Okinawa Americana: Tachi

Posted September 9, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

It’s already three years since Okinawa Americana’s Merry and David Ralston unleashed their own special concoction of American blues and Okinawan traditional music on us with the release of their self-titled debut album. Now they are back again with a second album Tachi (which means ‘two’ in Okinawan).

As a straightforward duo, their live performances have impressed by blending two different musical cultures and with the interplay of voices, sanshin, and guitar. Their first recording went for a bigger sound with the addition of a rock rhythm section and Tachi goes even further in that direction. In fact, the new album comes out with all guns blazing on the opener ‘Blues Come Knocking’ and continues in similar vein throughout.

This might be bad news for those who have been thrilled by their stripped back acoustic style. Instead we should perhaps be grateful that there are these two complementary versions of Okinawa Americana. The evidence here shows that the bigger, louder version, with the pair joined by other musicians, is getting better all the time.

One of the keys to the success of Tachi is the choice of compositions. As before, there’s a roughly equal mix of American blues and Okinawan songs, with the non-Okinawan ones co-written by David Ralston. Frequently, the two styles of music come together in the same song and coalesce around the increasingly familiar but hugely effective idea of the two singers alternating English and Okinawan/Japanese vocals and tunes.

This time they also branch out on their own with two songs featuring just one of the singers. David’s is ‘Find Something New’ a big emotional ballad with strings that still retains Asian elements, while Merry is let loose on the beguiling ‘Anchurasa’ on which she plays ukulele.

The album shines most on some of the Okinawan songs. The Miyako dance tune ‘Kuicha’ (with a backing vocal by Kanako Hatoma) drives along with renewed purpose. ‘Kudaka/Nail It’ combines Merry’s strong singing with a new part in English, and ‘Iwai Bushi’ follows the same pattern.

‘That’s the Blues’ reverses the process with David taking the lead and Merry joining in. Best of all is ‘Chimuganasa’, a popular shimauta most associated with Aiko Yohen. It comes to life here in a new arrangement with slide guitar and some Latin American touches that are the kind of thing that Nenes used to do so well.

Ultimately, this is a record that surpasses its predecessor. The singing and playing fit together even better than before, and it sounds as if it was a lot of fun to make. It rocks, not least because Merry and David Ralston have an obvious respect for each other’s music and culture and are able to create such exciting results.

Tachi was recorded in Nashville, Los Angeles, and Okinawa. It was produced by Okinawa Americana and Rich Mahan. The album is out now and is self-released.

Contemporary Roots Music Mix

Posted September 4, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Based in Tokyo, K.O.L. Radio is an online channel with podcasts, DJ mixes, and other special programmes featuring many genres of music. The shows are introduced in both English and Japanese.

Recently I was asked to compile a Contemporary Roots Music Mix for one of the shows. The only guideline was that it should be a ‘non-Okinawan’ mix so this gave me the opportunity to indulge my interest in some of the other kinds of roots music that I’ve featured on this blog.

The playlist I came up with begins and ends with traditional songs from England sung by Shirley Collins. In between there is music from, or with connections to, the USA, Estonia, Ireland, Argentina, Japan, France, Taiwan, Madagascar, Canada, and the Basque Country.

The show is now online and here is the link to listen:

The playlist and order of songs is below. The albums from which these songs are sourced were all reviewed over the past year or so on the Power of Okinawa blog. For full reviews of the albums check the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category.

Shirley Collins ‘The Merry Golden Tree’.

The Revelers ‘Au bout de la riviere’ (At the End of the River).

Jake Blount ‘Move, Daniel’.

Trad.Attack! ‘Tehke ruumi!’ (Make Room!).

Cinder Well ‘The Cuckoo’.

Che Apalache ‘Rearrange My Heart’.

Che Apalache   春の便 (The Coming of Spring).

Fanel ‘Inori’.

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn ‘The Roving Cowboy / Avarguli’.

Hedy West ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’.

Ruper Ordorika ‘Zazpi Nobio (Zuzenean)’.

Agurtzane & Ion Elustondo ‘Ni Banaiz Zu’.

Kelly Hunt ‘How Long’.

Small Island, Big Song ‘Sacanoy’. Featuring Ado Kaliting Pacidal and Tarika Sammy, from the Indian and Pacific Ocean music project.  

Pharis & Jason Romero ‘Kind Girl’.

Shirley Collins ‘Barbara Allen’.

Many thanks to James Catchpole at K.O.L. Radio for asking me to do this. I hope to compile more shows in the future. Maybe it will soon be time for one on Okinawan roots music….

Anniversary in a Pandemic 3

Posted August 28, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

The first of these Anniversary in a Pandemic pieces appeared earlier this year. It began by mentioning the ten years that has passed since the publication of the 2nd edition of the book The Power of Okinawa as well as the commencement of this blog. However, the year 2020 saw a much more important landmark as it was the 50th anniversary in May of what has become an Okinawan music institution – Campus Records.

As anyone from Okinawa with an interest in roots music will surely know, Campus Records is a music shop in Koza as well as a record label releasing music by local musicians, and it has been run since its inception by Yoshikatsu Bise, popularly known as Bisekatsu. In addition to his half century as its founder he is also a well-known record producer, songwriter, and concert promoter.

It was in 2005, on the 35th anniversary of Campus Records, that I interviewed Bisekatsu for the UK’s fRoots magazine and the article is still in the Features Archive category of this blog. At that time, I had already known him for a few years and his genial personality, generosity, helpfulness, and immense knowledge of Okinawa’s music history has been invaluable to me and many others.

Some of the many Okinawan musicians on Campus albums

Moving on another decade, a 45th anniversary album compilation of Campus recordings was released (perhaps a 50th is now on the way?) and most recently Bisekatsu was finally given official recognition, at the age of 80, for his lifetime of work in Okinawan music when he received the prestigious Choho Miyara Music Award last year. The contribution of daughter Makiko Bise has also ensured the Campus name thrives, and long may it continue.

It’s also hoped that Bisekatsu – and everyone else on these islands – manages to steer clear of the dreaded coronavirus. Since the last Power of Okinawa pandemic update in June there have been significant changes owing to the resurgence of Covid-19 and, at the time of writing, Okinawa is under a State of Emergency declared by Governor Denny Tamaki.

The complacent words of the Japanese government on its ‘success’ in the pandemic now look hollow as numbers have risen. (Today’s news that PM Abe is resigning gives no reason to believe that anything will change). The increase in infections has been rapid on Okinawa and it’s not hard to see why. The American military exceeded even their own expectations by ignoring all the rules and partying both inside and outside the bases for their 4th July celebrations, leading almost inevitably to a resumption of the outbreak after many weeks without a single case.

Yukito Ara (of The Sakishima Meeting) during their live show this week

Governor Tamaki has gone on record as saying the pandemic situation was also exacerbated by the Japanese government’s ‘Go To Travel’ campaign that offered large discounts to encourage domestic travel. Okinawa is, of course, heavily reliant on its tourism but no doubt this also led to more cases of Covid-19 and contributed to a situation where Okinawa has now had to return to its State of Emergency. At the time of writing, the total number of infected has increased to 2,013 while the number of deaths has risen to 26.

It is notable that despite a State of Emergency, no UK-style ‘lockdown’ is in place either here or in mainland Japan. Instead the public are advised, rather than ordered, to take precautions to avoid the spread of the virus and generally this advice is adhered to very well. Face masks are ever-present on almost everyone venturing out, though attention to social distancing is often less rigorous.

As for live music, Shoukichi Kina had planned a rare concert in Naha, but this had to be cancelled, while many other musicians are streaming their live performances from home. Some are also streaming from live venues without audiences, such as the show by The Sakishima Meeting and other musicians in Koza this week.

Finally, and of course needless to say… Stay safe!

Yuu Yonaha: Kaze no Fuku Shima

Posted August 24, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The full title of this album is Kaze no Fuku Shima ~ Dunan, Yonaguni no Uta (The Windswept Island ~ Songs of Yonaguni) and it’s the debut release of singer and sanshin player Yuu Yonaha.

Now 34, Yonaha grew up on the island of Yonaguni but came to Okinawa for high school and studied Ryukyu classical music at university. Deciding he wanted to be freer with music, he returned to his island in 2011 and is a regular performer at festivals.

The 21-track album was recorded on Okinawa and contains a large selection of songs with 73 minutes playing time. Normally this might be thought a bit too generous but to hear so many traditional songs from the far flung Yonaguni Island is a rare thing and immediately makes this a significant release in terms of presenting and preserving the island’s musical culture.

Yonaha sings confidently and accompanies himself on sanshin. He is joined on some tracks by his wife Keiko Yonaha who sings and plays shimadaiko. His sister Izumi Ota also sings and plays koto. On some tracks the two women take over the vocals, both separately and together. Meanwhile Kazuaki Yamaguchi adds some fue here and there.

Yuu Yonaha

A common theme throughout many of these songs is the exploitation and harsh treatment in former times suffered by the people of Yonaguni and the southern Yaeyama islands, but there is always the common desire to try and have fun with music. Yonaguni songs were frequently performed with voice only and about a third of the tracks on this album are sung unaccompanied.

It all begins with ‘Dunan Tubarama’ sung by Yonaha and wife Keiko and finally ends with the sparsely atmospheric ‘Miranu Uta’. Highlights in between include the well-known ‘Mayaguwa Bushi’ and ‘Yonaguni Kouta’ as well as the lively ‘Dirabudi Bushi’. Not all the songs originate from Yonaguni, and the dynamic ‘Rokucho Bushi’ is from Amami.

This isn’t just an exercise for historical preservation – far from it – but an authentic reimagining of many vital songs of the people of Yonaguni. Yuu Yonaha and his small band of musicians have made a fine album that will be essential listening for anyone interested in those deep south traditions.

Kaze no Fuku Shima ~ Dunan, Yonaguni no Uta will be released on 23rd September by Respect.

Kate Rusby: Hand Me Down

Posted August 17, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

English folk singer Kate Rusby has appeared on this blog several times, mostly as the subject of album reviews but in another lifetime (or so it seems now) I met and interviewed her for a magazine in the early days of her career and the article is now in the Features Archive here.

For more than two decades she has been an integral part of the UK folk scene and it’s hard to remember a time when she was not at the forefront. On this new album, however, she departs completely from her traditional roots and comes up with an album of covers of some of the pop songs that have been important to her in her lifetime.

The selections include songs written by or associated with Coldplay, Ray Davies, Lyle Lovett, Taylor Swift, Cyndi Lauper, James Taylor, Paul Young, The Cure, and Bob Marley. There are also a couple of lesser known tracks from two television series. The whole thing begins with a version of ‘Manic Monday’ a composition by Prince that was a hit for The Bangles.

In explaining the album’s evolution, she says: “As a folk singer, it’s what I do, re-interpret existing songs, but usually the songs are much, much older. After playing a version of Oasis’ ‘Don’t Go Away’ on the BBC Radio 2 Jo Whiley show, about five years ago, it dawned on me that not just the very old songs are handed down through the generations, but also favourite songs of any age, of any generation. It was always the plan to make this album this year, lockdown just made it more intimate.”

The recordings were made at her home studio in Yorkshire and it’s all very much a family affair. Husband Damien O’Kane produces everything and plays guitars, there is some banjo and synthesizer, a few bits were recorded remotely, and there are some backing vocals from daughters Daisy and Phoebe.

Most importantly, the whole thing is a delight from start to finish. None of the songs are radically altered (though the bridge from the original ‘Manic Monday’ is dispensed with) but they are all given the Rusby treatment in the best possible way and a few of them could almost have been from one of her traditional albums.

Standout tracks will very much depend on the listener’s personal taste but James Taylor’s ‘Carolina On My Mind’, probably the oldest song here, shines like a beacon. More surprising perhaps is that her Taylor Swift homage ‘Shake It Off’ succeeds so well. And ‘Friday I’m in Love’ takes on extra poignancy with a slow sensitive rendition. It hardly needs to be said that everything is sung beautifully as ever in that Barnsley accent.

Hand Me Down is released by Pure Records and is available now digitally and on CD. A vinyl release is forthcoming.

The ‘homemade’ music video for ‘Manic Monday’ is here:

Emily Barker: A Dark Murmuration of Words

Posted August 11, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

The global pandemic has not stopped new music coming from all directions. On this timely new album by singer-songwriter Emily Barker she addresses some of the concerns that arise while searching out the invisible connections of a rapidly shifting modern world.

Born and brought up in Western Australia, Barker moved to England in her early 20s and has remained there ever since. A Dark Murmuration of Words begins with a consideration of the meaning of ‘home’ that will strike a chord with anyone exiled from their roots. It then moves on to other interconnected matters and her compositions explore climate change, racism, sexism, and the myths of economic progress.

Opening song ‘Return Me’ is languorous and melancholic. It wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a Sandy Denny record and that’s high praise. The album’s title appears in ‘Geography’ which introduces strings and more reflections on the recurring theme of ‘home’. The music was co-written with Graham Gouldman (of 10cc fame). Barker’s lyrics contain the repeated lines: “Tidal questions at my feet / Home is where the heart lines meet / Not in distance of the seas / Nor geography”.

Elsewhere, ‘Where Have the Sparrows Gone’ imagines a future London with empty streets and environmental degradation; ‘When Stars Cannot Be Found’ has a country feel with some nice banjo; and ‘Any More Goodbyes’ approaches folk-rock – it also has some of the most poignant lyrics on a collection where the words are paramount and always well-crafted.

Emily Barker

At the heart of the album is ‘Machine’. This has a more experimental sound propelled by percussion and with words that speak urgently to our times as she sings: “I’m a celebrated sinner with statues in the park / This world I made is harder the more your skin is dark”.

Many of these songs build quietly with carefully constructed arrangements that soon get under the skin. Barker plays acoustic guitar and banjo as well as piano on one track. The recordings were made in Pembrokeshire, Wales, and the album is produced by Glen Freeman. A Dark Murmuration of Words is surely Emily Barker’s finest achievement to date.

A Dark Murmuration of Words will be released on 4th September by Thirty Tigers.

Shirley Collins: Heart’s Ease

Posted July 30, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Shirley Collins is an English national folk treasure. The Sussex singer made a comeback album four years ago with Lodestar, her first recording for nearly four decades. Now 85, she is back again with this new release Heart’s Ease which was made in Brighton with help from a few musicians, mainly playing guitars and a bit of fiddle.

Lodestar received many accolades and was also reviewed here. But, by her own admission, it was a more tentative offering after such a long absence. This is not so with Heart’s Ease which finds her in a more relaxed and confident mood, and the results will be completely engaging to anyone with an interest in traditional folk song from England.

In fact, it goes quite some way beyond that. Her main sources may be English but there are also some North American songs, while four of the twelve tracks are non-traditional. There is also a morris dance instrumental, and the final track ‘Crowlink’ delves into experimentation with hurdy-gurdy drone and the sound of crashing waves and birdsong.

Collins manages to grab the listener right from the start with ‘The Merry Golden Tree’ which, like many others, is complemented by a strong arrangement and some exquisite guitar playing. At the heart of the album is a superb new version of the much-sung ballad ‘Barbara Allen’ which even contains a bit of slide guitar. The song has been recorded many times (including by Collins in her 20s) but as soon as she calmly takes charge it seems as if you’re hearing the definitive version.

There is also a version of ‘Canadee-i-o’, a song once recorded by Bob Dylan and most notably by Nic Jones. The Collins version is different again but still rather wonderful in its own way. It’s followed by ‘Sweet Greens and Blues’ which has a lovely guitar and fiddle intro while the song itself is another highlight among an album of highlights.

Although her voice is obviously not the same as it was all those years ago, Shirley Collins quietly commands our attention on each of these songs and there isn’t a single misstep or dull moment. She has made another folk classic with Heart’s Ease.

Heart’s Ease is out now and is released by Domino.

Mutsumi Aragaki: Another World of Okinawan Music

Posted July 16, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The debut album from Okinawa’s Mutsumi Aragaki has been a long time coming. Another World of Okinawan Music was first reported to be in the pipeline three years ago and now after many twists and turns it has finally arrived. It’s also released in a package containing not just the CD album but also a companion DVD.

Many will be familiar with her numerous collaborations, for example with Basque singer Mikel Urdangarin who visited Okinawa a couple of years ago. But Aragaki has already built a reputation as a singer and sanshin player in her own right, not only around these islands but much further afield through explorations of her traditional Okinawan roots combined with avant-garde interpretations.

Another World of Okinawan Music is basically a continuous performance best listened to from beginning to end rather than skipped around. The tracks follow on naturally from each other, many containing traditional songs and music, often with new or additional words by Aragaki. There are also sections with loops and electronics joining and sometimes replacing vocals and sanshin.

It’s hard to pick out individual tracks on a recording such as this but two are outstanding for this listener. They are ‘Naakunii-Hantabaru’ and ‘Chijuyaa’. The former is especially well-known in Okinawa and is given a new arrangement here. At nine minutes, ‘Chijuyaa’ is the longest track and is credited as a Ryukyu traditional dance song arranged with added lyrics by Aragaki.

On these two especially, but also elsewhere, the singing and sanshin playing appear in ways not frequently heard in Okinawan music. In particular, she manages to use the sanshin not just as simple accompaniment to the words but as an instrument that can take the lead and express different emotions. All of this is achieved together with sanba, electronics, loops, effects, and soundscapes, while on the DVD the same music blends with videos, photos, paintings, natural sounds, and old Okinawan film footage.

This was obviously a labour of love and the packaging is nothing like the familiar ‘cheap and cheerful’ offerings with minimal information we’ve come to expect in Okinawa. By contrast the CD+DVD (also available as a download) comes with a 20-page booklet with details in Japanese and English. Song lyrics are also printed in the original Okinawan language as well as Japanese and English.

In fact, if there’s a caveat to all this, it’s that there is so much information about the artist, including six short appreciative notes (yes, hands up, I wrote one of them) and such a detailed history of her activities that it tends to read like a job application – she doesn’t really need it, the music speaks for itself. On the album I could also have done without the spoken intro and outro.

So, this is an album that will not suit everyone as it requires close attention to reap its rewards. It should, however, be essential listening for anyone interested in what is going on now in Okinawan music and in the exciting new directions in which Mutsumi Aragaki is taking it. She is indeed a trailblazer who can’t be compared to anyone else. The title of this album could hardly be more apt.

Another World of Okinawan Music is released by NIINUHAI Recordings and is available now:

Here is the video trailer:

Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher

Posted June 25, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Punisher is the second solo album by 25-year old American singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. It arrives almost three years after the Los Angeles musician made her debut with Stranger in the Alps. In the time between she has been busy collaborating with other musicians on several projects.

Most notably, she formed the trio Boygenius along with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus and they made an ‘EP’ in 2018. She also made the album Better Oblivion Community Center as an indie-rock duo with Conor Oberst on which their shared vocals and co-writing complement each other perfectly.

Baker, Dacus, Oberst and many others (including famed drummer Jim Keltner) all have a role to play on Punisher and the disparate parts all come together to make a fine set. Bridgers plays acoustic and electric guitars and each track is different as she draws on many influences to create her own sound. But as she claims when talking about Punisher in an interview with NPR:

“There’s nothing avant-garde about it: it’s a singer-songwriter record, even though there’s kind of a metal section. I think I’m pulling from a lot of different places, stealing from a lot of different people.”

If true, then she’s a very skilful thief who has created a recognisable niche of her own. An integral part of this is her singing and a voice that frequently evokes both sadness and tension. The closest to a straightforward pop song is ‘Kyoto’ (which almost, but not quite, reaches the dizzy heights of the sublime ‘Motion Sickness’ from her debut album). It may be about touring Japan, which she did last year, but it also has a darker underlying theme.

The most rootsy offering is the lovely ‘Graceland Too’ which employs banjo and fiddle on a country-flavoured song. The final track, ‘I Know the End’, starts as a quietly wistful love song then radically changes direction to become an apocalyptic vision with Bridgers screaming her head off.

Phoebe Bridgers looks likely to have a big impact. Sadly, that may mean she never finds time to come to Okinawa. All the same, her new album is quite an achievement.

Punisher is out now and is released by Dead Oceans.

Irei no hi 2020

Posted June 22, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

Tomorrow (23rd June) is a public holiday in Okinawa known as Irei no hi. This is the day every year when the end of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 is commemorated. Ceremonies are held around the islands to remember those who died in a battle that raged for nearly three months on Okinawa causing misery and devastation and claiming more than 240,000 lives.

This year is especially important as it is the 75th anniversary but, because of the current coronavirus situation, the main ceremony at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman has been scaled down. It will not be open to the public but only to around 200 invited guests, including of course Okinawa’s Governor Denny Tamaki. There will be video messages from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and from a representative of the United Nations.

The Cornerstone of Peace at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park where tomorrow’s ceremony will take place.

The ceremony is annually attended by Japan’s Prime Minister, but this year Shinzo Abe will not be coming. No doubt this will be a relief for him as his attendance is always controversial and usually provokes some protests and heckling of his speech despite very tight security.

It is already five years since Okinawa’s previous Governor, the late Takeshi Onaga, spoke these words at the ceremony, but they are just as relevant today:

“We cannot establish a foundation of peace unless the central government impartially guarantees freedom, equality, human rights and democracy to the people. I strongly urge the national government to break with its fixed ideas, decide to stop the work to relocate Futenma to Henoko, and review once again its policies to reduce the base hosting burden shouldered by Okinawa.”

As ever, Japan’s government continues to ignore the democratic wishes of the Okinawan people and has recently restarted landfill work aimed at the construction of the new American military base at Henoko.

Tomorrow’s ceremony in Itoman begins at 11:55 and will be televised live as usual in Okinawa.