When Shoukichi Met Bob

Posted February 3, 2016 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

When I first discovered the music of Okinawa through Shoukichi Kina at the end of the 1980s I had no idea that a few years later Kina would be sharing the stage with another of my musical heroes Bob Dylan. Better still, I would be in the audience to witness this unlikely meeting which took place over three days in May 1994 at the renowned eighth century Todai-ji Temple in Nara.

The rather grandly titled Great Music Experience was a UNESCO sponsored event intended to be the first in a series of annual concerts held outdoors at important historical sites around the world. Its purpose was to gather together artists from different cultures and the first of these was a bringing closer of East and West with a number of high profile Western pop and rock musicians joining artists from Japan (and one from Okinawa).

Kina and Dylan backstage

Kina and Dylan backstage

Shoukichi Kina has always been fond of being photographed with other celebrities and he took the opportunity for a backstage picture at Todai-ji with a somewhat less than enthusiastic looking Bob Dylan. At a reception party for the musicians Kina was also snapped with both Joni Mitchell and Jon Bon Jovi. (Kina’s publicity material over the years has also featured glowing testimonials from Bob Marley, David Bowie and David Byrne to mention a few).

But let’s give him some credit too. His performance with Champloose members and Ry Cooder (plus a contribution from Ireland’s The Chieftains) was one of the really successful meetings of East and West. A few of the other musicians were content to run through their hits without much attempt at reaching out and embracing the spirit of cross-cultural collaboration. The overseas music media generally didn’t pay too much attention to the GME (as it was called) but an exception was Britain’s Q Magazine whose comprehensive report acclaimed Kina as one of its big successes.

Another star was Dylan himself whose live shows (recordings too) were notoriously erratic. Bob excelled himself this time by appearing on stage with the Tokyo New Philharmonic Orchestra and sang a moving and beautifully arranged ‘Ring Them Bells’. I was in the all-standing crowd near the front. Unfortunately this meant I was surrounded by loyal fans of metal rock band X Japan who had probably never heard of Dylan and only had eyes for their own heroes. It was a strange experience.

The finale finally brought Shoukichi Kina and Bob Dylan together on stage along with all the other musicians. No, they didn’t sing Shoukichi’s ‘Hana’ as might have been the case in Okinawa. That would be asking too much. Instead they sang Bob’s ‘I Shall Be Released’.

The logistics of organising the GME must all have been a bit too much and there was never another one. I never bought the pricey souvenir programme either and decided instead to spend the money more usefully on cans of beer which I consumed on the way home. The next evening I watched the whole thing again, or at least the third and final concert which was televised live to the world and broadcast by NHK on their satellite channel.

Trans Asia Music Meeting 2016

Posted January 26, 2016 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

Last weekend I attended the ‘Trans Asia Music Meeting 2016’ in Naha. This is an international trade fair, conference and showcase of music from Okinawa. Its purpose is to make relationships with other Asian promoters and producers and to help expand Okinawan music around the world.

trans asia

On Saturday there was a report from last year’s WOMEX in Budapest and then a Welcome Reception. On Sunday, there was a keynote speech by music critic Paul Fisher from the UK whose Far Side Music activities have helped greatly in raising awareness of Asian music in the West. It was several years since Paul and I last met in London so it was good to be able to meet and talk with him again. This was followed by a presentation session by producers and promoters from South Korea, China, Mongolia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Kachimba4 at the showcase

Kachimba4 at the showcase

The showcase which followed was spread across the two venues of Sakurazaka Theatre and Sakurazaka Central. The music covered a wide variety of genres, some of these directly connected with Okinawan roots and others much less so. The artists appearing were Kachimba4, Sakishima Meeting, Chihiro Kamiya, Maltese Rock, Awich, Hirara, the you, Black Wax, and MKR Project.

Between us Paul and I managed to see at least something of all the artists with much hopping to and fro between venues. I was especially impressed with Chihiro Kamiya who performed an immaculate set which balanced some of her own compositions with several wonderful versions of traditional Okinawan songs. She has matured and developed tremendously since I first listened to her several years ago.

Chihiro Kamiya

Chihiro Kamiya

Hirara

Hirara

Also worthy of special mention was Hirara, a singer and sanshin player from the Miyako Islands. In complete musical contrast the charismatic poet and rapper Awich was stunningly good with a powerful set accompanied by an electric band. MKR Project’s experimental blending of disparate elements was compelling again, and the evening was rounded off with a show by the energetic Kachimba4. Their music is almost entirely influenced by Cuba rather than Okinawa but they were very well received by an enthusiastic audience.

http://www.musicfromokinawa.com

 

 

MKR Project in Naha

Posted January 25, 2016 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

Last Friday the Okinawa-based trio MKR Project gave a live show at Sound M’s in Naha. The trio comprise singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki, bassist Ken Sakamoto and drummer Rob Goodman. They have yet to make an album but Mutsumi Aragaki was featured with two tracks on the Music from Okinawa CD which was presented last year to delegates at the WOMEX event in Budapest.

This was a fine performance in front of a small but appreciative audience. One hesitates to use the word ‘fusion’ which is an overused and rather maligned term nowadays but this really does describe what they do as they fuse together elements of Okinawan traditional music with original songs, jazz, funk, African and more. This could result in a bit of a mess but what they came up with on Friday evening was thoroughly enjoyable and at times groundbreaking.

MKR Project at Sound M's

MKR Project at Sound M’s

The main focus of the trio is Aragaki who has a strong voice and is an adaptable and imaginative sanshin player. Her own song ‘Spinnin’ Around’ was one of the highlights and she seems equally at home singing in Japanese or English often in the same song. Sakamoto and Goodman are also accomplished musicians and their different musical interests and backgrounds are all given space within this framework.

The versions of some old Okinawan songs were equally compelling. Their take on ‘Kagiyadefu’ completely reworks this standard piece and even features a rap by Goodman. Not everything works as well and sometimes they are a bit rough around the edges. But this is still very much a work in progress and it will be fascinating to see where it goes. MKR Project are establishing themselves on the Okinawan music scene and there isn’t anyone else doing quite what they do.

http://ethnocloud.com/MKR_Project/

 

 

Notes from the Ryukyus

Posted January 22, 2016 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

This blog began in 2010 to coincide with the publication of the second edition of The Power of Okinawa. It was created as a companion to the book’s website and with the idea of complementing the book with news of the latest goings on in Okinawan roots music as well as reviews of some of the best albums from outside these islands which caught my attention.

At the time it started I probably didn’t even have a clear idea of what blogs were all about (some say I still haven’t) but I’ve continued to focus as much as possible on the music and related matters rather than on stuff about me in over 350 posts up to now.

These things may change – but only slightly – with the introduction of a new category which I’m calling ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’. Under this heading I’ll write occasionally from a more personal perspective on things that interest me but with the focus still on music and Okinawa (probably).

I’ll start off on a really personal note with a photo of me:

john2

Those who know me may have guessed that this isn’t a recent picture. In fact, it was taken during the summer of 1971 in Athens, Greece. It’s one of the very few pictures unearthed from my younger days which I actually don’t mind. All right, the hair is long and unruly but, hey, these were different times.

That summer I was listening practically non-stop to Blue by Joni Mitchell, a still wonderful album which came out in June of that year. My rather pensive expression may be due to the fact that I had also been listening to Songs of Love and Hate by her fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, released just a couple of months before Blue. The discovery of Okinawa and its music was still some years in the future.

My younger self certainly couldn’t have imagined that I’d still be listening to Joni and Leonard in 2016. It was widely believed then that popular music was ephemeral and could not stand the test of time in the way that more ‘serious’ (i.e. classical) music did. We would grow out of it. Well, I never did and neither have most of my friends. This has taught me the valuable lesson that one shouldn’t take too much notice of what older people say. And that includes me nowadays.

 

Nenez: Dikka

Posted January 11, 2016 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The newly named (with a ‘z’) Nenez released their new album Dikka on New Year’s Day and it comes just three months after the latest line-up was launched with their Reborn album which covered the songs of their illustrious predecessors. The Reborn album was a bit pointless as it simply went over old ground, though the four young women sang well and the reboot of their name and image may have caught the attention of a younger audience. A new album of all original songs was promised and Dikka (it means ‘Let’s go’) is the result.

Although this has been released on a different bigger label, Tokyo’s King Records, nothing much has fundamentally changed and the production is again in the hands of the band’s creator and mentor Sadao China who also wrote several of the tracks on the album. The other songs include two compositions by members of Nenez and a song by Takayuki Oshiro as well as a nice cover of an early Yasukatsu Oshima song ‘Shimazake no Uta’.

JK

The four young women sing impeccably and with great enthusiasm. But the album as a whole is another disappointment and is a further stage in the continuing saga of the decline of this once great name. The rot sets in early on the opening track, the Sadao China composed ‘Hey Man’. China shows again that he is woefully out of touch when it comes to having his finger on the pulse of contemporary music. ‘Hey Man’ repeats the same tired old lyrical and musical clichés and sounds dated as does a lot of this album. China obviously thinks ‘Hey Man’ is rather special as he insists on including it a second time as a bonus track in a different version which is no better.

There are two or three decent China songs but too often the big arrangements are totally lacking in imagination and do a disservice to the four women. There isn’t anything here that would stand up alongside the songs on the great Nenes albums of the past and it’s tiring to have to listen to the inevitable boring electric guitar breaks which seem lifted straight from the 1970s. There is nothing essentially wrong with being old-fashioned if it’s done with some style, purpose or panache but there’s no sign of it here.

The China composition ‘Furusato no Kaze’ is performed well and is one of the best songs though its inclusion is somewhat puzzling as it was the title track of Yasuko Yoshida’s album last year and is recorded again here in an almost identical way. There is a cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ (with words in Uchinaguchi) which is presumably an attempt to emulate the earlier success of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ but it sounds limp by comparison.

Some guests appear on other tracks. Masaru Shimabukuro of Begin plays guitar on a couple of songs and there’s a rap by Shingo Maekawa from Kariyushi 58 but it isn’t enough to give the lift that’s needed. This isn’t a terrible album: the previous album of new material Okurimono was arguably worse. It just isn’t very original or exciting in any way.

Dikka is released by King Records.

http://digmusic.jp/

 

Kantuz 1965-2015

Posted December 21, 2015 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

As 2015 comes to an end a hugely important 3 CD compilation of Basque songs has just been released. Kantuz 1965-2015 ~ Memoria eta desira has been produced to celebrate 50 years of Basque culture and song and to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Durango Fair, a large gathering of music, literature and the arts which was held this month in the Spanish Basque Country.

Kantuz is the Euskara word for singing and the three discs offer 50 songs from throughout the half century up to and including this year. The project was produced and coordinated by Anjel Valdés of Elkar whose company has released the album as a hardback book with an introduction by Valdés and with the lyrics of all the songs (in Euskara only) plus the poem ‘Memoria eta desira’ (Memory and desire) by Joseba Sarrionandia.

kantuz

Valdés writes in his introduction: “Looking back, we realize that today we still have the same dreams as at the beginning. From generation to generation, the themes of the songs remain unchanged. Thus, land, freedom, peace, love, nostalgia and language, among others, are still, as in the beginning, the main source of concern of Basque society, its dreams and the essence of Basque song. Through this album which brings together songs and singers from different times, ages, backgrounds, styles and shapes, we remember that memory, dialogue and communication between different generations are the basic pillars for building our people.”

The three CDs are arranged in roughly chronological order and so the first one, (coloured green) begins with a song by trikitixa trio Tapia, Leturia eta Amuriza and goes on to introduce many other songs by familiar names in Basque music. The second CD (blue) continues this while introducing different styles and themes and the third one (red) brings us right up to date and features several songs from young hard rock guitar bands. Many of the tracks were originally released by Elkar but there is also a large selection of music from other labels.

Three great singers and songwriters who all appear on more than one of the CDs are Mikel Laboa (who died in 2008), Benito Lertxundi and Ruper Ordorika. In fact, the iconic Laboa is on all three discs where he crops up in collaborations with musicians as varied as Ruper Ordorika, enduring folk band Oskorri, the Euskal Herriko Gazte Orkestra & Donostiako Orfeoia, and finally with 1980s radical rockers Kortatu whose singer Fermin Muguruza has another track on the compilation.

Lertxundi’s ‘Baldorba’ is a modern classic and is rightly included in its superb orchestral version and on the third disc there is a gloriously energetic re-imagining of the triki-pop song ‘Amets bat’ by Hesian & Alaitz eta Maider. Most poignant and powerful of all is ‘Gernikan’ sung by the band Ken Zazpi on the second disc. The song refers to the tragic bombing of Gernika and has words by the poet Joseba Sarrionandia who continues to live in exile after escaping from a Spanish prison. These are just a few of the picks on this treasure trove of song.

Kantuz 1965-2015 ~ Memoria eta desira is released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

In this short video the CDs and book are introduced by Anjel Valdés:

http://www.eitb.eus/es/cultura/videos/detalle/3652598/videokantuz-50-anos-historia-50-canciones/

 

 

 

 

 

Mikel Urdangarin: MMXV

Posted December 18, 2015 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

I first heard of Mikel Urdangarin a few years ago when he joined Basque band Korrontzi to sing in a concert recorded for CD/DVD. It was obvious straight away that he was a special singer and his mellifluous voice raised things to a new level. He is blessed with a strong and passionate singing voice which nevertheless has a soothing effect on the listener.

Urdangarin first came to attention in the early years of this century as a major singer-songwriter but has been connected with other projects too. Most recently there have been some fascinating and successful experiments in turning poetry into music and song with the novelist Kirmen Uribe and other musicians. Their CD and book Jainko txiki eta jostalari hura was reviewed here last year.

mikel urdangarin

For his new album MMXV Urdangarin releases 13 live tracks carefully selected from the large number of songs he has been singing on a solo concert tour which has taken in many cities and comes to an end this week. A total of 26 concerts were recorded and this is the cream of the performances distilled into around an hour of music. This really is a solo tour for it’s just the man himself on stage accompanied by his acoustic guitar in bright and effective arrangements which show off that marvellous voice and the poetic force of his songs.

The prospect of listening to one man and his guitar singing songs in a language incomprehensible to most non-Basques might seem a bit of a chore but right from the opening song ‘Agian irailean’ (‘Perhaps in September’) Urdangarin brushes away any fears with a really tender and heartfelt show to win us over. The CD booklet contains Spanish translations of all the lyrics which are in Euskara.

All of the songs have music written by Urgandarin but some of them have words by other important writers including three with lyrics by his recent collaborator Kirmen Uribe. It shows the strong connection in the Basque Country between literature and song. As the press release states: “Mikel Urdangarin reminds us that we are never alone if we have at hand a good song to move us and make us dream.”

MMXV is released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

Here is a link to Mikel Urdangarin’s music video for ‘Agian irailean’:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmTSAsFwwMs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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