Anjel Valdes

Posted January 16, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music, Features Archive

Last September I spent a week in the Basque Country of Spain and while there interviewed record producer Anjel Valdes for an article published in the current edition of UK magazine fRoots. Anjel spoke about many things and this feature only scratches the surface of his philosophy on music and life and his important work at Elkar Records. It’s also Anjel’s idea that Basque and Okinawan musicians will soon be able to meet and there are now plans for a Basque Ryukyu project to bring them together.

Anjel Valdes

Elkar Records have grown a massive catalogue of Basque music. John Potter meets their founder.

I’m in a wood at the foot of a mountain in the Basque Country with Anjel Valdes and he is looking for mushrooms. It’s a passion of his to walk in the silence of this spectacular scenery in Gipuzkoa province and a bonus if he can collect some big mushrooms along the way.

But this isn’t why we’re here. Valdes has been producer and coordinator at Elkar Records for 30 years. He has chosen to talk to me about it all in one of his favourite locations in the south of Euskal Herria (or Basque Country) which straddles part of northern Spain and south-west France. Elkar (it means ‘together’) has long been promoting Basque music, language and culture, and the purple and yellow logo on their shops is familiar throughout the region.

Valdes explains: “Elkar Records was founded in 1972. We began with literature and books and then started working on music and traditional songs, all in the Basque language, first with singers from the northern part of the Basque Country. Elkar began in Bayonne but then came to the south at the beginning of the 80s.” Their recording studio is based in Donostia-San Sebastian.

“We have a very important catalogue of music that now has more than 1,300 releases. Songs express the culture of the people, their dreams, and in our case the most important compositions speak about freedom and love and territory. And so if you put all of our tracks and recordings one after the other you can tell a very good story of our culture and our development.”

My own first encounter with Basque music was through this very magazine in the late ‘90s through the phenomenon of triki-pop. Traditional trikitixa (accordeon) and panderoa (tambourine) music had been given a new lease of life by the addition of pop rhythm sections and young bands such as Maixa ta Ixiar and Alaitz eta Maider were quick to attract listeners, including me. My first long distance contact with Anjel Valdes was at that time and he has been sending me review copies of albums ever since. Although trikitixa is still a vital ingredient of much of the music there are many other popular styles and new singers and musicians appear all the time.

But let’s go back to the beginning. “We can find our roots in traditional instruments and singers and we must speak about Oskorri, a very important band that finally disbanded two years ago. They did their last concert in Bilbao and we released a special album with a DVD. Mikel Laboa is also an important singer in our catalogue as is Benito Lertxundi and some others who began their careers in the 1960s and ‘70s. The passing of time has given them authority. Benito Lertxundi is now 76 years old and he continues recording and giving concerts. After him comes Ruper Ordorika who was from a new generation closer to a pop and rock style. Ruper is a very good songwriter who writes lyrics in a special way that connects with people. His last three albums are remarkable and very important for me. Mikel Urdangarin is another very special singer from a younger generation.”

Valdes is a philosophical man who thinks deeply about the wider issues and implications of what he does. “The most important thing is always the artist and the song. All of us need to be consoled and music offers us one essential way. If you have made 1,300 productions you will find some albums among them that are very, very important. So my work is to listen to the artist and to coordinate the ideas with my team.”

“I’ve learned that it’s better to continue than to win. You can win once or twice in your life but if the moment arrives when you have to disappear it is very sad. So sales are never the most important thing. The continuation of our work regardless of sales is what is most vital. It’s not possible to work in this job if you don’t like the music. People need freedom and we need love and freedom and we need dreams and this is the essence of the songs, of the poetry. I think that we must believe that someday the world will be changed, like we thought in the ‘60s.”

The Basque language, known as Euskara, seems to be unrelated to any other language and is possibly the oldest in Europe. There are around one million who understand and speak it while 400,000 use it as their first language. With a language not even spoken by all Basques does this present an obstacle to wider recognition? “There is great music everywhere” says Valdes, “in Cuba, in Okinawa, in Africa and so on. We are just a small territory in Europe and we aren’t expecting to achieve a lot of worldwide attention. For now, it’s just important that we try first to spread these songs and music among the Basque people.”

“I want to say strongly that songs are the last guardians of the culture – and even if people don’t understand the language they will recognise the songs.”

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

(fRoots Nos. 415/416, January/February 2018)

 

 

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Churashima Navigator: Life is Treasure

Posted December 21, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Life is Treasure is the first album by Okinawa’s Churashima Navigator who were founded in 2011 by DJ Sinkichi and DJ Nu-Doh. Its five members include singer and sanshin player Kanako Horiuchi who is well known for her diverse musical adventures around the world that range from a duet album of traditional Okinawan songs with Misako Oshiro to an album recorded in West Africa with Senegalese kora player Falaye Sakho.

Churashima Navigator’s music mixes experimental beats and heavy bass influences from dub, techno, industrial and jazz and then applies this to some of the traditional songs of Okinawa to create a style they have named New Champloo. All the vocals and sanshin are by Horiuchi who seems to fit effortlessly into whatever project she takes on and her presence here is indispensable.

At least a couple of the eight tracks are extended workouts that probably take on more life in a live club setting but the album – at 56 minutes – is perfectly suited to home listening too and they find a good balance with some tracks segueing into others by way of sampling old Okinawan songs and speech. There is also an underlying political edge that is never more evident than on ‘Jidai no Nagare 2017’ a song still as vital as ever with its focus on Okinawa’s sad history of occupation and its uncertain future.

‘Hanaumui’ is a good opener and sets the tone for what follows while ‘Torisashimai’ has an unusual treatment that makes it sound more like music from another part of Asia. The band has already travelled overseas this year to Thailand and then to Mongolia for the Playtime Festival in July. What they are doing is another example of the variety to be found in Okinawa’s music scene and Life is Treasure is a solid statement. The album booklet contains lyrics of all the songs in English, Japanese and Uchinaguchi.

Life is Treasure is released by budryukyu.

https://soundcloud.com/budryukyulabel

Music from Okinawa 2018

Posted December 18, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Music from Okinawa 2018 is a new album that gathers together music from the many different styles and genres found on these islands. The album is released by the Music from Okinawa label that has been tirelessly promoting the music in recent years and has also been involved in presenting it at the annual WOMEX events in Europe. For this compilation there are 16 tracks from a wide variety of artists – many from Okinawa and all with strong connections to the Ryukyu Islands.

The ubiquitous Kachimba4 appear with another of their Cuban flavoured tracks as do other familiar names such as Maltese Rock and The Sakishima Meeting. The most famous name, however, is the one that opens the album – Nenez. The great days of the original line-up are long gone but thankfully the track selected for this release is not from their underwhelming latest album but is ‘Kunjan Sabakui’ one of their ‘covers’ from their 2015 album Reborn. They do a good job of recreating it and it makes a fine start to the album.

The Nenez track is followed by Churashima Navigator and the band make a success of blending traditional Okinawan sounds with dub and techno on ‘Haimurubushi’. Pianist and composer Naoko Hentona also experiments interestingly on her contribution ‘Kariyushi’ which draws on Ryukyu music traditions. And Makiko Miyara, originally from Ishigaki Island, comes up with one of the very best tracks with her version of the co-written Yasukatsu Oshima/Hitoshi Uechi song ‘Marijima Hanari’.

Moving away from traditional influenced songs to broaden the selection even further there is the cheery ‘Crane’ by Naha pop trio Home Party People; there is some jazz with Element of the Moment’s evocative ‘A Girl in Blue’; and the album ends with a track from Ishigaki rapper and producer Ritto & Olive Oil. But perhaps best of all is Chihiro Kamiya with the original song ‘Kanashigwa’ from her excellent album Utaui.

Unfortunately the notes on the artists and song lyrics in the booklet are in Japanese only. However, the Music from Okinawa label can be congratulated for producing what is overall a very good album that introduces many different facets of island music. Too often in the past this has not been the case and many of the numerous compilations out there on other labels are unimaginative selections recycling the same old music and musicians. This one is different.

http://musicfromokinawa.com/

Soinu-Tresnak Euskal Herri Musikan 1985-2010

Posted December 14, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Soinu-Tresnak Euskal Herri Musikan 1985-2010 is a 70 page hardback book with CD and DVD insert on the musical instruments of the Basque Country. In the 1980s the musician and ethnomusicologist Juan Mari Beltran spent a year travelling and researching traditional musical instruments used by the Basque people and he compiled an hour long film of his findings with footage of many of the musicians who made and played these instruments. As a follow-up 25 years later he made another film containing his reflections and images related to the study. Both films are presented on the DVD.

This is a valuable and extraordinary musical adventure and in no way a stuffy academic exercise. As well as the trikitixa (accordion) and panderoa (tambourine) – still thriving in contemporary Basque music – there are rare recordings of much lesser known instruments such as the sunprinua (bark trumpet). There is also fascinating footage of the txalaparta and how it provided the “audible heartbeat of the cider-making process in the San Sebastian area”.

In addition to the instrument playing there is some arm-flinging Basque dancing not unlike Okinawan katcharsee that reminds us of the interconnectedness of culture and traditions worldwide. This new release is available for the first time with subtitles in English and several other languages while the book has rare photos and background details and information on all of the instruments.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

Element of the Moment: Okinawan Nights

Posted December 12, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Jazz is not the most obvious thing that comes to mind when we think about the music of Okinawa. But the Ryukyu Islands are nothing if not a melting pot of different musical genres and that includes many influences from overseas. The five members of Element of the Moment play saxophone, trombone, piano, bass and drums and have been performing regularly ever since they were formed in Okinawa in 2007.

Okinawan Nights is a live album containing eight original compositions recorded over two nights in February this year at Sound M’s in Naha. The band’s music is based on American jazz and funk with some Okinawan roots influences. On these recordings they produce a fine mix with the jazz element at the forefront.

This works best of all on two of their quieter and most melodic compositions ‘A Girl in Blue’ and ‘A Moon and Darkness’ but the whole recorded performance – at 63 minutes – offers  a very good introduction to the band and their music and shows that in Okinawa there are some very skilled musicians in many fields. All tracks were composed and arranged by drummer Akira Nakamura.

Okinawan Nights is released by Music from Okinawa.

www.musicfromokinawa.com

Beñat Igerabide: Geldialdi Bakoitzean

Posted December 6, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

It’s already three years since the singer, songwriter and guitarist Beñat Igerabide announced his arrival on the Basque music scene with a fine debut album Orbainak. Now he is back with a second album, some new musicians, and a set of 13 brand new compositions. Like its predecessor, Geldialdi Bakoitzean (At Each Pause) was also recorded at Igerabide’s own Sonola Studio in Gipuzkoa in the Spanish Basque Country.

The new release shows off a broader musical palette. This expanded view is evident from the outset as the opening track ‘Indar Berri Bat’ (Renewed Force) starts off with a hint of rockabilly before delivering its positive energetic message, while the next song, ‘Numinous’, displays a new funky side of Igerabide. There are also excursions into folk, pop and rock.

Igerabide is a poetic writer but this time his words (all in the Basque language) are more concise and accessible while retaining their lyrical quality and they are delivered in an appealing voice. The overriding theme that surfaces throughout is one of positivity and courage in the face of obstacles, and the need for love and connection with nature. It’s ultimately an album with a life-affirming agenda.

There are also melodies aplenty. One of the best is saved for last with the album’s thirteenth track, the simple and beautiful love song ‘Ez Da Ekia’ (It’s not the Sun). Despite the more experimental nature of these recordings it all hangs together very well and to those familiar with his previous work it’s still very obviously an album with its maker’s own distinctive stamp all over it.

The boldness, confidence and range of Geldialdi Bakoitzean is in no small way due also to the excellent band that Igerabide has gathered around him of David Etura (drums), Matthieu Haramboure (bass), Pello Gorrotxategi (keyboards) and the sole survivor from the previous album Gorka Urra (guitar, backing vocals).

Geldialdi Bakoitzean is released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

www.bigerabide.com

Here is a link to the music video for the song ‘Numinous’:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=mVOZ-D5nIXo

England’s roots revivalists

Posted November 22, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

Here’s another one for the archive from long ago. In April 1995 – just three months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake – I interviewed folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick before a concert in Osaka on their tour of Japan. It was an exciting meeting, for me at least, as my enthusiasm for English folk music had been reawakened around that time partly because of my discovery of the roots music of Okinawa. It’s strange how things can work out that way.

Both musicians were very approachable and we talked of many other things including the earthquake, Martin’s daughter Eliza (already a budding folk star) and the chances of Blackburn Rovers winning the Premier League. A few years later I met Martin Carthy again, very briefly, at the annual Cropredy Festival in Oxfordshire. It seems odd now that I refer to him in the interview as a ‘veteran’ as he is still very active today and continues to perform at the age of 76.

Dave Swarbrick also had a long and successful career and he toured the UK with Martin Carthy for the last time in 2015. Sadly, he died in June 2016.

England’s roots revivalists

John Potter meets folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick

Are we about to experience another folk revival? Veteran folksinger Martin Carthy thinks so. “Suddenly there’s a whole lot of 18 to 24 year olds who are taking an interest on their own account. Many of them are the children of old buggers like us but a lot of them aren’t. Musical horizons have widened in the last few years. People have heard all these different kinds of music and maybe they’ve started thinking that perhaps they’ve got one of their very own and have gone looking in that direction.”

Singer, guitarist and mandolin player Martin Carthy was on his first trip to Japan. Many years ago he partnered Dave Swarbrick in England’s most famous folk duo. Now reformed as an occasional touring duo, Carthy and Swarbrick made a whistle-stop six day visit to Japan in April and spoke to me before their concert at Osaka’s Muse Hall. Minutes later, they delighted the appreciative Japanese audience with a stunning two hour set. The years were rolled back and the confidence and sheer joy of their performance shone through.

Swarbrick (left) and Carthy: this photo was taken on stage in Osaka just after their concert.

Swarbrick’s former band Fairport Convention (who play at the same venue on June 26) practically invented English folk-rock at the end of the 60s. Their 1969 album Liege and Lief, featuring a number of traditional songs played with electric instruments, is still the yardstick by which all subsequent mixing of old and new has to be judged. What the Pogues were to do with Irish music had already been defined by Fairport many years before. The Fairport line-up of that year has changed almost beyond recognition as Richard Thompson left to pursue a successful solo career and bassist Ashley Hutchings to form a new band, Steeleye Span. Vocalist Sandy Denny – perhaps the greatest English singer of all – died tragically after a fall at the age of 31, and violinist Dave Swarbrick eventually left after 13 years with the band. Fairport seems to have thrived on the changes, though. Now fronted by original member Simon Nicol, they have released an impressive new album, Jewel in the Crown which has received rave reviews.

In the 70s, Carthy also had two brief spells as a member of Fairport offshoot, Steeleye Span. How do they view the change back from the big electric band sound to the acoustic partnership? “Duos are not always satisfying”, says Swarbrick, “but ours is to us, I suppose, because we aim to extend what we do. I like playing in groups too, as there is more chance to improvise. There was plenty of opportunity for that with Fairport. In comparing the two groups I always thought that Steeleye added rock to folk, and Fairport added folk to rock.”

“But”, says Carthy, “the great thing that Fairport did for folkies was to bring in that element of really free blowing. It was different every time. With Steeleye we always played arrangements. And that’s fine. It just makes the two things different. Of the two bands I think Fairport is the really interesting one because they change around so much.”

Both Carthy and Swarbrick are now involved in another new project, the Band of Hope. The five member acoustic band, formed to play what they call ‘songs of dissent’, released a debut album Rhythm and Reds last year.

Carthy is well known as a writer and adapter of songs with a strong leftist political and social message. “I think the political is an important part of folk music. There was definitely a time in the 70s when it became a little bit like going to a museum – which can be very nice, but is not connected with anything that matters to me. Folk music was going through a bad period and I began to think about the time when I was 18 to 21 and there was always something interesting happening. How come it wasn’t there any more? Because people aren’t basically that different, are they? Their aspirations are similar. So I rethought my repertoire, dumped a lot of stuff and focused more on socially relevant material.”

Cover of the duo’s 1990 album Life and Limb recorded in the USA.

In 1982, soon after the Falklands War, at a folk festival in England, Carthy realized that there was a need to fight back in song. “A guy stood up and he sang a song called ‘Ghost Story’ which was about the ghost of a soldier coming back and haunting Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street. And he got booed. That staggered me. And enraged me too. That’s when I realized that things had gone badly adrift. I mean, people didn’t have to agree, but in the 60s they would never have booed.”

The situation is now a bit better following the arrival on the music scene of the likes of Billy Bragg who, says Carthy, “shook people up. But in Australia this year it was very noticeable how much more optimistic the Australian people are. In England it’s not like that. In Australia, I suppose, it can be a bit overwhelming.”

“Yes”, adds Swarbrick, who now lives there, “they keep telling me I should lighten up!”

The traditional song is still the major part of the Carthy/Swarbrick repertoire though and I wondered how Martin Carthy kept coming up with so many ‘new’ traditional songs. “I just read all the time and find songs that way. I’ve now got a fairly good library of slightly more obscure books. I can still find new things after all these years because you always miss something in books until you read again and again. Sometimes it’s nice to experiment and marry the wrong song with the wrong tune. And sometimes it’s nice to just do it straight and interesting things happen.”

Later this year they get together again to tour England and next March plan an invasion of America. But for the moment they have gone their separate ways – to Robin Hood’s Bay on the north coast of England and to the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.

(Kansai Time Out, June 1995).