Okinawa Americana – Live in Chatan

Posted October 15, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

The duo David Ralston and Merry who go under the name Okinawa Americana have been touring far and wide this year with dates across America and Japan as well as their home base of Okinawa. Their recent shows have been in support of the release of their self-titled album which has already been reviewed on this blog.

On Friday I finally managed to catch the tail end of this tour when they played at Live House Mod’s in Chatan, This was the full band version of Okinawa Americana with the pair joined on stage by an electric bass player and a drummer to flesh out some of the songs from their album and also to rock loud and hard on several other songs and instrumentals.

 

This line-up probably suits David Ralston’s slide guitar and vocal style best but Merry’s singing, sanshin and sanba were hardly neglected either and she showed what an important presence she is, especially on the three ‘acoustic’ songs that began the second half of the set.

It was also unusual to find an audience with such a large and vociferous contingent of Westerners who seemed to appreciate ‘Waido Bushi’ and some of the more traditional Okinawan songs just as much as the more familiar rock and reggae. The soaking I received from a sudden downpour on my way to the venue was soon forgotten as Okinawa Americana revived the spirits with a fine performance.

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Island Meetings

Posted October 10, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

Here’s another one for the archive. This originally appeared in Kansai Time Out in 2009. It was the last issue of the monthly English language magazine which began publishing in Japan in 1977. The article focuses on a few of the many duet albums to come out of Okinawa. Since her album with Toru Yonaha, Misako Oshiro has gone on to make further duet albums with Kanako Horiuchi, Ainu musician Oki, the late Seijin Noborikawa, and this year with a host of guests on her new album Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobo.  She also performs regularly at the age of 81. The duet album continues to thrive and this year Okinawa Americana (Merry & David Ralston) helped push the boundaries further still with their own self-titled album.

Island Meetings

John Potter listens to things with two singers and three strings

The duet album is popular in Japan, and especially so in Okinawa, where over the years there have been a number of collaborations by stars of the local music. This year the tradition has continued with the important release of a new album by two leading lights of the traditional Okinawan music scene – Misako Oshiro and Toru Yonaha. Their joint album is entitled Futari Uta and is released on Tokyo’s Tuff Beats label.

Misako Oshiro

For many years Misako Oshiro has been acknowledged as the greatest female singer of her generation. Born in Osaka in 1936, and then brought up in Okinawa, she was singing and playing as a child and was a pupil of Teihan China (father of Nenes producer and songwriter Sadao China). She sang duets with the most famous Okinawan male singer Rinsho Kadekaru and also recorded with him. She has appeared in Okinawan films, and, at the age of 73, is still performing regularly at her own live house in Naha.

Yonaha is also an extremely busy, some say workaholic, young man. He may be 40 years Oshiro’s junior but he has already made several albums of his own – all of them completely different – and has produced or appeared as guest musician on many others. Yonaha is a multi-instrumentalist and a teacher of the ubiquitous three-stringed sanshin. His collaboration with Oshiro works really well and the pair stick to basics on a set of twelve songs, plus two live bonus tracks recorded together in April at Oshiro’s live house. There is a mix of traditional songs and compositions such as Choki Fukuhara’s “Hawaii Bushi”, and two songs by Oshiro’s mentor Teihan China. Oshiro plays sanshin and shares the vocal honours with Yonaha, while Yonaha plays sanshin, Ryukyu koto, shimadaiko, and sanba.

Another recent get together by Ryukyu Island musicians resulted in the four track CD Sakishima Meeting, released on Okinawa’s Ariz label last year. This was by Yaeyama Islands singer Yukito Ara and Isamu Shimoji from Miyako Island. Ara is well-known for his work with the band Parsha Club and for his flamboyant sanshin playing and dynamic live shows. Meanwhile Shimoji is famous for singing in the Miyakufutsu dialect of Miyako which is completely different from that of the other islands. On “Sakishima no Tema” Ara’s sanshin and Shimoji’s guitar combine on a song they wrote together celebrating their respective islands. They also try an unexpected cover of “Tennessee Waltz” with sanshin and guitar.

Oshima & Keezer

In 2007, there was an unusual collaboration between an Okinawan and a Westerner when American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer formed a partnership with Yaeyama singer Yasukatsu Oshima – himself a close friend of Yukito Ara during their schooldays together in Ishigaki. Oshima and Keezer recorded in New York together with a handful of jazz musicians and their album – Yasukatsu Oshima with Geoffrey Keezer – was released by Victor. It may not be the first time an Okinawan sanshin has joined forces with a piano but there hasn’t been anything quite like this before, where a traditional Ryukyu musician has been plucked from his own setting and dropped into a New York studio with previously unfamiliar musicians. Geoffrey Keezer has played with virtually all the living legends of jazz and appeared on countless recordings, both as leader and accompanist and has made several jazz-oriented albums. He is also a fairly regular visitor to Japan and even lived here for a time in Yokohama.

The results of the Oshima/Keezer recordings were more than just a curiosity and the pianist’s sensitivity, understanding and love of the islands’ music, along with Oshima’s singing and sanshin, make it a memorable outing. The traditional “Tinsagu nu Hana” is the highlight and centrepiece of the album. It’s on the more adventurous tracks that the album succeeds most, leaving us to wonder if future experiments might be on the way – Keezer has already spoken of a possible recording with strings. The selections on the album are also nicely balanced with four songs each from the Okinawa and Yaeyama islands plus two Oshima compositions.

We have to go back ten years to find the first classic meeting on record of an Okinawan musician and a Westerner. This resulted in the album of Okinawan children’s songs released as Warabi Uta on the Respect label in Japan. It was made by Okinawan Takashi Hirayasu – a former guitarist with Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose – and the American guitarist Bob Brozman. The two were brought together for the very first time on the tiny Yaeyama island of Taketomi where they lived together and recorded the album over several days in a makeshift studio. It rapidly became the best selling Okinawan album overseas and remains an important and unique introduction to Okinawan music. A master musician, Brozman has travelled the world to work with musicians from many different countries and cultures. He made a second album with Hirayasu in which the process was reversed and Hirayasu travelled to California to record along with American musicians, but this simple first meeting of Hirayasu’s vocals and sanshin with Brozman’s guitar on Taketomi still takes some beating.

(Kansai Time Out, No.391, September 2009).

My Instrument – Mutsumi Aragaki

Posted August 28, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

Here’s another new one for the Features Archive. The UK magazine Songlines has a regular series on musicians and the instruments they play. Earlier this year I met up with Mutsumi Aragaki and we had a long and fascinating talk about her sanshin playing and about music in general. The article below covers just some of the interesting things we discussed.

MY INSTRUMENT

Mutsumi Aragaki & her sanshin

John Potter speaks to the Japanese sanshin player and singer about her connection with this most Okinawan of instruments

The banjo-like twang of the three-stringed snakeskin-covered sanshin is intimately associated with the subtropical islands of Okinawa. These small islands, stretching from southern Japan to Taiwan, were once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. The sanshin was adapted from the Chinese sanxian after its introduction to the islands in the 14th century. It was first played only by the Ryukyu nobility but after the kingdom was invaded and abolished by Japan in 1879 the sanshin was introduced to ordinary people and it soon became (and remains) the most popular instrument of the people.

Okinawan singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki grew up in Nagoya, Japan and first encountered the instrument as a high school student. “The very first day I held a sanshin was when I went to my grandfather’s”, she says. “When you’re 17 or 18 you start to think about your identity and I became interested in Okinawan things so that’s why I wanted to touch a sanshin. After I returned to mainland Japan I couldn’t forget the sound and the feeling when I held the instrument.”

“My grandfather gave me my first sanshin which was roughly 200 years old from the Ryukyu Kingdom era, after I passed my first minyo (folk song) test. The neck is Yaeyama kuruchi (ebony from the Yaeyama islands), the best quality material.” She then went on to make a sanshin by herself using the one her grandfather had given her. “Ever since I could remember I was always making something. I became an artisan about 20 years ago and those precious years of experience have led me to a much deeper understanding of the sanshin.”

The sanshin comprises a soundbox or drum covered with snakeskin, usually python. The neck is often made of ebony wood coated with lacquer and the three strings (sanshin means ‘three strings’) are made of nylon.

Aragaki uses seven different sanshins, each different in size and in the quality of the neck and soundbox or drum. “I maintain all seven myself – sensitive maintenance really makes a difference to the sound. The tension of the skin influences the sound itself. The one I use depends on the kind of music I’m playing. It’s interesting that for a classical player there’s a typical sound they want to have but for folk music it depends on the islands. Miyako and Yaeyama people love a higher tension and a very sharp sound but Okinawan islanders mostly like a more relaxed sound.” As for maintenance, she says: “To fit my unique fingering and picking style, I adjust the curve of the area touched by the fingers, the angle of neck and drum, and the tip of the bachi (pick) to the appropriate shape and keen edge.”

She is also a sanshin teacher, leads the experimental trio MKR Project, and performs solo and in collaboration with Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia. “I did African Studies at college in Japan and studied Swahili. I could see the world through African cultures and political things like colonialism, so now I can see Okinawa through this viewpoint as well.”

Songlines Magazine

Although the sanshin is an accompanying instrument, some sanshin players became known for their fast playing. The most famous is Seijin Noborikawa who died in 2013 at the age of 80 and was known as the ‘Jimi Hendrix of shimauta (island songs)’. Currently, Yukito Ara from Ishigaki Island has also gained a reputation for his flamboyant playing style.

Aragaki believes that the sanshin has great versatility and can blend well with other instruments despite its typical role as accompaniment to traditional Okinawan vocals. “Usually singers sing very technically but the sanshin is played very simply compared with the vocal style. The sanshin is important, of course, but it’s just a stringed instrument like a violin or any other instrument, so I feel it’s very strange if even a professional player doesn’t try to balance it with their beautiful vocal style. I think it can be more than just accompaniment. I’m trying to realise its potential with my original songs by using effects and so on. This is my vision for this instrument.”

“I hope that through my performances people will know a little bit more about diversity and that’s what I want to do with this instrument”. The pioneering early Okinawan singer, sanshin player and songwriter Choki Fukuhara was a big inspiration for her, she adds: “He was also a record company owner and it meant he could listen to music from everywhere and get to know other instruments. So I’m always trying to listen to different kinds of music and learn from other musical cultures.”

+ALBUM Mutsumi Aragaki’s solo album is released later this year

+WEBSITE www.aragakimutsumi.com

(Songlines Magazine, No.130, August/September 2017)

Shotoku Yamauchi

Posted August 26, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

The sad news has come through of the death of Okinawan singer and sanshin player Shotoku Yamauchi on 24th August at the age of 95. Yamauchi was one of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists along with other great musicians such as the late Rinsho Kadekaru, Shouei Kina, Teihan China, and Shuei Kohama.

He was born in Yomitan on the main island and became an accomplished interpreter of traditional songs as well as a songwriter. In 1958 and 1959 he represented Okinawa at the annual NHK song contest and was an important member of the music association Ryukyu Ongaku Kyokai. In more recent times an 18 track collection of his best work was released on CD by Campus Records under the title Hokorasha Yamauchi Bushi.

Neko – An Exhibition by Mitsuaki Iwago

Posted August 16, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

Today we visited the exhibition Neko at Urasoe Art Museum, Okinawa. This is an exhibition of 180 photographs by Tokyo photographer Mitsuaki Iwago who has been taking pictures for more than 40 years. He has travelled the world in search of cats and the results include feline photos of many different kinds and from diverse locations around Japan and in Europe, Africa and Asia. The Neko exhibition also includes a few photos from Okinawa.

Iwago’s photos reveal many aspects of the lives of cats and they don’t just focus on their more obvious cuteness. It’s a thoroughly rewarding show whether you are a cat lover or a devotee of photography. The exhibition began in July and runs until 3rd September so there is still time to catch it if you are in Okinawa. Entry is from 9:30 until 17:00 and admission is 800 yen for adults. Neko is sponsored by the Okinawa Times and is one of the events organised to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

http://museum.city.urasoe.lg.jp/

Misako Oshiro: Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobu

Posted July 29, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The great Okinawan singer Misako Oshiro is back with another album at the age of 81. Last year she released an album of new recordings and before that there was a double album retrospective Kana Uta that focused mainly on earlier work and previously unreleased tracks. She has also made a number of duet albums in recent times. Just when it seemed she had finally run out of steam she comes back with Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobu where she is joined by a large number of guests to commemorate 60 years since she began her recording career.

She duets on each song with a different guest singer. This sometimes takes the form of Oshiro and her guest singing alternating verses and then joining together on the final verse – a familiar pattern with Okinawan songs. Some of her partners on these mainly traditional songs are singers she has sung with before but there are also some new additions. Perhaps most surprising is her collaboration with Nenez on ‘Kendou Bushi’ which turns out to be very successful.

All of the songs were recorded at Igaloo Studio in Okinawa and each guest singer contributes some notes in the CD booklet. Accompaniment is kept simple with sanshin and taiko and the performances are recorded with great clarity. The only diversion is ‘Kataumui Remix’ a recording of Oshiro’s most famous song written for her by Teihan China and remixed here by the electronic band Churashima Navigator (which includes Oshiro’s former pupil Kanako Horiuchi). It works well and doesn’t upset the rhythm of the album at all. In fact it enhances it by adding some variety. Churashima Navigator’s DJ Nu-doh provides the sleeve notes for this one.

The most illustrious guest singer is Sadao China who appears on the traditional ‘Yahan Mairi’ but there is also a duet with Kazufumi Miyazawa who makes his first appearance since announcing a break from singing last year. They get together on ‘Deigo no Hana’. Oshiro’s pupil Taku Oshiro sings with her on one song and there’s a duet with Yaeyama singer Isamu Asato on ‘Kanushamayo’. The other guest vocalists are Shuken Maekawa, Seibun Tokuhara, Emiko Miyazato, and Tomoki Kiyuna.

The original 1962 Marufuku single ‘Kataumui’ is added to the ten songs as a bonus track. (It was also included on Kana Uta). The new album is very welcome and adds a bit more to the legacy of a singer described in the promotional material as a ‘legend’. It’s a word sometimes used too freely but in this case is absolutely right.

Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobu is released by Tuff Beats.

www.tuff-beats.com

Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts

Posted July 26, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Offa Rex is a joint project by English singer Olivia Chaney and Oregon rock band The Decemberists. Colin Meloy of The Decemberists wanted to make an album of mainly traditional songs harking back to the great English folk-rock heyday of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Also an admirer of Olivia Chaney, Meloy enlisted her help as the main vocalist and arranger and the pair chose the selections together. Chaney also applies her skills to several tracks with guitars, piano, harmonium and electric harpsichord.

First of all, the recording and playing are exemplary and the album sounds both ‘old’ and very up to date. As soon as it begins with the title track we know we’re back in that world of folk-rock and ‘The Queen of Hearts’ works beautifully with Chaney’s lovely vocal and electric harpsichord blending with the other band members to create something that would surely have made the great Sandy Denny proud. Even better is Chaney’s delicate interpretation of ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ which is both the best thing on the album and the longest track at seven and a half minutes.

Three years ago I discovered a live video of ‘The Old Churchyard’ sung by Elizabeth LaPrelle and friends and it was so good it almost brought me to tears. It was the first time I’d heard this amazing old song and it turns up again on this album with a vocal by Chaney. So it was with some trepidation that I listened to this very different bigger version with harmonium, guitars, drums, viola and woodwind drone. To my surprise it’s almost as good as Elizabeth’s and that’s high praise.

Not everything is equally successful and this is perhaps inevitable given that it’s such a varied bunch of songs (and one instrumental) but the surprising mix of folk and heavy metal on ‘Sheepcrook and Black Dog’, with its nod to Black Sabbath, actually works rather well. ‘The Gardener’ is another unexpected triumph.

This is a fine album that shows folk-rock is still alive and well and it offers a unique combination of musicians from different musical and geographical backgrounds. Olivia Chaney is already much loved on this blog and her excellent solo album The Longest River was reviewed here a couple of years ago. Let’s hope it isn’t too long before she comes back with a new album – or indeed a second collaboration with The Decemberists.

The Queen of Hearts is out now on Nonesuch Records.

www.nonesuch.com