Best of the Year 2018

Posted December 28, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

It’s almost the end of another year and so it’s time to look back over the music we listened to. As usual there was a lot going on in the world of roots music and many fine new albums were released. My favourite of all was The Invisible Comes to Us which is the third album by Anna & Elizabeth. The young American duo took things into new territory by somehow managing to combine traditional Appalachian ballads with field recordings from the archives and with avant-garde experiments too. A superb achievement.

On the Okinawan front the debut solo album by Yoko Ishikawa was a very welcome release and showed there are many younger musicians around the Ryukyu Islands who are carrying on the song traditions and taking them forward. Her simply produced album owed a lot to her mentor Shizuko Oshiro. If anything, Ishikawa has been a bit too keen to acknowledge this fact – such is the way in the hierarchical world of Okinawan traditional song. Her album Shami No Yorokobi nevertheless demonstrated the emergence of yet another top singer from these islands.

There was also a good new album this year by Ishigaki singer-songwriter tidanomiyuki whose Now and Then was a fine discovery. Okinawa’s Maltese Rock released Otobune, and there was a double album Chimu Churasa from the ubiquitous Kanako Horiuchi. All these albums were reviewed on the Power of Okinawa blog.

There seems to have been a bigger influx of overseas artists performing live, at least on the main island of Okinawa. In the past many foreign musicians touring mainland Japan have been unable for logistical or financial reasons to include Okinawa in their tour schedule. Now a few are beginning to get through.

Trad.Attack! (Photo: Stina Kase)

The best concert I saw all year was by Estonian trio Trad.Attack! who played the last date of their Japan tour in October at Naha’s Sakurazaka Theatre. Like Anna & Elizabeth, they also use samples of archive recordings and they produced a thrilling sound with 12-string guitar, bagpipes, whistles and drums. Their second album, the wonderful Kullakarva, also received a release in Japan.

I mustn’t end without mentioning another great concert at the same venue in May when Mikel Urdangarin from the Basque Country played solo and with his ‘Okinawa trio’ of Mutsumi Aragaki and Makoto Miyata. This was the culmination of much planning and preparation for what we named the Basque Ryukyu Project which saw Mikel spending five weeks on Okinawa learning about the islands’ music and culture and collaborating with local musicians. It was also a rare occasion as Mikel played only in Okinawa and not in mainland Japan.

All the best for a happy and music-filled year in 2019!

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Destinations Along the Way

Posted December 20, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: A Musical Journey

It’s another long read. This is the fourth and final part of ‘A Musical Journey’.

4. Destinations Along the Way

I’ve always had a liking for the underdog. It may not be entirely a coincidence that Okinawan music caught my attention as the Okinawans are a people with a sad history of control and occupation by bigger powers after a long period as an independent kingdom. For them the Second World War isn’t over yet, as much of their land is still under occupation by American forces. Their plight and the democratically expressed wishes of the people are routinely ignored by the colonizers of Japan.

The late American guitarist Bob Brozman had a few radical music theories. One of them, expressed in The Power of Okinawa book, was that “colonizing cultures tend to play music on the downbeat and colonized cultures tend to play music on the offbeat…Japanese music is heavily downbeat oriented, and Okinawan music is offbeat.” And in comparing the cases of Hawaii and Okinawa he also believed “they are two fairly unique musics in that they are quite consistently in major keys, but quite sad. They both have the sound of a fragile culture being trampled.”

Whatever the truth, the fact was that for a long time, and still now, it was Okinawan music that appealed to me most of all and this in turn led to my making numerous visits to Okinawa’s main island and to many of the smaller Miyako and Yaeyama islands further south. It meant finding out about the history and culture of the islands as well as the music.

Since moving from Mie Prefecture to Okinawa I’ve met many more musicians and am happy that my interest in their music and in writing about it has always been warmly received. It has perhaps been an advantage too that many of the musicians whose albums I reviewed may have been unable to understand English well so have been satisfied simply that I’m writing about Okinawan music without really knowing what I’ve been saying. For on Okinawa there is a tendency for the media not to assess music critically and musicians are unused to frank reviews.

Sachiko Kina in brother Shoukichi’s band at Chakra (Photo: Stephen Mansfield)

Throughout these years another thread had been emerging in this musical journey and it’s one that runs alongside the Okinawan one. This is my interest in the music of the Basque Country. It’s a world which on the surface is very different from Okinawa but has underlying similarities, not least in that both are territories where music, culture and identity are very important. Unlike the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Basques have never enjoyed independence as a unified nation but they do share a similarity in being a territory controlled by bigger powers, in their case by Spain and France.

My first encounter with Basque music was through the UK music magazine fRoots. It probably took place during the Kobe earthquake year of 1995. At least this is when the album Uhinez uhin was released by Maixa ta Ixiar. The album’s first track is the glorious dance song ‘Espartzinarena’ and it was this that I heard first on one of the sample CD compilations given away with the magazine. A few years later I started writing articles for the same magazine, initially on Okinawan music and only much later about the Basques.

Maixa ta Ixiar were two young women who played trikitixa (accordion) and panderoa (tambourine) the popular combination found in roots music throughout the Basque Country. To these instruments were added electric guitar, bass and drums to create the genre known as triki-pop (sometimes triki-folk) that was in its heyday in the 1990s. I had my breath taken away by the Maixa ta Ixiar song. It was the same as the feeling I had when I first listened to Shoukichi Kina and then to Nenes.

I was writing about music for Kansai Time Out so I contacted Maixa ta Ixiar’s record company Elkar to ask if I could get a copy of their album for review. Before long I had a response from Elkar producer and coordinator Anjel Valdes. He sent me their album on CD together with a press release in English. More than that he soon afterwards sent a package with many CDs of Basque music releases and has continued to do so to this day.

The small album reviews in KTO magazine hardly justified his faith in sending these new releases all the way to Japan. As well as trikitixa and triki-pop there were releases of other roots, pop and rock music and a strong tradition of literary singer-songwriters led by Mikel Laboa, Benito Lertxundi and Ruper Ordorika. In time I was to learn that Anjel was not just concerned with selling records but keen to spread the word and establish friendships and good relations with like-minded people wherever they may be.

It wasn’t until many years later I discovered Elkar didn’t even produce press releases in English. They were all in Basque, Spanish or French. All this time Anjel had been writing the English ones just for me. My French has improved in leaps and bounds since I eventually let slip that I had some understanding of the language having learned it in school a lifetime ago. Now he only sends me the French ones.

One of the other early CDs I received was of triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider. This was another good surprise as their music was, to my ears, even better than Maixa ta Ixiar’s. I reviewed their debut album and some of the others I was getting for KTO and was then excited to discover a short tour of Japan had been arranged for Alaitz eta Maider by a promoter in Tokyo.

The trikitixa duo of Alaitz Telletxea and Maider Zabalegi – then both 24 years old – arrived together with manager and guitarist Jean-Lou Corrihons plus a bassist and drummer and they played two concerts in Tokyo with a third in Osaka sandwiched in between. I was invited to the Osaka gig which took place at Banana Hall on 6th December 2000 – the same venue where I had seen Nenes for the first time several years earlier and been equally blown away.

Alaitz eta Maider in Japan, 2000

It was great to finally meet up with some real live Basque musicians and they were all very friendly, while the music was melodic, joyous and life-affirming. And so, it was almost inevitable that, just as I had visited Okinawa after being so enticed by the islands’ music, a trip to the Spanish Basque Country was in order. It was arranged for the following year.

When the albums began arriving from Elkar Records I was initially puzzled that their address was in a place called Donostia that I couldn’t find anywhere on the map. This was the Basque name for San Sebastian, the beautiful and elegant seaside resort city. Of course, a company priding itself on its Basque language albums (and Basque books) is hardly going to prefer using the Spanish name to the Basque one. Together with Midori and our son Akira we spent a few days in the Basque Country in the summer of 2001. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet up with Anjel, who was away on a family holiday of his own, but I did meet guitarist Jean-Lou who drove us all the way from Donostia to the small town of Arrasate where Alaitz eta Maider were playing at an outdoor festival. After a late dinner with Alaitz, Maider and the band (everything happens late in the Basque Country) and a visit to the festival to see them play, we were driven back to our hotel in the early hours by Maider herself.

After three albums and some success in their homeland, Alaitz eta Maider went their separate ways a couple of years later. Roots music rarely leads to riches and it always seems a shame that even making a modest living through music is such a struggle for many creative people while lesser talents sometimes flourish. I was making a change too as I applied for the early retirement offer from Kogakkan University and moved to Okinawa in 2009.

When living in mainland Japan I had visited the Ryukyu Islands every year for holidays and spent much of the time investigating Okinawan music and visiting local folk and roots music venues. I once spent an entire week hanging out at Shoukichi Kina’s ‘live house’ Chakra and became such a fixture there that they put me on the staff list so I could eat and drink for free. A fair chunk of my university research allowance was also spent on ordering Okinawan CDs and DVDs from Campus Records in Okinawa. Bottles of awamori began to appear at my local supermarket in Mie Prefecture and were snapped up. And, of course, I avidly watched Churasan the morning drama series on NHK TV about an Okinawan family from Kohama Island.

The reality of actually living in Okinawa inevitably meant some changes and modifications to the image I’d had. In my first few years I hardly set foot in a folk music bar after previously gravitating towards them as a visitor to the islands. Many are run as shows for the benefit of tourists who want just a taste of the local music and culture as part of their holiday experience. And it gets tedious to be taught how to dance kachashii night after night.

If the live minyo venue can sometimes disillusion, the reality of music in everyday life really does live up to its reputation. I was once invited to a housewarming party on Miyako Island and seeing a sanshin in the corner proceeded to show off my limited skills rather proudly. It soon turned out that everyone in the room could play sanshin and all of them much better than me. The sanshin is still ubiquitous along with the sugar cane, the goya, and sadly, the Naha traffic jams and American military bases of the main island. While Churasan presented a stereotypical image of the relaxed Okinawan lifestyle it avoided entirely any reference to the problems that also face the islanders such as the unfair burden of the military bases. Hardly surprising given that it was produced by the Japan government’s NHK TV channel.

Anjel Valdes

I finally met up with Anjel Valdes in the Spring of 2014. By that time, he had been sending me albums and keeping me up to date on music for almost twenty years. My second visit to the Basque Country was just for three days on the way back from a trip to England to see family and friends. At last Anjel and I were able to meet in person and he came to the airport at Bilbao to greet us and take us to our hotel in the city. His thoughtfulness and hospitality were truly remarkable. This is best illustrated by a look at my diary for the day after our arrival. The entry for Tuesday 1st April reads (in part) like this:

“Anjel met us in the hotel at 9:30 a.m. and drove us all the way to Donostia-San Sebastian. We arrived at 11 and Anjel suggested we ‘take one beer’ before we visited the Elkar offices and recording studio… Then Anjel took us to the EITB television and radio studios and we were introduced to lots of people. We were shown around the building and saw several radio studios then went to a television studio where a show was being recorded … We went into Donostia for lunch with Anjel … After that it was on to the Etxepare Basque Institute where we met the director Aizpea Goenaga and others… Then to a café and a walk near the beach. After this we were driven by Anjel to the small town of Orio to meet the great Basque singer Benito Lertxundi. We sat with him outside a café and talked while Anjel interpreted. Finally, after an incredibly busy but very enjoyable day, Anjel drove us all the way back to Bilbao to our hotel.”

The next day he took us south to Vitoria-Gasteiz to meet the singer Ruper Ordorika and later to Durango – where Anjel lives – to meet his wife and son. We left on an early morning flight the next day and he insisted on driving to Bilbao to pick us up at our hotel and deliver us to the airport. He joked that if his work at Elkar ever fails he can always start a business as a tour guide.

Coming back to Bilbao three years later, this time for a week, I had very fond memories of the earlier stay and didn’t imagine that it could possibly be topped. But it was, and we had more time now and once again Anjel arranged many things including a concert by Ruper Ordorika and a meeting in Donostia-San Sebastian with musicians Beñat Igerabide and Gorka Urra. Also joining us after a gap of sixteen years was Maider Zabalegi of Alaitz eta Maider. Now a mother of two children, she had returned to the music scene and had just released her first solo album Zuei.

Ruper Ordorika and band, Basque Country, 2017

After retirement from my full-time job at Kogakkan University and arrival in Okinawa, I began teaching a couple of days a week at Okinawa University. I taught an English seminar course on Okinawan roots music and in 2015 expanded this to include the roots music of the Basques. The objectives in the syllabus were:

“…to listen to and learn something about the roots music of the people and its development in the Ryukyu Islands and then to compare it with the music and culture of the Basque Country (Euskal Herria)… Okinawans and Basques inhabit very different parts of the world but have many shared experiences and these will be explored with music as the starting point.”

In practice I became a glorified DJ as I got to show students lots of videos of music I liked. The Okinawans are too numerous to mention but the work of both Rinsho Kadekaru and Shouei Kina was explored first in detail as two of the early recording artists. From the Basques we watched and listened to a mix of singer-songwriters, trikitixa and txalaparta players, and rock bands, such as Laboa, Lertxundi and Ordorika, Kepa Junkera, Oreka TX, Beñat Igerabide, Alaitz eta Maider (of course), Kirmen Uribe, Mikel Urdangarin, Korrontzi, Elustondo, Esne Beltza, Fermin Muguruza and more.

Thankfully, the response from students to all this was generally very positive. Many of them didn’t know much about the evolution of Okinawan roots music so it was by no means a case of taking coals to Newcastle as I’d feared. And most had never even heard of the Basque Country let alone its music. Some found the txalaparta to be rather weird and wonderful. As always there were surprises and frequently the more traditional music was more popular than expected. At the same time one student wrote that her favourite song of all was Chihiro Kamiya’s ‘Coral Song’: “since I love nature and her song made me think how we can preserve the beautiful ocean and coral of our islands.”

We began a Basque Ryukyu Bridge page on Facebook. Its purpose to share the music and culture of the Basque Country with the Ryukyu Islands and the outside world. However, during my stay in the Basque Country in 2017 Anjel came up with an idea to take things further. After introducing me to the singer and songwriter Mikel Urdangarin, whose music I was already familiar with and had introduced to the university students, it was decided that Mikel himself would come to Okinawa to learn about Okinawan music and culture and to play with local musicians. So began what became known to us as the Basque Ryukyu Project.

Mikel visited Okinawa at the end of April 2018 staying with us on the island for five weeks and performing concerts, playing at a festival, doing radio and newspaper interviews, as well as collaborating with Okinawan musicians. In addition to all this a Basque film crew who were making a documentary on his career joined him in Okinawa for some of the time. As a result of all this Mikel now has what he calls his Okinawan trio along with singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki and percussionist Makoto Miyata. It was very exciting after all this time to be able to help put together some Basque and Okinawan music and musicians and I hope it won’t end there.

A view of Bilbao from Artxanda

A Few Words More…

On a bright sunny Wednesday in September I bought a ticket and boarded the funicular railway that climbs the short steep distance from Bilbao station to Artxanda. The journey takes only three minutes and I wished it took longer. At the summit it’s a different, quieter world after the busyness of the city. From the top there is a panoramic view over Bilbao and you can pick out its most famous landmark the Guggenheim Museum. Out there too is the San Mames stadium where I would be going that evening to see Athletic Club de Bilbao take on Atletico Madrid.

I felt happy to be in this oasis of calm and privileged too that my musical journey was still going on after all this time. Later that day I would meet Jean-Lou again, the French Basque who had played guitar with Alaitz eta Maider. It would be my first meeting with him for sixteen years. He would also bring his daughter who had been just two years old then and was now a college student.

The years rush by inexorably. It was nearly two decades since I first met Alaitz and Maider and Jean-Lou. Thirty years since I first listened to Okinawan music. I had been in that massive crowd at Blackbushe in 1978 when Bob Dylan sang ‘Changing of the Guards’ which began with the line: “Sixteen years”. We thought he was referring to the time he had spent as a musician. It seemed like an age but now it seems no time at all.

I’ve been having trouble lately reading the small print on CD booklets and sometimes need a magnifying glass. That may not be a problem much longer. Even the way we listen to music is changing and it’s becoming rarer for me to buy CDs nowadays when there are so many other quick and convenient ways to listen.

Athletic Club lost the football match that evening. Anjel says we should learn how to lose. In life we can win only once or twice so it’s better to learn how to get through all the setbacks and losses. To continue is more important than to win. It’s a lesson from a philosophical man. The Basques I’ve known are not afraid to be philosophical. They are also concerned with identity, perhaps even more so than Okinawans. The Athletic team only fields players with Basque backgrounds. It’s hard to imagine FC Ryukyu doing something like that even if it were possible. The Basques are simply keen to celebrate their heritage. It should be perfectly possible to do that and, at the same time, maintain respect, friendships and good relations with all around us.

In a way Okinawans see themselves as one big family and this is probably why they don’t criticise when Okinawan musicians sign with a major Japanese record company or achieve commercial success regardless of the consequences. All very well but I sometimes wish they would go it alone and think more about independence in every sense.

I still felt happy while thoughts like these ran through my head as I sat in the sunshine. Then I walked to the little station at Artxanda and took the ride back down on the funicular railway.

Many of the music people I’ve met became the focus of articles for fRoots and Songlines magazines that can now be read in the Features Archive of this blog.

Culturally Appropriate

Posted December 13, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

This one for the archives is my story of the Basque Ryukyu Project that took place earlier this year. The feature is published in the UK in the new Winter issue of fRoots magazine.

Culturally Appropriate

The Basques and Okinawans both have unique cultures and languages while being part of larger nations. So what happened when they were put together by John Potter…?

On the face of it the Basque Country and the Ryukyu Islands don’t have much in common. One is a territory spread over part of north-east Spain and south-west France, the other a group of subtropical islands in the Pacific Ocean with Okinawa at its hub. Even the music bears little similarity.

As an Englishman living in mainland Japan I’ve been enthralled by Okinawan music for a long time, finally moving to Okinawa nine years ago. During my long stay in Japan an odd thing happened as I also became fascinated by the Basques and their roots music, initially through the trikitixa (accordeon) and panderoa (tambourine) music, then by some of the Basque language singer-songwriters.

Seizing the chance to indulge these two musical passions I persuaded Okinawa University to let me teach a course of English seminars on the ‘Roots Music of Okinawans and Basques’. In doing so I discovered a number of things the two peoples share. The most obvious is they both have a unique culture, language and music existing proudly today despite both territories being part of larger nations.

Okinawa may belong to Japan but its sad history of invasions continues as it is still forced to host a huge number of American military bases supported by the Japanese government against the wishes of most Okinawan people. There was also an attempt by Japan to systematically destroy the Okinawan language and although making a small comeback it’s heard nowadays mainly in songs. The Basques suffered a similar fate though their language has shown greater resilience. The importance of the sea and the existence of many unique customs as well as iconic musical instruments (such as the sanshin and trikitixa) is another factor linking the two.

Last year I made my third visit to the Basque Country primarily to meet up again with Anjel Valdes, record producer and coordinator for Elkar Records (fR415/416). For about two decades he has been sending releases for review to Japan and for the past few years to Okinawa since my relocation there. Over the years Anjel has introduced me to the roots music of his homeland and to the strong tradition of literary singers and songwriters led by the late Mikel Laboa, and followed by Benito Lertxundi and Ruper Ordorika.

Mikel Urdangarin’s Okinawa trio: Mutsumi Aragaki, Makoto Miyata, Mikel Urdangarin. Pic: John Potter

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Mikel Urdangarin has been a full-time musician for over twenty years, releasing fourteen albums and gaining a high reputation. Although fluent in Spanish and English, he made the decision early on to compose and sing entirely in Euskara, the Basque language.

Anjel was keen for us to meet and so a lunch date was fixed at a restaurant deep in the Basque countryside. As the food and wine was consumed at a leisurely pace an idea arose that after all these years of exchanging music between Okinawa and the Basque Country it was perhaps time to take it a step further and instigate a real live get together. Mikel is a self-confessed risk taker. (I could see that when he turned up supported by a crutch because of a broken bone sustained in a fall while rock climbing). He was immediately interested and promptly put himself forward to be the first Basque to boldly go to the Ryukyu Islands to learn more about Okinawan music and culture and to play solo and with Okinawan musicians. So began the Basque Ryukyu Project.

I also discovered that his latest album Margolaria (The Painter) is also the title of a ninety-minute documentary film about his career. A Basque film crew had already been following him around for two years and had filmed his travels in the Basque Country and in London, Edinburgh, Argentina and elsewhere. The next step was to conclude the film with a section shot on Mikel’s visit to Okinawa and in doing so to hint at the political and cultural similarities between the two peoples. As well as Mikel taking on a solo visit of five weeks to learn about the islands, meet musicians and play concerts, there would be a three-man film crew following him around for some of this time. Film director Oier Aranzabal and his team arrived along with Mikel at the end of April on their first visit to Asia.

I’m not a promoter and was faced with the task of arranging gigs for someone famous in his homeland but totally unknown in the Ryukyu Islands. On top of this he would be singing in a language incomprehensible to potential listeners. This was a step into the unknown but luckily there are enough music enthusiasts on Okinawa who are open-minded and curious enough to make it a success. Okinawans (and Japanese) generally are very used to listening to songs in English which most don’t understand at all and so listening to Basque was just a small step further.

Getting the right people to help was key. Ryuji Noda is responsible for music at Sakurazaka Theatre in the capital city Naha and he also runs the music label ‘Music from Okinawa’. He was first to come to my assistance with a firm booking for Mikel to play a concert at his theatre and he also took over arrangements for the necessary visa and provided other contacts for further gigs.

Just days after Mikel’s arrival, and with the film crew in tow, he met popular Miyako Island singer Isamu Shimoji at a club in Naha where Shimoji (also the face of the island’s Orion Beer TV commercials) agreed to let Mikel join a Spanish-themed night at the venue. Meeting barely an hour before the event began and with little language in common, Mikel taught Shimoji one of his own Basque compositions and Shimoji was able to join him on stage to accompany him on the song during Mikel’s guest spot.

Days later Mikel was introduced to Okinawan-Peruvian singer Lucy (fR328/329) and they had a session together with sanshin and guitar at my home on the south coast where Mikel settled in as our house guest for the rest of his stay following a week in a Naha hotel. The next week he and Lucy sang together and talked (in Spanish with a Japanese interpreter) on Lucy’s weekly radio programme ‘Lucy No Ichariba Amigos’. The duo Okinawa Americana (fR422) were also visitors to our music-filled home for a session with Mikel.

All this was just preparation for the main collaboration which was with Okinawan singer, composer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki and our house hosted her visits to rehearse with Mikel for the two main Basque Night events at the end of May: one in the north of the island at Ginoza Farm Lab café overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the other at the prestigious Sakurazaka Theatre. Aragaki is an innovative and exciting sanshin player. Currently working on her own solo album, she has collaborated with the likes of Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia.

For the first of these events the focus was on Basque culture and cuisine as well as the music. The spacious Ginoza café has a spectacular view of the ocean and opened its doors for the first time just days before Mikel’s visit. Mikel himself supervised the preparation of Basque-style pintxos. Tickets sold out two days in advance. Before the music there was a half hour talk session on identity and culture in which Mikel spoke with the Okinawa-based Swiss-Spanish photographer and film director Daniel Lopez.

The Sakurazaka Theatre concert a few days later was also sold out with Mikel playing a solo set of his own compositions before being joined by Mutsumi Aragaki again on sanshin and vocals and Makoto Miyata on percussion. Aragaki’s sanshin and Mikel’s acoustic guitar flowed together in a seductive blend as if they had played together for years. The trio soon became what Mikel called his Okinawan band. They played arrangements of his original songs plus three songs from the Ryukyu Islands that Mikel had learned during his stay. Particularly successful was Tsuki Nu Kaisha a traditional song from the Yaeyama Islands for which Mikel added a new verse in Basque. The encore was a first ever live performance of the well-known Okinawan song Tinsagu Nu Hana.

Audiences were clearly won over not just by his passionate but controlled singing but crucially by his willingness to engage with Okinawan music, people and culture and to share his own thoughts, feelings and stories from the Basque Country.

Reflecting on their collaboration a few weeks later Aragaki told me: “This wonderful encounter had a great impact on me and I realized again the unique roots of Okinawa. It has opened my mind and lifted me higher. Our music resonated much more than I expected to create a fascinating new sound that crosses borders. I’m also very attracted to Mikel’s music and to Basque music and culture in general. I’d love to develop this project and hope we can keep on inspiring each other.”

Mikel also appeared with Aragaki at a beach bar in the north and played a solo set on what he said was the smallest stage he had ever stood on at the annual Ajiru Music Festival held in the grounds of a Shinto shrine. There was a newspaper interview and a final Sayonara Party at a Naha bar where Mikel’s trio played an impromptu set. The Margolaria film is now complete and was in competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September.

Financial support permitting, it’s hoped this could be just the start of the Basque Ryukyu live experiences. Ideally the next step would be for Okinawan musicians to travel to the Basque Country and for bigger collaborations between Basque and Ryukyu folk musicians in Okinawa to showcase some of the more traditional styles.

Mikel Urdangarin should have the last word. “I thought I was living in another era, a few centuries ago, when. I first found myself listening to an old Okinawan song. Nowadays, in an era of expansion and globalization, in which everything tends to unify and the different is penalized, is a time in which we can hardly hear and identify our own voice, Still treasures are found, such as the unique and antique culture expressed in the music from Okinawa. This is the main gift, the unforgettable experience I was given in my stay on that old island.”

“My gratitude to Mutsumi Aragaki and all the nice people that accompanied me on that intense journey. It’s two months since I returned and I can still hear the sanshin notes in my head, the purity of the islanders singing. How an old and high-pitched singing is so close to roots, to the underworld, it’s a stunning feeling that will never disappear in my future life.”

Many thanks to all who helped with this project, especially Anjel Valdes, Ryuji Noda, Tomoya Ogoshi, and Daniel Lopez.

facebook.com/basque.ryukyu/

mikelurdangarin.eus/hasiera/

aragakimutsumi.com

(fRoots Magazine No.423, Winter 2018-19).

FC Ryukyu – J3 Champions

Posted December 5, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

Okinawa’s only professional football club FC Ryukyu were recently crowned champions of the J.League’s third tier known as J3 and the team will play in J2 next season. At the Okinawa Times Building in Naha last night there was an event to celebrate this achievement and to mark the 15 years since the club’s foundation.  Three Ryukyu players, Kosuke Masutani, Taishi Nishioka, and Kazaki Nakagawa, also took part in a Talk Show and answered questions from the audience.

FC Ryukyu defender Taishi Nishioka

In addition to the players’ talk there was an exhibition of FC Ryukyu photos, shirts and memorabilia. The J3 Championship trophy was also on display.

One of the first shirts worn by the FC Ryukyu team

The road to J2 has finally been completed. Next season will be difficult with more matches to play in the 22 team J2 and long distances to travel with all away games in mainland Japan. For now we can celebrate the club’s success and hope that the people of Okinawa will get fully behind the team next season.

New Horizons in Japan

Posted November 28, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: A Musical Journey

Here is the third part of A Musical Journey. It’s a long one…

3. New Horizons in Japan

I’m a late developer. I didn’t discover Dylan until his fifth album. It wasn’t until moving to Japan that I began to properly appreciate the traditional English folk music that had been on my doorstep back home. I didn’t take much notice of the burgeoning punk scene either until it was already past its prime: I did see The Clash but that wasn’t until the 1980s. And when I arrived in Japan in the middle of that decade I had no idea a very late encounter with the Sex Pistols was also on the cards. More of that later.

The eighties was the most significant decade for me as I left the UK and moved to Japan. During the early years in my new home I published my first book (on education, not music), got married, became a father, and made the decision to stay on in Japan for at least a bit longer. In the next decade I completed an MA and then moved to another part of the country to take up a university job. Now I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was a hot summer night when I arrived in Japan for the first time. I was here to teach at St. Michael’s International School in Kobe for two years. When I boarded the plane in London for the seemingly endless flight, George Michael was number one on the UK chart with ‘Careless Whisper’ and I was to see him in concert as one half of Wham! a few months later.

Wham! on tour in China and Japan, 1985

As part of my new job it was possible to earn some extra salary by teaching English to adults in the evenings at the night school attached to the international school. A helpful American named Randy was responsible for organising the language classes at the night school but most importantly he introduced me to the delights of the Railroad. This was the name of the bar under the railroad tracks run by one of the language school’s former students. A custom had grown up that after classes every Wednesday evening a handful of staff and students would walk down to the bar in the centre of Kobe’s entertainment district of Sannomiya.

The small bar was tucked away from the busy street up a steep flight of stairs and it seated around twenty or so customers. Never advertised – other than by word of mouth – it became a regular haunt of ours and the owner welcomed us on Wednesdays and other nights too and kept me supplied with food and beer throughout the early days in Japan. At weekends it was often the first port of call on a night out that frequently kept us up until the morning.

On a typical night maybe four or five of us would meet at the Railroad before moving on to the Retreat yakitori bar, then perhaps on to another bar or izakaya and finally to the Second Chance which stayed open until 5 a.m. All conveniently within walking distance of each other in the Sannomiya district. Occasionally the closing time of 5 a.m. was too early for some of us and at these times a final drink was in order at Valentino’s the only bar that kept open until seven in the morning. From there it was into a taxi for the ride home and a much-needed sleep. Such was the lifestyle in eighties economic bubble-era Kobe when there seemed to be money everywhere and an inexhaustible round of parties and good times.

The soundtrack to these nights was the synth-pop that had become all pervasive in the 1980s. A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ seemed to be forever playing in the background. It was also the first time I bought a CD player. Not having any CDs it was necessary to make a trip to the shop and buy some to test this new technological wonder and the first CDs to grace the machine were the albums Remain in Light by Talking Heads and ABC’s The Lexicon of Love.

Tom Waits was another relatively late discovery though I had been initiated into his world shortly before leaving the UK. Especially impressive was his early masterpiece Small Change with its memorably seedy cover photo and melancholy songs of late night excess and regret. His next album Heartattack and Vine continued the theme. It also contained ‘Ruby’s Arms’, a gem that was just right for those late nights and early mornings. By this time Waits himself was already transforming his early style into a new tougher and more innovative way of telling stories. This frequently involved much clanking of pieces of metal. I liked this a lot too.

Many Western musicians included Japan in their overseas tours and this usually meant a date in Osaka just a half hour train ride from Kobe. Among the many concerts I attended was a visit to see the Pet Shop Boys. I also went to solo concerts by George Harrison and Ringo Starr (though I’d rather have seen the other two Beatles). Most memorably there was another outing to see Bob Dylan, this time with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Osaka-jo Hall on their 1986 tour.

An essential part of life in Kobe at that time was the English language monthly magazine Kansai Time Out which already had a firm foothold in the foreign community and in bookshops throughout Kansai when I arrived. Not just a guide to what’s on, it also contained many in-depth articles on a variety of topics. The magazine ran for 32 years, publishing its last issue in 2009. One thing it didn’t have when I came to Kobe was a regular music page and so it was that while lamenting this omission one evening in the Railroad I happened to find myself sitting next to the current editor. She asked me to write a music page myself (just one) and submit it. This I did. The article was a mish-mash of reviews of Western albums I’d been listening to plus a report of a visit to see a local Japanese band. It was a bit all over the place but somehow received the editor’s approval and was published in the magazine. Soon a monthly music page was included and I contributed regularly to its features.

Shoukichi Kina (Photo: Heiko Junge)

It was around this time, at the end of the eighties, that the great music revelation occurred when I finally discovered Okinawa and its music through my wife Midori unearthing a couple of tapes by Shoukichi Kina and Champloose. A friend of hers had briefly been a member of Champloose and had passed the tapes on but they had remained neglected and unplayed. I didn’t know it at the time but it’s not too dramatic to say that the course of my life was irrevocably changed.

Until then I had been underwhelmed by the Japanese pop music I’d listened to as it seemed too in awe of Western music and the Japanese rock bands I had listened to seemed pale imitations. Or else there were boy bands such as Hikaru Genji, and innocuous female ‘idols’ such as Miho Nakayama and Kyoko Koizumi (now a fine actor in middle-age). Kina and his exuberant Okinawan-style music was something else and this led to my meeting him for the first time in Kyoto and featuring him in an interview in KTO magazine. Thereafter to the discovery of much more music from Okinawa, visits to many of the islands, and eventually to the first The Power of Okinawa book. And some years later, of course, a move to Okinawa. It was no great surprise that the emphasis in my music articles gradually changed from UK and Western pop to Okinawan music and to other roots music in general.

The arrival of Dominic Al-Badri as the editor at KTO meant the chance for a little more music coverage as he was a music enthusiast with wide tastes. His encouragement led eventually to the idea for a book on Okinawan music. The music section built up gradually so that a page of album reviews was now included every month. In my early days of writing for the magazine I had once contacted more than twenty record companies in Japan requesting review copies of their releases but didn’t get a single response. But now we began to get plenty of review copies and could even afford not to accept tapes any more but only CDs for consideration.

I was able to meet and interview musicians whose music interested me. Among the first, after Shoukichi Kina, was Japanese singer Sandii who made a number of adventurous albums in the nineties with influences from South-east Asia. Then there was Jamaican reggae artist Bob Andy; Okinawan singers Nenes, Yoriko Ganeko, and Yasukatsu Oshima, English folk musicians Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick; and, on a visit back to England, Kate Rusby. Contributing to the magazine also enabled me to write about subjects other than music and so there were features on alternative education, film, literature, women’s football, Shinto, and a travel piece on Nabari in Mie Prefecture where I had moved in 1998 to take up my post at Kogakkan University.

But before the move to Nabari there was the earthquake. At 5:46 a.m. on 17th January 1995 the Kansai area was struck by what became known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake which claimed well in excess of 6,000 lives. For a long time afterwards (and still sometimes now) we measured time in pre and post-quake terms. After three days without electricity and with water in short supply we left our damaged house to stay for the next two weeks with friends whose home was relatively safe from the devastation we saw all around us in downtown Kobe.

I had already seen Osaka band Soul Flower Union a couple of times by then but the earthquake and its aftermath drew me closer. It’s well-known that the rock band unplugged to play for some of the most stricken victims of the earthquake in the hard-hit Nagata district of Kobe. This led to their emergence in an acoustic alternative incarnation known as Soul Flower Mononoke Summit who incorporated chindon street music into their repertoire.

A year after the quake they returned to play at Nagata Shrine and I interviewed them for a KTO feature. Members Takashi Nakagawa and Hideko Itami were welcoming and friendly and for some years Midori and I cooperated with them by translating their original song lyrics into English for the CD booklets of their numerous releases and went to see them play whenever possible. Here was a band that was becoming aware of roots music from around the world and dabbling into Irish, Korean and Okinawan styles and instrumentation. They were not a high-profile band but were always far more rewarding than most of the bigger names – and with a political edge too which quickly found them cast aside by their major record company Sony. Years later, Hideko Itami moved to Okinawa and was very helpful and supportive during and after my own move to the island.

Writing for KTO was not without the occasional mishap. Smokey Mountain were a young band of two boys and two girls from the Philippines. They had visited Japan to appear on national television and came back later to promote their second album release. I was asked at very short notice – the same day I think – if I would go to Osaka and meet them in a hotel where they were giving interviews. Not having listened to them at all I cobbled together a few generalised questions. It did not go down well when (forgetting about their Japan TV appearance) I began by asking them if they had ever been to Japan before. One of the boys answered with an indignant “Yes!” He managed to stretch the word to several syllables.

Possibly worse was the calamity that occurred when I had the task of writing a monthly column to preview upcoming concerts in the Kansai area. These were often of artists I knew little about so had to check the facts. But when it came to James Taylor I was on safe ground, or so I thought, and previewed his visit with a summary of the Boston singer’s past glories. At least one irate person phoned the KTO office later to complain that she had bought a ticket and then been shocked and dismayed to discover the concert was for a completely different James Taylor.  I like to think that at least it opened her ears to some new music.

It was not through the magazine but an acquaintance in London that I got to meet up with two of the UK’s biggest musical icons to tour Japan. A friend in London had introduced me to Pat who was a roadie or ‘guitar technician’ for several high-profile musicians. Over a few drinks in a South London pub Pat said he would soon be coming to Japan with Rod Stewart and would get in touch. I thought no more about it but Pat was true to his word and phoned me after his arrival in Osaka. It was the day before Rod Stewart’s concert at Osaka-jo Hall. He had VIP passes for the whole family but first he asked me to come over to Osaka that afternoon as Rod wanted to get some people together to play a game of football. I hadn’t kicked a ball in earnest for many years but duly turned up in tracksuit and trainers and took part in a full-scale game which found me on the opposing side to Rod Stewart who was far and away the best player on the pitch. I recovered enough to take my seat the next evening at the concert at a sold-out Osaka-jo Hall. We arrived in the afternoon and Pat gave us a backstage tour. After the show, Rod Stewart gave our son Akira (then six) a signed football and uttered the memorable words: “I hope you’re a better player than your dad.”

Pat returned to Japan later that year but this time he was with the Sex Pistols on their Filthy Lucre reunion tour of 1996. He got in touch again. The Sex Pistols were playing four nights in Osaka at a smaller all-standing venue. I missed the first night but went to the next three and even took advantage of Pat’s (or the Pistols’) hospitality by staying overnight after the last date and sharing Pat’s hotel room. A group of us including Pat and three of the Pistols went out a couple of evenings to eat and drink and I was put on the list as ‘interpreter’ so I didn’t have to pay.

The one absent member of the Sex Pistols on these nights out was John Lydon (or Johnny Rotten, I should say) who kept away from the rest of the band except for their appearances on stage. Each night when I arrived Pat ushered me into Johnny’s dressing room where there was always a box full of beers which Pat proceeded to take from freely and give to me as sustenance during the gig. Not that the concerts were over-long. They were just one hour including encores. I ran into Johnny only once. I was standing at the urinal in the backstage toilet five minutes before one of the shows was due to start. He came in and stood beside me. Not a word was spoken by either of us. The Sex Pistols were doing this for the money but it was great to see them and their performances were all I had hoped they would be, full of passion and in no way were they going through the motions.

The Pogues

But these were diversions from the direction I was taking. After a long hiatus from listening to English roots music I was now back there again and it all happened because of being away from home. The discovery of Okinawan music opened up the realisation that all roots music has connections and things in common.

The Pogues were doing with Irish music what Shoukichi Kina was with Okinawan and I saw them a few times in Osaka too, including the last but one appearance of Shane MacGowan with the band. There was an Irish boom in Japan in the 1990s and I could see musicians such as Altan, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, Mairead Ni Dhomhnaill and Donal Lunny. There was African music too and Mory Kante’s Akwaba Beach album introduced me to another kind of roots music and to concerts by Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour. I had also discovered the music and culture of the Basque Country but that’s another story.

The rediscovery of English roots in Japan was kicked off when I listened to Kate Rusby’s first solo album Hourglass and I began to see what a rich vein of folk song also existed in my own country. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick came to Osaka and I interviewed them. I even started listening to the esoteric traditional recordings of Peter Bellamy and wondered why I had ignored them before.

Richard Thompson (Photo: Ron Sleznak)

Back in 1969 I had been at the Royal Festival Hall in London when Fairport Convention unleashed folk-rock on England. Richard Thompson’s work with the band that night and in the decades that followed has been phenomenal and he – like Rusby – is someone who has the gift of being able to write songs that are so much influenced by the English tradition that you cannot see the join. Decades later I saw him twice in Japan. The second time was an evening at Osaka’s Club Quattro where he played one of the best solo concerts I’ve ever seen: just the man and his acoustic guitar mesmerising the audience. On that night I didn’t have to write about him or do an interview and I was just there to enjoy the music. And it was wonderful.

The inevitable eventually happened and after years in Kobe and Nabari I finally decided to take early retirement from my university and move on, and where better than to Okinawa. The music was the catalyst for the move. I had already written a book to introduce it and wanted to update and write a better one with the music and culture close at hand. We moved to Okinawa in 2009.

The Kansai Time Out interviews with Bob Andy, Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick, and Kate Rusby can all be found now in the Features Archive.

Yoko Ishikawa – Live in Naha

Posted November 17, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

Iheya Island singer and sanshin player Yoko Ishikawa released her solo debut album in September. The album Shami No Yorokobi was reviewed on this blog. Unfortunately her concert in Okinawa to promote the new release had to be postponed because of the typhoon that hit the island at that time. It has now been rearranged for next Saturday 24th November.

Yoko Ishikawa

Owing to the great interest in this concert it will now take place at the larger Hall A at Sakurazaka Theatre in Naha starting at 18:30. Ishikawa will be joined by the musicians who played on her album and these include Setsuko Kikuyama and Keiko Kinjo. It promises to be a rewarding night at last for one of Okinawa’s brightest young talents.

http://sakura-zaka.com

Autumn in Okinawa

Posted November 8, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

It’s autumn in Okinawa and today is bright and sunny with the temperature at 28 degrees. Just the sort of day to have a picnic in the park and so that’s what we did. Here are some photos taken this afternoon after our lunch at Itoman’s Heiwasozo no Mori Koen (Forest Peace Park).