subtitled ‘Ayame World’ this latest album contains brand new recordings of both new and old songs.

This is a big album in many ways. There are 16 tracks and a running time of 68 minutes. Many of the songs are performed with the musicians really going all out for it in that bright, shiny, lively way reminiscent of other Okinawan shimauta bands such as Rinken Band, Parsha Club, and of course Champloose. But Nagama has a strong, clear voice and his singing is never swamped by the music.

He is also a superb sanshin player, having learned the instrument from the late great Shouei Kina. Now based in mainland Japan (the album was recorded in Yokohama) he began his own Ayame-kai branch of the Kina performance style several years ago. Nagama (along with Yukito Ara) is now surely the finest exponent of the sanshin in this genre.

A common theme of these recordings is the celebration of Ryukyu island nature and lifestyle – the song ‘Urizun’ is typical – and there is also a sprinkling of love songs. There are some fine versions of songs associated with Shoukichi Kina including his ‘Agarizachi’ which refers specifically to Yonaguni. The selections are not confined to these islands either. Also here is the Tottori minyo ‘Kaigara Bushi’ which has some remarkable sanshin playing.

Like too many Okinawan roots releases, however, there is a lack of relevant information in the accompanying booklet. Although it’s clear to the listener that Nagama is joined by hayashi, sanba, whistles, keyboards, bass and drums, there are no musicians named except for the backing vocalists. Likewise, few of the songs are credited with their origins.

None of this should detract from the fact that this is a joyful, heartfelt album. There is plenty of tacky overproduced shimauta out there and it would be very lazy to categorise this in the same way. For Nagama is an old hand who knows exactly how to elicit the best from the songs of his islands. And so, from the opening song ‘Furusato’ to the wonderful closing track ‘Pai Patiroma (Niraikanai)’ he takes us on a thrilling and emotional ride.

Niraikanai Kara No Uta is produced by Takao Nagama and is self-released.

Teddy Thompson: Heartbreaker Please

Posted April 29, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Heartbreaker Please is the new album from singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson. The New York based Englishman has built a strong following in his adopted home. For, if you were not already aware, he is the offspring of famed British folk-rock musicians Richard and Linda Thompson. Both parents have had albums reviewed here and Richard Thompson himself pops up briefly on the title track of Teddy’s record with some of his unmistakable electric guitar work.

The album is produced by Teddy Thompson who also sings and plays guitar “and other bits throughout” (as he puts it). The ten original songs are characterised by good playing, singing and production. ‘Why Wait’ is a fine start with some bright horns, guitar, bass, piano and drums. It’s a break-up song that sets the general tone and is followed by more heartbreak with ‘At a Light’, and then ‘Heartbreaker Please’ the standout song on the album.

There are slower songs too and ‘No Idea’ continues the sad theme with the lines: “I’m a house with no foundation / I’m a field that’s turned to dust”. Elsewhere there are some strings on one track, while ‘It’s Not Easy’ veers into rock ‘n’ roll with a bit of saxophone which is well done but a little too generic to be a highlight.

Teddy Thompson (Photo: Gary Waldman)

For the most part these are very well-crafted country-tinged songs. Thompson’s own musical taste has always been eclectic. Here he admits to a liking for the early pop songs of the 1950s – the Everly Brothers are also an influence – and he manages to harness this spirit and catchiness to songs inspired by a real-life break-up so that they never become dirge-like but instead are always uplifting.

As he says: “I’m completely enamoured with the three-minute pop song. Maybe it’s conditioning if you hear enough of it, but the brevity of those songs, I thought it seemed perfect to me. Those songs emerged at the beginning of a certain type of pop music, where the song itself was important and would live on. If it was great, people would cover it. So I am still drawn to that, trying to be succinct and witty, but also cut to the heart in a matter of two or three minutes.”

This is his sixth solo release and his first since 2011. He has also produced albums for his mother Linda Thompson and last year for Dori Freeman. In his aim, with Heartbreaker Please, to make catchy songs that are both succinct and witty he has been entirely successful.

Heartbreaker Please will be released by Thirty Tigers on 8th May.

Anniversary in a Pandemic

Posted April 17, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

Last month was the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Power of Okinawa in its second edition. This blog began around the same time, to accompany the book. Now, a decade later, the blog is still being updated. Along the way it has expanded to include a ‘Features Archive’ while ‘A Musical Journey’ was a memoir of sorts. ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ meanwhile is the place where I go off in other more personal directions like this.

All this pales into insignificance, of course, when the world is still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. In Okinawa, and Japan generally, there is a feeling that, while much of the rest of the world has been dealing with the pandemic and some governments have been quick to take action to prevent its spread, the Japanese government has taken it all too lightly.

PM Abe and his government are obviously more concerned about economics than with people’s lives. Despite the first cases of coronavirus appearing in Japan three months ago, the government has done its best to play down the threat and has been slow to act. It was not until yesterday that a nationwide state of emergency was finally declared after the sudden, and almost inevitable, sharp increase in cases throughout the country and particularly in Tokyo.

The Cornerstone of Peace at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park

Unlike many other countries which have lockdowns enforced by law, the state of emergency throughout Japan is still reliant on everyone obeying the government’s request to stay at home if possible. There is no legal force behind this and there are no penalties for non-compliance. Not surprisingly, many are reluctant to stop work as the government is not taking over responsibility for lost incomes. The state of emergency is scheduled to end on 6th May.

To encourage a stay at home mentality a video was recently released by the Prime Minister, featuring Shinzo Abe himself relaxing at home on a sofa with his dog. This was met with an equal measure of ridicule, hilarity, and anger, by many who think he is completely out of touch with the people and has done too little too late to combat the virus. (If only he could be swapped for New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern).

Here on Okinawa we may be geographically a long way from Japan, but we are by no means free of the virus. In fact, the number of cases has multiplied rapidly in recent days and the current count is 95 and sure to rise. This includes the first death recorded this week on the main island. Ishigaki Island also recorded its first two cases of the virus over the past week.

Yesterday at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park

Responses to the emergency in my area have been varied so far. Yesterday I went to Okinawa Peace Memorial Park and it was almost deserted with the Peace Museum currently closed for renovations. However, on my local beach this morning there were the usual number of swimmers and snorkelers. Further along the beach there were even some people doing hang-gliding.

Live music of course has taken a battering with small venues especially being hit hard. Popular singer and sanshin player Yukito Ara was scheduled to play a solo concert next week at one of Naha’s bigger venues Sakurazaka Theatre but this was finally cancelled today.

In my home at least the music goes on. New discoveries outside Okinawa include Canadians Pharis and Jason Romero whose latest album (due for release next month and reviewed on this blog) is a favourite. I’ve also discovered, belatedly, the many delights of Alicia Keys. And to cheer us all up surely, Estonia’s Trad.Attack! have a new album on the way and a review of that will eventually make its way to the blog.

Like many, I’ve also been glued to the TV watching films and dramas. I was addicted to the amazing Tiger King docuseries and was also (in the absence of FC Ryukyu games) able to get a football fix with the compelling Sunderland ‘Til I Die. Now I’m eagerly awaiting Ricky Gervais’ After Life 2, while watching new episodes of Japanese drama Ossan’s Love. There’s more…but this is more than enough.

Here’s hoping everyone keeps safe and stays home as much as possible, preferably while listening to some great music. One can never have too much Rinsho Kadekaru.