This is Yasukatsu Oshima’s first album for three years. Any new recording by him is usually a cause for celebration and this is no exception. The previous album Shimawataru~Across the Islands contained all original songs but on Kuitsui he has returned to the old songs – and specifically to the Yaeyama Islands – with a set of eleven traditional pieces plus one new song ‘Yunamuri’. He is helped out by just two guests, the popular Kanako Hatoma who adds vocals to four songs and plays sanshin on some others, and the percussionist Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone who plays island drums on half of the tracks.
Oshima writes in his notes: “While Yaeyama Islands are only tiny islands scattered over the sea, their natural environment and regional characteristics are so diverse and rich, giving birth to a wide variety of beautiful songs. These songs were created, sophisticated, perfected and passed down over generations by ordinary people who suffered through a history of hardship.” He believes that folk songs keep changing and they never fit into a rigid frame. He also recalls how men of his grandfather’s generation “used to enjoy songs so playfully and freely without being bound by formalities.”
His version of what is probably the most familiar of these songs, ‘Tubarama’, is sung in the Shiraho style of his own village on Ishigaki island. Most of the songs are slower paced. All of them are sung and played immaculately but always in Oshima’s own way as he carries on the tradition without too much respect for rigidity or formality. The album of his that it most resembles is the 2000 release Bagashima nu Uta~Songs of My Islands which was another collection of Yaeyama traditional songs. In fact, three titles (‘Tubarama’, ‘Sakiyama Bushi’ and ‘Tsuki nu Mapiroma’) appear on both albums.
Despite the sparse presentation with just sanshin and island drums, the new recordings resonate in a deeper and more satisfying way than before. The new album may not be as immediately accessible as some of his others but it has a great strength of its own as Oshima invites us to listen to these stories and vignettes of life as it was lived on his islands. The fact that he has for some years lived in mainland Japan is perhaps even an advantage as he is now able to look more objectively at his own musical heritage.
Kuitsui is out now on Victor. As usual, the CD booklet contains both Japanese and English explanations of all the songs and their lyrics.