My Instrument – Mutsumi Aragaki

Posted August 28, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

Here’s another new one for the Features Archive. The UK magazine Songlines has a regular series on musicians and the instruments they play. Earlier this year I met up with Mutsumi Aragaki and we had a long and fascinating talk about her sanshin playing and about music in general. The article below covers just some of the interesting things we discussed.

MY INSTRUMENT

Mutsumi Aragaki & her sanshin

John Potter speaks to the Japanese sanshin player and singer about her connection with this most Okinawan of instruments

The banjo-like twang of the three-stringed snakeskin-covered sanshin is intimately associated with the subtropical islands of Okinawa. These small islands, stretching from southern Japan to Taiwan, were once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. The sanshin was adapted from the Chinese sanxian after its introduction to the islands in the 14th century. It was first played only by the Ryukyu nobility but after the kingdom was invaded and abolished by Japan in 1879 the sanshin was introduced to ordinary people and it soon became (and remains) the most popular instrument of the people.

Okinawan singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki grew up in Nagoya, Japan and first encountered the instrument as a high school student. “The very first day I held a sanshin was when I went to my grandfather’s”, she says. “When you’re 17 or 18 you start to think about your identity and I became interested in Okinawan things so that’s why I wanted to touch a sanshin. After I returned to mainland Japan I couldn’t forget the sound and the feeling when I held the instrument.”

“My grandfather gave me my first sanshin which was roughly 200 years old from the Ryukyu Kingdom era, after I passed my first minyo (folk song) test. The neck is Yaeyama kuruchi (ebony from the Yaeyama islands), the best quality material.” She then went on to make a sanshin by herself using the one her grandfather had given her. “Ever since I could remember I was always making something. I became an artisan about 20 years ago and those precious years of experience have led me to a much deeper understanding of the sanshin.”

The sanshin comprises a soundbox or drum covered with snakeskin, usually python. The neck is often made of ebony wood coated with lacquer and the three strings (sanshin means ‘three strings’) are made of nylon.

Aragaki uses seven different sanshins, each different in size and in the quality of the neck and soundbox or drum. “I maintain all seven myself – sensitive maintenance really makes a difference to the sound. The tension of the skin influences the sound itself. The one I use depends on the kind of music I’m playing. It’s interesting that for a classical player there’s a typical sound they want to have but for folk music it depends on the islands. Miyako and Yaeyama people love a higher tension and a very sharp sound but Okinawan islanders mostly like a more relaxed sound.” As for maintenance, she says: “To fit my unique fingering and picking style, I adjust the curve of the area touched by the fingers, the angle of neck and drum, and the tip of the bachi (pick) to the appropriate shape and keen edge.”

She is also a sanshin teacher, leads the experimental trio MKR Project, and performs solo and in collaboration with Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia. “I did African Studies at college in Japan and studied Swahili. I could see the world through African cultures and political things like colonialism, so now I can see Okinawa through this viewpoint as well.”

Songlines Magazine

Although the sanshin is an accompanying instrument, some sanshin players became known for their fast playing. The most famous is Seijin Noborikawa who died in 2013 at the age of 80 and was known as the ‘Jimi Hendrix of shimauta (island songs)’. Currently, Yukito Ara from Ishigaki Island has also gained a reputation for his flamboyant playing style.

Aragaki believes that the sanshin has great versatility and can blend well with other instruments despite its typical role as accompaniment to traditional Okinawan vocals. “Usually singers sing very technically but the sanshin is played very simply compared with the vocal style. The sanshin is important, of course, but it’s just a stringed instrument like a violin or any other instrument, so I feel it’s very strange if even a professional player doesn’t try to balance it with their beautiful vocal style. I think it can be more than just accompaniment. I’m trying to realise its potential with my original songs by using effects and so on. This is my vision for this instrument.”

“I hope that through my performances people will know a little bit more about diversity and that’s what I want to do with this instrument”. The pioneering early Okinawan singer, sanshin player and songwriter Choki Fukuhara was a big inspiration for her, she adds: “He was also a record company owner and it meant he could listen to music from everywhere and get to know other instruments. So I’m always trying to listen to different kinds of music and learn from other musical cultures.”

+ALBUM Mutsumi Aragaki’s solo album is released later this year

+WEBSITE www.aragakimutsumi.com

(Songlines Magazine, No.130, August/September 2017)

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Shotoku Yamauchi

Posted August 26, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

The sad news has come through of the death of Okinawan singer and sanshin player Shotoku Yamauchi on 24th August at the age of 95. Yamauchi was one of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists along with other great musicians such as the late Rinsho Kadekaru, Shouei Kina, Teihan China, and Shuei Kohama.

He was born in Yomitan on the main island and became an accomplished interpreter of traditional songs as well as a songwriter. In 1958 and 1959 he represented Okinawa at the annual NHK song contest and was an important member of the music association Ryukyu Ongaku Kyokai. In more recent times an 18 track collection of his best work was released on CD by Campus Records under the title Hokorasha Yamauchi Bushi.

Neko – An Exhibition by Mitsuaki Iwago

Posted August 16, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

Today we visited the exhibition Neko at Urasoe Art Museum, Okinawa. This is an exhibition of 180 photographs by Tokyo photographer Mitsuaki Iwago who has been taking pictures for more than 40 years. He has travelled the world in search of cats and the results include feline photos of many different kinds and from diverse locations around Japan and in Europe, Africa and Asia. The Neko exhibition also includes a few photos from Okinawa.

Iwago’s photos reveal many aspects of the lives of cats and they don’t just focus on their more obvious cuteness. It’s a thoroughly rewarding show whether you are a cat lover or a devotee of photography. The exhibition began in July and runs until 3rd September so there is still time to catch it if you are in Okinawa. Entry is from 9:30 until 17:00 and admission is 800 yen for adults. Neko is sponsored by the Okinawa Times and is one of the events organised to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

http://museum.city.urasoe.lg.jp/

Misako Oshiro: Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobu

Posted July 29, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The great Okinawan singer Misako Oshiro is back with another album at the age of 81. Last year she released an album of new recordings and before that there was a double album retrospective Kana Uta that focused mainly on earlier work and previously unreleased tracks. She has also made a number of duet albums in recent times. Just when it seemed she had finally run out of steam she comes back with Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobu where she is joined by a large number of guests to commemorate 60 years since she began her recording career.

She duets on each song with a different guest singer. This sometimes takes the form of Oshiro and her guest singing alternating verses and then joining together on the final verse – a familiar pattern with Okinawan songs. Some of her partners on these mainly traditional songs are singers she has sung with before but there are also some new additions. Perhaps most surprising is her collaboration with Nenez on ‘Kendou Bushi’ which turns out to be very successful.

All of the songs were recorded at Igaloo Studio in Okinawa and each guest singer contributes some notes in the CD booklet. Accompaniment is kept simple with sanshin and taiko and the performances are recorded with great clarity. The only diversion is ‘Kataumui Remix’ a recording of Oshiro’s most famous song written for her by Teihan China and remixed here by the electronic band Churashima Navigator (which includes Oshiro’s former pupil Kanako Horiuchi). It works well and doesn’t upset the rhythm of the album at all. In fact it enhances it by adding some variety. Churashima Navigator’s DJ Nu-doh provides the sleeve notes for this one.

The most illustrious guest singer is Sadao China who appears on the traditional ‘Yahan Mairi’ but there is also a duet with Kazufumi Miyazawa who makes his first appearance since announcing a break from singing last year. They get together on ‘Deigo no Hana’. Oshiro’s pupil Taku Oshiro sings with her on one song and there’s a duet with Yaeyama singer Isamu Asato on ‘Kanushamayo’. The other guest vocalists are Shuken Maekawa, Seibun Tokuhara, Emiko Miyazato, and Tomoki Kiyuna.

The original 1962 Marufuku single ‘Kataumui’ is added to the ten songs as a bonus track. (It was also included on Kana Uta). The new album is very welcome and adds a bit more to the legacy of a singer described in the promotional material as a ‘legend’. It’s a word sometimes used too freely but in this case is absolutely right.

Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobu is released by Tuff Beats.

www.tuff-beats.com

Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts

Posted July 26, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Offa Rex is a joint project by English singer Olivia Chaney and Oregon rock band The Decemberists. Colin Meloy of The Decemberists wanted to make an album of mainly traditional songs harking back to the great English folk-rock heyday of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Also an admirer of Olivia Chaney, Meloy enlisted her help as the main vocalist and arranger and the pair chose the selections together. Chaney also applies her skills to several tracks with guitars, piano, harmonium and electric harpsichord.

First of all, the recording and playing are exemplary and the album sounds both ‘old’ and very up to date. As soon as it begins with the title track we know we’re back in that world of folk-rock and ‘The Queen of Hearts’ works beautifully with Chaney’s lovely vocal and electric harpsichord blending with the other band members to create something that would surely have made the great Sandy Denny proud. Even better is Chaney’s delicate interpretation of ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ which is both the best thing on the album and the longest track at seven and a half minutes.

Three years ago I discovered a live video of ‘The Old Churchyard’ sung by Elizabeth LaPrelle and friends and it was so good it almost brought me to tears. It was the first time I’d heard this amazing old song and it turns up again on this album with a vocal by Chaney. So it was with some trepidation that I listened to this very different bigger version with harmonium, guitars, drums, viola and woodwind drone. To my surprise it’s almost as good as Elizabeth’s and that’s high praise.

Not everything is equally successful and this is perhaps inevitable given that it’s such a varied bunch of songs (and one instrumental) but the surprising mix of folk and heavy metal on ‘Sheepcrook and Black Dog’, with its nod to Black Sabbath, actually works rather well. ‘The Gardener’ is another unexpected triumph.

This is a fine album that shows folk-rock is still alive and well and it offers a unique combination of musicians from different musical and geographical backgrounds. Olivia Chaney is already much loved on this blog and her excellent solo album The Longest River was reviewed here a couple of years ago. Let’s hope it isn’t too long before she comes back with a new album – or indeed a second collaboration with The Decemberists.

The Queen of Hearts is out now on Nonesuch Records.

www.nonesuch.com

Okinawa Americana

Posted July 18, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The new album Okinawa Americana by the duo of the same name (Merry & David Ralston) does just what it says in the title. It puts together the music of Okinawa and America to make a champloo mix. Merry is an Okinawan singer and sanshin player while David Ralston is an American singer with blues and rock influences who is also a remarkable slide guitar player. He has been resident in Okinawa for many years. With this set of ten songs the two of them seem to have found their true purpose.

The pair recorded the album in various locations including Nashville, Tennessee, and Los Angeles and they are also joined by some experienced American musicians. Previous Okinawa-America collaborations, such as Hirayasu & Brozman and Oshima & Keezer, have concentrated on the Okinawan songs. This is different in that it’s focused as much on Americana as on Okinawa and many songs feature a combination of English vocals from Ralston and Okinawan singing from Merry.

This works best of all on the traditional ‘Aha Bushi’ a normally austere song which is given a makeover here that totally works. The sanshin and slide guitar play off each other to great effect and the disparate blend of Merry’s Okinawan singing and Ralston’s bluesy-gospel vocal is a treat. ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’ is another success that drives along in the fast lane while ‘Nan Kuru Naisa’ has an English vocal about life in Okinawa and sounds like a distant relative of Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’.

‘Red Wine and Mensore’ is standard country rock until Merry cuts in with a lovely counterpoint vocal to show that she is the duo’s secret weapon and her skill and effervescence lifts many of these songs. ‘Mimura Odori’ has shared vocals and a strong combination of sanshin and electric slide guitar. Meanwhile Ralston’s ‘Okinawa Is My Home’ has echoes of Ry Cooder’s ‘Going Back to Okinawa’ in its celebration of all things Okinawan. But it’s a song with more insight than Cooder’s because Ralston really knows what he’s singing about and isn’t just passing through as a musical tourist.

So we have an album that combines originals with old Okinawan songs; English and Okinawan vocals; sanshin and slide guitar. There’s also a decent version of the popular but too much recorded ‘Amazing Grace’ (renamed here ‘Mumukafu’) and a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. It’s a mixed bag but one that works nearly all the time. Most of all this is a fresh-sounding album in which all involved are obviously having a lot of fun.

Okinawa Americana will be released by Mad Music Intl on 6th August.

http://okinawaamericana.com/

Chris Bromage & End of Empire: Man in a Minor Chord

Posted July 16, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Man in a Minor Chord is the second album by Chris Bromage and his End of Empire band. Singer-songwriter Bromage is from Leeds, England but also lived in Japan for several years and has been based in Canada since 2004. This release follows on from his debut End of Empire an album with a strong political edge.

The new album recorded in Vancouver has a broader agenda described as “a reflection on Trump, Brexit, love, the past and the insanity of the modern world” and Bromage sings and plays acoustic and electric guitars, piano and keyboards. On first listen there is nothing startlingly original about the standard musical line-up and song format but it soon becomes clear that it does work very well with “real” playing that harks back to an earlier analogue recorded sound.

The high quality of recording and production is matched by the songwriting which soon gets under the skin with its rhythms, unexpected changes and rich melodies. The ambitious seven minute opener ‘Belize’ focuses on the dichotomy between tourist paradise and the poverty, corruption and colonial legacy of the Central American country. It could easily have become overwrought but Bromage crucially understands having something to say doesn’t mean melody is neglected in favour of message. As he says, this is “lyrically driven misery you can dance to”.

One of the best tracks is ‘No Forty Acres There’s No Mule’ which touches on broken promises following the Civil War era in the USA. In contrast ‘Empty’ is at the same time about depression and a homage to Glasgow’s Postcard label and its pop bands. One of those, Orange Juice, is referred to again on the album’s best song ‘Tears in the Rain’ an irresistibly nostalgic look back with hindsight to time spent in Japan.

Chris Bromage has been many things in an eventful life including sports agent and entrepreneur. Three years ago he opted out of a conventional work life to concentrate on his music. Man in a Minor Chord deserves and will surely attain a wide audience and is solid evidence that he has made a good decision. It also sends a message that it’s never too late to change direction.

Man in a Minor Chord will be released on 11th August by CB Records.

http://www.numberonemusic.com/endofempire