Natsuki Nakamura: Agaritida

Posted March 23, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

It’s been a long time coming but Agaritida is the first solo release from Okinawa’s Natsuki Nakamura who has been well-known on the island music scene for some time.

Nakamura learned traditional singing and sanshin with the Noborikawa-ryu but is equally at home with contemporary styles. She has been a vocalist with techno units Ryukyudisko and Ryukyu Underground, and in 2007 joined Soul Flower Mononoke Summit for their Henoko Peace Festa to campaign against the proposed new US base – a protest that continues to this day.

Agaritida has seven tracks and for these she is joined by a handful of musicians. For the opener ‘Oka no Ipponmatsu’ her vocal and sanshin is accompanied by acoustic guitar played by Naoto from the rock band Orange Range. Elsewhere there is some saxophone, flute, and piano, while Kanako Hatoma provides shimadaiko on a couple of tracks.

Everything is sung, played, and recorded competently and straightforwardly. While there can be no complaints about Nakamura’s performance, it’s nevertheless a bit surprising that – given her interest in contemporary music – she didn’t take a few more risks. The powerful traditional song ‘Kunjan Sabakui’, for example, calls out for a stronger, more adventurous approach but the version here is a bit lacklustre.

On ‘Naritai Bushi’ she duets with what sounds like an elderly man but is in fact the ubiquitous Hajime Nakasone sounding more than ever as if he’s doing an impersonation of Seijin Noborikawa. The pair duet again on ‘Koina Yunta~Asadoya Yunta’ unusually combining the two songs. The final track ‘Mikazuki’ has a nice blend of sanshin, sax, and piano and is the kind of song that Chihiro Kamiya does so well.

It’s good to know that Natsuki Nakamura is recording and playing again as she is someone it’s always a pleasure to see and hear and she performs with all the ease you would expect. It’s just a shame that it all sounds a tiny bit routine when compared to some of the exciting recordings by great Okinawan singers of the past and present. 

Agaritida is released on CD by Natsukiya Records and is out now.

FC Ryukyu 2021

Posted March 21, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: FC Ryukyu

The new 2021 season has already begun and FC Ryukyu are competing once more in J2, the second tier of the J.League. It was time for another visit to see them. Yesterday was a warm and sunny day in Okinawa and the pre-match entertainment included a performance by the Ryukyukoku Matsuri Taiko group. Away supporters from Nagasaki were also allowed into the stadium for the first time this season.

This home game was a difficult test as they faced V-Varen Nagasaki, a club with J1 experience and ambitions to return to the top flight. I attended fearing it might put a jinx on that winning run. However, all fears were dismissed as Ryukyu put on an excellent display of passing, movement, and attacking football which was quite outstanding. By the 68th minute Ryukyu had a 3-0 lead with two goals from Ikeda and one from defender Numata, and despite conceding a late goal they were comfortable winners.

On one of the smallest budgets, Manager Higuchi has quietly built a team able to compete at this level and yesterday’s performance was probably the best I’ve seen from them in Okinawa. FC Ryukyu now find themselves in the unexpected position of second in the J2 league table with maximum points after four matches.

The next home match is on Saturday 3rd April at 17:00 when the visitors will be Omiya Ardija.

Music from the Basque Country Mix

Posted March 12, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music, Radio Mixes

The latest of my music mixes is here and can be listened to now on K.O.L. Radio’s online channel. For this one, I’ve put together a playlist of music from Euskal Herria (Basque Country). It samples some of the various musical styles and introduces the most well-known singers and musicians.

All the songs are sung in the Basque language – Euskara – possibly the oldest language in Europe and, it seems, unrelated to any other language. There is a mix of trikitixa, triki-pop, singer-songwriters, one or two rock bands, and a dash of the old txalaparta wooden percussion instrument.  

Among the artists I’ve chosen are famed trikitixa player Kepa Junkera, as well as triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider and band Huntza. The most important singer-songwriters are represented by Mikel Laboa, Benito Lertxundi, Ruper Ordorika and Mikel Urdangarin. And it all begins with the first Basque music I ever listened to by Maixa ta Ixiar.

The most recent tracks are those by Mikel Urdangarin and by father and daughter duo Esti eta Mikel Markez. Both are from albums released just a few months ago. By contrast, the Oskorri track, with a vocal by renowned singer Mikel Laboa, is from the band’s 25th anniversary concert in 1996.

The show is online here:

The playlist order with artist names and song titles is below.

Maixa ta Ixiar ‘Espartzinarena’

Ken Zazpi ‘Gaueko argiak’

Kepa Junkera ‘Madagaskar’

Kirmen Uribe ft. Mikel Urdangarin ‘Sausalitora bidean’

Izaki Gardenak ‘Horma eta haizea’

Benito Lertxundi ‘Baldorba’

Alaitz eta Maider ‘Amets bat’

Oreka TX ‘Keinuka Ilargiari’

Fermin Muguruza ‘Eguraldi lainotsua hiriburuan’

Agurtzane eta Ion Elustondo ‘Bidetxurretik’

Ruper Ordorika ‘Itzala’

Oskorri with Mikel Laboa ‘Aita Semeak’

Beñat Igerabide ‘Helduen Mozorroa’

Korrontzi ‘Joxek Andreari’

Esti eta Mikel Markez ‘Oroitzapenek Esnatu Naute’

Willis Drummond ‘Lehentasuna’

Mikel Urdangarin ‘Hiru Ahizpatik Bigarrena’

Huntza ‘Aldapan gora’

For more information and reviews, please have a look at the Basque Music category of this blog.

Special thanks to my friend Anjel Valdes who first awakened my interest in Basque music and culture. He also produced some of the albums from which these tracks were sourced. My interview with him is in the Features Archive.

Thoughts in the Park

Posted March 10, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

I like walking in Heiwasozo no Mori Koen near my home on the south coast of Okinawa. I go there regularly and it’s also a great place to have lunch out in the open. The spacious park is on a hillside that slopes down to the ocean at the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea. On weekdays there are few visitors and I sometimes have the entire place to myself. 

Now things are changing. The park itself is the same, thankfully, but a large adjacent area has been taken over by a mining company and is being dug up. As can be seen in these photos taken from the park yesterday, it has become a blot on the otherwise beautiful landscape. On my visit yesterday the noise from dump trucks, and diggers moving rocks and earth, reverberated around the park and was incessant and unrelenting.

This, of course, is an area where there are many memorials and peace monuments to the tens of thousands who suffered unspeakable horrors and terrible deaths here in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. It’s seen now as a sacred place by Okinawans, where families of war victims visit to pray. Close to the park is one of the most important monuments, Konpaku no To, built by the people to honour all lives lost at this spot which was littered with bones and human remains. 

The reason for all the digging nearby is only too well-known in Okinawa but is still a matter of little consequence in Japan and elsewhere. Its purpose is to gather earth for the landfill at the proposed new US military base much further north on the island at Henoko. The rocks, earth and soil will be dumped in the ocean at Oura Bay as a lot more landfill is needed than was at first thought. Long before this, there has been great concern at the damage to the coral reefs, and rare marine creatures of Oura Bay such as the dugong.

Inevitably, the work to provide landfill from Itoman involves digging up the bones of many who died here and whose remains are now mixed in with the soil. There have been many protests and a movement to stop this desecration. These include a weeklong hunger strike earlier this month by activist Takamatsu Gushiken whose volunteer group Gamafuya has been working to uncover and identify the bones of the dead and return them to their families.

But the US war machine rolls on – aided and abetted by Japan and its government who have always shown nothing but ill-disguised disdain for the plight of its colony Okinawa. And it’s all very well talking of the need for better treatment and more autonomy. This looks more than ever like a pipe dream while the Ryukyu Islands remain dependent on Japan. 

Meanwhile, the awful irony is that the war dead are now contributing to the construction of yet another unwanted military base on Okinawa. Even after all this time their bones still have no place to rest. They are, in effect, being killed twice, and #dontkilltwice is already widespread on social media campaigns and discussions around the issue.

Much respect is due to those such as Takamatsu Gushiken who never gives up, and to the persistence of peace activists in Okinawa who never forget the lessons of war. Also, to those of the Okinawa diaspora who are helping to bring this matter to the attention of the outside world.   

Takashi Hirayasu & Bob Brozman: Mo Ashibi Magic

Posted February 25, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

It’s been a long time coming but Mo Ashibi Magic – subtitled Live in Tokyo 1999 – is the first live release by Okinawan singer Takashi Hirayasu and virtuoso American guitarist Bob Brozman. The recording was made on 15th September 1999 at Tokyo Aoyama Restaurant Bar CAY, just a couple of months after the pair’s Warabi Uta album came out to worldwide acclaim.

In fact, Warabi Uta (retitled Jin Jin/Firefly overseas) became a roots best seller and introduced many new listeners to Okinawan music. It was made on tiny Taketomi Island and was a project of startling simplicity and originality on which Hirayasu’s vocals and sanshin collided gloriously with Brozman’s guitar on a set of Okinawan children’s songs.

A second album recorded in California was released the following year. I also managed to sit down with Bob Brozman in Osaka during that year and recorded a lengthy interview with him for The Power of Okinawa book. My last contact with him was almost a decade later and then came the shocking news of his suicide in 2013 at the age of 59.

The person responsible for all those early recordings was producer Kenichi Takahashi of Tokyo’s Respect Records. Many years later, and with the world in turmoil through the pandemic, Takahashi began to reflect on the past and think about the live show recorded in Tokyo but left in the vaults. After obtaining permission from all those involved, he decided to finally release the live show as a double album.

And what a joy it is to listen to the pair again after all this time. The recordings have been mixed and mastered to a high standard and the sound captures all the immediacy of the occasion. They are joined by Yuki Yamauchi (guitar and ukulele) for many of the songs. These include superb performances of ‘Chon Chon Kijimuna’ (see video below), ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, ‘Akatasundunchi’, ‘Jin Jin’ and others from that original groundbreaking album.   

Alongside all the Okinawan songs is their take on Soul Flower Union’s moving ‘Mangetsu no Yube’ written for survivors of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe. Hirayasu sings it here in an Uchinaguchi version with the great Okinawan singer Misako Koja joining for hayashi. The concert ends fittingly with the evocative instrumental ‘Taketomi Sunset’.

Takashi Hirayasu has been around a long time and continues to make interesting music that always pushes the boundaries, but the collaboration with Brozman is surely his finest work. For anyone familiar with their original albums this will be an unexpected and essential bonus. It also serves as a wonderful reminder of one of the most successful collaborations in any musical genre.

The total running time for the 2 CDs is around 87 minutes. The booklet will include extensive notes and photos.

Mo Ashibi Magic ~ Live in Tokyo 1999 ~ will be released by Respect on 21st April.

Sunny War: Simple Syrup

Posted February 6, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

In those seemingly far away days before the pandemic, Los Angeles based singer, songwriter, guitarist Sunny War was making quite an impact with her album Shell of a Girl (also reviewed here) as well as a highly acclaimed appearance at an NPR Tiny Desk concert. Now she is back with a new album Simple Syrup.

She has kept busy during the pandemic by writing and recording the eleven new songs for this release. Not just that, she also founded a Los Angeles chapter of the non-profit organisation Food Not Bombs and gathered volunteers to distribute vegan food to the homeless. She also marched for BLM to protest police brutality.

Like the previous album, Simple Syrup was recorded at Hen House Studios in Venice Beach with producer Harlan Steinberger. The album goes for a looser, more live atmosphere, focusing on the interplay between the musicians. The core trio are Sunny War on vocals and guitar, Ayron Davis on bass, and drummer Paul Allen, and they are joined by a few other musicians when needed.

There’s a warm atmosphere on the opener ‘Lucid Lucy’ on which her fingerpicking guitar style is aided by some cello. ‘Mama’s Milk’ strikes a jazzy note with saxophone alongside the guitar, bass, and drums, while ‘Like Nina’ is also jazz infused but begins almost as if it’s going to be West African desert blues.  

The lyrics encompass everything from romance to politics. ‘Kiss a Loser’ is an ode to her own drunken self in relationships. But she shifts easily to weightier subjects, none more so than on ‘Deployed and Destroyed’. This is a song about a friend – a veteran of the Iraq wars – who fell apart, unable to get the care he needed and now homeless with severe mental trauma. It will resonate here in Okinawa with its huge military base presence.

Sunny War (Photo: Florencia P. Marano)

Sunny War has also experienced living on the streets and was a beneficiary of Food Not Bombs handouts. Of her work with them she says: “I can’t do much, but Food Not Bombs helps us come together as a community and realize that we are a community. Now I see people every week and we know each other. It’s also about not looking away when you see somebody in this situation.”

Despite some of its tortured themes, the album is delivered with an ease and simplicity that never overstates or overstays. Sunny War is looking to art to bring solace in hard times. As she says: “I want Simple Syrup to be an album of refuge. An album you can listen to when you want to get away.”

This is the stop-motion animation video for the song ‘Lucid Lucy’ – a meditation on the appeal of lucid dreaming:

Simple Syrup will be released on 26th March by Hen House Studios.

Esti eta Mikel Markez: Azal Berritzen

Posted January 28, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Azal Berritzen is the new album by Basque singers Esti and Mikel Markez. For many years, Mikel Markez has been active in his homeland as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, and has released many recordings. For this album he forms a duo with his daughter Esti who is a rising singer and musician in her own right.

The pair created ten new songs for the album, and the credits are shared equally with five by Esti and five by Mikel. The two also participate in each other’s songs as singers and musicians. While they created all the music, many of the lyrics are by other writers such as the iconic Basque poet in exile Joseba Sarrionandia.

Esti and Mikel’s vocals and guitar are complemented by musicians Arkaitz Miner (violin, mandolin, guitar) and Julen Alonso (trikitixa, accordion, piano). They performed first as a quartet while arrangements for the songs were evolving, and bass and drums are now added to some tracks. The recordings were made in Gipuzkoa with mixing and mastering at Elkar studio in Donostia-San Sebastian.  

Among other collaborators is the writer Toti Martinez de Lezea who recites a poem of his on the last track ‘Miloika bider’. The tradition of literary songwriting goes back to the 1960s and the Ez dok Amairu collective of singers, poets, bersolaris, dancers, and musicians who got together to revitalise Basque arts and culture. This album is one of the heirs to that movement.   

In no way does this mean the results are pretentious or overly serious. The songs on Azal Berritzen, all sung in Euskara (the Basque language), flow together with a verve and passion that is easily accessible throughout and can be appreciated on an emotional level even without understanding the language.

One big reason for the success is the talented Esti Markez whose strong, clear vocals threaten to run away with the show. Two of her songs in particular stand out. They are ‘Ez da bizitza’ (It’s Not Life) and ‘Oroitzapenek esnate naute’ (Memories Woke Me Up). She announces her arrival here and it will be interesting to see how this young singer develops.

Azal Berritzen is out now and is released independently by Esti eta Mikel Markez.

Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno

Posted January 20, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

This self-titled album is the second release by American singer, songwriter, and musician Vivian Leva whose solo debut came out in 2018. For these new recordings she is joined by Riley Calcagno, a young musician who learned his trade on the festival scene. In fact, the pair are from the Appalachian string band tradition and Leva grew up in a rural setting in Virginia, the daughter of celebrated old-time musicians.

Their album was produced by Joel Savoy at his Louisiana studio and contains all original songs based on the music they grew up with but with fresh new melodies and singing. Of the eleven tracks, five are composed by Leva, one by Calcagno, and the rest co-written. Leva leads with most of the vocals and plays rhythm guitar with Calcagno on acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle, and banjo.

The press release describes it as ‘old-soul roots music to its core’ and that’s exactly what it is. When they are joined by musicians on pedal steel, piano, bass, and drums it moves into country music territory and this is most successful on ‘Biding All My Time’ and the closing track ‘Good and Gone’. By contrast, ‘You Don’t See Me’ has the more timeless air of a traditional folk ballad that is also reminiscent of Cinder Well.

Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno (Photo: Brendon Burton)

The lyrics of many of these songs explore themes of space, distance, and separation in uncertain times. They were working on the songs well before the arrival of Covid, while attending different universities separated by half the country. They would send each other voice memos, and work on songs during weekend visits.

“We would try to write music in these little spare moments,” Leva explains. “It’s so hard to communicate with someone over the phone. A song is a place that you can map out how you’re feeling and how you want to share your feelings.”

The two best songs are Leva’s ‘Will You’, and the melancholy ‘Love and Chains’ which they wrote with Sam Bailey. This delicate song, with the pair trading vocals, is a reflection on being in the moment even as a difficult parting is imminent. On these and some of the other songs the arrangements move in unexpected directions.

The addition of other musicians allows a bigger range but just listening to the pair on their own is perhaps the most rewarding of all. What cannot be overstated is the skill, care, and love that has been put into the making of this record by young musicians already steeped in a tradition way beyond musical fashions.

The album will be available on CD, LP, and digital, and is scheduled for release on 12th March by Free Dirt Records.

Misako Oshiro

Posted January 18, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

There was sad news today of the death of Misako Oshiro at the age of 84. The singer and sanshin player will be remembered forever as one of the greatest in Okinawan music history.

She will always be associated with another great singer, the late Rinsho Kadekaru with whom she frequently performed and recorded. But Oshiro’s long career continued right up until her death and she was performing until recently at her own minyo bar Shima Umui in Naha.

She remained open to new ideas and in her later years made duet albums with Toru Yonaha, Kanako Horiuchi, the Ainu singer Oki, and then in 2012 the late Seijin Noborikawa. As well as this, she found time to appear in a leading acting role in the film Tsuru-Henry.  

As if that wasn’t enough, her last album Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobu (2017) was made up entirely of guest collaborations. It included ‘Kataumui Remix’ a recording of the most famous song written for her by Teihan China and remixed by the electronic band Churashima Navigator. The original 1962 ‘Kataumui’ single was added as a bonus track.

I was lucky enough to be able to see her live performances several times. And a few years ago, I met her and Kanako Horiuchi at Shima Umui for an interview to coincide with the release of their joint album. (The feature was originally published in fRoots magazine and is now in the Features Archive of this blog). Oshiro was quiet and unassuming at our meeting as well as kind and welcoming as she sipped on her glass of awamori and talked about her life. It was an honour to be in her presence, and she will be greatly missed.  

Tink Tink: Yuiyasa!

Posted January 13, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Yuiyasa! is an album by four young women going under the name Tink Tink. This will ring a bell with followers of Rinken Band as it’s the project of Rinken Teruya who produced this album and obviously had a big hand in cultivating their sound. A previous duo version of Tink Tink made the album Sya back in 2002, and this quartet have taken over the name.

The songs all bear the unmistakable stamp of Rinken Band with their mix of bright and lively shimauta seasoned with the occasional slower ballad. The themes are mostly the familiar ones of island life and celebrations of nature in the Ryukyus.

What makes this a bit different is that all songs are composed by the four members of the group themselves – Natsuki Hanashiro, Nana Yakabi, Seira Ganaha, and Sayaka Fukumura – and all lyrics are in the Okinawan language of Uchinaguchi. Three of the singers are from Okinawa while Natsuki is from Miyako.

The title track which opens the album is a joint effort with lyrics by Seira Ganaha and music by Rinken Teruya. After that, each of the four members take turns with lead vocals on songs composed individually, with three by each of the women. Rinken Teruya assisted with the Uchinaguchi words, and the CD booklet contains both original lyrics and Japanese translations.

Nana Yakabi’s ‘Shima nu Migumi’ sets an early high note and the general level is maintained throughout. ‘Kutushin! Surisasa’ is a lively workout in eisa style, while ‘Tunaka’ has a vocal by Seira Ganaha that sounds uncannily like Tomoko Uehara who is obviously her mentor. Best of all is Sayaka Fukumura’s slower ‘Umi nu Kwamuiuta’ with its irresistibly sad melody. 

Almost all the music is played on sanshin, guitar, and cheren (the hybrid sanshin-guitar instrument). Not credited in the notes but clearly present in a supporting role are other musicians on bass, drums, and electronics.

It would be easy enough to dismiss this as lightweight shimauta aimed at tourists. An obvious comparison can be made with Sadao China’s promotion of new line-ups of Nenes (or Nenez as they are now styled). What makes this more interesting is the emphasis on Uchinaguchi by these young musicians and their enthusiasm for songwriting. They are also fine performers and Yuiyasa! is a joyous album that never descends into some of the plodding pop of recent Nenez offerings.

Yuiyasa! is out now and is released by Rinken Records.