Yuki Yamazato & Katsuko Yohen: Urisha Fukurasha

Posted May 23, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Urisha Fukurasha is an album by veteran Okinawan singers Yuki Yamazato and Katsuko Yohen. Both women have been well-known separately for a long time but have also recorded together and a few years ago made a joint album Doushibi along with another singer Keiko Kinjo.

The new album is divided quite distinctly into sections with five songs first from Yamazato then five from Yohen and finally two songs on which they sing together. There are also two bonus tracks recorded live in 2009 at a concert in Koza.

Most of the album is best described as shimauta with songs by known composers and three of the tracks are newly written. One of these is the first song ‘Inagu Hichui’ with lyrics by Naohiko Uehara and music by Minoru Kinjo. It’s also one of the standout tracks with a great vocal from Yamazato. At the age of 82 she doesn’t seem to have lost any of her power and her five songs that begin the album are quite sublime.

The title track, sung by Yamazato, was written by Shuken Maekawa and is another new composition, while another Maekawa song ‘Umui Shongane’ is sung by Yohen. Two Sadao China songs are included. One of these, performed by Yohen, is ‘Katadayui’ and the other is ‘Nageki no Ume’ on which Yamazato shares vocals with Hajime Nakasone. There is also a duet by Yohen and young singer Hikaru on a song by Teihan China and Choki Fukuhara.

As well as the two main singers there are notable contributions from musicians Hajime Nakasone and Hikari. Nakasone plays sanshin throughout and adds some taiko too and he is credited as the album’s director. Hikari, just 20 this year, plays Ryukyu koto, sanshin and sanba. All four get together on the two traditional songs and they make a fine job of ‘Kehitori Bushi~Kaisare’. There are also contributions from Asami Ohama (kokyū) and Marino Oshiro (hayashi).

It might seem a bit disjointed to have an album divided into separate sections in this way but it’s not uncommon in Okinawa and listening to it all the way through is proof that it works well. There are no surprises in choices of song or execution. You won’t find any synthesisers, strings or rock arrangements here. This is just straightforward Okinawan music played by some of its best practitioners. All involved deserve much credit, but special praise goes to Yuki Yamazato who has been singing for more than 60 years and can surely lay claim to being Okinawa’s greatest female singer.

Urisha Fukurasha is released this week by Campus.

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

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Hedy West: Untitled

Posted May 21, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Hedy West has been mentioned many times on this blog and here she is again. The American singer and banjo player from northern Georgia died prematurely in 2005. Largely forgotten at that time, her reputation as one of the very finest interpreters of traditional Appalachian folk songs has since undergone a huge reappraisal beginning with the release of the award-winning Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians in 2011.

Other re-releases followed and last year’s From Granmaw and Me kept the ball rolling. Now comes the rather lamely titled Untitled which is previously unreleased and was recorded in the late 1970s when she was living in Germany. There are contributions from Eloise and Tracy Schwarz (New Lost City Ramblers) but it’s mostly West singing and playing her familiar banjo and occasionally guitar.

West drew heavily on the repertoire of songs handed down by her family and her best work is found in the old songs and ballads that she knew so well. Unlike some of the more popular big city-based folk singers of her generation she really was closer to the lives she describes and that she sang about in a plain uncompromising style.

Untitled is more varied than her other albums. It contains some traditional ballads but also tracks by modern songwriters and a wider range of musical styles. There is also a song sung in German. This is ‘Der Graben’ (The Trench) a pacifist, anti-militarist song by Kurt Tucholsky who died in 1935. A strong social and political thread runs through the album. ‘Bush Whacker’ is another pacifist song from the Civil War collected in North Carolina. ‘On the Rim of the World’ is a 1960s composition by Malvina Reynolds (of ‘Little Boxes’ fame) that sympathises with people living on the street, while ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ is a well-known Depression era song containing the lines:

I know the police cause you trouble / They cause trouble everywhere / When you die and go to heaven / You’ll find no policeman there.

This leads nicely into ‘There’ll Be No Distinction’ a 1929 song from West Virginia described by West as “A happy rollicking country gospel hymn, a celebration of justice in at least the afterlife.”

This being folk song there’s the obligatory story of incestuous rape (but no murder) in ‘Queen Jane’ which also has the best banjo playing on the album. And then there’s the delightful ‘The Three Friends’ learned from Leslie Haworth of Cheshire, England who created the song by adapting a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. On the surface it’s a fairy tale with animals (and a sausage) but with a philosophical edge and is sung and played wonderfully by West with a great contribution from Tracy Schwarz on fiddle.

Untitled is short with the eleven tracks running to around 35 minutes but who cares when we’re able to listen once more to the inimitable Hedy West. The late singer and scholar A.L. Lloyd believed that of all the women singers of the 1960s American folk song revival she was “by far the best of the lot”. Years later the continued unearthing of these recordings just reinforces that view.

Untitled is out now on Fledg’ling Records.

http://www.fledglingrecords.co.uk

Joseba Sarrionandia – Gure Oroitzapenak

Posted April 25, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Joseba Sarrionandia is a special name in the Basque Country. The prolific poet writes in Euskara, the Basque language, and has achieved iconic status in his homeland despite being exiled from there for a long time.

In 1980 he was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for his alleged connections with the Basque separatist group ETA but subsequently, in 1985, he staged a sensational escape by hiding in the loudspeaker of the Basque singer Imanol who had come to the prison to give a concert. He has been a fugitive ever since fleeing to various countries and using different names and passports but has now been settled for many years in Cuba.

As mentioned before on this blog, there is a strong connection between singers and poets and between music and literature in the Basque lands. Many of Sarrionandia’s poems have been set to music and turned into songs by a variety of artists. In fact, there have been about 150 songs recorded with lyrics by the poet since another iconic Basque singer Ruper Ordorika began the trend in 1983.

Gure Oroitzapenak (Our Memories) is an ambitious project involving the collection of poems and music which has taken three years to complete. It is now available as a hardback book of 127 pages published by Elkar. The book comes with two CDs containing a total of 32 songs, each by a different singer or band, and well over two hours of music.

The songs on the CDs are by musicians from different genres and generations,  The recordings chosen include those by famous Basque names such as Mikel Laboa, Ruper Ordorika, Oskorri, and Imanol, as well as Iker Goenaga, Ken Zazpi, Fermin Muguruza, the triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider, and a fine track by Gontzal Mendibil. But there are also many new recordings especially created for this project by significant contemporary artists. Among these are songs by Mikel Urdangarin, Rafa Rueda, Zea Mays, and Libe.

The poems cover a wide range of topics but the recurring themes, not surprisingly, are prison and exile and the meaning of freedom. In addition to the lyrics of all the songs the book contains twelve poems by Sarrionandia that were the subject of a collective film by twelve different directors. The film was presented at the San Sebastian Film Festival last September. The book also has some illustrations and a detailed list of all the recordings of songs made with Sarrionandia’s lyrics from 1983 to the present.

The book is published entirely in the Basque language but it’s fitting here to conclude with two very brief examples to give a tiny flavour of Sarrionandia’s poetry in English translation. The poem ‘Errua’ (Blame) was recorded by the band Gose in 2014 and is included on CD2. It begins:

When we were children we witnessed the return of / persons destroyed by the old war, / prison and exile, who passed by in the rain / bearing all the blame of an entire people

Its repeating verse is:

Do not take from me the blame, my blame / nor this ancient blame of our people. / Because without blame I have nothing / It would be as if I had done nothing.

The poet explains that errua (blame) is: “A shackled word, in truth, but allow me to use it, as it is all that is left me. Our people have no rights, because they are culpable, according to those who deny them, for having fought for those rights.”

The opening song on CD2 is ‘Martin Larralde’ a moving live recording from 2008 sung by Ruper Ordorika. As it begins, Sarrionandia’s words evoke images of the lost homeland:

Green fields, whitewashed houses and red-tiled roofs, / a gendarmerie car / picks its way slowly through a flock of sheep. / Prayers in the church / and in the home, the age-old imprecations softly rising / like smoke in winter.

Joseba Sarrionandia’s legacy will be of great importance and Gure Oroitzapenak is a fitting tribute to his poetry in words and music.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

Small Island Big Song

Posted April 22, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Small Island Big Song is an 18 track album of songs recorded in the field on many different islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It was released at the end of last year and is the fruit of a project by Australian music producer and sound engineer Tim Cole and Taiwanese producer and project manager BaoBao Chen.

This mammoth undertaking involved the pair meeting and recording local musicians in diverse places over a period of three years. The resulting album contains traditional and original songs from Taiwan, Madagascar, Singapore, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Tahiti, Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Torres Strait Australia, and Aotearoa, New Zealand.

The idea evolved initially from Cole and Chen’s concern about climate change and they wanted to travel to some of the islands under threat and to investigate the continuing existence of indigenous seafaring cultures and their music. They followed some of the paths taken by ancient seafarers who left Taiwan to travel the oceans. The songs they recorded were then mixed in a cultural mash-up with the artists contributing to each other’s music. The producers explain:

“We invited them to share a song in their language played on the instruments of their people, a song they are proud to represent their homeland with and to sing it in nature, a place with meaning to them, and then in the spirit of celebration overdub something onto other songs shared by musicians such as themselves.”

Around 30 artists are featured in the songs and a total of a hundred musicians were involved. What is most striking is the immediacy of the songs and their accessibility. This has been achieved without the interference of outsiders who might well have dabbled too much in trying to make the songs palatable to a worldwide audience. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as the natural surroundings and music create a very authentic and vibrant sound.

With so many artists sharing their music it’s perhaps pointless to single out individual songs but a favourite is ‘Sacanoy’ which begins as a lullaby and then takes off in other directions while managing to somehow combine a Madagascan composition by Tarika Sammy and a vocal from Ado Kaliting Pacidal in Pangcah, Taiwan.

Some of the Madagascan and Hawaiian music might be more familiar and elsewhere there are hints of reggae and rap but for the most part this is music that will be new to many listeners. And all played on acoustic instruments. It sounds great and listening to these songs just confirms that the ocean doesn’t separate these people but instead unites them.

Small Island Big Song has already been nominated for awards including best album in the UK’s Songlines magazine Asia & Pacific category and some of the musicians have already toured together to give live performances around the world.

Producers Tim Cole (third from left) and BaoBao Chen (right) answer questions at the Okinawa International Movie Festival.

Last week a ‘visual album’ was given its world premiere when it was screened as part of the Okinawa International Movie Festival in Naha. The producers appeared at the screening to talk about their project and answer questions. One obvious omission is the music of the Ryukyu Islands. It seems the producers were not aware of the wealth of wonderful songs from these islands and there were also financial constraints. Perhaps that will be put right in a future project!

The Small Island Big Song website contains a huge amount of information concerning the artists, their songs, and the project in general. There are also many photos and videos.

www.smallislandbigsong.com

Ruper Ordorika: Bakarka

Posted April 17, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

This latest album from Basque singer, guitarist and songwriter Ruper Ordorika was released at the end of last year and has already been acclaimed in his homeland and beyond. Last month Bakarka (Alone) won the annual Etxepare Award for Best Album in Basque at MIN, the Spanish Independent Music Awards.

As its title suggests, this is an album that finds the singer alone in the studio with just his guitar and voice, and the twelve tracks are a mix of new and older songs from his long career. All the music was composed by Ordorika but three songs have lyrics by novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga while two others have words by the iconic exiled Basque poet Joseba Sarrionandia.

The appearance of these names is no surprise as there is a strong tradition of literature running through many popular songs in the Basque Country and Ordorika’s connection with literary groups in the past has always been a feature of his own writing and performances. The album booklet contains both French and Spanish translations of the Basque lyrics but unfortunately there are none in English.

This hardly matters when listening to the results as he seems to have found a new lease of life in the past few years and Bakarka is no exception. With just a few brush strokes he seems able to paint an evocative musical picture that touches the emotions in all kinds of ways. The deep distinctive vocals are complemented throughout by subtle guitar work. This creates a warmth on songs such as ‘Mundua biltzen duen bihartzuna’ (Echoing the world) while ‘Fas fatum’ is built around a repetitive guitar figure that is quite hypnotic.

It’s a reflective set that exudes a quiet passion. The lyrics (translated to English) for Ordorika’s song ‘Edertasunaz mintzo’ begin like this:

We used to speak of beauty,
of the unattainable things,
hidden in those bars
at dusk.
But time flies,
and beauty goes away with it.
We did what we could,
leaving life till later.

The singer goes on to speak of freedom and of life and their cost as time passes. There are many pleasures in listening to this other side of one of the Basque Country’s most important singers who is just as much at home on his own as he is with an electric guitar and a band. His last three albums have all been of the highest quality and this is right up there with them.

Bakarka is released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

Guy Sigsworth: STET

Posted April 10, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

STET is the new album by UK producer, composer and musician Guy Sigsworth. In fact, it’s his first solo album and he is better known for his contributions to the work of other artists. The list is a very long one and includes a wide variety of musicians from Talvin Singh to Imogen Heap and from Bjork to Madonna. He came to Okinawa in 2015 and gave a concert with Norway’s Kate Havnevik and has maintained a long interest in Okinawan music.

This new 16 track album contains a mix of songs and instrumentals. All the music is composed by Sigsworth who plays celesta, clavichord, piano, triangles, ring modulator and synthesiser. There are also some co-written songs including three with Anil Sebastian, who also sings, and one with Okinawa’s Mika Uchizato.

What does it all sound like? Well, STET is viewed by Guy Sigsworth as a modern ‘classical’ album with underlying Ryukyuan influences. On the one hand it is probably best listened to in its entirety as a complete album as the tracks evolve to create a distinctly atmospheric musical journey but there are also some standout songs that hold their own with the very best in pop music.

The album begins with ‘Sing’ a track that builds gradually with the introduction of a vocal and a melody that stops, starts and turns unexpectedly in the manner of the band Dirty Projectors. It’s followed by the best pure pop track on the album ‘Barely Breaking Even’ with a vocal by Anil Sebastian. He sings again on ‘Lydian’ a song that could have escaped from Bjork’s Vespertine.

There are hints of and excursions into pop, jazz, classical, electronica and experimental music but nothing gets too cluttered or unfocused and the production (naturally by Sigsworth) is beautifully clear and precise. And just when the instrumental tracks seem in danger of becoming a little too ambient we are presented with ‘Night Song’ a piano-led composition with a wonderfully sad and haunting melody that sounds as if it should be on a movie soundtrack.

The Okinawan influence is signalled by ‘Nirai Kanai’ and comes fully into its own on the two final tracks. These are the instrumental ‘Mono No Aware’ and the song ‘Shurayo’ with lyrics in Uchinaguchi by Mika Uchizato but sung here by British singer and long-term Sigsworth collaborator Imogen Heap.

‘Mono No Aware’ plays with light and shade, and the jazzy discord is juxtaposed with rich melody and a very Okinawan feel. Better still – and probably the outstanding track on the album – is its final song ‘Shurayo’. It could all have gone perilously badly but Imogen Heap does a great job with the Okinawan vocal while the stirring addition of cello and violin to Sigsworth’s superb melody fittingly ends the album on a high note. (‘Shurayo’ and another song co-written with Uchizato is planned for separate release as an EP with Mika’s original vocals).

Because of its breadth and ambition this could have been a risky undertaking but STET overcomes the potential pitfalls with style.

STET will be released by Mercury KX on 7th June.

www.mercurykx.com

www.guysigsworth.co.uk

 

The Singer and the Song

Posted March 28, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote a while ago for a magazine. In the end it wasn’t published so you can read it here instead.

The Singer and the Song

I don’t sing but I’m a good listener. There’s nothing I like better than listening to a good song sung by a great singer. In fact, I like singing so much that I’m reluctant to listen to music that doesn’t have a vocal. Which means I sometimes skip the instrumental tracks on albums and much of the vast pantheon of European classical music leaves me cold. But Kate Rusby can sing any old song and I’m all ears.

There are exceptions to this general rule. When Liam O’Flynn’s uillean pipes kick in on a Planxty song, for example, I go all weak at the knees. Even so it’s usually the song that is still the most important thing and the uillean pipes just sneak into my consciousness a bit later to weave their spell.

I said I don’t sing but there have been exceptions to that rule too. As a child growing up in England, I had to sing hymns in school assemblies but surrounded by numerous other children, many of whom were lip-syncing as I usually was. My only public appearance as a solo singer came years later after I had moved to Japan, home of karaoke. On many more than seven drunken nights I ploughed through karaoke versions of ‘My Way’ and ‘Yesterday’ like everyone else did at the time, but my crowning moment on stage came at the wedding party of a Japanese friend.

At weddings in Japan – and indeed almost any formal celebratory occasion – it’s customary for each guest to perform a party piece. Word had got around that I was a bit of a Bob Dylan fan and so I was requested (a few days in advance) to sing a Dylan song at the wedding. After days of practicing at home – and fortified by a few glasses of lemonade on the day itself – I managed a half-decent rendition of ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ accompanying myself on guitar. The song was chosen mainly because of its simple enough chord structure which made it relatively easy to play while I concentrated fiercely on trying to remember the words and sing them in tune.

As for the lyrics it wouldn’t have made any difference if I’d made up new ones on the spot (as Bob himself has been known to do) or thrown in a few choice obscenities since none of the wedding guests had any understanding of English and were simply pleased to see the foreigner singing a song and doing his bit.

Barnsley’s nightingale Kate Rusby

That was the last time I sang in front of an audience but I well remember comments from the gathered guests along the lines of how good it was to hear a native English speaker singing and, even, how much better it is to hear a Westerner singing as they have the natural rhythm, phrasing and timing that is elusive to most Japanese vocalists.

This myth of the supremacy of Western singers – and specifically those who sing in the English language – was all pervasive in my early experience in Japan and I’ll come back to that in a bit, but first…

What I’ve also noticed among listeners of all countries – well, my UK and Japanese friends anyway – is that most people don’t really like music. Or not that much. I used to ask my students at the Japanese university where I was employed what they liked to do best. One of the most common responses was ‘listen to music’. Further probing failed to find anything but the vaguest interest in music, whether listening, singing, playing, going to concerts, buying music or any of the things that real music aficionados are supposed to do. Saying you liked music was simply the easy option that wouldn’t draw unwanted attention or mark you out as weird or strange. A safe hobby not like bungee-jumping or collecting antique bottle tops.

My academic colleagues were no different. The opinion most often aired was that so-and-so (insert famous pop vocalist here, but frequently Celine Dion) can be easily enjoyed because she/he has ‘a great voice’. I had never thought about ‘great voices’ when I first became excited by songs and singing. Surely anyone who makes a record or stands up on a stage (except me at a wedding party) must already have a pretty good voice or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Tom Waits: not a ‘pure’ voice but a great singer (Photo: Kenny Mathieson)

What they really mean is that it’s not too disturbing and makes a pleasant sound. Well yes, I adore Kate Rusby and her ‘pure’ singing but I also love Tom Waits who always sounds like he’s been out drinking and smoking way past his bedtime. Tom has a great voice, and so has Bob Dylan, of course. It’s not to do with whether you can hit the right notes and sound nice, it’s all in the phrasing, the blend of words and music, the ability to evoke an emotional response, to disturb and upset if necessary.

And it doesn’t matter what words you are singing, to get back to the point I was about to make earlier about language. A few years ago, many of my friends, family and acquaintances in the UK would have been mortified at the thought of having to listen to a song (or heaven forbid, an entire album) sung in a language other than English. Unless it’s opera, of course, and then it mustn’t be sung in English. They imagined that understanding the words was the most important thing. They deluded themselves. Even the lyrics of their favourite British and American pop songs were frequently misheard or buried under a wall of noise. They just felt more comfortable if they were at least mishearing in English. Thankfully, many of those attitudes are now changing but it’s still sometimes a struggle to convince them to really open their minds and ears to the wealth of great songs and singing all over the world.

The Japanese are a bit different as they are used to listening to songs sung in other languages they don’t understand and especially to English. In fact, they sometimes prefer to listen to English whether understanding it or not. They are also eager to insert often meaningless English phrases and words into their own songs.

Here on Okinawa, the iconic roots singer Shoukichi Kina still believes that he needs to have his Okinawan songs changed into English if they are to reach bigger overseas audiences. Not just translated, but he needs to sing them in English too. This, even though he doesn’t speak English and has never sung in anything other than Okinawan or Japanese. I have tried telling him the beauty of the original singing would be lost but he just gives me a funny look. Fortunately, the chances of this really happening are about as likely as my singing at another wedding.

I’m not likely to overcome my reluctance to sing but I will certainly never stop listening to others who do and who thrill and excite me with their wonderful voices – and it won’t matter if they are singing in Basque, Okinawan or Swahili.