The latest addition to the Features Archive is an interview I did with Donal Lunny for fRoots magazine in 2006. Donal had moved to Okinawa and his reflections on island life and on his music were immensely interesting. The talk we had at that time had to be edited quite a bit to fit into what was already a lengthy feature. It hardly needs mentioning that Donal is an Irish music legend. As a member of the band Planxty he helped revolutionise Irish traditional music and went on to do more groundbreaking work with The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, and Mozaik. And I haven’t even mentioned his long list of credits as a producer of other musicians. Sadly for me, he didn’t stay in Okinawa and eventually returned to Ireland where he continues to be active with numerous projects. In March/April 2017 he will tour mainland Japan to play ‘Songs and Tunes from Ireland’ as part of a duo with Andy Irvine.
Donal Lunny has taken up residence in subtropical Okinawa with his Japanese wife Hideko Itami of Soul Flower Union. John Potter gets to sit in their kitchen…
My idea of a great time is listening to Okinawan music. But listening to the very best traditional Irish music runs it a close second. Soon I may be able to do both at the same time. As a long time fan of Okinawan music, living in Japan, I’ve frequently toyed with the idea of moving to the Ryukyu Islands. After all, this is where the real music is in Japan. But for various reasons, too tedious to relate, I’m still waiting to take the plunge and my own move is temporarily on hold. Irish music legend Donal Lunny has no such qualms and has seized the initiative by relocating there recently, and already has plans to work with Okinawan musicians. I met up with Donal and his wife, musician Hideko Itami, when we found ourselves near neighbours in the Ginowan area of Okinawa during the summer.
In Donal’s kitchen in Ginowan, over a glass of the island’s awamori liquor, he answers my query of just what he’s doing on a subtropical island a long way from home: “My wife had been to Okinawa years ago, and has always had a great love for its music and people. More recently, she and Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union sang and played on Seijin Noborikawa’s Spiritual Unity CD, and it renewed her interest in Okinawa. Late last year, we decided to go and check it out. And then we decided to move there. It took another trip to sort out accommodation and so on, and we finally arrived early last May. My hope is to find a niche in the Okinawan music scene, and to perform, produce, and record here. At the moment my work is still in Ireland and Europe, so I travel to Dublin every few months, which keeps me in touch with the scene there. I’ve managed to do some work on music files which have been sent to me. I can see interesting possibilities for collaborations between Okinawan and Irish musicians, so I’m going to start a project which hopefully will culminate in a CD of songs and instrumentals, and possibly some concerts of Irish and Okinawan artists. The sooner I get working in a studio with Okinawan musicians, the better.”
I wondered what kind of problems he might have experienced as a foreigner in Okinawa, with such a different culture and climate from Europe as well as a language and dialect which even the Japanese are sometimes puzzled by. “My Japanese is still only a jumble of words and phrases, some of which are actually useful” he says. “I can’t converse yet, and I understand only about 20% of what’s being said around me. So I’m experiencing the same difficulty in Okinawa as I had in Japan. But I’m working on it. Fortunately I like hot weather, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t last a week in Okinawa’s summer. The weather here is pretty extreme, particularly the rainy season and the typhoon season.”
The reason for Donal’s being in Japan in the first place is another musical mix as his wife Hideko (or “Hidebow” as he calls her) is a founder member and guitarist (and now bouzouki player) with Japanese band Soul Flower Union and their acoustic offshoot Soul Flower Mononoke Summit. The Lunnys also have a young daughter, Sora. The introduction of the bouzouki into Soul Flower’s music smacks of Donal’s influence, so I asked Hideko to elaborate on her meetings with Irish music. “Before I met Donal my knowledge of Irish music was only The Pogues and Van Morrison”, she says. “Of course I didn’t know anything about Donal. Since I met him I’ve been to Dublin a few times and every time I’ve been there he has introduced me to many musicians. I didn’t realise until then that he was so famous. At first, I thought that he just had a lot of friends! The biggest reason for this misunderstanding was probably because I didn’t understand English enough. About a year after my first visit I went back to Dublin again and Donal was organising a benefit concert there. Elvis Costello played and he told me that Donal helped to produce his album Spike. It was a big surprise for me because only then did I begin to realise how important Donal is.”
Before coming to Okinawa, Donal had already spent quite a bit of time in mainland Japan with Hideko. Moving to these islands must have been another big change, as the Ryukyus were formerly an independent kingdom with their own quite separate culture, which still largely remains. “Okinawa has a distinctive air of ease and freedom about it. I’m still identifying the elements which give it its unique character, but what is obvious is the friendly spirit of the Okinawan people. There are basic traits which seem to be shared by Okinawa and Japan, but Okinawa has what I can only describe as an island culture. Ireland has something similar, and it has to do with the size of the island, and its relationship with the rest of the world. Both islands have parallels in their histories: attempts by more powerful nations to subsume their identities and cultures, and partial occupation by foreign powers – I can’t help noticing how Okinawans manage to flow their lives around the presence of 25,000 American military personnel, in occupation since WW2 – which is not to say that people don’t mind; 85% of the population want a military-free Okinawa. But both islands have retained their cultural personalities.”
Getting back to Okinawan music, I know that when I first heard it I was completely hooked but that hasn’t always been the case for many Western listeners. Asian music in general has fared less well in gaining acceptance and popularity as world music in the mainstream. Like me, Donal was introduced to Okinawan music by his Japanese wife. “After that I soon became aware of how many of my friends in Japan also love it. I immediately related to it at heart level. The spare and elegant accompaniment of the sanshin has an even pace, and the singing floats alongside and often trails slightly behind, which gives great depth and feeling to deceptively simple melodies. To me, the steadiness of the sanshin adds elements of strength and constancy, and offsets the emotional ebb and flow of the singing.”
So who in particular has impressed Donal? “The first live concert I went to in Okinawa featured Yasukatsu Oshima and Kanako Hatoma. It was a sublime experience. Both of them have in their singing that quality of ecstasy which is to be found in the singing of all the great Okinawan artists. I spoke to Oshima-san afterwards. He expressed an interest in my bodhrán playing, so I’m hoping to get the opportunity to play with him soon. On stage with them was Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone, playing shimadaiko, or island drum – two drums, one big and deep, and the other lighter. His playing was beautiful; the rhythms shifted continuously, but never broke the groove. It sounded like a complex and inscrutable discipline, but I get the impression there are actually no rules; it might be different every time he plays. He also provided hayashi, which means cheering along, or giving encouraging support, in the form of short sung interjections. This is also an intrinsic part of the Japanese tradition, but Okinawan hayashi is mostly sung in syncopation between the main beats, and this gives it a lightness it wouldn’t otherwise have.”
“Many years back I finally realised that I couldn’t use the kitchen sink with Irish music without obliterating the very boundaries that define its personality. It’s the same with Okinawan music. Its singularity depends as much on what’s left out as on what’s played. Some modes exclude certain notes from the scale, and this has a clear effect on the flavour of the music. I’m still discovering things, and the more I hear, the more I like it.”
There have already been some musical connections made between Ireland and Okinawa. The Chieftains performed with Okinawan singer Yoriko Ganeko when they visited the island a few years ago, and I introduced Donal to Ganeko on a visit we made to her minyo ‘live house’. In the opposite direction, Yasukatsu Oshima has been to Ireland to perform and his latest album features a track with Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Dermot Byrne of the Irish band Altan. Altan have toured Japan many times and also played with Soul Flower. Yasukatsu Oshima thinks that the Irish have a strong musical culture which is similar to Okinawa, but that in Ireland it’s mainly based on tunes whereas in Okinawa it’s based around songs. Donal has some sympathy with this view.
“I think it’s a fair comment, given what you will encounter if you drop in on the average Irish pub trad session. You’ll hear scores of reels and jigs, and maybe a handful of songs. I have to say, this is a reflection on the fact that the atmosphere of the average Irish pub session is too turbulent for all but the most robust songs. It’s unfortunate that traditional music is so closely linked to the culture of the pub. Several musicians playing together can enjoy themselves regardless of the hubbub of happy, relaxed people and the ching of the cash register in the background (I’m not being cynical – I’ll cheerfully join a session under these circumstances, and play till we’re thrown out). And if there are singers in the house, they will be called on for a song, and if the moment’s right, you’ll hear a pin drop while the song is being sung. And there’ll be real appreciation from the audience. But the feeling that occurs to me now as I think about it, is that for each song, the evening is holding its breath; that things jolt back into action again when the song is finished. On with the session! Not to say that there aren’t brilliant singer’s sessions to be found if one seeks them out. Ireland has many wonderful singers. They’re just not as mainstream as some others.”
“I don’t know how many Irish tunes there are; probably tens of thousands. But as it happens, the last album I produced was of the late Frank Harte (it was our sixth album together – he died within a week of completing the singing). Over the years, he collected no less than 24,000 Irish songs! He had 80 songs relating to Napoleon alone, some of them tender, some of them mountainous epics which only a redoubtable singer like Frank could render. This is a massive legacy, which must measure up well to the great heritage of instrumental music which Ireland has.”
The omnipresent instrument in Okinawan music is, of course, the three stringed sanshin, and since arriving on the island Hideko Itami has already started taking regular sanshin lessons. Will Donal soon be following suit? “I’ve had a few goes at the sanshin, and even though it relates closely to the bouzouki, it’s not a straightforward proposition. I went to a lesson with Hidebow, and her teacher handed me a sanshin, whereupon I started trying to play it left-handed, which was not to the teacher’s liking! But I’ll have one within a few weeks, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of getting music out of it.”
And producing? Will living away from Europe affect opportunities to produce other people’s albums there? “I’m sure that being away so much will mean that people will naturally move on to alternatives. But I think (hope!) there’s still plenty for me to do on that side of the world. And I can work on computer files here. Also, I think there are several of my musical friends and associates who’d enjoy a bit of recording in Okinawa.”
In Japan he has already lent a hand to the forthcoming Soul Flower Mononoke Summit album, which will be their third album of chindon-inspired music after a hiatus of eight years. “When they started rehearsing for their new album, there was nobody to supply chords to the arrangements, so I sat in with the bouzouki. It was a stopgap measure, and even though I also played on the studio recordings, a lot of it will probably be redundant, as the regular musicians’ parts were overdubbed later. I think it’s a really good album, with a strong selection of songs.”
I asked Donal’s wife how living in Okinawa, while the rest of her band is in mainland Japan, will affect things. “I think that living in Okinawa, my job now is to create and send things from this island. I cannot do Soul Flower activities the same as before, but the positive side is that because I live in Okinawa and I’m a mother now I can do many other things. One of these things is this new Mononoke Summit album, and some musicians I met since moving here to Okinawa have joined the recording and they made it a livelier album.”
Donal meanwhile has been busy with Mozaik, along with former Planxty mate Andy Irvine, and Mozaik members Bruce Molsky, Nikola Parov and Rens van der Zalm. They toured Europe recently and now have plans to make a studio album. “Mozaik is recording the next CD in Budapest, in November, and we have some interesting material prepared for it. Hopefully it’ll be available by the New Year. The next big tour we have lined up is in Australia next March. We’d all like to play together more often, but the logistics of getting together are complicated, given how scattered we all are. I think it’ll be easier to organise tours next year if we get this CD right.”
I cannot leave Donal without asking the question which has been on my mind ever since I listened to that spellbinding reunion of Planxty during 2004. Will the boys from Planxty ever get together again? “I honestly don’t know whether Planxty will sally forth again. The best way to put it is, because we’ve managed to leave the future open, the occasion of another reunion will be all the sweeter if and when it happens!”
Many thanks to Donal Lunny and Hideko Itami for their generous time and help with this feature.
(fRoots Magazine, April 2006, No.274)