More Notes on Nenes

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

It’s almost two years since I wrote the first ‘Notes on Nenes’ for this blog. It’s still there so you can look it up. At that time, my interest in the original Nenes quartet had been rekindled by a meeting with Henry Johnson who was visiting Okinawa from New Zealand where he is Professor in the Department of Music at Otago University.

I’ve only met Henry a few times when he has been let loose on one of his research trips to these islands, but – apart from us being fellow exiled Brits – we always have plenty to talk about and he’s obviously a very fine chap. He is the music expert while I’m just the music enthusiast, so it’s always good to learn more by asking him lots of theoretical questions.

His further planned visits to Okinawa have had to be curtailed owing to the dreaded pandemic so I don’t know when we’ll see each other again. However, on our last meeting he talked of a book he was working on about the Nenes phenomenon. This year the book sees the light of day as part of the Bloomsbury Publishing series of short books on popular music albums.

The Nenes book is published under Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Japan series. These are in-depth examinations of Japanese albums of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (so Okinawa is shoehorned in). Among the titles already published are studies of albums by Perfume and Shonen Knife.

At under 200 pages, the new book is titled Nenes’ Koza Dabasa and subtitled ‘Okinawa in the World Music Market’. As its name suggests it is focused on an analysis of Koza Dabasa the fourth album by Nenes released in 1994. The album received critical acclaim (not least from me) and is widely regarded as their best with contributions from several American musicians including Ry Cooder and David Hidalgo.

This is much more than just a study of the album. What the book also does is to place Okinawan music in relation to Japan and the world. An early chapter on ‘Uchina Pop and Chanpuru Culture’ explains much of the background to the music of these islands. This is followed by a chapter on the members of Nenes and their related personnel such as mentor Sadao China, arranger Kazuya Sahara, and the guest musicians they have worked with.

Another chapter on ‘Island Culture’ discusses the concepts of shima, hometown, and shima-uta, with a detailed look at their recording of the traditional song ‘Kurushima Kuduchi’. Later, there is another close analysis, this time of an original song, ‘Amerika-dori’. This forms part of the chapter ‘War and Peace’, where there is a discussion of history and the relative lack of focus on war and military base issues in much of the Nenes repertoire. Generally, their song lyrics prefer to celebrate the positive aspects of island life. ‘Amerika-dori’, for instance, is a joyful song about the mix of people and cultures in Koza and it steers clear of both the conflict between Okinawa and its military occupiers America and colonial oppressors Japan. It is suggested, however, that it’s possible to read the song in a slightly different way if you scratch beneath the surface.

Koza Dabasa was, of course, a product of the original Nenes line-up, but the book doesn’t shy away from addressing the fact that the group has continually changed its members since that time and has evolved into a kind of music franchise under the direction of Sadao China. His energy is now mostly channelled into promoting live performances at their home venue in Naha where they cater mainly to audiences of tourists.

The appendices to the book gather details of all the recordings and include a run down on members of the ever-changing Nenes line-ups. I also learned some interesting nuggets of peripheral information along the way. I had no idea that Japanese band Shang Shang Typhoon had guested on Cyndi Lauper’s 1986 album Sisters of Avalon – an album I’ve listened to many times. I was also initially surprised that Four Sisters had toured overseas – until I saw the reference to this was from my own book The Power of Okinawa. Thanks for the reminder.

Nenes’ Koza Dabasa is well-written in a readable and clear style. For such a relatively slim volume it covers just about everything you need to know. It may be primarily an academic book, but it will be of great interest to any general reader, myself included, who is an Okinawan music enthusiast. It will be especially valuable to those who would like to know more of the story behind Nenes.

That story continues up to the present day and since the completion of Nenes’ Koza Dabasa there has been yet another new Nenes album release. (Or rather Nenez, as the romanisation of their newest incarnation now appears). The album was released last month and is titled Gajumaru. It is being promoted as music to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of the first Nenes album.

Much like one of its recent predecessors Reborn, the Gajumaru album contains re-recordings of 14 songs from previous albums. Whereas Reborn was a reworking of some of the classic Nenes songs of old, the new release contains what is described as recordings of songs ‘carefully selected’ by Sadao China from four albums by the post-original line-ups: Chura Uta (2002), Shu (2004), Sai (2008), and Okurimono (2010).

The cover image is created in the same style and in similar red colours to the Nenes debut album Ikawu (1991). This would seem to be one for completists only though it may well satisfy tourists and some uncritical Okinawans. For the rest of us, it’s perhaps better to read Henry Johnson’s book and give ourselves a treat by listening again to Koza Dabasa when the original Nenes were at their very best.

Naomi Goeku: Ashita o Shinjite

Posted July 19, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Ashita o Shinjite is a new release by Chatan born singer and sanshin player Naomi Goeku who makes a long overdue album debut in her 70th year. Goeku has a teaching qualification from the Okinawa Minyo Kyokai and is a songwriter as well as an experienced performer who has been singing at various ‘live houses’ and izakaya on Okinawa.

The concept underpinning the album is an optimistic one to celebrate life on these islands and to offer some positive feelings in a time of pandemic. Goeku composed or co-wrote several of the songs while producer Yoshimi Arakaki also lends a hand with songwriting and joins Goeku on sanshin.

A small group of musicians accompany Goeku on some of the tracks with keyboards, sanshin, bass, and guitars. The arrangements of all the songs are by Tatsumi Chibana who is well-known for his promotion of other Okinawan artists as well as for his own hip-hop work with the Duty Free Shopp collective. He plays guitar here on one track.

What we have is a mixed bag of original shimauta starting with ‘Imi nu Hana’, a song composed by Goeku in a typical style found around the islands and ever-present wherever shimauta is played.

The tracks tend to be shared equally between faster and slower moods. ‘Churajima Uchina’ is another typical shimauta (even the title is generically Okinawan) but is none the worse for that and is one of the best tracks in a largely unexceptional but very likeable set. Later, there is ‘Ashibi Shinkanucha’ a bright and shiny piece reminiscent of something that might have been done by Ayame Band.

Two of the songs sung by Goeku were nominated for the Miuta Taisho, an annual awards contest sponsored by Radio Okinawa for more than three decades to find the best new shimauta compositions. Both songs are included in new recordings here. They are ‘Kui nu Umuibana’ (nominated in 2008), and ‘Hana nu Ashibina’ (2012).

The only mild disappointment is the inclusion of ‘Moichido’ midway through the album. It sounds more like a lame Japanese singer-songwriter offering and seems a bit out of place, and frankly unnecessary, among all the Okinawan melodies.   

The album ends on a high note with the song ‘Ashita e’. With its anthemic chorus it manages to leave us suitably uplifted and in a positive mindset.

Ashite o Shinjite will be released this week, on 21st July, by Office Arakachi.

longhai@akagawara.com

Joe Troop: Borrowed Time

Posted July 14, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Joe Troop’s name should be familiar to readers as leader of the band Che Apalache. Two years ago, their album Rearrange My Heart featured a Japanese folk song from Nagano impeccably sung by Troop and given its premiere by the Power of Okinawa. The album went on to receive worldwide acclaim and a Grammy nomination.

Now Troop is back with his first solo album. As an openly gay man who grew up playing bluegrass in the American South, he has been chased off stages and threatened for his radical songs. Undeterred and eager to pursue his beliefs, his new album is 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 on the various tracks.

This tells only a small portion of the story because the album is much more than that. There are songs sung in English, and in Spanish, and sometimes Troop slips effortlessly between the two languages on the same track. Although almost everything is banjo-driven, there are hints of many different styles and genres incorporated into some glorious mixes. The two instrumentals alone display a remarkable eclecticism with ‘Sevilla’ creating a new genre of banjo flamenco.

But the songs and their messages are at the heart of the album. ‘Love Along the Way’ is a positive life-affirming manifesto that sets the tone in a kind of throwback to the spirit of Woody Guthrie. It contains the album’s title, and the recording features Tim O’Brien on mandolin and vocals.

‘Red, White and Blues’ is the most country with its guitar and mandolin, while the message of gay pride on ‘Purdy Little Rainbows’ is delivered with a laconic laid-back vocal reminiscent of Willie Nelson. Meanwhile the lilting ‘Prisionero’ has a Spanish vocal and some great banjo. ‘Mercy for Migrants’ begins like a sombre hymn and Troop is joined for this by the renowned Béla Fleck on banjo and Abigail Washburn on vocals. A song of empathy for migrants and of mercy for all.   

Joe Troop (Photo: Kendall Bailey)

The album’s final track is ‘Heaven on Earth’, and it typifies everything that is so warm, vital, and adventurous about this set of songs and instrumentals. The first half of this plea for togetherness is played and sung in old-time style and then it segues into a completely different Latin rhythm to provide the perfect upbeat ending to a wonderfully successful album.

Protest songs do not have to be earnest or dour and this is something Borrowed Time gets exactly right. It may be almost too eclectic to satisfy everyone with its mix of language and musical styles but those with open ears and hearts should be very entertained and perhaps educated a bit too along the way.

The final word goes to Joe Troop: “What is generally lacking in this country is solidarity. The ruling elites chose to divide and conquer, they pitted us against each other. Ideologies wither fast when enough people realize they share a common oppressor. We don’t have to convince everyone to join us, just enough. Besides, music with a good cause is way more fun.”

Borrowed Time will be released by Free Dirt Records on 20th August.

https://freedirt.net/

Irei no Hi 2021

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

23rd June is a public holiday in the Ryukyus. This is Irei no Hi, the day when all those who died in the Battle of Okinawa are remembered. The total number of dead is currently 241,632.  Yesterday was the 76th anniversary and there were ceremonies throughout the islands.

The main ceremony was held as usual at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park near my home in Itoman. In recent years there has been very sunny weather but this time the rainy season lingers on, and the televised ceremony took place in wet conditions. The pandemic also shows little sign of abating and with Okinawa still in a state of emergency, the event was drastically scaled down with only around 30 invited guests.

The 2021 ceremony at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park (Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo)

Fortunately, this meant there was no appearance from Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who must have been relieved not to face the Okinawan public again. Instead, he sent a video message. His face appeared on a large screen, and he talked of the wounds of the Okinawan people and the need to ease their base burden. It was an emotionless speech of hypocrisy and insincerity from someone who has claimed not to know about the history of Okinawa, or want to talk about it, because he was born after the war.

Much more impressive was the peace poem recited (also partly sung) by Miharu Uehara, aged 13, from Miyako Island. Her poem ‘Mirukuyu no Uta’ (Songs of Peacetime) was chosen from 1,500 entries from schoolchildren around the islands.  

It’s sadly ironic that while people gathered here to remember the dead, just up the road on the Itoman coast the digging continues. This is where remains of the war dead are almost certainly mixed in the earth used as landfill for the unwanted new American base at Henoko. Even Okinawa’s governor Denny Tamaki seems unwilling, or else unable, to put a stop to it. Meanwhile, news this week reported on the continuing danger of many unexploded US shells from the Battle of Okinawa.

While Irei no Hi is a public holiday here, it is just another day in mainland Japan. In a survey conducted this month, and just published in the Okinawa Times newspaper, it was reported that 75.5% of Japanese had never even heard of Irei no Hi. This underlines just how far from justice and fair treatment Okinawa remains, with a large part of its main island still occupied by US bases, and the ‘prefecture’ a colony of Japan.

JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain: Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man

Posted June 22, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

JP Harris sings and plays fretless banjo with Chance McCoy (fiddle and backing vocals) on this ten-track album. The pair give themselves the unlikely name JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain and it’s their debut recording of traditional Appalachian ballads, square dance tunes, and old-time music.

Harris was born in Alabama and brought up in the punk underground. He left home at an early age to travel on the road as a teenager and is now based in Nashville where he works as a carpenter building recording studios and restoring historic buildings. He is also known as a country singer, and as a powerful banjoist playing handmade instruments.

Meeting up again with Chance McCoy (from Old Crow Medicine Show) the two decided to record these songs – and one instrumental – at McCoy’s studio in an old barn in the mountains of West Virginia. McCoy produced. Says Harris, “You are hearing the real me, shoeless in cutoff jeans up in the mountains, playing old music with an old friend.” The story of how this all came about is told by Harris in an illuminating essay in the notes to the album.

The songs were learned through oral tradition and antique songbooks with a nod to many of the musicians who have helped to keep them alive. This being traditional music, there are tales of murder, devils, adoration, love lost, and all manner of weirdness. Among the best-known ballads is the classic ‘Barbry Ellen’ learned from recordings by Jean Ritchie.  

There is also a fine version of ‘Old Bangum’, a playful piece that Harris learned from a cassette recording of children’s songs by members of the Seeger family, sung by Peggy Seeger. The song was revived in recent times by Rayna Gellert, and Harris mentions listening to the version played by her father Dan Gellert.

It’s perhaps no surprise that – Harris being a carpenter in his other incarnation – it is the well-known ‘House Carpenter’ that opens the album, and later on there is the sombre ballad ‘The Little Carpenter’ which is a bit less familiar. There are also some lively hints of bluegrass on a couple of tracks, ‘Closer to the Mill’ and ‘Otto Wood’. 

JP Harris (Photo: Libby Danforth)

There was no detailed plan of how the album should evolve, and in this case, it obviously worked out as the results of just the two of them playing music and seeing what happens are totally compelling. New life is breathed into the songs by Harris and McCoy who play around with different ways of telling the stories and expressing old truths.

The last word should be with JP Harris who concludes his personal essay like this:

“I could write pages about the many facets of this music; why it is still relevant, its impact on various communities’ and individuals’ lives, the problems with its past and the reason we must ensure its future, if not possibly in a different light. But I will leave these thoughts to you, the listener, and hope that if nothing else, you can feel the connection to this uniquely American sound; born of migration, violence, compassion, fear, love, and pure unbridled joy.”

Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man is released on 25th June by Free Dirt Records.

https://freedirt.net/

Sakishima Islands Mix

Posted June 17, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Radio Mixes

Here is my latest music mix which can be listened to now online at K.O.L. Radio. This time it’s a mix of songs from the Sakishima Islands that stretch from Miyako to Yaeyama. The playlist contains some of the best-known traditional songs from these islands as well as some more modern compositions.

The first six tracks are from Miyako and inevitably, there is a song by Miyako’s most famous traditional singer Genji Kuniyoshi who died recently. It is followed by a track from his former pupil, Tadayuki Matsubara, whose debut album is released next week. The Miyako section ends with Satoru Shimoji’s epic arrangement of ‘Togani Ayagu’.

The duo Sakishima Meeting (Isamu Shimoji and Yukito Ara) provide the link between Miyako and Yaeyama that leads into the Yaeyama part of the playlist and takes us to the islands further south. This begins with a song from the late Ishigaki singer Yukichi Yamazato. He was the mentor for Tetsuhiro Daiku whose sparse recording of the most representative Yaeyama traditional song ‘Tubarama’ ends the playlist.

The playlist order is below with artists and song titles:

Hirara ‘Tsunahiki nu Agu’

Isamu Shimoji ‘Banta ga Nmari Zuma’

Genji Kuniyoshi ‘Irabu Togani’

Tadayuki Matsubara ‘Pyarumizu nu Kuicha~Yonamumi nu Anigama’

Miwa Yonashiro ‘Nariyama Ayagu’

Satoru Shimoji ‘Togani Ayagu’

Sakishima Meeting ‘Sakishima no Tema’

Yukichi Yamazato ‘Shibiraoza Bushi’

Parsha Club ‘Gokoku Hojo’

Yasukatsu Oshima with Kanako Hatoma ‘Kunatsuyu’

Hidekatsu ‘Mirukumunari’

Suguru Ikeda ‘Densa Bushi’

Begin ‘Taketomi-jima de Aimasho’

Hatoma Family ‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’

Ayame Band ‘Donan Shima’

Tetsuhiro Daiku ‘Tubarama’

The K.O.L. Radio website has just been updated and is easier than ever to navigate with an archive of all the programmes.

Joseph Spence: Encore

Posted June 3, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

This is an unexpected release of ‘new’ recordings by the late Joseph Spence whose guitar playing has influenced generations of roots musicians around the world. Encore is subtitled Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing, and it captures Spence in 1965 when he was still at the peak of his powers.

The live recordings were made in New York City when Spence appeared in concert along with other artists from the Bahamas. The show was taped by producer and engineer Peter Siegel who looked after Spence on his visit, and there are two further tracks made in Siegel’s own apartment. Soon after, Siegel visited the Bahamas to make field recordings at Spence’s home in Nassau. These three sources make up the 13 tracks on this album. 

Listening to Spence is a strange experience for the newcomer. His voice is anything but smooth and it makes Tom Waits sound like an angel by comparison. The press release puts it likes this: “As he sang, lyrics tumbled over exclamations, swaying between guttural interjection and fast-rhyming patter.”

It’s hard to identify exactly where he’s coming from as there are musical influences from a number of different places with everything underpinned by his inimitable acoustic guitar playing. He’s not quite blues, but he sings gospel, and at times he sounds almost Hawaiian – but the one constant is that he is always playfully experimental.

The album includes hymns he grew up with on the islands, as well as the fishermen’s songs he came to know well, and other pieces from further afield. Much of Spence’s work is grounded in the rare vocal traditions of the Bahamas and of the original Bahamian rhyming groups of which he was a part, while the guitar playing is always nimble and wonderfully expressive.

Joseph Spence (Photo: Guy Droussart)

There are classic Spence songs such as ‘Out on the Rolling Sea’, ‘Bimini Gal’, and ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’. One of the most powerful is ‘Run Come See Jerusalem’ which tells the harrowing story of the sinking of the ship Pretoria in 1929 when the Bahamas was hit by a hurricane. Spence was just 19 at the time but remembers running to help and pulling bodies from the water.

Echoes of his legacy can be heard in many contemporary guitarists, from Richard Thompson to Michael Chapman to Sunny War. But no-one was quite like Joseph Spence, the most brilliant guitarist and interpreter of traditional song. His creativity lives on in these recordings.

Encore will be released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on 23rd July. The CD booklet has more than 30 pages with notes on each of the songs, essays, and rare photos. A vinyl LP release will follow in October 2021.

https://folkways.si.edu/joseph-spence/encore

Tadayuki Matsubara: Churaumi, Churashima

Posted May 10, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

This new album by singer and sanshin player Tadayuki Matsubara (released under the full title Churaumi, Churashima ~ Ayagu, Miyako no Uta ~) is, as its name suggests, a celebration of the traditional songs of the Miyako islands.

The music of Miyako has a unique quality that distinguishes it from that of Okinawa to the north and Yaeyama to the south. The islands are especially known for their love songs and sad melodies as well as for dances and celebrations connected with island life and work in the fields and at sea.

The most well-known exponent of these songs is, of course, the iconic singer Genji Kuniyoshi who sadly died last week at the age of 90, and it seems Tadayuki Matsubara is set to follow in his footsteps. Matsubara was, in fact, born in Urasoe, Okinawa in 1992, and his grandparents and mother are natives of Miyako. He learned singing and sanshin as a pupil of Genji Kuniyoshi from the age of eight until twenty and was also able to join him to perform on stage.

Through this experience, he says, he learned about the heart of Miyako songs. Finally, at the age of 27 he decided to devote himself seriously to traditional songs and music as he wants as many people as possible to listen to these island songs. Now we have this debut album as evidence of that aim.

Most of the familiar and much loved Miyako songs are here as well as some lesser-known ones. There are versions of the classic ‘Togani Ayagu’, ‘Irabu Togani’, and ‘Nariyama Ayagu’ as well as livelier songs such as ‘Nima nu Shu’ and the spirited ‘Pyarumizu nu Kuicha~Yonamumi nu Anigama’ with shimadaiko and female backing vocals so typical of this music (see video below). There is also a duet with Yoshiko Kuniyoshi (Genji’s wife) on the Miyako love song ‘Shin Kanushagamayo’ which has lyrics by Genji Kuniyoshi.

Churaumi, Churashima (Beautiful Sea, Beautiful Islands) was produced by Tsukasa Kohama who also chose the song selections with Matsubara. There are 16 tracks and a running time of 68 minutes. Miyako songs are frequently played with stark and spare sanshin accompaniment. Matsubara captures the mood perfectly on an album that would surely have made his great mentor proud.

Churaumi, Churashima ~ Ayagu, Miyako no Uta ~ will be released by Respect on 23rd June.

http://www.respect-record.co.jp

Speak, Okinawa

Posted May 7, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

The English Football League Championship has just been won by the club I support. This means next season Norwich City will play in the Premier League. Naturally, I felt like shouting this news from the rooftops last Saturday night. But that would have upset my neighbours in Okinawa who have never heard of my team anyway.

Instead, I should have gone on social media to post, tweet, like, share, and emote all about it. However, while Norwich were being crowned champions, they and all other football clubs in England were boycotting social media platforms in a three-day protest about the abuse (racial and otherwise) footballers have suffered. This online abuse has gone unpunished by the social media companies. I supported the boycott so had to hold back my online celebrations.

A boycott alone won’t solve anything, but it is a gesture worth making. Despite its darker side, social media is frequently used as a power for good. Not least as a valuable source to enable people with similar interests to share ideas and information, to keep in touch, make useful contacts, and to promote campaigns for positive change.

I was reminded of this when reading the new book Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina. I had missed this memoir when it came out earlier this year but was then alerted to its existence by the author Akemi Johnson, who I follow, when she tweeted the link to her Washington Post review of Brina’s book.

Akemi Johnson has been mentioned here before. Her own book Night in the American Village (2019) is an enlightening account of the lives of women in relation to American bases on Okinawa. The new book by Elizabeth Miki Brina is also strongly connected with Okinawa but hers is a memoir and in some ways, it reminded me of Kyoko Mori’s The Dream of Water (1995) especially in its narrator’s search for an understanding of family, roots, culture, and heritage.

Brina’s parents met in a nightclub in Okinawa, her mother a local waitress, and her father a white American soldier from a wealthy family. Elizabeth was brought up mostly in America where she was embarrassed by her mother’s accent and Okinawan background. Siding with her father she writes of pushing her mother away and then, after years of rebellion and self-destruction, to the gradual realisation of Okinawa’s tragic history, and eventually towards a reconciliation of sorts with her mother.

The memoir is written in a series of short chapters with the cumulative effect of telling both the story of her life up to now, her relationship with her parents, and her time growing up as an Asian-American.

It does two important things. First, it tells the story of the tortured relationship with her mother that leads to the beginnings of a reconciliation and to an apology. This part of the book is at times heartrending. There are no epiphanies because the turning point is always much more gradual and imperceptible. But the book also does much more than this.  

Its second important achievement – also heartrending – is to tell in short, simple, straightforward prose, the history of Okinawa. These chapters are written in bite-sized pieces covering the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom and up to the present and the ongoing protests over the base construction at Henoko. Being told from the point of view of island people living through these times creates a sense of immediacy and realism that is quite remarkable.

In fact, this is a remarkable and moving book. There are a couple of very tiny mistakes with Japanese words and, not surprisingly, I found the description of the sanshin as a ‘sanshin guitar’ grating. (Nitpicking is a bad habit of mine, or so I’ve been told). But Speak, Okinawa also moved me to tears and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

And to get back to where I started. The online abuse of footballers in England is bad enough. But what we are seeing now with Asian hate, not just in America but elsewhere in the world, is utterly despicable. Elizabeth Miki Brina’s book is infused with the sense of her being uncomfortably perceived by others as an Asian not wholly belonging to America. It shows the effects of colonialism and racism and offers ideas of how to fight back.

Closer to home, the ongoing abuse of Okinawa itself by Japan and America is something the outside world needs to know about.

Genji Kuniyoshi

Posted May 6, 2021 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

The great Miyako singer and sanshin player Genji Kuniyoshi has died at the age of 90. The iconic performer of the traditional songs of his islands passed away from prostate cancer in hospital in Okinawa this week, on 4th May. His funeral is tomorrow (7th) in Urasoe.

In the same way that singers such as Rinsho Kadekaru and Shouei Kina are inextricably linked with the old Okinawan songs, so Kuniyoshi has long been the foremost representative of the songs of Miyako. Born in 1930, he grew up listening to his grandmother’s folk songs and went on to become the best-known exponent of songs such as ‘Togani Ayagu’ and ‘Nariyama Ayagu’ as well as being renowned for his many performances of the lively ‘Kuicha’ dance song.

I was fortunate to see him perform at the Ryukyu Festival held at Osaka Dome in 1998, and then saw him again ten years ago in Okinawa. There have also been many recordings over the years, but his 18-track album Irabu Togani made for Victor in 2002 contains all the essential songs and was released at a time when he was being rediscovered by a wider audience. He will be sadly missed.

This is his live performance of ‘Togani Ayagu’: