Posted March 23, 2023 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

As soon as the music starts on this self-titled album it’s bound to put a spring in your step and a smile on your face. The joyous mood of ‘Ku Nyumba’ with its rippling guitar rhythm continues unabated throughout many of the songs on this first full-length album by Malawian singer Keturah.

Keturah began singing as a child in her home village of Monza. When 14 years of age and having lost her parents, she set out on foot for Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city, where she hoped to find a recording studio and reach a larger audience.

Her press release takes up the story: “She met a local producer who was so impressed by her voice that he offered to record her for free. Keturah put down one song that eventually made its way onto radio, launching her music career with releases empowering listeners to connect their Malawian identity as a way of realizing their own power.” As a result, she earned the nickname “local girl” and became a Malawian celebrity.  

While music from the African continent has attracted much attention and many followers, the South-eastern nation of Malawi has never been at the forefront and is not one of the first countries that automatically comes to mind. However, this album is likely to raise awareness as it updates traditional Malawian folk with contemporary rhythms from the African diaspora.

Keturah (Photo: Jeremy Steinberger)

It was recorded in America, far from Keturah’s home, thanks to the Jacaranda Foundation, a Malawian school for AIDS orphans and its cultural centre. They arranged for her to travel there to record and made the connection with Hen House Studios in Los Angeles.

The album covers various genres. There are plenty of those guitars but also some jazzy horns on a few of the later tracks. ‘All the Way from Africa’ is sung partly in English while ‘Nchiwewe’ is an ode to Willie Nelson and the mix ends up sounding uncannily Hawaiian to these ears. On the bonus track ‘Wewe’ she delves into a funkier sound with piano by Jamael Dean.

The single ‘Kwanumkwanu’ recorded live with the Playing for Change Band (see video) is one of the highlights but best of all is the sumptuous ballad ‘Sukulu’ with its hypnotic rhythm and melody. Elsewhere, Keturah’s songwriting and powerful vocals are complemented by intricate percussion, melodic guitar lines from Jason Tamba, subtle backing vocals, and horns, to create a fine debut for the international stage.

Keturah is released by Hen House Studios on 19th May.

Malawi was devastated earlier this month by a massive tropical cyclone causing hundreds of deaths and much flooding. All proceeds from downloads and streams of Keturah’s first single will be donated to the Jacaranda Foundation that is helping with aid during this difficult time in Malawi. Here’s the donation link:


Cinder Well: Cadence

Posted March 8, 2023 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Singer, songwriter, and musician Amelia Baker has been featured here before with a Power of Okinawa review of her previous album No Summer. Her ‘experimental folk project’ goes under the name Cinder Well and Cadence is the latest nine track release.

Baker is originally from California but has spent a good deal of time in County Clare, Ireland where she studied Irish traditional music performance, and with these new songs she draws on both her Californian and Irish influences. These songs drift between the hazy California coast where she grew up, and the wind-torn swells of the west coast of Ireland. “I was continuously trying to reconcile having homes in two places,” she says. “I was trying to hold both of those parts of me.”

Last time she included some traditional songs (there was a particularly good version of ‘The Cuckoo’) but the new album has all original compositions. Another development is the addition of other musicians on drums, bass, viola, fiddle, and organ, while Baker herself plays mostly guitar and fiddle. Notable among those lending a hand is Cormac MacDiarmada of Irish band Lankum who adds some expansive string parts.

This is not to say that the album goes for a big sound or heavy production. Quite the opposite. It’s still fundamentally the same Cinder Well with Baker’s strong voice leading the way while the other instruments offer a fuller background in contrast to the minimalist approach of the previous album. The lyrics are often subdued poetic fragments or vignettes, frequently rooted in nature and folklore. 

Amelia Baker (Photo: Georgia Zeavin)

The album’s title refers to the cycles of our turbulent lives and to the uncertain tides that push us forward and back. Themes of oceans, returning to our roots, and of being between two worlds recur (think Twin Peaks perhaps), no doubt the result of Baker’s relocation to California and the attempt to recapture the rhythms of life after a time of isolation. She says: “So much of my music has been made far from home. There was something about recording in California that felt cathartic.”

The opening three tracks – ‘Two Heads, Grey Mare’, ‘Overgrown’, and ‘Returning’ – set the tone and are also the standout songs. Baker’s genre has previously been described as ‘doom folk’ and it’s certainly slow, deep, and meditative at times, but ‘Overgrown’ is a rare composition in a major key and is the nearest thing here to a catchy song.

The Irish influence is most obviously apparent on the penultimate track ‘A Scorched Lament’. Then the album ends on a slightly different musical note with Baker playing piano on ‘I Will Close in the Moonlight’ a song that has echoes of some of the solo work of Sandy Denny.

Cadence was produced by Amelia Baker and recorded in studios in Venice Beach, California, as well as in Dublin. It’s a step forward for Cinder Well and a more than worthy successor to No Summer.

Cinder Well will be playing live in Uppsala, Sweden on the 13th May and then in Ireland from the 18th to 27th May. 

Cadence is released by Free Dirt Records on 21st April. It will be available on CD and LP as well as digital download.

Rediscovering Tanita

Posted February 24, 2023 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

It was Valentine’s Day this month. To mark this romantic occasion a friend of mine in Japan shared a song on social media. The song was ‘Valentine Heart’ by Tanita Tikaram. Listening to it again immediately sparked some old thoughts and hazy memories.

In 1988 I was living in Kobe and had just begun writing about music for Kansai Time Out magazine. At the same time, 19-year-old Tanita Tikaram was releasing her debut album Ancient Heart, and it may well have been mentioned in one of my earliest columns – it seems so long ago that I can’t remember.

The album sold around four million copies and ‘Valentine Heart’ was one of its songs. I bought it as a cassette tape. My favourite tracks were the first two: the upbeat ‘Good Tradition’ (see video) and the gorgeously romantic ‘Cathedral Song’. Tanita Tikaram had quite a deep voice and apart from the catchy opening track her songs were dark and meditative, but thinking back, it was just an impression many of us had, as I don’t think I ever really stopped to wonder about the lyrics. I just liked the melodies.

Soon after, a tour of Japan was announced, and it included a date in nearby Osaka. I had completely forgotten this until reminded the other day by my wife Midori who has a much better memory. Apparently, we even bought tickets for this highly anticipated event only to have our hopes dashed as the tour – or at least the date in Osaka – was subsequently cancelled.

Perhaps Tanita was ill. In any event, my interest in her music waned, either because of this disappointment or possibly other unknown factors. My burgeoning interest in the music of Okinawa was beginning to take over. I didn’t listen to her again for almost 35 years.

Tanita Tikaram is from an internationally diverse background. Her father is from Fiji and her mother from Malaysia. She was born in Germany but moved to Basingstoke, England when still a child and now lives in London. Following the early success of that debut album her subsequent releases had diminishing returns in terms of sales. There were also lengthy periods when she didn’t record at all and seemed to put her music career on hold.

The world is a different place now that we can check up on musicians’ lives online. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that Tanita didn’t disappear. She always returned to making music and writing songs and has made nine original albums to date. Her latest To Drink the Rainbow is an anthology that focuses on her post-teenage years right up to 2019. And she is currently in the studio recording a new album.

It was my friend’s post that finally returned me to her music after all these years. Listening to it again I initially felt nostalgia tinged with a bit of sadness. But why? I interviewed Kate Rusby when she was 24, and she will be 50 this year. And I met Okinawa’s Chihiro Kamiya when she was only 21 and she has turned 40. I don’t feel any sadness about them. I suppose it’s because I’ve kept up with their music all along. So, it’s my own fault and not Tanita’s. Any sadness is for not having paid attention to her music as the years flew by.

I have a lot of catching up to do but it appears her career is moving along nicely at her own pace. Good music doesn’t depend on popular ‘success’ but on personal evolution and creativity and in this she seems to be well ahead of her 19-year-old self. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the compensation for early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. I wonder if Tanita felt this. I suspect she must be very happy with the way things have turned out now that she is in her 50s. She has every right to be.  

Now whatever happened to Tracy Chapman?

Platy & Chihiro

Posted February 11, 2023 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

The singer Chihiro Kamiya, originally from Tsuken island off the east coast of Okinawa, has developed into one of the very best performers of Okinawan music and is equally at home with both traditional and original songs. Her last album Utayui was my album of the year in 2021.

Back in 2006 she joined Okinawan reggae and hip-hop pair U-Dou & Platy on a recording of Misako Koja’s much celebrated ‘Warabi Gami’. The song appeared on U-Dou & Platy’s album Buss Up. The album also contained the duo’s updated version of ‘Haisai Ojisan’ and their own humorously observant ‘Uchinanchu in Tokyo’.

U-Dou & Platy finally called it a day after more than two decades of making music to go on to solo work, and Platy is getting together again with Chihiro, this time for a live show at Tenbusu Hall in Naha that should be well worth catching. I’m not sure exactly what to expect from Platy but Chihiro is such a brightly talented and open-minded artist that any collaboration she is involved with promises to be exciting.

In fact, this is just the latest in a series of concerts at Tenbusu Hall where the venue has been staging regular Okinawan music and performing arts events on Thursday evenings at very affordable prices. Tenbusu Hall is part of the Tenbusu culture and information centre on Kokusai-dori in the heart of Naha’s entertainment district.

Platy & Chihiro’s live show is on Thursday 16th March starting at 19:00. Tickets are priced at only 1,500 yen with discounts for school students.

Roots Round-up 2022

Posted December 2, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

As we near the end of the year it’s time for another round-up of roots music to come my way in 2022.

There were several interesting and varied Okinawan albums that I listened to, and these included the youthful, experimental Okinawa Electric Girl Saya with her album Doomsday. At the other end of the age spectrum there was Uchina Jazz Goes On by the revitalised veteran musicians of Uchina Jazz All Stars.

But my favourite album came early in the year. This was Tenmikachi Donmikachi Hiyamikachi by Keiko Higa. It was good to see Higa in the studio again surrounded by so much Ryukyu talent. The musicians included the ever-popular Shuken Maekawa who composed the title song, and Miyako’s Tadayuki Matsubara whose debut album was one of my picks last year. What confirmed this as my number one was seeing Higa and her ensemble cast of musicians in a superb concert in Koza to promote the album release.

Another to lend Higa a helping hand was Seishin Taba whose own double album retrospective Shiawase Retto is my second favourite this year. 32 tracks from all stages of Taba’s long career provide the perfect introduction to his work and there’s also one newly recorded song.

My third choice is Toru Yonaha’s Roots~Ryuraku Keisho. Yonaha is no longer the bright young spark I first saw at the Ryukyu Festival in Osaka years ago but is a long-established artist now who often takes a back seat in the support and promotion of others. Here he is centre stage with a completely solo album.

Above: Amy Lou and Lisa Maria of Mama’s Broke (Photo: Blanca Chavez)

The roots albums from ‘out there’ included a 16 track 30-year celebration from Kate Rusby and the impossible to categorise Sweet Tooth from Wabanaki bassist Mali Obomsawin. However, it was the heartfelt singing and playing of East Canadian duo Mama’s Broke on their Narrow Line release that gets my vote.

You can find reviews of all these albums on the Power of Okinawa blog.  

Kenji Yano: Kalimba Plays Okinawan Songs

Posted November 17, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Kenji Yano is from Osaka but has long been resident in Okinawa where he has been active as both musician and producer. His name has already popped up a few times on this blog. He was a guitarist in 1980s band Rokuningumi and their very interesting mix of Asian styles was finally made available on CD a couple of years ago.

Yano has subsequently led various projects including Surf Champlers (known for their recording of the James Bond theme) and Sanshin Café Orchestra. His album Sanshin Island Café was reviewed here in 2016.

On this new solo album, he offers instrumental versions of 13 Okinawan songs played exclusively on the kalimba, an African instrument also known as mbira or thumb piano. Four different kalimbas are used for the recordings – two were made in Japan, one is from China, and the other from South Africa.

The songs chosen are all very well-known to those familiar with Okinawa and its music. Some of them are traditional while others are modern shimauta. They include ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, ‘Asadoya Yunta’ and ‘Akata Sundunchi’ as well as covers of Begin’s ‘Nada Sousou’, The Boom’s ‘Shimauta’, Shoukichi Kina’s ‘Hana’, and ‘Bashoufu’ the popular composition by Tsuneo Fukuhara who died just a few weeks ago.

The liveliest track is another Kina song, ‘Haisai Ojisan’, but in general this is a very laidback and relaxing listen – hence its subtitle: ‘Relax to the Magic of Okinawa’, also used for a previous Yano album on which he played sanshin versions of Okinawan classics.

I don’t care for the term ‘healing’ (as regular readers will know), and it is overused in promoting tourism and beach holidays around the Ryukyu islands. However, this would not be too far off the mark when describing the album. It will doubtless appeal to fans of the kalimba which is played here with great expertise but may also find a welcome place as background music in island cafes.

Kalimba Plays Okinawan Songs is released on CD by Qwotchee Records.

Olatz Salvador and the Basques

Posted November 4, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

It’s been a while since the roots music of the Basques was featured here. The steady arrival of new releases for review from Euskal Herria (Basque Country) dried up somewhat following the retirement last year of my good friend, record producer and coordinator Anjel Valdes.

It’s four years since our Basque-Ryukyu project brought Mikel Urdangarin to Okinawa for concerts and collaborations. This year Mikel has been on a 25th anniversary world tour to celebrate his career as a professional musician. Unfortunately, pandemic restrictions prevented the inclusion of Okinawa in the schedule.

But, of course, the music carries on and more recently I was impressed with a new album from master singer-songwriter Ruper Ordorika. His Amour eta toujours successfully adds a dash of Cuban music to his songs. Earlier this year there was also Hitzekin Jolasean a fine solo debut by Esti Markez whose album with her father was previously reviewed here.

Now that many Okinawan live music venues have reopened there is news of another Basque music live event coming next month. Donostia-San Sebastian singer and songwriter Olatz Salvador (pictured above) will begin her tour with a date in Okinawa before moving on to Japan where she plays several different venues.

Olatz Salvador is a popular and highly regarded musician who has been active for more than a decade, first as a member of the band Skakeitan and more recently as a solo artist. Her debut solo recording arrived in 2018. A second album Aho uhal was released last year, and this video features one of its songs:

She performs with her own band in Okinawa at Koza Crossover Café 614 on Wednesday 7th December starting at 20:00. Also on the bill are Okinawan band Shaolong To The Sky, and DJs Txako and Sima. Advance tickets are 3,000 yen. The evening is presented by 614 and Japonicus under the banner ‘Fight for Rights: Special Edition in Okinawa’.

Lastly, if you missed it and would like more Basque music – including some of the artists mentioned here – you can listen to over an hour of it on my K.O.L. Radio Mix from last year:

7th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival

Posted November 1, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa Overseas, Okinawan Life

The 7th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival began yesterday in Okinawa and goes on for five days. The taikai or festival is usually held every five years but because of the global pandemic it is six years since the last one.

Those with roots in the Ryukyus gather from all over the world and it’s expected that a total of 8,500 people will take part.

On the eve of the festival (30th October) there was a parade of participants from the Okinawa diaspora. This took place on Kokusai-dori in Naha. These photos (plus several others) appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Mainichi Shimbun.

Photos: Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan

Koza Uta Ashibi

Posted October 13, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

I don’t often preview upcoming concerts these days but this one just has to be mentioned. Koza Uta Ashibi is a live music event coming to Okinawa next month and is produced by Campus Records. It is notable for its very enticing line-up of Ryukyu singers and musicians.

The concert takes place in the afternoon (it starts at 14:00) at Okinawa Shimin Sho-Gekijo Ashibina on Sunday 6th November. Advance tickets are very reasonably priced at 2,000 yen and are available from Campus Records and other venues.

Among those appearing are the veteran Seishin Taba whose double album retrospective was reviewed here this year, and Kazutoshi Matsuda who is one of the outstanding musicians on the Okinawan scene. Emiko Shimabukuro, who recorded as part of Unaigumi a few years ago, will also perform.

Another to look out for is Yaese singer Narise Arakaki whose debut album was one of my favourites of the year in 2020. Others include the duo Akamami, and the group Champloo Geinodan with well-known singer and sanshin player Hajime Nakasone.

In Love with Shoukichi

Posted September 28, 2022 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

A few evenings ago, I listened again to In Love by Shoukichi Kina & Champloose. It was the first time for quite a while. But In Love must be a bit old now, I was thinking. Then I frightened myself at just how quickly my life is slipping away by checking the date. It was released by Toshiba-EMI on 30th September 1992 which means it will be its 30th anniversary on Friday!

Of all the albums made by Kina this is one that is often missed. Or even dismissed. Westerners especially are more attracted to what they imagine is ‘authentic’ roots music and, for many, In Love was just a bit too slick. Even Salif Keita received sniffy reviews around the same time for his use of synthesisers.

In Love is not too slick. In fact, it’s well-recorded, produced and played, and sounds almost as fresh today as it did three decades ago. It was the first time Kina had created such a polished concoction (in the right way) since his Earth Spirit album two years previously, recorded in Paris with the help of African musicians. It is a step up from some of the ramshackle hit and miss performances on some of his other albums.

A major reason for its success is the sheer quality of the songs, which include many Kina originals alongside a few tried and tested island songs. It all begins with the ever-popular Okinawan staple ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’. I remember very well a live show by Kina and his band in Osaka when they began their set with a blistering, all-action version of this. The studio recording on In Love is not as wild but still captures the glorious essence of the song.

Among the originals – and Kina was writing more in those days – is the beautiful ‘Shimusayutasasa’. Very surprisingly (knowing Kina’s penchant for endless re-recordings) this is the only album on which it appears. If only he could write another like it now. ‘Maitreya’ was another fine original song, this time co-written by Kina with former Champloose member Takao Nagama.

I have an awkward memory of a very different live performance of this at Chakra in Naha. This was six months to the day after the release of In Love. I know this as my CD was signed and dated by Shoukichi Kina moments before he took to the stage for his live show. He enquired before going on if I had any requests, and I asked for ‘Maitreya’. This was not a song his band were familiar with yet. Kina dedicated it to me, but my delight soon turned to alarm as the musicians mangled the tune and made several errors. After the set, Kina marched the musicians into the dressing room and his angry shouts of admonishment made all who heard them squirm with embarrassment. I knew then I should have requested ‘Hana’.

It may well have been later the same evening when, after having had a bit too much of the liquid refreshment on offer, I announced to Shoukichi Kina that I loved him. He took this in his stride with a simple nod of acknowledgement as if my declaration was of course the most natural response of any right-thinking person.

The nine-member line-up on In Love included Kina’s brother Masahiro and sisters Keiko, Sachiko, and Junko. It was augmented by some guest musicians and followers of the great man. Among them was British keyboardist Morgan Fisher whose ancient history involved spells as a member of Love Affair and Mott the Hoople.

There was a huge mix of influences in the music. You can find minyo and shimauta as well as rock, reggae, some eisa, a rap, even a bit of African guitar that crept in from Earth Spirit. And perhaps there’s still a hint of the spiritual guru Osho Rajneesh who was once followed by some members of Champloose before Shoukichi Kina himself usurped him as their guru. 

The often-maligned title track finds them all clustered together in a singalong in which they take a minute to get going as they struggle to learn the unfamiliar English words: “Your love, I feel it takes me to the depth of my being…” and so on. It might be thought tacky but it’s very good to hear so much enjoyment and a spirit of fun that certainly wasn’t there on that night when they played ‘Maitreya’ for me.