Sakurazaka Asylum 2020

Posted February 13, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

The annual Sakurazaka Asylum festival comes to Okinawa next week in conjunction with the Trans Asia Music Meeting. Advertised as a ‘Music & Art Weekend’, numerous music showcases will take place at venues in and around Naha’s Sakurazaka Theatre on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd February.

As before, the Asylum brings together a wide variety of musicians from Okinawa, Asia and further afield with the focus mainly on indie rather than roots music. For those wanting a taste of Okinawan roots as well there is another appearance from Sakishima Meeting pair Yukito Ara & Isamu Shimoji.

Among the overseas artists are Basque electric guitar-based rock band Willis Drummond. The trio sing in the Basque language and have just released their 6th studio album. They will be performing on Saturday (17:00) at Sakurazaka Theatre, Hall A. Before that they are touring mainland Japan and will also play in Koza, Okinawa on the 21st.  Their tour then continues in Australia, Tahiti, and Spain.

Basque band Willis Drummond

Isamu Shimoji & Yukito Ara of Sakishima Meeting

It should also be worth seeing Fanel the project by Toulouse-born French singer Bera who mixes Asian and European music with electronics. Her album Human was reviewed here last year. Fanel will play shows on both days. Another overseas musician delving into pop and electronica is the singer Pyra from Thailand, and on Sunday there will no doubt be a big audience for Japan’s Minyo Crusaders with their strikingly original updates of traditional Japanese songs.

Mention must also be made of Okinawa’s Harahells. The drums and guitar duo played last year at a tiny venue down the street, but their increasing popularity means they will be at the main theatre this time, at Hall B on Saturday at 18:45. Their set (like many others) will be just 40 minutes but promises to be one of the most fun if last year’s is anything to go by.

These are just some of my own picks but there are many other musicians to discover and full details of all the artists are on the website below, together with times and venues. Advance tickets are 7,000 yen for both days and 4,000 for a one-day pass. Tickets for the Trans Asia Music Meeting networking event are sold separately.

http://asylum-okinawa.info

Goodbye Europe

Posted February 6, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

A few days ago my hometown Norwich made news in the UK and worldwide for all the wrong reasons. Notices appeared in an apartment tower block advising residents to speak only English. The posters were entitled Happy Brexit Day. Stating “we finally have our great country back” they included the message: “If you do want to speak whatever is the mother tongue of the country you came from then we suggest you return to that place and return your flat to the council so they can let British people live here.”

The local council was quick to condemn these posters and to reassure residents that this was not the work of the council. The matter was reported to the police, who are treating it as a racist incident, but the damage has been done. Residents of the housing complex have since rallied together to protest in a show of support for each other and for multiculturalism.

An isolated incident, no doubt, but it feels like a good time not to be in Britain. It’s hardly a coincidence that this and similar explosions of bigotry and prejudice have risen to the surface just as the UK leaves the European Union. What is perhaps even more depressing than the decision to go it alone is the celebratory attitude of some Brexit supporters who talk about getting their country back and gaining ‘independence’ from Europe.

People in London celebrate leaving the EU last week. (Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

This is nostalgia for a ‘great’ past that never existed. Unless they want a return to the greatness of the British Empire with its shameful history of invasions, colonisation, theft, and repression. The Brits clearly don’t need independence as they already have it (though Scotland and Wales may need independence from the Brits, but that’s another matter).

By contrast, here on Okinawa there is a case to be argued in favour of the need for real independence or for ‘getting our islands back’ as the Brits might say. Human rights and democracy are constantly under threat from the Japanese government and, incredibly, large tracts of the main island are still controlled by the American military 75 years after they invaded to begin the Battle of Okinawa. A battle that claimed more than 240,000 lives.

Okinawa may need its independence, but no-one here wants a return to the ‘great’ days of the Ryukyu Kingdom either. The kingdom was responsible for the harsh treatment of its own people, not least on its outer islands of Miyako and Yaeyama. At the same time, it was a kingdom centred around trade in Southeast Asia rather than war and expansion, hence the famous dictate banning weapons during part of its rule.

Despite its unhappy history of being invaded and occupied, Okinawa is today rightly proud of its champloo culture. This is frequently celebrated and has evolved into a cultural mash-up affecting everything from food to music. The musician and activist Shoukichi Kina is a divisive character with – some would say – a lot of weird ideas, but his goal for a borderless world and his campaign to exchange all weapons for musical instruments sounds now like a breath of fresh air alongside much of what passes for political debate these days. A peaceful ideology of co-existence and acceptance of others is sorely needed now more than ever.

Back in the UK this week the Bishop of Norwich was calling for a return to the “great British values of tolerance and understanding” in view of the regrettable events at the city’s tower block. Well yes, but British politicians and religious leaders are too fond of mouthing this kind of thing, as if tolerance was somehow an inherently British virtue. It seems to be only the British who believe this. They should get out more.

It would also be making a tiny step in the right direction if those who rant against ‘imagration’ on social media could at least spell it correctly and not mangle their own language. Then perhaps they could go on to try and learn what tolerance really means and to understand how immigrants of all kinds make valuable contributions to many societies and enrich our global mix with their languages and cultures.

Mikel Urdangarin: Hotza da NY is Cold

Posted January 17, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Basque singer Mikel Urdangarin is already known in Okinawa after spending several weeks here in 2018 giving concerts and collaborating with Okinawan musicians. His stay on the island was also documented in the film Margolaria which focused on his career of more than two decades as an important singer-songwriter in his homeland and elsewhere.

Hotza da NY is Cold came out last month and is a live recording of a concert he performed in the Basque Country. It’s very different because the bulk of the songs are his interpretations of compositions by Leonard Cohen. The album is released on vinyl in a limited edition with the ten Cohen songs on the record and the entire concert on CD.

I was very pleased to be asked by Mikel to write something for the record sleeve and so instead of reviewing it here can do no better than reprint below what I wrote:

“When Mikel Urdangarin came to Okinawa last year for solo concerts and immersion in the local music there was another unexpected discovery. This was our mutual love for the songs of Leonard Cohen. I had no idea that Mikel also had such a strong affinity with Cohen’s work. Initially, I had some misgivings about what seemed like another tribute to the great Canadian singer, songwriter and poet, as there have already been so many. And this by an artist who is not a native English speaker and normally sings in the Basque language. However, as soon as the music plays and Mikel sings, any fears are quickly dispelled.

The ten Cohen compositions here are a mixture of familiar favourites and some newer ones. Surprisingly perhaps, it’s the relatively recent songs such as ‘Come Healing’ and ‘Show Me the Place’ that are most rewarding for this listener. Meanwhile, the European atmosphere always present in Cohen’s writing is gloriously pervasive on ‘Take This Waltz’. There are classics too and none more so than the much covered ‘Hallelujah’ which even Cohen began to think should be given a rest. It might have been a step too far but the song suits Mikel’s emotive vocal style like a glove. It’s another highlight among many.

So, what we have is a double win – a set of great songs from Leonard Cohen, master songwriter of our times, sung by a great Basque singer, Mikel Urdangarin.”

The record also comes with a print of its cover painting by Alain Urrutia and with notes by Basque novelist and poet Harkaitz Cano.

Hotza da NY is Cold is released by Zart.

www.zart.eus

An interview with tidanomiyuki

Posted January 14, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Interviews

Singer tidanomiyuki was born on the southern Yaeyama island of Ishigaki. After a move to Tokyo as a university student, she began playing music at local cafes and bars. Then in 2009 she spent a year in the UK, first in Norwich and then in London studying art and design. After her return to the Ryukyus she moved to Okinawa in 2011.

She plays guitar, piano and sanshin, and learned Yaeyama minyo from renowned musician Kousei Miyara. A debut album five years ago led to an invitation to perform at Zandari Festa in Seoul. In 2017 she appeared at the Playtime Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. A second album of original songs Now and Then was released the following year (and was reviewed here).

Since that time, she has been busy not just with music but with a major addition to her family as she recently became a mother with the birth of a baby daughter. She is married to Yuki Irei of Okinawan indie-pop band, the you. An outstanding guitarist, Irei also accompanies her on electric guitar when she plays with a band.

What follows are some of my questions about her music, together with the answers she gave to me in English.

Why did you decide to be a singer? Is it something you always wanted to do?

I’ve liked singing alone ever since I was a child. In fact, I started making up songs when I was a junior high school student. I borrowed my brother’s guitar at that time and what I learned was that the guitar is a good tool for me to make a song easily and so I started writing many songs of my own. The first time I sang my songs with a band in front of people was at university. I probably began to think then that I wanted to be a singer through these experiences.

You learned minyo and sanshin in Ishigaki. Have you ever thought about singing and playing traditional Yaeyama songs again?

Well, I started to learn Yaeyama minyo when I came back to Okinawa from Tokyo and I like to sing Yaeyama minyo as my hobby now. Of course, I’ve known some Yaeyama minyo since I was a child, but I had never learnt properly before. When I started to learn Yaeyama minyo from Miyara Kousei- sensei, I learnt that Yaeyama minyo has a sensibility and sophistication and I was attracted to that.

Do you have a process in writing songs, and do you have special themes or feelings that you want to express?

Mostly whenever I make a song, I begin with an image in my mind and I spontaneously play the guitar and then the melodies and words come to me at the same time.

I think that the foundation of my songwriting is in the memories I have of the time I spent with my family in Ishigaki island. I always think of my island, my hometown, and I am thinking that I want to go back to my home one day.

When you are not playing music or writing songs, what kind of music do you listen to?

I like many kinds of music, especially jazz, funk, acoustic, rock and pop. Among my favourite singers that I listen to are Priscilla Ahn and Simon & Garfunkel.

You have played both solo and with a band. Which do you prefer?

I’m happy to play both solo and with a band. When I play solo it’s a small world, but the listener might find it easier to catch my words and melody. It might be like a size of a canvas. If you have a sheet of paper and draw a flower, it might be only a flower and there is nothing in the background. So, when I play with a band I am on a bigger canvas, and I can draw a river and a butterfly and the blue sky along with the flower.

You have written some songs in (very good) English. How was that?

Thank you very much. To be honest, I don’t have much confidence in writing in English but when I make a song sometimes it’s the English words that just come to me first.

Can you say something about your plans as a singer and musician in Okinawa?

I think it is a good situation for musicians to play in Okinawa because there are many places to be able to play in public. I had a baby last year, so I am thinking that I want to start making songs and playing music again this year, in 2020. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of new songs will come to me since I had a baby.

https://tidanomiyuki.wixsite.com/officialwebsite

Pascal Plantinga: Blind on Bikini

Posted January 6, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Dutch pop artist Pascal Plantinga is known as an electro-songwriter who couples experimentation with a singular way of musical storytelling. No stranger to Okinawa, in 2014 he collaborated with Shoukichi Kina to produce the startlingly different Washinnayo recordings. He subsequently performed solo at Kina’s Niraikanai Matsuri, and more recently created the score for the Japanese music documentary Tsugaru no Kamari.

Blind on Bikini is Plantinga’s latest album and contains 13 relatively short new songs. As well as vocals he plays bass and Vox organ and is joined at various times by trombones, sousaphone, trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, saxophones, clarinets and piccolo. There isn’t a guitar in sight but there’s a significant contribution from long-standing working partner, German electronic music pioneer Pyrolator.

The songs hang together to create a loosely thematic whole that is referred to as ‘Pascal’s musical heartbreak memoir’. On the opening title track the upfront but deadpan vocal echoes Leonard Cohen but at other times it couldn’t be more different as the singing changes with distorted angsty electronica to take on different guises. Musically we are sometimes close to Bjork’s horn territory with an effective use of light and shade, loudness and silence.

On the song ‘Blind on Bikini’ Plantinga sings: “When blind in love be blind in Bikini” and the vaguely Pacific island backdrop resurfaces here and there. The lyrics – and there are quite a lot of them – are reprinted in the CD booklet and repay close attention as the focus is mainly on them and on the soundscape rather than on melody.

‘Jesus Christ Superfuck’ is the closest we get to a pop song and is also one of the album’s standout tracks while it all ends with another highlight ‘Snowed in at Kokusai Dori’, it’s gently tuneful beginning then explodes with the sound of fireworks and the singer vows: “I’d never board a plane for love again”. This is a fascinating set of songs and almost certainly Plantinga’s best work to date.

Blind on Bikini will be released tomorrow (7th January 2020) by Ata Tak and Suezan Studio.

www.atatak.com

www.suezan.com

Roots Album Round-up 2019

Posted December 23, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

It’s almost the end of another year and the time when I’d normally be thinking about choosing best albums for the fRoots critics poll. In fact, I would already have done it, some weeks ago. However, the magazine ceased publication this year, not long after celebrating its 40th anniversary, so instead I’ll tell you here about my favourite albums of 2019.

There were not so many new releases of Okinawan music to come my way this time but the obvious choice for most significant recording goes to Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019. This 30-track double album features the singing of veterans Hirokazu Matsuda and Seibun Tokuhara alongside Mika Uchizato and Akane Murayoshi.

As I wrote in my review (and to quote myself): “This is a timely and important release and serves as a reminder of the wealth of wonderful songs from these islands. Also, for the urgent need to protect the islands and their environment for future generations.” There is added poignancy now as Hirokazu Matsuda sadly died shortly after its release.

If I allow myself a runner-up in the ‘best’ Okinawan album category – and why not? – it would be From Myahk by Satoru Shimoji who continues to move and impress with his late flowering of atmospheric emotional songs from the islands of Miyako.

Among other notable Okinawan albums this year was Urisha Fukurashi by the evergreen Yuki Yamazato and Katsuko Yohen. The late Rinsho Kadekaru had an important release with his Maruteru Recordings from the 1960s, and there was a first release for Live! a double album by Seijin Noborikawa and Sadao China.

The always adventurous Takashi Hirayasu came up with Kumu Ashibi~Cloud Wandering recorded in Taiwan. And for something completely different, the young duo Harahells deserve praise for their Delicious Club which was such a lot of fun.

As ever, there were also lots of albums of ‘Roots Music from Out There’ – the music that reached me from other parts of the world. It was an especially rewarding year for the Appalachian music of North America and I was really spoilt for listening choices. Some more previously unreleased recordings came from the late Hedy West, but what was so refreshing was the number of younger singers and musicians with such a deep interest and love of this music.

In the end my favourite album from ‘out there’ has got to be Even the Sparrow the debut from Kansas City based singer and banjo player Kelly Hunt. What was so good about this is that she arrived seemingly fully formed and able to play and sing any style of American roots music with confidence. You might expect her to slip up or make a wrong turn along the way, but she never does and the whole album is devoid of unnecessary ornamentation.

A very worthy mention must also go to another debut album Rearrange My Heart by Buenos Aires based band Che Apalache. The scope of their musicianship is very wide, and they managed to fit bluegrass, Latin, and Japanese minyo onto an album with some strong political messages. The Nagano song 春の便り (The Coming of Spring) was given a world premiere on this blog and the album itself has recently been nominated for a Best Folk Album Grammy award.

All the albums mentioned above were reviewed on the Power of Okinawa blog this year so please look them up if you want further information or missed them first time around.

Happy listening to everyone in 2020!

Three Basque Releases

Posted December 18, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

As we near the end of 2019 there are still some new Basque music releases to cover so here is a round-up of three very different albums that have recently arrived in Okinawa.

First up is the release of an album simply entitled Txalaparta. This is an anthology of tracks by Artze Anaiak (Artze brothers). It’s a special album that pays homage to the work of Josean Artze who died last year and his brother Jesus who died in 2002.

The txalaparta is a uniquely traditional Basque wooden percussive instrument. It’s usually played in unison by two players. The Artze brothers made great efforts to revive an interest in txalaparta and it is now commonly listened to again and has been popularised further by the likes of Oreka TX. This album shows off the txalaparta on its own with recordings made between 1966 and 1975.

Zuberoako kantariak subtitled in French Les Chanteurs de la Soule is an attractively produced 80-page hardback book containing two CD compilations. More attention is generally paid to the Spanish side of the Basque Country but there is also a long tradition of Basque songs in France. These focus on the small province of Zuberoa (Soule in French). The book contains the original Basque lyrics of all 34 songs here, almost all of them sung unaccompanied by different singers.

Several of the performers are dead now and the only familiar names to this listener are Pier-Paul Berzaitz and Jean-Mixel Bedaxagar. But there are some younger vocalists too such as the vibrant women’s groups Tehenta and Amaren Alabak.

The illustrated book contains explanations of all the songs and singers as well as introductory essays in both Basque and French. It’s not recommended to listen to all of this in one sitting but it’s an important historical release showcasing the Northern Basque songs from the people of Zuberoa.

Finally, Eñaut Elorrieta is the lead singer of the Gernika pop-rock band Ken Zazpi who have been one of the most commercially successful bands singing in the Basque language with a large following extending beyond their own region into Catalonia. Elorrieta’s new solo album Irteera argiak (Exit Lights) is an immaculately produced and played set of nine songs. The singer plays acoustic guitar together with a small band of musicians including electric guitar, bass, drums, violin and theremin.

It’s all very much in the style of the literary Basque singer-songwriter movement. All compositions are written or co-written by Elorrieta and there are two with lyrics by well-known literary names. ‘Hariak’ (Threads) is by exiled poet Joseba Sarrionandia, and ‘Ezbeharra’ (Misfortune) has words by novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga. Also, of great interest is the song ‘Inesa Gaxen’ which tells the story of the 17th century woman of the title who was accused, tortured and imprisoned for witchcraft.

It is especially welcome that Eñaut Elorrieta’s album comes also with Spanish, French and English translations of all the song lyrics in its CD booklet.

All three albums are released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus