Roots Round-up 2022

Posted December 2, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

As we near the end of the year it’s time for another round-up of roots music to come my way in 2022.

There were several interesting and varied Okinawan albums that I listened to, and these included the youthful, experimental Okinawa Electric Girl Saya with her album Doomsday. At the other end of the age spectrum there was Uchina Jazz Goes On by the revitalised veteran musicians of Uchina Jazz All Stars.

But my favourite album came early in the year. This was Tenmikachi Donmikachi Hiyamikachi by Keiko Higa. It was good to see Higa in the studio again surrounded by so much Ryukyu talent. The musicians included the ever-popular Shuken Maekawa who composed the title song, and Miyako’s Tadayuki Matsubara whose debut album was one of my picks last year. What confirmed this as my number one was seeing Higa and her ensemble cast of musicians in a superb concert in Koza to promote the album release.

Another to lend Higa a helping hand was Seishin Taba whose own double album retrospective Shiawase Retto is my second favourite this year. 32 tracks from all stages of Taba’s long career provide the perfect introduction to his work and there’s also one newly recorded song.

My third choice is Toru Yonaha’s Roots~Ryuraku Keisho. Yonaha is no longer the bright young spark I first saw at the Ryukyu Festival in Osaka years ago but is a long-established artist now who often takes a back seat in the support and promotion of others. Here he is centre stage with a completely solo album.

Above: Amy Lou and Lisa Maria of Mama’s Broke (Photo: Blanca Chavez)

The roots albums from ‘out there’ included a 16 track 30-year celebration from Kate Rusby and the impossible to categorise Sweet Tooth from Wabanaki bassist Mali Obomsawin. However, it was the heartfelt singing and playing of East Canadian duo Mama’s Broke on their Narrow Line release that gets my vote.

You can find reviews of all these albums on the Power of Okinawa blog.  

Advertisement

Kenji Yano: Kalimba Plays Okinawan Songs

Posted November 17, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Kenji Yano is from Osaka but has long been resident in Okinawa where he has been active as both musician and producer. His name has already popped up a few times on this blog. He was a guitarist in 1980s band Rokuningumi and their very interesting mix of Asian styles was finally made available on CD a couple of years ago.

Yano has subsequently led various projects including Surf Champlers (known for their recording of the James Bond theme) and Sanshin Café Orchestra. His album Sanshin Island Café was reviewed here in 2016.

On this new solo album, he offers instrumental versions of 13 Okinawan songs played exclusively on the kalimba, an African instrument also known as mbira or thumb piano. Four different kalimbas are used for the recordings – two were made in Japan, one is from China, and the other from South Africa.

The songs chosen are all very well-known to those familiar with Okinawa and its music. Some of them are traditional while others are modern shimauta. They include ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, ‘Asadoya Yunta’ and ‘Akata Sundunchi’ as well as covers of Begin’s ‘Nada Sousou’, The Boom’s ‘Shimauta’, Shoukichi Kina’s ‘Hana’, and ‘Bashoufu’ the popular composition by Tsuneo Fukuhara who died just a few weeks ago.

The liveliest track is another Kina song, ‘Haisai Ojisan’, but in general this is a very laidback and relaxing listen – hence its subtitle: ‘Relax to the Magic of Okinawa’, also used for a previous Yano album on which he played sanshin versions of Okinawan classics.

I don’t care for the term ‘healing’ (as regular readers will know), and it is overused in promoting tourism and beach holidays around the Ryukyu islands. However, this would not be too far off the mark when describing the album. It will doubtless appeal to fans of the kalimba which is played here with great expertise but may also find a welcome place as background music in island cafes.

Kalimba Plays Okinawan Songs is released on CD by Qwotchee Records.

http://www.takara-r.com/

Olatz Salvador and the Basques

Posted November 4, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

It’s been a while since the roots music of the Basques was featured here. The steady arrival of new releases for review from Euskal Herria (Basque Country) dried up somewhat following the retirement last year of my good friend, record producer and coordinator Anjel Valdes.

It’s four years since our Basque-Ryukyu project brought Mikel Urdangarin to Okinawa for concerts and collaborations. This year Mikel has been on a 25th anniversary world tour to celebrate his career as a professional musician. Unfortunately, pandemic restrictions prevented the inclusion of Okinawa in the schedule.

But, of course, the music carries on and more recently I was impressed with a new album from master singer-songwriter Ruper Ordorika. His Amour eta toujours successfully adds a dash of Cuban music to his songs. Earlier this year there was also Hitzekin Jolasean a fine solo debut by Esti Markez whose album with her father was previously reviewed here.

Now that many Okinawan live music venues have reopened there is news of another Basque music live event coming next month. Donostia-San Sebastian singer and songwriter Olatz Salvador (pictured above) will begin her tour with a date in Okinawa before moving on to Japan where she plays several different venues.

Olatz Salvador is a popular and highly regarded musician who has been active for more than a decade, first as a member of the band Skakeitan and more recently as a solo artist. Her debut solo recording arrived in 2018. A second album Aho uhal was released last year, and this video features one of its songs:

She performs with her own band in Okinawa at Koza Crossover Café 614 on Wednesday 7th December starting at 20:00. Also on the bill are Okinawan band Shaolong To The Sky, and DJs Txako and Sima. Advance tickets are 3,000 yen. The evening is presented by 614 and Japonicus under the banner ‘Fight for Rights: Special Edition in Okinawa’.

Lastly, if you missed it and would like more Basque music – including some of the artists mentioned here – you can listen to over an hour of it on my K.O.L. Radio Mix from last year:

7th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival

Posted November 1, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa Overseas, Okinawan Life

The 7th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival began yesterday in Okinawa and goes on for five days. The taikai or festival is usually held every five years but because of the global pandemic it is six years since the last one.

Those with roots in the Ryukyus gather from all over the world and it’s expected that a total of 8,500 people will take part.

On the eve of the festival (30th October) there was a parade of participants from the Okinawa diaspora. This took place on Kokusai-dori in Naha. These photos (plus several others) appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Mainichi Shimbun.

Photos: Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan

Koza Uta Ashibi

Posted October 13, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

I don’t often preview upcoming concerts these days but this one just has to be mentioned. Koza Uta Ashibi is a live music event coming to Okinawa next month and is produced by Campus Records. It is notable for its very enticing line-up of Ryukyu singers and musicians.

The concert takes place in the afternoon (it starts at 14:00) at Okinawa Shimin Sho-Gekijo Ashibina on Sunday 6th November. Advance tickets are very reasonably priced at 2,000 yen and are available from Campus Records and other venues.

Among those appearing are the veteran Seishin Taba whose double album retrospective was reviewed here this year, and Kazutoshi Matsuda who is one of the outstanding musicians on the Okinawan scene. Emiko Shimabukuro, who recorded as part of Unaigumi a few years ago, will also perform.

Another to look out for is Yaese singer Narise Arakaki whose debut album was one of my favourites of the year in 2020. Others include the duo Akamami, and the group Champloo Geinodan with well-known singer and sanshin player Hajime Nakasone.

In Love with Shoukichi

Posted September 28, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

A few evenings ago, I listened again to In Love by Shoukichi Kina & Champloose. It was the first time for quite a while. But In Love must be a bit old now, I was thinking. Then I frightened myself at just how quickly my life is slipping away by checking the date. It was released by Toshiba-EMI on 30th September 1992 which means it will be its 30th anniversary on Friday!

Of all the albums made by Kina this is one that is often missed. Or even dismissed. Westerners especially are more attracted to what they imagine is ‘authentic’ roots music and, for many, In Love was just a bit too slick. Even Salif Keita received sniffy reviews around the same time for his use of synthesisers.

In Love is not too slick. In fact, it’s well-recorded, produced and played, and sounds almost as fresh today as it did three decades ago. It was the first time Kina had created such a polished concoction (in the right way) since his Earth Spirit album two years previously, recorded in Paris with the help of African musicians. It is a step up from some of the ramshackle hit and miss performances on some of his other albums.

A major reason for its success is the sheer quality of the songs, which include many Kina originals alongside a few tried and tested island songs. It all begins with the ever-popular Okinawan staple ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’. I remember very well a live show by Kina and his band in Osaka when they began their set with a blistering, all-action version of this. The studio recording on In Love is not as wild but still captures the glorious essence of the song.

Among the originals – and Kina was writing more in those days – is the beautiful ‘Shimusayutasasa’. Very surprisingly (knowing Kina’s penchant for endless re-recordings) this is the only album on which it appears. If only he could write another like it now. ‘Maitreya’ was another fine original song, this time co-written by Kina with former Champloose member Takao Nagama.

I have an awkward memory of a very different live performance of this at Chakra in Naha. This was six months to the day after the release of In Love. I know this as my CD was signed and dated by Shoukichi Kina moments before he took to the stage for his live show. He enquired before going on if I had any requests, and I asked for ‘Maitreya’. This was not a song his band were familiar with yet. Kina dedicated it to me, but my delight soon turned to alarm as the musicians mangled the tune and made several errors. After the set, Kina marched the musicians into the dressing room and his angry shouts of admonishment made all who heard them squirm with embarrassment. I knew then I should have requested ‘Hana’.

It may well have been later the same evening when, after having had a bit too much of the liquid refreshment on offer, I announced to Shoukichi Kina that I loved him. He took this in his stride with a simple nod of acknowledgement as if my declaration was of course the most natural response of any right-thinking person.

The nine-member line-up on In Love included Kina’s brother Masahiro and sisters Keiko, Sachiko, and Junko. It was augmented by some guest musicians and followers of the great man. Among them was British keyboardist Morgan Fisher whose ancient history involved spells as a member of Love Affair and Mott the Hoople.

There was a huge mix of influences in the music. You can find minyo and shimauta as well as rock, reggae, some eisa, a rap, even a bit of African guitar that crept in from Earth Spirit. And perhaps there’s still a hint of the spiritual guru Osho Rajneesh who was once followed by some members of Champloose before Shoukichi Kina himself usurped him as their guru. 

The often-maligned title track finds them all clustered together in a singalong in which they take a minute to get going as they struggle to learn the unfamiliar English words: “Your love, I feel it takes me to the depth of my being…” and so on. It might be thought tacky but it’s very good to hear so much enjoyment and a spirit of fun that certainly wasn’t there on that night when they played ‘Maitreya’ for me.

Mali Obomsawin: Sweet Tooth

Posted September 20, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Sweet Tooth is the debut album from Wabanaki bassist, composer and songwriter Mali Obomsawin who has an eclectic musical background in roots, jazz, and indie rock. It is being described as ‘a suite for indigenous resistance’. As such it should be of interest and relevance to Okinawans whose own history has been marked by oppression and colonialism.

The album blends Wabanaki stories and songs passed down in Obomsawin’s own family with tunes addressing contemporary indigenous life. The music conveys both gentle and aggressive moods. There is one especially effective track featuring field recordings of relatives at Odanak First Nation. It also tells a larger story of the Wabanaki people whose domain stretches from Eastern Canada to Southern New England.

Obomsawin was raised on ancestral land in Maine and Quebec on the Odanak First Nations Reserve, and while studying jazz at Dartmouth College discovered the voices of ancestors locked away in the college archives in field recordings of Odanak songs and stories. This revelation led eventually to the creation of Sweet Tooth.

The six tracks are divided into three movements and joining Obomsawin are other musicians on vocals, drums, guitars, saxophones, cornet, and flugelhorn. The music is impossible to pigeonhole even if it was desirable to do so, as it has many influences and flows in numerous directions. While mostly instrumental, with free jazz as an important reference point, there are also hints of blues, hymns, folk songs, and native culture.

Says Obomsawin: “Telling Indigenous stories through the language of jazz is not a new phenomenon. My people have had to innovate endlessly to get our stories heard – learning to express ourselves in French, English, Abenaki…but sometimes words fail us, and we must use sound. Sweet Tooth is a testament to this.”

Mali Obomsawin (Photo: Abby and Jared Lank)

The track that begins the album ‘Odana’ – already released as a single – is an arrangement of an old Obanaki ballad that tells the story (in the Abenaki language) of the founding of Obomsawin’s ancestral village and of why these people survived.

The album ends with its longest track ‘Blood Quantum’ which concludes with a Penobscot language chant written by Obomsawin and relatives from Penobscot Nation celebrating the matriarchs of their communities. It’s intended as ‘a direct address to violent and misogynistic policies in North America written to tear Indigenous communities apart’.

Mali Obomasawin is obviously a passionate musician and activist. Sweet Tooth is not an easy first listen, but it is well worth making the effort to investigate such an innovative and ultimately uplifting suite that creates art in the harsh face of colonialism. It ought to resonate in the Ryukyus. It’s certainly an album unlike any other you will hear this year.   

Sweet Tooth will be released on digital and LP by Out of Your Head Records on 28th October.

https://www.outofyourheadrecords.com/

https://www.maliobomsawin.com/

Toru Yonaha: Roots~Ryuraku Keisho

Posted August 26, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The full title of Toru Yonaha’s new album is Roots~Ryuraku Keisho Sono San~ Shima no Uta Shu and it’s the third in a series of Roots albums. Just to clarify (or perhaps add to the confusion) he also came up with an album of traditional songs entitled Roots in 2008.

This new release is produced by Yonaha who does everything here on his own. This means he sings all the songs as well as accompanying himself on sanshin, taiko, fue, and sanba on what is truly a solo outing. The two previous albums in this series have been more centred around Ryukyu classical songs but this is primarily a set of traditional folk songs or minyo with some of the music composed by Yonaha.

The Chatan born musician has been an important figure for some years on the Okinawan music scene. It’s now 21 years since his excellent debut Yozare Bushi which focused on some of the songs he learned growing up, and in the two decades since then he has proved himself a master of both traditional and classical Ryukyuan music. He has also recorded eisa and kachashii and made a duet album with the late Misako Oshiro.

His open-minded attitude has also seen him collaborate with numerous pop musicians and he helped promote the careers of others such as Chihiro Kamiya and Mika Uchizato. He dabbled in rock music too and during an interview I did with him for The Power of Okinawa book, he told me he enjoyed listening to the likes of Queen and Deep Purple and had got ideas from them when composing.

As expected, this is another solid album on which he sings and plays effortlessly – or so it seems – on a selection of songs that begin with the classical sounding ‘Haru no Ume’ which in fact has music composed by Yonaha. Unlike, for example, English folk music which is quite distinct from classical influences, Ryukyu classical songs and the people’s folk songs are frequently intertwined as is often the case here.

There are commonly known and frequently sung songs such as his versions of the outstanding ‘Chijuyagwa’, and the lively ‘Umi nu Chinbora’. (Yonaha guested on Misako Koja’s recording of the latter several years ago). He also gives us a version of the famed Miyako song ‘Irabu Togani’. There is a song from Ie-jima, and one or two tracks with lesser-known titles such as the fishing song ‘Itoman Otome’.

Despite all his experiments, diversions, and forays into other kinds of music, it’s the man and his sanshin that are at the heart of everything. On this album he is really at home doing what he loves with the folk songs of his islands. As he said years ago in our first meeting, he always wants to carry on with this because there are just so many great traditional songs. Long may it continue.

The album is out now and is released by J’s Records.

https://www.yonaha-toru.com/

https://store.shopping.yahoo.co.jp/campus-r-store/qacj-30041.html

Seishin Taba: Shiawase Retto

Posted July 29, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Seishin Taba has been a fixture on the Okinawan music scene for a long time. While he may not command the high profile of some of his contemporaries, he has built quite a reputation for himself over the years. Now, the best of his recordings has been rounded up and made available on this newly released double album.

The album’s full title is Shiawase Retto – Taba Seishin Tokushu and it brings together 32 tracks over two CDs. All but one of these are taken from previous recordings that span the whole of Taba’s career. The exception is the newly recorded ‘Shirakumu Nagariti’ a song written by Bisekatsu and Kazutoshi Matsuda. It’s one of the best things on what is a comprehensive selection covering a lot of musical ground.

Taba recently surfaced to take part as a guest on Keiko Higa’s album Tenmikachi Donmikachi Hiyamikachi, reviewed here earlier this year. He also sang and played impressively when I saw him at the Higa album release concert in Koza. Just last week, he also appeared in concert as one of a trio of top traditional singers along with Sadao China and Tetsuhiro Daiku, so he is obviously enjoying something of a renaissance.

The selections on this (mainly) retrospective release include several duets with women singers, and there are two songs with the great Yuki Yamazato: one is the superb ‘Saipan Kazoeuta’. Other female singers include Naeko Seragaki and Misako Koja, while the last track of all is a recording of ‘Sah Sah Bushi’ with Keiko Kinjo. As well as the women, Shuken Maekawa joins on one song and is composer of one of the best tracks, ‘Nakankiyo’.

In 1975, Taba had a big hit in Okinawa with the song ‘Shima no Hito’ and this is also included. Another of many highlights is ‘Nakuna Shichan’ in which Taba’s typically undemonstrative and gentle vocal is evident. Despite the upbeat album title, which takes its name from the first song ‘Shiawase Retto’ (or ‘happy island chain’), several songs are sad reflections on the harsh conditions and history of the islands.

Most of the recordings are either popular shimauta or traditional minyo, but Taba is also known for his singing of kayokyoku-style compositions and there are three examples of this. For this listener, these are the weakest point of what is otherwise a very fine collection, as they take Taba far too close to Japanese enka – for my own liking anyway. Otherwise, this excellent collection is the perfect introduction to the musical world of Seishin Taba.

Shiawase Retto is out now on Campus Records.

https://campus-r.shopinfo.jp/

https://store.shopping.yahoo.co.jp/campus-r-store/bcy-17.html

Jusu: Sagaribana

Posted July 6, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The complete title of this debut album is Sagaribana ~Shima o Kuchizusamu Vol.1~ and it’s by an Okinawa-based trio named Jusu. The trio comprises Ishigaki singer Makico Miyara complemented by the guitar and arrangements of Shigeharu Sasago and the sanshin of Gerhen Oshima.

While this is a new project, the members come to it with an impressive pedigree. Shigeharu Sasago and Gerhen Oshima both have more than 30 years of experience as musicians in numerous different guises, while Makico Miyara is a solo singer whose credits include writing and singing the theme song for a movie soundtrack.

Oshima began as a member of ambient unit Tingara and is keen to explore the possibilities of the sanshin. Meanwhile Sasago is a much in demand guitarist who has worked with, among others, Misako Koja and Yasukatsu Oshima. Inspired by the music of Okinawa, they formed Jusu last year with Makico Miyara, and Sagaribana contains nine songs written or co-written by Sasago and Oshima.

Famed Okinawan artist Bokunen Naka was responsible for the cover art in his unmistakable style, but he is also the composer of the lyrics for two of the songs included here. Earlier this week he joined the trio to talk about his contribution as part of a pre-release event that I was invited to attend at Sound M’s live stage in Naha.

The core sound of these songs is created by the interplay of acoustic guitar and sanshin, but some tracks have guest musicians playing flute, piano, cello, bass, and percussion. There is no obvious standout track but the whole album flows together in a natural progression. This could have slipped all too easily into the dreaded easy listening, but the musicians and the songs are good enough to avoid this.  

The first three songs are all Gerhen Oshima compositions and the best of these is ‘Shima e’ which opens the album. Miyara begins the next track ‘Ichi mudui’ with a lengthy unaccompanied vocal. This is one of the songs with lyrics by Bokunen Naka. The other, ‘Kaji ya n kai kaji’, is one of the liveliest and most engaging on the album.

This is a joint effort with vital contributions from all three, but the star is Makico Miyara whose confident but nuanced vocal delivery is strongly evident throughout. Listening to her at the pre-release event made me also want to listen to her singing some of the traditional songs of her islands. I’m sure she would do them justice but for now we can be content with the original songs she sings so well with Jusu.

Sagaribana ~Shima o Kuchizusamu Vol.1~ will be released by Jusu Records on 10th July.  Jusu will have an album release concert in Naha at Sakurazaka Theatre Hall B on Sunday 2nd October at 15:00.