England’s roots revivalists

Posted November 22, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

Here’s another one for the archive from long ago. In April 1995 – just three months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake – I interviewed folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick before a concert in Osaka on their tour of Japan. It was an exciting meeting, for me at least, as my enthusiasm for English folk music had been reawakened around that time partly because of my discovery of the roots music of Okinawa. It’s strange how things can work out that way.

Both musicians were very approachable and we talked of many other things including the earthquake, Martin’s daughter Eliza (already a budding folk star) and the chances of Blackburn Rovers winning the Premier League. A few years later I met Martin Carthy again, very briefly, at the annual Cropredy Festival in Oxfordshire. It seems odd now that I refer to him in the interview as a ‘veteran’ as he is still very active today and continues to perform at the age of 76.

Dave Swarbrick also had a long and successful career and he toured the UK with Martin Carthy for the last time in 2015. Sadly, he died in June 2016.

England’s roots revivalists

John Potter meets folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick

Are we about to experience another folk revival? Veteran folksinger Martin Carthy thinks so. “Suddenly there’s a whole lot of 18 to 24 year olds who are taking an interest on their own account. Many of them are the children of old buggers like us but a lot of them aren’t. Musical horizons have widened in the last few years. People have heard all these different kinds of music and maybe they’ve started thinking that perhaps they’ve got one of their very own and have gone looking in that direction.”

Singer, guitarist and mandolin player Martin Carthy was on his first trip to Japan. Many years ago he partnered Dave Swarbrick in England’s most famous folk duo. Now reformed as an occasional touring duo, Carthy and Swarbrick made a whistle-stop six day visit to Japan in April and spoke to me before their concert at Osaka’s Muse Hall. Minutes later, they delighted the appreciative Japanese audience with a stunning two hour set. The years were rolled back and the confidence and sheer joy of their performance shone through.

Swarbrick (left) and Carthy: this photo was taken on stage in Osaka just after their concert.

Swarbrick’s former band Fairport Convention (who play at the same venue on June 26) practically invented English folk-rock at the end of the 60s. Their 1969 album Liege and Lief, featuring a number of traditional songs played with electric instruments, is still the yardstick by which all subsequent mixing of old and new has to be judged. What the Pogues were to do with Irish music had already been defined by Fairport many years before. The Fairport line-up of that year has changed almost beyond recognition as Richard Thompson left to pursue a successful solo career and bassist Ashley Hutchings to form a new band, Steeleye Span. Vocalist Sandy Denny – perhaps the greatest English singer of all – died tragically after a fall at the age of 31, and violinist Dave Swarbrick eventually left after 13 years with the band. Fairport seems to have thrived on the changes, though. Now fronted by original member Simon Nicol, they have released an impressive new album, Jewel in the Crown which has received rave reviews.

In the 70s, Carthy also had two brief spells as a member of Fairport offshoot, Steeleye Span. How do they view the change back from the big electric band sound to the acoustic partnership? “Duos are not always satisfying”, says Swarbrick, “but ours is to us, I suppose, because we aim to extend what we do. I like playing in groups too, as there is more chance to improvise. There was plenty of opportunity for that with Fairport. In comparing the two groups I always thought that Steeleye added rock to folk, and Fairport added folk to rock.”

“But”, says Carthy, “the great thing that Fairport did for folkies was to bring in that element of really free blowing. It was different every time. With Steeleye we always played arrangements. And that’s fine. It just makes the two things different. Of the two bands I think Fairport is the really interesting one because they change around so much.”

Both Carthy and Swarbrick are now involved in another new project, the Band of Hope. The five member acoustic band, formed to play what they call ‘songs of dissent’, released a debut album Rhythm and Reds last year.

Carthy is well known as a writer and adapter of songs with a strong leftist political and social message. “I think the political is an important part of folk music. There was definitely a time in the 70s when it became a little bit like going to a museum – which can be very nice, but is not connected with anything that matters to me. Folk music was going through a bad period and I began to think about the time when I was 18 to 21 and there was always something interesting happening. How come it wasn’t there any more? Because people aren’t basically that different, are they? Their aspirations are similar. So I rethought my repertoire, dumped a lot of stuff and focused more on socially relevant material.”

Cover of the duo’s 1990 album Life and Limb recorded in the USA.

In 1982, soon after the Falklands War, at a folk festival in England, Carthy realized that there was a need to fight back in song. “A guy stood up and he sang a song called ‘Ghost Story’ which was about the ghost of a soldier coming back and haunting Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street. And he got booed. That staggered me. And enraged me too. That’s when I realized that things had gone badly adrift. I mean, people didn’t have to agree, but in the 60s they would never have booed.”

The situation is now a bit better following the arrival on the music scene of the likes of Billy Bragg who, says Carthy, “shook people up. But in Australia this year it was very noticeable how much more optimistic the Australian people are. In England it’s not like that. In Australia, I suppose, it can be a bit overwhelming.”

“Yes”, adds Swarbrick, who now lives there, “they keep telling me I should lighten up!”

The traditional song is still the major part of the Carthy/Swarbrick repertoire though and I wondered how Martin Carthy kept coming up with so many ‘new’ traditional songs. “I just read all the time and find songs that way. I’ve now got a fairly good library of slightly more obscure books. I can still find new things after all these years because you always miss something in books until you read again and again. Sometimes it’s nice to experiment and marry the wrong song with the wrong tune. And sometimes it’s nice to just do it straight and interesting things happen.”

Later this year they get together again to tour England and next March plan an invasion of America. But for the moment they have gone their separate ways – to Robin Hood’s Bay on the north coast of England and to the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.

(Kansai Time Out, June 1995).

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Seijin Noborikawa: Seigwa Yaibin

Posted November 17, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The important Okinawan singer and sanshin player Seijin Noborikawa – nicknamed Seigwa – died in 2013. His later career was very active and is already well-documented with several albums recorded for the Respect label including a career retrospective, a double live album, and duets with Misako Oshiro. Now we can add the unexpected release of Seigwa Yaibun an album containing some of his last live performances.

These are all from the annual Koza Terurin festival which celebrates the life of Rinsuke Teruya, another important character from an earlier generation of Okinawan musicians. The recordings are from three festivals and cover the years 2009 to 2011. What is remarkable is the high quality and clarity of sound. The tracks also blend together seamlessly so that we could be hearing the same live show.

On all of the performances Noborikawa is joined by his former pupil Hajime Nakasone, himself an established artist now with two solo albums to his credit in recent times. Despite Nakasone’s comparative youth his vocals and phrasing sound uncannily like his mentor’s. On some songs the two of them are also accompanied by Shuken Maekawa and Toru Yonaha.

In Okinawa different songs often segue into each other so we have both ‘Nakuni~Yanbaruteimato’ and ‘Nakuni~Hantabaru’ while of special interest is the final track ‘Tubarama~Rokucho Bushi’. Unusually, the Ishigaki song ‘Tubarama’ is sung by two men – Noborikawa and  Nakasone – with the former improvising in his typically playful and inventive way while the latter sticks to the standard path.

There is some expected talk between tracks by Noborikawa but this is edited to a minimum and the album has a running time of 45 minutes on which the songs, singing and sanshin are the stars.

Seigwa Yuibin is jointly released by Disc Akabana / Terurin Records.

www.offnote.org

No Trouble for Bob Dylan

Posted November 14, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

This month saw the release of Trouble No More the latest in the long-running saga of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. This one is Vol.13 and it covers the years 1979 to 1981. Not being either a big pal of Bob or his record company meant there was no chance of a review copy (does anyone get one?) so naturally I had to buy this one.

Not having a research allowance either since university retirement means I opted for the cheaper 2 CD edition rather than the elaborate 8 disc plus DVD version that Columbia have also put on sale. I’ve never been a completist so this doesn’t bother me and I’m happy to see the more modest 30 track double album of live recordings take its place on the shelf alongside all the previous Bootleg Series albums that I have (which is all of them). Tell Tale Signs (Vol.8) is a particular favourite.

Trouble No More focuses on that period of Dylan’s career when he was widely thought of as a Born Again Christian but the essays and notes with this release as well as the reviews I’ve read generally prefer to call it his gospel period. It doesn’t sound so extreme.

I lived through those times as a Dylan fan and attended two of the six nights of concerts he gave at Earls Court in London during the summer of 1981. I was there with my friend Derek who is vastly more knowledgeable about Dylan than I am. Well, I’ve only been to Dylan concerts about a dozen times but real Bobcats like my friend would be ashamed to have only seen the Nobel Prize winner on such a paltry number of occasions.

Along with most other Dylan fans I was disappointed at our man’s sudden religious epiphany and the fact that his albums Slow Train Coming and Saved contained only his new Christian material. One friend (not Derek) vowed never to buy another album of his. The subsequent Shot of Love was also heavily religious (though its worst song was, in fact, the secular ‘Trouble’ a protest dirge that’s just a list of complaints). These weren’t even very good albums. Not by Bob’s high standards anyway.

By the time I saw the Earls Court shows in June 1981 he had started to include again some of his better known and more popular non-Christian songs so there was a mixture of the religious and secular in the shows I saw. (Yes, I know many of the songs on John Wesley Harding and other earlier albums are as ‘religious’ as anything here but that’s a discussion for another time).

What’s evident from these live recordings and has been noted in many reviews (this isn’t a review) is that many of the songs and all of the performances were brilliant and infused with a real passion. Dylan at his best is a great singer and he’s at the top of his game backed by some superb singers and a band that really knows how to play this stuff. The rare ‘Caribbean Wind’, only ever played once on stage (in San Francisco), is fantastic and the gospel songs stand up very well. Furthermore, the recording of ‘Slow Train’ that opens Disc 2 is from one of the Earls Court concerts and it still sounds riveting.

I have no religion. For me the chance of there being a God who looks over us and cares about the universe is about as likely as the existence of Santa Claus. I’m sure my friends felt the same way all those years ago which is the main reason why they were so reluctant to accept the normally free-thinking freewheeling Dylan falling for it. But as already pointed out in another piece I read, no-one gets upset about a gospel song if it’s sung by Ray Charles. Why not Bob Dylan then? These songs prove there’s no need to follow the ideology but we can still be excited and invigorated by someone else’s joy. These are simply great performances.

Mutsumi Aragaki – Live in Naha

Posted November 9, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

On Monday evening I was invited to the first solo concert by Okinawan singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki who was recently featured in the UK magazine Songlines. Her performance was at ‘tomari’, an art space close to Naha port. The tomari venue is small, friendly and flexible and is used for exhibitions and ‘all kinds of creativity’.

Aragaki invited her audience to enjoy ‘another world of Okinawan music’ and performed original compositions and her own take on old favourites such as ‘Asadoya Yunta’ and ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’ as well as a video collaboration. Many of the songs were given unusual treatments with the use of loops, drones and sound effects added to voice and sanshin and it reminded me in some ways of Anna & Elizabeth’s latest experiments in Appalachian music.

There is always the fear that such things can end up in directionless noodling but Aragaki kept it interesting and relevant throughout. Her singing is already becoming well-known but even more rewarding was the adventurous use of sanshin as an instrument in its own right as well as just an accompaniment to vocals. The audience were understandably impressed.

Jon Boden: Afterglow

Posted November 8, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Afterglow is Jon Boden’s first solo album since the break-up of Bellowhead, the immensely popular English folk band he fronted for more than a decade. It might have been expected that after all the noise and mayhem of the big band, he would return with an album of quieter traditional songs but nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead he gathers a formidable bunch of musicians, including former Bellowhead members Paul Sartin (oboe, fiddle) and Sam Sweeney (drums), to make an even bigger sound with ten new songs all self-composed. What’s more, it’s part of a concept in which Boden imagines scenes and stories from an urban future world where the oil has run out and chaos rules while two lovers try to find each other in an abandoned city.

It isn’t immediately apparent that the songs are all linked in this way and there are no lyrics provided with the album to guide us. This is quite deliberate and it must be said is the better for it as we can make our own connections as listeners and imagine whatever we like or simply just enjoy the songs, music and boldly complex arrangements. And there is much here to enjoy.

Boden is a fine songwriter and the best of these songs are full of subtle and exciting musical and lyrical twists and turns. (It might also be the first time the word ‘iridescent’ has appeared in a song). ‘Moths in the Gas Light’ is a strong opener that sets the tone while ‘Bee Sting’ is probably the outstanding track.

Boden plays guitars, piano and concertina and his distinctively desperate vocals are also accompanied by an array of sounds including brass and strings. The final track ‘Aubade’ is the closest to something resembling traditional folk song.  This is quite a return to the studio for Jon Boden and Afterglow is a big ambitious adventure and a surprising success.

Afterglow is released by Hudson Records.

www.jonboden.com

Jon Boden performs ‘Bee Sting’ live in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj6SC-twU2U

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.

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).