Akemi Johnson’s Book Talk

Posted December 2, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

Last night I attended a Book Talk by former Fulbright scholar, author and journalist Akemi Johnson. She is currently on a tour of mainland Japan and Okinawa to promote her book Night in the American Village, subtitled ‘Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa’.

I’ve read many books in English on Okinawa, its history and politics, so it was very timely and convenient for me that the author herself, who lives in Northern California, should be visiting the island just as I had finished reading this one.

Akemi Johnson

Each of the book’s eleven chapters focuses on a different woman and this is the starting point for the story of how lives in Okinawa have been affected by the bases. As the book’s blurb states: “Focusing on the women there, she follows the complex fallout of the murder of an Okinawan woman by an ex-U.S. serviceman in 2016 and speaks to protesters, to women who date and marry American men and groups that help them when problems arise, and to Okinawans whose family members survived World War II.”

The book is beautifully written and at times reads like a novel. As well as its obvious literary merit, it’s also clear the author has done a lot of background research in addition to the year she spent living on Okinawa and meeting many of those connected in one way or another with the bases. And so, in the book we find her at one moment in a Naha bar drinking with American soldiers, the next in a boat on the ocean with anti-base protesters trying to stop the landfill at Oura Bay.

Meeting Akemi last night after her talk

What emerges from all this is a very balanced account of her findings that is also at times moving – and occasionally shocking.  The book it most resembles is Mary Ann Keyso’s fascinating Women of Okinawa, from 2000, but Night in the American Village is ultimately the more rewarding read.

It would be all too easy to dismiss the author as an outsider without a deep understanding of Japan or Okinawa. That would be a huge mistake. In fact, it’s her openness, willingness to learn, to investigate further, and to understand and make sense of it all that leads to a book that is both academically sound and at the same time enormously readable.

The talk last night was held in the informal setting of Esparza’s Tacos and Coffee, a Mexican restaurant in Chatan, in front of a large and varied audience. Akemi also read some selections from her book and concluded with a question and answer session. An unexpected bonus was the introduction in person of two of the women whose stories are featured in the book – Chie and Ai – and they joined her to speak and to answer questions.

More details of the book and its author are on Akemi Johnson’s website:

www.akemijohnson.com

Seamus Egan: Early Bright

Posted November 27, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

About twenty years ago USA-based Irish band Solas toured Japan to promote their album The Words That Remain. I saw their excellent live show in Osaka and was also lucky enough to meet vocalist Karan Casey later that evening. She instantly became (and remains) one of my favourite women singers in any genre.

There was an Irish music boom in Japan at the time and Solas along with Altan and the Donal Lunny Band were at the forefront of those who toured here. Solas included multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan who had also produced their album and had previously made a solo record of his own.

Now after all these years Egan is back with another solo album, Early Bright, which shows off his enormous musical skill and virtuosity on a wide range of instrumental compositions. Egan excels again and while there is a wide range of influences the overriding one is always from Ireland.

There is a healthy dash of the livelier Irish traditional sound that has become universally recognised, but Egan’s compositions hit their peak with his quieter reflective tunes, worked on and developed at his new home in rural Vermont. ‘Everything Always Was’ starts slowly and has a beautiful sad melody while ‘52 Hertz’ is another with a slow, warm beginning and subtle changes.

Seamus Egan

The classical influence is most evident on the two final tracks, ‘Two Little Ducks’ and ‘Under the Chestnut Tree’. The second of these is the more interesting with its sad but ultimately hopeful melody. Egan is joined by a handful of musicians for the recordings as well as by the Fretless String Quartet. There are string arrangements by Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist.

Although a versatile musician – he plays banjo, nylon string guitar, low whistles, mandolin, keyboard and percussion on this record – he decided to focus on the melody first and to make each arrangement an exercise in subtlety and restraint. So, there are no musical pyrotechnics here and the album is all the better for it. This is Seamus Egan’s first solo work for 23 years and it was worth the wait.

Early Bright is scheduled for release on 17th January 2020 and there will be an album launch concert on the same day at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland as part of the Celtic Connections Festival.

www.seamuseganproject.com

There is also an album trailer:

https://youtu.be/gybr5ZfZPAo

Sunny War: Shell of a Girl

Posted November 19, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Sunny War grew up on the punk scene of Los Angeles. She also had a tough time from a young age and was living homeless on the streets for a while. Last year she released an album of her own songs and Shell of a Girl is the follow-up on which she reflects on those earlier days but with a fresh, almost nostalgic look at her past.

In fact, the new album sounds almost mellow and relaxed – at least on first listen. Her acoustic fingerpicking guitar style is prominent throughout. To that is added a simple backdrop of bass and percussion. There’s some harmonica on a couple of songs, a little bit of piano, some understated electric guitar. It all sounds warm and comfortable, but this is belied by the hard-hitting lyrics of many songs that are more in tune with her punk upbringing. It all adds up to an unusually effective blend of delicacy and passion.

‘Drugs Are Bad’ attempts to reconcile her own medicated childhood and the culture of medicating children in general, with parents who think that the only drug addicts are those on the street. Her time spent hopping trains and travelling around is the inspiration for ‘Soul Tramp’ a song with a timeless feel that showcases her most typical guitar sound.

Sunny War (Photo: Randi Steinberger)

‘Off the Cuff’ meanwhile offers the biggest statement on the album. It has some of the most blistering words on the failings of democracy and on a world “run by pimps and tricks”. It’s also fleshed out a little more in terms of music with the addition of Micah Nelson’s organ and drums.

One of her most confessional songs is ‘Rock n Roll Heaven’. This is anything but a rock song. Instead she sings, “It seems I’ve made it past 27 / there goes my ticket to rock n roll heaven”. With most of her travelling friends lost or dead through substance abuse she wonders why she gravitated towards these kinds of people and what happens now she has survived. It’s an appealing song with some of her trademark fingerpicking and is played in an almost jaunty way.

Listening to all this it’s hard not to be reminded of Tracy Chapman’s debut back in the late 1980s when she stunned everyone with her raw acoustic power and socially aware songs. Sunny War’s music comes at us with more stealth but her songs, intricate guitar work and punchy direct lyrics can also make quite an impact.

Sunny War is currently touring North America and her final concert is in Boston on 23rd November. She recently did a Tiny Desk concert for NPR and the video can be seen here: https://www.npr.org/2019/11/13/778307942/sunny-war-tiny-desk-concert

Shell of a Girl is out now on Hen House Studios with vinyl release by Org Music.

http://www.sunnywar.com/

Fanel: Human

Posted November 12, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

French singer Bera also goes under the name Fanel and this is how she presents herself on her debut album Human. Originally from Toulouse and currently based in London, she will already be known to many in Okinawa as she came here to perform concerts in April this year as well as some shows in mainland Japan.

Her music is a mix of Western pop and Japanese traditional music with just a hint of Okinawa. More recently sanshin has been added to her live project and in Okinawa she was joined by Mutsumi Aragaki (sanshin) and Kumiko Higa (percussion). Fanel blends instruments from Asia and Europe with electronics to achieve her sound and frequently adds taiko, shamisen, and harmonium.

The opening track here ‘Stop Breathing’ is at first a bit reminiscent of Norway’s Kate Havnevik (another electro musician who has visited Okinawa) but as the song and the album progress, a more Asian side is revealed. The adoption of musical styles from Japan is very effective. In fact, it’s on one of the more Japanese influenced compositions ‘Inori’ that the album peaks with an atmospheric song that is also a very good blend of musical cultures.

Some of the songs on Human have English lyrics and some are in Japanese. The Japanese language vocals are sung very naturally and with apparent ease. The final track is a departure from her own compositions with Fanel’s version – a very different one – of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’.

It all creates a relatively short but dramatic album with many songs typically starting slowly before building to a crescendo. There’s a slight tendency for this to be a bit one-paced but there is plenty of light and shade within individual songs. As for themes, Fanel is concerned with “what makes people human, their magnificent imperfection, the relationship with self and others in this highly (dis)connected environment.”

Human can be recommended to anyone with an interest in how some very different musical cultures can be successfully tied together. The album will be released this week on 15th November by Yatta Records.

http://www.fanelmusic.com

And here’s a link to the music video for ‘Stop Breathing’:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lwpx6VGaGu4

FC Ryukyu’s Last Home Match of 2019

Posted November 11, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: FC Ryukyu

FC Ryukyu played their final home match of the J2 football season yesterday against promotion chasing Kyoto Sanga. It was a very warm and sunny late afternoon kick-off in front of a good crowd of 7,500 but Ryukyu were unable to finish on a high note, losing the game 3-0 despite dominating possession for large periods.

Above from top: a scene outside the stadium; a banner calling for the rebuilding of Shuri Castle; the teams before kick-off.

None of this seemed to matter all that much, however, as Ryukyu had already secured safety for a second season in J2 next year. Following the match there was a ceremony in which Ryukyu staff and players lined up on the pitch to thank everyone for their support throughout the season.

The team is currently 15th in the 22-team league. The aim has always been simply not to be relegated and that has been achieved. The loss of many of the players who had won the J3 title was a blow and Ryukyu were favourites to finish bottom at the start of the season. During the season, top players Nakagawa and Suzuki also left to join J1 clubs and so manager Higuchi’s job became even more difficult, but he has finally guided them to safety.

The club’s swashbuckling attacking style and shaky defence has led to much excitement (and anxiety) in this first season in J2. Recent higher attendances have been very encouraging as Okinawa is still in the early stages of developing a football culture. The club has ambitions to push on and there is even talk of a future in J1. There has already been an announcement of increased ticket prices for next season in order to generate more revenue.

What is most needed really is a purpose-built football stadium where spectators are closer to the action and are under cover, so they don’t get soaked to the skin on rainy match days. Better access is also essential. We spent more than an hour yesterday driving around attempting to find a parking space within walking distance of the current stadium.

Above from top: ceremony after the match; manager Higuchi makes a speech; thanks to supporters.

On the pitch it would be nice to think that Ryukyu will not always have to sell their best players. 22-year old local boy Satoki Uejo has developed into an outstanding talent and was a joy to watch this season but already there has been speculation among supporters as to how long the club can hold on to him.

But enough complaining. The match day experience at FC Ryukyu is always enjoyable and there is a welcoming and friendly atmosphere both outside and inside the stadium. Congratulations must go to all at Ryukyu for a successful first campaign as a J2 club. There are still two away matches to go and a chance to get some more points on the board.

http://www.fcryukyu.com

Hirokazu Matsuda

Posted November 7, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

The news has come through that singer and sanshin player Hirokazu Matsuda has died at the age of 72. His death yesterday (6th November) is reported in the Okinawan media today. Matsuda was a mainstay of many Okinawan music events, a highly respected singer of traditional songs, and a songwriter and teacher.

Hirokazu Matsuda in 2007 on the cover of his solo album Sanshin Zanmai

He was born into a musical family in Chatan and his daughter Shinobu is also a well-known singer and sanshin player. Matsuda was a member of the group The Fere and he had a solo album released nationwide when he was 60. Earlier this year he joined forces with three other singers for the release of the double album Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 and in September he performed at the album release concert in Naha.

This sad and unexpected loss will be deeply felt throughout the music community in the Ryukyu Islands.

Kelly Hunt: Even the Sparrow

Posted November 5, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

This one slipped out unnoticed earlier this year but has now been brought to my attention for a much-deserved review. Kelly Hunt is an American songwriter raised in Memphis, Tennessee who taught herself banjo as a college student. She is now based in Kansas City where this album was recorded over a period of two years, along with collaborator Stas’ Heaney.

It can be said straight away that Even the Sparrow is a joy from start to finish. There isn’t a weak track or a misstep anywhere. Perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that it has been recorded so honestly with no excess instrumentation or unnecessary embellishments. The twelve songs are always at the core and the arrangements have obviously been made to fit them in the best possible way.

The first track ‘Across the Great Divide’ comes at us like an early Dylan song with just Hunt’s vocal upfront, and her banjo, and it achieves an austere beauty. As her press release states, she ‘turns an otherwise traditional account of spurned love into a philosophical epic of the ethics of forgiveness and freedom…’

Kelly Hunt (Photo: Lori Locke)

She plays a 1920s tenor banjo throughout that sounds warm and mellow as she moves around the American roots field with great confidence. There’s a lovely rhythmic swing when she plays with guitar, fiddle, bass and percussion on ‘Back to Dixie’. And there are moments here and there when we are reminded of musicians as diverse in time as Rhiannon Giddens and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

For the most part though this is a quieter set of songs that only rips it up when it really needs to – and then does it with some style. The chilling ‘Delta Blues’ is sung over percussion only, while several other songs contain vocals supported just by banjo and sometimes a touch of fiddle. She changes the mood with her voice which can be both strong and hushed, sometimes within the same song, as in the seemingly timeless ‘Nothin’ On My Mind’.

Like much of the very best roots music nowadays this sounds both old and new, traditional and very original at the same time. Kelly Hunt is obviously a very talented singer, songwriter and musician and she has made a pretty flawless first album.

Even the Sparrow is released by Rare Bird Records.

www.kellyhuntmusic.com