Okinawan Classics Mix

Posted December 27, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Radio Mixes

Here’s some great Okinawan music to listen to at the end of the year. It’s my latest music mix for K.O.L. Radio and it’s online now with a link below. This one is called Okinawan Classics and is a collection I’ve put together of mostly early recordings by the first generation of Okinawan recording artists. All the musicians are from Okinawa.

Choki Fukuhara began recording and releasing albums on his Marufuku label in the late 1940s and was also a singer and musician. One of his own tracks opens the mix. It’s followed by the original 1962 recording of Misako Oshiro’s hit ‘Kataumui’ a song written for her by Teihan China who is also featured elsewhere in the playlist.

Misako Oshiro (Photo: Stephen Mansfield)

Four especially important artists appear more than once. They are Rinsho Kadekaru, Shouei Kina, Yuki Yamazato, and Misako Oshiro. Seijin Noborikawa is also here with ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’ and so is Rinsuke Teruya (father of the Rinken Band founder).

Four Sisters – forerunners of Nenes – sing ‘Shimajimakaishi’ a song later recorded by Nenes themselves. There is also a track by Hoptones, who were a popular male vocal quartet. The mix ends with a track by Kame Itokazu who formed her own school of song and dance and was one of the earliest recorded women singers.

This is the playlist order with artists and song titles:

Choki Fukuhara ‘Yutakara Bushi’

Misako Oshiro ‘Kataumui’

Rinsho Kadekaru with Shuei Kohama ‘Tomaitakahashi Bushi~Umi Chinbora Bushi’

Koutoku Tsuha ‘Nanyo Hamachidori Bushi’

Yuki Yamazato ‘Motobu Nakuni~Kaisare’

Shouei Kina ‘Kayoibune’

Hiromi Shiroma ‘Chibumi’

Seijin Noborikawa ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’

Rinsuke Teruya ‘Nenju Gyoji Kuduchi’

Yuki Yamazato with Shouei Kina, Teihan China, and Tsuneo Fukuhara ‘Kui nu Hana’

Rinsho Kadekaru ‘Jidai no Nagare’

Hoptones ‘Hei Niseta’

Misako Oshiro ‘Sagichijuya’

Shouei Kina ‘Sah Sah Bushi’

Minoru Kinjo & Yuki Yamazato ‘Boshi Kuma’

Teihan China ‘Nageki no Ume’

Four Sisters ‘Shimajimakaisha’

Shotoku Yamauchi ‘Nakunigwa~Timatu

Kame Itokazu ‘Amisuku Bushi’

Roots Round-up 2021

Posted December 8, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

It’s that time again when everyone chooses their best albums of the year, so here are some of my favourites.  

In 2021 several new Okinawan releases came my way but best of all was Utayui by Chihiro Kamiya. This was her first full-length album for nine years and it really confirmed her place as one of the great singers from these islands with a set of songs mixing both old and new. The review of Kamiya’s album (and of all the albums here) can be found on the Power of Okinawa blog.

Next in my top three is the debut album Churaumi, Churashima by Miyako singer and sanshin player Tadayuki Matsubara who is following strongly in the footsteps of his mentor Genji Kuniyoshi who died earlier this year. Matsubara captures the mood of his islands perfectly on an album of traditional songs that would surely have made Kuniyoshi himself proud.

My third choice must be the double CD Mo Ashibi Magic recorded live in Tokyo in 1999 by Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman and released for the first time this year. As I wrote in the review: “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.”

Of the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ recordings to reach me, here are three favourites, in no special order:

Spiers & Boden’s Fallow Ground was a very welcome return for the Bellowhead pair working again as a duo with a great mix of songs and tunes. The two Englishmen made an intoxicatingly vibrant noise to prove they are still at the top of their game. While mainly an upbeat set, the instrumental track ‘The Fog’ is possibly the best thing John Spiers has ever done.

Meanwhile from America there were two recordings that I listened to more than any other. The first was the Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno self-titled album which contained a lovely selection of original songs, typified by the melancholy ‘Love and Chains’ (see video). It’s a remarkable album made with great skill, care, and love by young musicians already steeped in a tradition way beyond music fashions.

My other favourite was Joe Troop’s solo debut Borrowed Time a collection of self-composed protest songs plus a couple of instrumentals. The dominant sound is that of Troop’s voice and banjo and to this he adds some gifted musicians while slipping effortlessly between English and Spanish vocals. 

With the persistent pandemic affecting live shows there weren’t many trips out but I did see a terrific set from the Okinawa Americana duo Merry and David Ralston at Mod’s in Chatan last month.

This was with their full band line-up for the CD release of their second album Tachi. The earlier digital release was reviewed here some time ago. There’s another chance to see them when they play on 24th December at Stage Coco in Itoman. I’ll be there to start the Christmas celebrations.

Cover Story

Posted November 24, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

I read this month of an exhibition of the ‘world’s worst album covers’ in Huddersfield, England. It was all the work of a record collector who assembled the showcase after going on a lengthy mission to find disastrous LP covers. He wasn’t just interested in bad cover designs: his first rule was that the cover had to make him laugh.

This got me thinking about Okinawan covers and I wondered if there were any from these islands that might have been contenders. There’s one in my own collection that has always struck me as being so hastily put together that it never fails to provoke merriment in our house. This is Satukui Chijuya, a duet album by Koutoku Tsuha and Satoko Oshiro.

Now don’t get me wrong. Koutoku Tsuha is one of the greatest singers and sanshin players of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists. His partner here, Satoko Oshiro, was originally one of his pupils. It’s a fine recording. But unless Oshiro is a giant of a woman – or Tsuha has shrunk alarmingly in his later years – they have clearly not been photographed together. It looks more as if Oshiro is leading her prematurely aged little boy safely through the sugar cane field.

This isn’t the only Okinawan example of photos taken at different times and pasted together but it’s the one that makes me laugh. There are a few other covers that could, I suppose, lay claim to being either disastrous or funny. One in the former camp is the cover for the album Challenge by Akane Murayoshi that came out ten years ago and was reviewed here at the time.

This went a bit overboard with its garish design which does the singer no favours. Sadly, the album itself is no great shakes either. It took a while but to her credit, Murayoshi has completely recovered from this and went on to contribute to one of my albums of the year when she appeared on Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 along with Hirokazu Matsuda, Seibun Tokuhara, and Mika Uchizato.

My other example is the cover for the compilation Okinawa Sobayasan no BGM. It was released by Respect in 2006 and this is a case of intentionally funny artwork so, in fact, it succeeds very well. The album contains a selection of songs related to the joys of eating Okinawa soba with diversions into the delights of mango and awamori. It also includes the wonderfully tacky ‘Goya Bushi’ by Yoko Yokota.

There may be others, but these are the ones that came to mind, though it would be harsh to say any of them would find a place in an exhibition of ‘worst’ covers. Whether intentionally or not they did make me smile though.

Floating Room: Shima

Posted November 15, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Floating Room is the musical project of Uchinanchu-American Maya Stoner whose Tired and True EP was reviewed here last year. Now she and her band are back with a new recording, the four track EP Shima.

Stoner is from Portland via the Ryukyus and although Floating Room’s sound is not at all ‘Okinawan’ on first listening (and is more punk than roots) she has an empathy with and understanding of her own ancestry that soon reveals itself in the songs she writes. This time she signposts her background by titling this short set Shima.

The bright opening track ‘See You Around’ is driven by some jangly electric guitar alongside Stoner’s voice. This is followed by ‘I Wrote This Song for You’. It’s a song that is hard to place in time: it might seem at first a throwback to the 1960s with a few twists and turns reminiscent of Love’s Forever Changes. But it’s also bang up to date and with a raw edge that ends in feedback and a screamed vocal.

‘Firetruck’ is a gloriously catchy slice of pure pop and then the EP ends with its most crucial song ‘Shimanchu’ (Island People) in which Stoner directly addresses her connections to the Ryukyus and the ambivalence and angst that accompany it, as she sings: “Don’t call my island paradise / I’m an islander / Your silence disturbs me”. She manages to pull off the remarkable feat of displaying all her strength as well as her vulnerability in one song.

The band describe the song ‘Shimanchu’ as a paean to Stoner’s Uchinanchu heritage and a retort to the condescension she faces daily as an Asian American woman. The lines repeated throughout are: “I’m an islander but I’m away from my island, so I am the only island here.” Of course, she ends up screaming again.

This is another fine outing from Floating Room who go upwards on a path quite unlike anyone else’s. The tracks were recorded in a single day in Oregon and were produced by Mo Troper who also played guitar, bass, and drums. Maya Stoner and her band are currently at the start of an extensive tour of North America that goes on until just before Christmas. If only they would come to Okinawa in the future.

Shima is out now on digital and vinyl and is released by Famous Class Records.

Dreamtime for the Ryukyus

Posted October 20, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

I read a news report this week about the Marshall Islands, a nation comprising more than a thousand islands in the north Pacific. Because of rising sea levels, some of the islands are likely to disappear completely as they go underwater. Majuro, the islands’ capital is projected to find 40% of its buildings permanently flooded. Marshall Islands’ status as a nation would even come under threat.

It’s not such a stretch to imagine a similar scenario eventually arising in parts of the Ryukyus. As if there wasn’t already enough for the islanders to contend with along with colonisation by Japan and land taken without the people’s consent for American military bases.

Dreamtime…with shisa

This is all a far cry from the tropical tourist paradise frequently portrayed, or the ‘healing islands’ image of mainland Japanese: an image that never fails to annoy me. Apathy among the electorate in Japan also means this month’s election won’t change anything for Okinawa. Those who do vote will return a government that has no interest in democracy or the will of the Okinawan people. Sadly, many Okinawans are disillusioned with politics too and see resistance as futile.  

Outside these islands (and even within Japan) there is little or no awareness of the history of the Ryukyus and of their ongoing problems. However, there have been several books recently published in English by ‘outsiders’ who through their writings have tried to draw attention to what goes on here.

Welsh investigative journalist Jon Mitchell has done painstaking work, in the face of much opposition, to uncover secrets the American military would rather we hadn’t found out. Akemi Johnson has written an excellent book drawing on the stories of women connected in various ways with the bases; and Elizabeth Miki Brina’s superb memoir Speak, Okinawa seamlessly blends a summary of Ryukyu history with her own experiences of coming to terms with her Okinawan heritage.

All these books have been mentioned before on the Power of Okinawa, but now there’s a new addition to this small but distinguished group of publications that in their different ways have all focussed on the predicament facing Okinawa. This time it comes in the form of a novel by English author Venetia Welby whose new book Dreamtime is set largely in the Ryukyu Islands. 

This is Welby’s second novel and she spent considerable time travelling in the Ryukyus while researching the background for her book. The story is set in a dystopian near future and its protagonist is Sol, a young American woman who emerges from rehab in Arizona to embark on a journey, together with friend Kit, that takes her to Okinawa in search of her absentee father who was stationed on the island as a marine. All of this takes place against a backdrop of global climate meltdown.

In what is also something of a road novel, there are scenes in Naha, Chatan, and Yomitan, as well as the outer islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote. These locations along with the characters and cultural depictions from the Ryukyus are convincingly represented and it’s clear that Welby has done her research thoroughly.

But this is a novel, not a factual account, and is all the better for it. It should first be appreciated as literature and as such is a very satisfying read. The story is fast-paced, and the genre defies categorisation. It’s science fiction set in a near future (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a relative). At the same time, it looks back to the history of the Ryukyu Islands. Important issues are addressed such as climate change, the evils of colonisation, and the continual dangers arising from hosting military bases. There’s also a love story at its heart.  

Welby has done a fine job of creating an unusually compelling and prescient novel that should be of great interest to all readers, not just those with a particular interest in Okinawa. Perhaps it will also help to awaken the outside world to what is happening in the Ryukyus now and what might happen in the future.

The Power of Okinawa – 20th Anniversary

Posted October 5, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s hard to believe that the book The Power of Okinawa: Roots Music from the Ryukyus is already celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. For it was in October 2001 that the 1st edition (the pink one) was published in Japan.

The updated, expanded, and much improved 2nd edition followed nine years later, not long after I moved to Okinawa. The 2nd edition (the blue one) is still on sale in some bookstores around Okinawa and is the one to read if you can find it.  

Meanwhile the Power of Okinawa blog continues to update with occasional reviews of new Okinawan releases plus some other roots music from overseas. There is also the odd ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ rant, while the ‘Features Archive’ is the place to go for some other articles I’ve published in music magazines over the years.

Thanks to everyone who has read the book and/or followed the blog!

Camp Talganie Soundscape

Posted October 4, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

A Soundscape Okinawa pre-event took place yesterday in the grounds and building of Camp Talganie, a small museum of contemporary art in a picturesque setting in Komesu, Itoman.

The venue is within walking distance of my home, and I took these photos yesterday. The relaxed and enjoyable pre-event was well attended by audience and participants alike on a very warm and sunny afternoon:

This pre-event was for the main Soundscape Okinawa. Last year’s Soundscape was also previewed on the Power of Okinawa blog and the next one will be held at the same ancient Ryukyu site of Itokazu Castle in Tamagusuku, Nanjo. The website information states:

“Soundscape Okinawa adds a layer of sound to the scenic beauty of a traditional Gusuku site… A mixture of concert and ‘exhibition of sounds’, musicians create a soundscape that is ‘in tune’ with a location of stunning beauty, while providing the audience with a new kind of experience in which the amalgamation of landscape and soundscape construct a different notion of environment.”

The Soundscape Okinawa main event will be on the 20th and 21st November. Further details in English, including a video of what to expect, are to be found here:

Harararude ~Yonaguni no Warabe Uta~

Posted September 29, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The new album Harararude contains a rare collection of Yonaguni children’s songs performed by three singers from that island – Izumi Ota, Keiko Yonaha, and Yuu Yonaha.

The original idea came from producer Kenichi Takahashi. Last year his record company Respect released an album of songs from Yonaguni by Yuu Yonaha. That album – Kaze no Fuku Shima – was reviewed here. Takahashi found himself moved by the children’s songs of Yonaguni and especially by their words. Discovering there were many more songs like this he decided to ask Yonaha to record them along with his sister Izumi Ota and wife Keiko. This album is the result.

What distinguishes these songs lyrically from those in Japan is that the words of the Yonaguni songs frequently describe the tough situation faced by families on the island, who were often at the mercy of harsh taxation and the outside elements. By contrast, Japanese children’s songs have less significant words and are more connected to the idea of play.

There are 24 children’s songs here and it all begins with the most familiar, the title track ‘Harararude’. (It was also the title of an An-chang Project album several years ago). ‘Nagayama’ is another well-known song while ‘Nichi nu Sanaiti’ describes the difficult lives of Yonaguni people: the children of the song pray that it won’t rain because their parents are working outside. Some songs are more carefree and ‘Kazoe Uta’ is one in which the names of fish are sung and counted.

It’s very unusual for these songs to be gathered like this and introduced on one album. Izumi Ota did extensive research to find the correct versions of the songs and the three singers combine to sing them. Most of the vocals are unaccompanied in the way they would have been sung originally and each track is very short.

Following the 24 children’s songs there are six lengthier bonus tracks – in fact these bonus tracks add up to more than half of the album’s 51 minutes. Here we find performances of other songs such as ‘Densa Bushi’ and ‘Tubarama’ sung in their Yonaguni variants. For these bonus tracks the three singers are joined by Toru Yonaha and Kazuaki Yamaguchi on fue and vocals.

A 44-page booklet accompanies the CD, containing photos and Japanese translations of the songs as well as the original lyrics. Top marks once again to all involved for revitalising these island songs from Yonaguni.

Harararude ~Yonaguni no Warabe Uta~ will be released by Respect Records on 3rd November.

Spiers & Boden: Fallow Ground

Posted September 21, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

It’s been ten years since the last Spiers & Boden album The Works but now, after forays into other projects – most notably with the folk big band Bellowhead – the pair are back with this new album of songs and tunes, Fallow Ground.

The highly regarded Bellowhead established themselves as England’s folk super group (and were also enthusiastically reviewed on the Power of Okinawa). The band decided to go their separate ways in 2014 but two founding members, John Spiers and Jon Boden, had been playing as a duo for a long time before that and have now been making music together for 20 years.

And it’s great to have them back with this new album recorded during the UK lockdown. In fact, it’s a sheer joy and shows how important they are and how much their duo work has been missed. Right from the start there are two superb performances by an older, wiser, and better than ever John Spiers (vocals, melodeons, and concertinas), and Jon Boden (vocals, fiddle, and the occasional stomp).

The first of these is the Australian song ‘Bluey Brink’ learned from the great Norfolk traditional singer Peter Bellamy. It’s a wonderfully rhythmic and jaunty tale with excellent use of light and shade. More fun immediately follows with ‘Butter and Cheese and All’ another song recorded by Bellamy who learned it from Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner.

The title track is a love song while ‘Yonder Banks’ is another standout that deals with memories of lost time. There is also an atmospheric version of what is probably the best-known traditional song, ‘Reynardine’. It’s most familiar to me from Sandy Denny’s version sung with Fairport Convention all those years ago. Although it’s the most ominous and potentially dramatic of the selections, Boden sings it with admirable restraint and the arrangement breathes new life into a song of brooding menace.

But let’s not forget the tunes, as Fallow Ground has plenty of them and the album comprises seven instrumental tracks mixed in with the six songs. They include Morris dances, jigs, and hornpipes – see the video below. My own favourite though is the slower, melodic original piece ‘The Fog’ by John Spiers with its beautiful interplay of fiddle and melodeon. It almost brought me to tears (in a good way).

A slightly surprising thing – this being English folk song – is the absence of the usual doom-laden ballads of murder and death. The overall tone is far more upbeat, and Jon Boden has commented: “I guess we were looking for songs with a sense of fun.” On this they have succeeded and then some. With only the two of them and a bunch of songs and tunes, they have made an intoxicatingly vibrant noise. They are at the top of their game.

Fallow Ground is out now and is released by Hudson Records.

The Fragility of Life

Posted September 13, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

Okinawa is still in a so-called ‘state of emergency’ because of the pandemic. Despite this, the beach near my home is more crowded than ever with weekend visitors, swimmers, snorkelers, and surfers. Few seem to take much notice of the crisis. But last week all this was overshadowed for me by news of how fragile life can be when I learned of the very sudden and unexpected death of my friend and neighbour Nao Nishimata. 

About ten years ago I was contacted for the first time by Nao. She had heard of my interest in Okinawan music and got in touch to introduce herself. It turned out that not only did she live close by, but she was living in the very same street just a few seconds walk from my home. 

Shortly afterwards, Nao introduced me to the Okinawan-Peruvian singer Lucy Nagamine and the two of them came to my house armed with sanshin, guitar and sanba to perform a live set in my own living room. Nao was a great organiser and as well as playing guitar for Lucy she was important in promoting her career in Okinawa. I once asked if she was Lucy’s manager, but she always insisted on describing herself simply as a ‘supporter’.

Nao (left) and Lucy at my home, February 2011

She arranged for me to interview Lucy that year for the UK’s fRoots magazine (now in the Features Archive of this blog). And in August of that year, she invited my family to a beach party in Nanjo where a photo session took place for the release of a new Lucy album. We are all there, captured on the CD inlay photo, dancing on the beach. Later that evening she and Lucy played at our local festival.

Three years ago, when Basque singer Mikel Urdangarin came to Okinawa for the Basque Ryukyu Project, Nao came to my aid again with ideas for venues for him to play, and she invited Mikel to be the guest on Ichariba Amigos! the weekly radio show she hosted so expertly. After playing music together on the show, she and Lucy then spent the rest of the day with him introducing him to all things Okinawan.

In her unobtrusive way Nao was also part of many other activities involving Okinawan music and the performing arts and she had connections everywhere. This was brought home to me at her funeral ceremony last week attended by so many people, some coming from mainland Japan. Apart from all this, she was the finest neighbour it’s possible to have. She is already greatly missed.

But the sadness of last week doesn’t end there as just three days after Nao’s passing came the news that English singer-guitarist-composer Michael Chapman had died at his home at the age of 80. Michael had been one of my teenage heroes ever since I first saw and met him at the Jacquard Folk Club in Norwich back in the 1960s. I’ll repeat (from a previous blog post) how this came about on the evening I went to see the Incredible String Band:

“… a small man with a northern accent appeared with a guitar and asked if he could play. He went on and performed to a very enthusiastic response. This turned out to be Michael Chapman. He almost stole the ISB’s thunder with his songs and guitar skills and a couple of weeks later was booked to play as guest at the club. He soon became a regular visitor to the area and his second album Fully Qualified Survivor contained ‘Postcards of Scarborough’ a song that to this day brings back many memories – even though I’ve still never been to Scarborough.

Chapman soon became a fixture on the folk circuit and went on to a long career with numerous albums. In the 1990s I finally ran into him again in London when I went to see him play at a small club and he was just as good as ever.”

Michael Chapman

That London meeting – in 1995 – was the last time I saw him in person. We talked during the break, he remembered me from the folk club days, and he was curious about why I was living in Kobe at the time. The city had just been struck by a major earthquake. He gave me a copy of his novel Firewater Dreams which he signed and inscribed “To John after all these years”.

He had just made the album Navigation which was a huge return to form. Much more was to follow and in his last years he made two of his best albums 50 recorded in America and True North (both reviewed on this blog) and was discovered by a new younger audience. We stayed in touch for a while after that last meeting and I tried unsuccessfully to arrange some dates in Japan for him in the 90s which is something I always regret not being able to do.

Michael Chapman was never a big star, but he was uncompromising in his musical honesty and integrity, and he managed to create and sustain a living as a professional musician for more than half a century. His unique guitar style draws on elements of blues and jazz as much as it does on the folk tag that was often erroneously given to him. He leaves behind a large body of recorded work – I’m listening again to some of it now – and there won’t be another like him. I just wish we could have met again.