Discovering Roots Music

Posted October 23, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: A Musical Journey

Here at last is the eagerly awaited (by me anyway) second part of what I’m calling A Musical Journey.

2. Discovering Roots Music

The first time I set foot in a folk club was a week or two after my seventeenth birthday. Until then my taste in music had been largely shaped by the UK charts, pirate radio, and television programmes such as the BBC’s weekly ‘Top of the Pops’.

A blurry distinction is often made nowadays between folk songs and traditional songs, especially by those in America (Japan too) where any singer-songwriter playing an acoustic guitar can and will be labelled a folk singer. This isn’t the case in England where folk songs are more often thought of as having been handed down over generations by the common people and not possessing a known composer.

I was a bit surprised to find the late American ‘folk singer’ Dave Van Ronk also went along with this way of thinking about it in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. He writes that for about two hundred years up until the 1950s the folk singer was someone who passed on songs learned within a community. And so, crucially, “the word ‘folk’ describes a process rather than a style.” It wasn’t until Bob Dylan and the singer-songwriters of the 1960s that there was a bit of mixed up confusion about the definition. In a recent interview, Tom Rush (who was one of those ‘60s singers), reiterated that for him ‘folk’ means the traditional songs handed down by ear from generation to generation.

That’s enough pedantry about ‘folk’. I’ve usually gone along with the ‘folk means traditional’ camp but there is a grey area too. Nowadays I’d probably call it all roots music anyway for want of a more precise term. Or perhaps: ‘local music from out there’ as it’s found all over the world in every culture, played on many different musical instruments (or no instruments) and sung in numerous different languages.

The folk club I first went to didn’t have any policy about what was or wasn’t folk. Almost any kind of music was acceptable if there was room for the performers to fit onto the small platform that passed as a stage. It wasn’t much like other folk clubs of its time either as there were probably more singer-songwriters than traditional singers on its weekly list of guest artists. And, if anything, the sedate image of the UK folk club where everyone sits in rows of chairs listening to the performer in respectful silence was held in some contempt at the club where I was a regular. The noise from the bar and the largely standing audience also made sure the unaccompanied singer would have a pretty hard time of it.

It was named the Jacquard Folk Club and it congregated on Thursday evenings in the back room of a pub in Norwich. The club was run by two brothers, Tony and Albert Cooper. Tony was fond of organising and had previously been involved with a jazz club in the city, while Albert was a fine classically trained singer who had also developed a repertoire of blues and contemporary songs. The establishment of the folk club gave him a regular venue to belt out these songs every week in his stirring and powerful voice usually accompanied by a 12-string guitar plus harmonica and double bass.

As a folk newcomer and a refugee from the pop scene (although I maintained an interest in that as well) I was listening to many of these songs for the first time and it was a revelation. I was being initiated into the world of largely American roots, blues and Civil Rights songs as a teenager in an English pub: not by the original artists of whom I was mostly unaware but by a local resident singer.

Beer was another discovery. As folk music was frequently played in the back rooms of pubs it was almost obligatory to sample the delights of English bitter. I had long seen people getting so excited about the stuff that they couldn’t guzzle down enough of it so imagined it must have an amazing taste – like strawberries or the cream soda of my childhood. It was therefore with a mixture of puzzlement and slight disappointment that I sipped my first pint. All rather warm, flat, bland and lacking in real tastiness. I soon got used to it though.

Sandy Denny

Sometimes I gave a bit of help at the club on Thursdays and once found myself attending to the needs of Sandy Denny who was the guest that evening. She was just a year older than me but appeared infinitely more composed and confident. I offered to buy her a drink and she immediately called for a large whisky. This was in the days when she toured the folk clubs of England on her own as a singer and guitarist. I was to see her again more than once (albeit from a distance) when she became a member of Fairport Convention who went on to invent folk-rock. She left one of her fingerpicks behind after that first visit to the club and I kept and returned it to her the next time she came back. A few years later she was dead at the age of 31.

Norwich and the surrounding Norfolk countryside was already home to its own remarkable traditional singers such as Walter Pardon and the fisherman Sam Larner. They became and remain a huge influence on younger generations of singers but I was oblivious to their contribution until many years later and didn’t even listen to their recordings until the singers were long gone. A local singer I also discovered far too late was Peter Bellamy who eventually became a favourite – but not until I was living in Japan and rediscovering the roots I’d left behind. When I lived in Norwich he was once pointed out to me by someone in the street as a famous folk singer and appeared as a long-haired figure walking in front of us, no doubt on his way to the shops or perhaps to the library to research some archive field recording.

It was the visiting Americans who often made the biggest impact and there were plenty of them touring England at that time to play an extensive list of venues such as folk clubs, pubs, and sometimes concert halls. One evening Jesse Fuller was the guest in Norwich and I was able to see close-up his vaudeville-style one-man-band show with 12-string guitar and fotdella (his own invention, a kind of foot-operated percussion bass) along with the kazoo that he hummed into on songs such as his classic ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’. He was almost seventy at that time.

Among the numerous other renowned American singers and musicians I was able to see on their visits to Norwich – some of them more than once – were the New Lost City Ramblers, Clarence Ashley and Tex Isley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Bill Clifton, Hedy West, Paul Simon, Carolyn Hester, Tom Paxton, and Judy Collins.

Of all the American guests who came to England during the 1960s the one I listen to most often nowadays is probably Hedy West. For a long while the Georgia singer and banjo player was underappreciated and her recordings out of print. A revival occurred after her death and is rightly continuing. When I was still a teenager she came to Norwich and through her Appalachian songs and ballads I was able to visit a world I had only glimpsed in novels by Carson McCullers. Her unadorned vocals and banjo accompaniment have something of the same appeal found in the great traditional singers and sanshin players I was to discover years later in Okinawa.

There was no shortage of rising stars on the UK scene either including singer-songwriters Al Stewart and Roy Harper, and on one memorable occasion, for me at least, there was a visit from Scottish duo the Incredible String Band.

By early 1967, when they came to Norwich, the Incredible String Band had already released a debut album and must have been at work on its follow-up The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion which came out to much acclaim later that year. It contains the song ‘Painting Box’ with these lines that resonated with me at the time:

“My Friday evening’s footsteps plodding dully through this black town / Are far away now from the world that I’m in”.

The departure of Clive Palmer meant the original trio were now a pair: Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. Their performance that night was probably the first time some of their exotic-looking instruments had been seen in these surroundings, though what seemed to some like hippy psychedelic eccentricity would, a couple of decades later, be routinely accepted as an exploration of ‘world music’.

Mike Heron (right) and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band in 1967. (Photo: BBC Photo Library/Redferns).

I don’t recall too much of what they played that night but do remember very clearly the subsequent misunderstanding about accommodation. Heron and Williamson had thought they were booked into a hotel but that wasn’t the case and instead I was asked if I could put them up for the night. I was eighteen and living with my parents, so the pair came back there to spend the night. They must have slept in the same bed in my sister’s vacant room. She had married and left home a few years before.

Listening to Incredible String Band albums now, the vocals on their recordings don’t seem to have impenetrable Scottish accents at all but Robin Williamson’s was enough to confuse my mother when they made their brief stay in our house. After a night possibly spent sleeping in his trousers Williamson came downstairs and asked her if he could borrow an iron to smooth out the crumpled garment. She didn’t understand his accent and he ended up miming the ironing action before all became clear. I think everyone I knew imagined the ISB were destined for bigger things – world domination was on the cards – but despite a longish career the early successes of the first few years were never quite replicated in later days.

On the night that the ISB played the folk club in Norwich a small man with a northern accent appeared with a guitar and asked if he could play. He went on and performed to a very enthusiastic response. This turned out to be Michael Chapman. He almost stole the ISB’s thunder with his songs and guitar skills and a couple of weeks later was booked to play as guest at the club. He soon became a regular visitor to the area and his second album Fully Qualified Survivor contained ‘Postcards of Scarborough’ a song that to this day brings back many memories – even though I’ve still never been to Scarborough.

Chapman soon became a fixture on the folk circuit and went on to a long career with numerous albums. In the 1990s I finally ran into him again in London when I went to see him play at a small club and he was just as good as ever. During the break he introduced me to a white-haired man in the audience. This was Wizz Jones who had been another regular guest a few decades before at the folk club in Norwich.

All this exposure to the likes of master guitarists such as Chapman meant there came a time when as a young man I decided to have a go myself. At least to learn a musical instrument rather than just listening to others playing them, and so it was that I bought a guitar. The guitar style I admired most and tried to emulate was the fingerpicking I’d listened to on recordings of Elizabeth Cotten best known as the composer of ‘Freight Train’. She played left-handed in an inimitable and seductive style of her own. I didn’t achieve anything to rival that but did have some fun trying.

This foray into the guitar world didn’t lead to anything much but for a very brief period – perhaps only a few weeks – a ‘band’ was formed along with two friends and we called ourselves the Unreliable String Band. The USB (as no-one called us) performed an extremely short set comprising some poetry-reading accompanied by guitar (it was a thing back then), a couple of songs, and a sort of ragtime guitar instrumental. The first song we learned was Bob Dylan’s ‘Drifter’s Escape’ chosen because it could be played with only two chords. After a couple of appearances at local venues we called it a day.

Paul Simon at the Jacquard Folk Club, 24 August 1965.

Paul Simon was a still relatively unknown solo singer-songwriter who lived for a time in London and played the folk club circuit around England. He very definitely didn’t call it a day. Before going on to achieve lasting worldwide fame he played to an audience of sixty or seventy people at the Jacquard Folk Club on an evening in August 1965. I was there that night to see him give a remarkable performance with just his voice, acoustic guitar. and a handful of original songs. They included ‘The Sound of Silence’ and his then current single ‘I Am a Rock’.

In Japan audiences enjoy listening to musicians talking in between songs – sometimes endlessly – and regard the chatting, explanations and anecdotes as an integral part of the live experience. This was obviously not the case in Norwich that night when Paul Simon’s not especially detailed account of how he came to write one of his songs was interrupted by a heckler who urged him to “stop the preaching and get on with it”. Simon did just that and blasted everyone away with the rest of his songs and performance.

If anyone eclipsed Simon in my early discoveries in roots music it was Bob Dylan, of course, about whom so much has been written that there is nothing much more to be said. I was a bit late to the party, not discovering his songs until the release of his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home but I soon put that right by catching up with all previous recordings. If it was Dylan who helped draw me into folk clubs and folk songs he was also the one responsible for leading me away from them again with his leap into electric guitars, surrealist lyrics, and rock music that went beyond anything I’d heard up until then.

I didn’t see him live until 1978 when I was among a crowd of more than 200,000 for ‘The Picnic at Blackbushe Aerodrome’ in Surrey. (The previous year I had another first when I saw the great Leonard Cohen in concert in Leicester). I went down by train to London and then on one of the many special trains put on solely to convey people the rest of the way to Blackbushe. I missed the friend I was supposed to meet and spent the whole day on my own listening to all the music culminating with Dylan and his band who played for the best part of three hours. It was completely worth the discomfort of spending the early hours of the next morning on Waterloo station waiting for the first trains and the stinging watery eyes from lack of sleep that occurred when I eventually arrived back home. I’ve seen Dylan at least ten times since then, and the last was in Osaka at a much smaller venue in March 2010 when I was able to stand closer to the stage than ever before.

But as I have already said, it was Fairport Convention who invented the English version of folk-rock by playing traditional songs on electric guitars, bass and drums. I witnessed the unveiling of this phenomenon with their concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London to promote their Liege and Lief album which came out at the end of 1969. (Nick Drake was one of the support acts that evening). As the curtain went up on Fairport a new era of English roots music was born.

The next time I saw Fairport was not until their annual Cropredy Festival in 2001. The band Brass Monkey played at the same festival that year and I was able to speak briefly with member Martin Carthy who I had met and interviewed in Japan a few years before. My move to Japan, perversely, meant I was going to rediscover English roots music after a long hiatus – and many other kinds of music too.

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Trad.Attack!: Kullakarva

Posted October 16, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

It’s easy to forget that Trad.Attack! are a trio and not a big band. Last weekend the Estonians won over their audience at Sakurazaka Theatre in Naha with an astonishing display of virtuosity on the final concert of their Japan tour. With all acoustic instruments they filled the hall with glorious sounds and pulsating rhythms at times reminiscent of a rock band.

It wasn’t just their singing and musicianship that impressed. The trio managed the remarkable feat of totally engaging the Okinawan crowd with traditional songs sung in the unfamiliar Estonian language. That they succeeded so well says a lot about their great openness, friendly attitude and willingness to learn about and engage with Okinawan culture.

Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) is their second and latest album. It was recorded last year and is now receiving a very welcome first release in Japan. Many of the songs and instrumentals from their concert in Okinawa are included on the album.

The trio comprise Sandra Vabarna on Estonian bagpipes, jew’s harp, zither and a variety of whistles; Jaimar Vabarna who plays 12-string acoustic guitar; and Tõnu Tubli on drums, zither and glockenspiel. All three share vocals. Crucially, some of the songs sample archival recordings of the traditional singers of the past and these include Jaimar Vabarna’s great-grandmother.

Technology that might have been thought of as the enemy of traditional song is used here to bring the old singers back to life by allowing these recordings of their voices to be listened to by new audiences around the world and in new and often thrilling musical settings. Trad.Attack! also add new music and arrangements to traditional folk songs as well as composing their own originals. It’s impossible to see the join.

The album’s opening track ‘Talgo’ (Working Bee) sets the tone with an energetic work song not unlike some of those found in Okinawan music. ‘Kabala’ verges on rock but is, in fact, based on a traditional song and melody. ‘Imepuu’ (Magic Tree) is another that uses archival vocal recordings and it drives along into what appears to be a hard rock workout until Sandra Varbarna’s bagpipes come in and lift us into another dimension. They can be gentle too and ‘Sade’ (Spark) is an original instrumental of spellbinding beauty.

Kullakarva is simply a wonderful album. It is also worth mentioning that the CD version of the album is extremely well packaged and contains information in Estonian, English and Japanese. The Trad.Attack! website is exemplary too with many videos of the band and information in no less than seven different languages. It stands as an example to those in Okinawa of how to promote music overseas.

Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) is released in Japan by Meta Company.

www.metacompany.jp

https://tradattack.ee

Trad.Attack! in Okinawa

Posted October 9, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

Estonian band Trad.Attack! will play a concert this week in Naha, Okinawa as part of their “Shimmer Gold” Tour 2018. Comprising members Sandra Vabarna, Jaimar Vabarna, and Tõnu Tubli, the trio have released two albums and toured in 35 countries over the past four years.

Their mix of traditional Estonian songs and modern sounds is played on 12-string guitar, percussion, bagpipes and whistles. They manage to create a big sound with acoustic instruments and are inspired by archival recordings of the old folk singers. As their website says, these are: “Exciting Estonian sounds in which the old and new collide and spark”.

The concert starts at 17:00 on Saturday 13th October at Sakurazaka Theatre (Hall A). Trad.Attack! will be supported by their guests the Okinawan band Maltese Rock.

https://tradattack.ee

Nenez: Mapai

Posted September 28, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Mapai is the latest album from Nenez. Some time ago they changed the spelling of their name from Nenes to Nenez. The group members have often changed too and so it’s a bit odd this time to see them appear on the cover of the new release as a trio rather than the more familiar quartet. The three women are Misuzu Okiyama, Nagisa Uehara and Rie Motomura.

As usual, the album is produced by their mentor Sadao China who also writes some of the songs. A large cast of musicians is brought in to help, especially with the songwriting and arrangements and they include Kazufumi Miyazawa, Shingo Maekawa (Kariyushi 58), Masaru Shimabukuro (Begin), Yasuko Yoshida and Satoshi Kadekaru while members of Nenez also contribute some original songs.

To begin with the positives, there are a couple of songs here that stand out as worthy recordings. The second track ‘Shinburi Manburi’ is an original by Shingo Maekawa and it’s a fine lively song in the shimauta mode that Nenez and all their earlier incarnations would surely be pleased with. The other high point comes midway through the album with the simple straightforward performance of Yoshinori Shinkawa’s classic ‘Ume no Kaori’.

Unfortunately, the stark simplicity of ‘Ume no Kaori’ is not evident anywhere else on an album which contains far too many tired-sounding songs, over-familiar tunes and unimaginative arrangements. The rot sets in right from the beginning with ‘Fai Fai’ and its tediously old-fashioned treatment. China’s co-written ‘Miyarabi Utagokoro’ is just as bad and another co-written China song ‘Jinsei Hanbun Sake Hanbun’ has a hackneyed tune and a dinosaur guitar band arrangement.

It gets worse. ‘Kanpai’ is not the rousing celebration of drinking we might have expected but instead begins in a vaguely Hawaiian style before a surprisingly dull and dreary descent into boredom. ‘Anata no Koe’ is no better with another plodding arrangement by Satoshi Kadekaru. The worst perhaps is saved for last with Sadao China’s ‘Harmony’ which is an utterly predictable and sentimental song about Okinawa that we seem to have heard a million times before.

The perfectly acceptable bonus track ‘Harikyamaku’ tagged on at the end is not quite enough to make us forget what an ultimately unexciting album we’ve just listened to. There can be no complaints about the three Nenez women who sing beautifully throughout and are obviously very talented. But there are too many re-treads here and the women are never really allowed to shine as they might: a case maybe of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Mapai ends up more like a parody of the old Nenes. It’s no better or worse than its predecessor Dikka but it still chips away at the great legacy of the original band.

Mapai is released by King Records.

https://nenes.ti-da.net/

Okinawa Americana

Posted September 27, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

A new one for the Features Archive. Earlier this year Merry and David Ralston paid me a visit to talk about their Okinawa Americana project. The article that came out of it is published in the Autumn edition of UK magazine fRoots.

Okinawa Americana

Indiana blues meets Okinawan sanshin. Oddly enough it works, reckons John Potter.

Okinawa based Merry and David Ralston are an unlikely pair. Merry, from Itoman in the south of the subtropical Japanese island, plays the ubiquitous three stringed sanshin. David Ralston, originally from Indiana, is a bluesman and a remarkable slide guitar player with many solo albums to his name. Together they formed the duo Okinawa Americana and last year released a self-titled debut album. Already very familiar to audiences on Okinawa they have toured mainland Japan and the USA where much of their album was recorded.

As a duo they play traditional Okinawan songs seasoned with blues, some country rock and a smattering of originals. They frequently share vocal duties within the same song – Merry singing in Uchinaguchi (the Okinawan language) and Japanese, and David in English – and perform both as an acoustic duo and sometimes with a band.

The traditional world of Okinawan minyo (folk song) is notoriously rigid and hierarchical but it’s obvious from the outset that Merry is different with her Afro hairstyle and pink sanshin. She explained her introduction to Okinawan music on a recent visit to my home along with David. “I first listened to sanshin when I was nine years old and my grandmother used to play. Later I began to play myself and learned from three different teachers. When I lived in Tokyo for a while I also learned Yaeyama Island songs which are very different from those of Okinawa, and I began performing solo while I was there.”

“I like Okinawan traditional music but I also like to play in a more casual way. With the old style I’m supposed to sing correctly in a certain way but I don’t care about that, I just want to sing the way that I like. I love singing with blues and Okinawan music joined together. Every song is different and it’s a mix but you can still feel it’s very Okinawan and you have more freedom. Of course, I really like the old singers too and I was influenced by some of them and especially by Hiromi Shiroma who often sang and recorded with the great Shouei Kina.”

David Ralston has lived on Okinawa for over 25 years– more than half his life. A meeting with the late American musician Delaney Bramlett set him on the path to the blues and it was Bramlett who encouraged him. “When I met him there was an unbelievable explosion of music because he was an amazing producer. He taught me about Mississippi blues and urged me not to sing or to play like anyone else but instead just to be myself. Merry is the same way because she wants to do something different and that’s why I think it works.”

“I met Merry through Kanako Horiuchi who was singing in my band at the time. We were doing music with a bit of Okinawan influence but not very much. Merry came to see me one day and she just started playing sanshin and singing Aha Bushi and I started playing Preachin’ Blues the old Son House song and they just came together naturally.”.

I saw Okinawa Americana last year when they played a storming set at a ‘live house’ in Okinawa in front of a very enthusiastic crowd but I wondered what the reaction was like when they played overseas.

“I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work in Nashville where there are some of the best musicians in the world” says David. “As soon as we started to play everybody said ‘what’s that?’ and the musicians came over and said things like: ‘I’ve never seen a banjo like that’. But it went very well.”

“We played one place and an old guy came up, he was a WW2 veteran and he walked up on the stage real slow when Merry was done. He grabbed hold of her kimono. He said ‘I was in Okinawa 1945 and it was the worst time of my life’. Merry was crying. And he said ‘I just want to say you guys made me happy. I tried to forget about that but then I see you guys’. He was 92 years old and his family came up and they said he never ever says anything about the Battle of Okinawa. That’s the kind of story you can’t make up.”

“When I have an experience like that I have found my purpose in doing this music” adds Merry.

When the two play simply as an acoustic duo they are perhaps at their most impressive. “We do more acoustic shows now because it’s easier to travel” David says.” It’s the most difficult way to play because you have to be good. You don’t need to have all these gadgets like when you’re playing electric. I play a 1930s National steel guitar and she’s playing a sanshin and there’s something of a cool factor about that. Her timing, doing what she does and I’m playing something else, She’s going up and I’m going down. Somehow it works.”

“We’re building a studio on the island in Yomitan. We’ve been working hard to get that together and we’ve got almost everything finished for our next album. We’ve just got to finish it up. It should be out at the end of this year or early next year because we’re doing some peace events… but that’s another story.”

www.okinawaamericana.com

(fRoots Magazine No.422, Autumn 2018).

Okinawa Americana in fRoots Magazine

Posted September 12, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa Overseas

My interview with the duo Okinawa Americana – Merry and David Ralston – is included in the new Autumn issue of the UK magazine fRoots published this week. The one page feature is part of the magazine’s Root Salad series. The article will eventually appear in the Features Archive category of this blog.

A selection of musicians featured in the Autumn 2018 fRoots. Bottom left: Okinawa Americana

In the meantime it can be read in all its glory by buying the magazine. There is also a digital edition that can be subscribed to through the newly revamped and updated fRoots website.

http://www.frootsmag.com

Geoffrey Keezer Trio: On My Way To You

Posted August 8, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

American pianist and composer Geoffrey Keezer has a strong connection with Okinawa. In 2007 he joined Yaeyama singer and sanshin player Yasukatsu Oshima to record an album of Okinawan songs in a New York jazz setting that has since become a classic collaboration. Keezer had been a fan of Okinawan music for some time before that and his trio recorded the Sadao China composition ‘Koikugari Bushi’ two years before his meeting with Oshima.

Sadly for us, Keezer has not returned to Okinawan music but the door is always open for the possibility in the future. What he has done is to build on his already high reputation in the jazz world with more recordings and live shows. On My Way To You is a new album on which he plays piano and keyboards together with his working trio (Mike Pope on bass and Lee Pearson on drums) plus guest singer Gillian Margot.

The album’s ten tracks are a mix of songs and jazz arrangements, mostly of well-known pieces but also three brand new originals. What makes it different is the wide range of sources that Keezer’s inventive trio draw on. These include Thelonious Monk (‘Brilliant Corners’) and Stevie Wonder (‘These Three Words’) as well as Jimi Hendrix, Jerome Kern, and Michel Legrand.

Most satisfying of all is the closing track which manages to successfully combine and reimagine John Lennon’s ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Meanwhile Gillian Margot’s soulful contribution elsewhere adds even more variety and she provides some fine vocals on the five songs including Ewan MacColl’s much loved ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

On My Way To You is out now on MarKeez Records.

www.geoffreykeezer.com