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

Christine Primrose: Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris

Posted July 3, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

The full title of this new album by Christine Primrose is Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris: Love and Loss – A Lone Voice and it contains eleven songs of unaccompanied traditional Scottish Gaelic sung by one of the great singers from Scotland who has travelled the world performing and teaching. There are also three bonus tracks chosen from earlier recordings.

It might seem a daunting task to sit down and listen for an hour to such sparse unaccompanied songs rendered in a language that will be unfamiliar to most people. However, if anyone is capable of dispelling our fears then it’s surely Christine Primrose whose long career includes being awarded Gaelic Singer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2009. With these new recordings she is out there on her own with no safety net and that she so obviously succeeds is a great testament to her art.

If there are any parallels with Okinawa it is with some of the timeless unaccompanied songs sung and collected in the local communities of these islands –  particularly those of Yaeyama and Miyako – as well as in the many songs of hardship, emigration and exile.

Primrose focuses here on sad songs of love and loss, some very old, others by known composers. In one case she adds a melody of her own to some words by the poet William Campbell. The final song is by John McGregor (in English: ‘Island of Lewis, I Travelled Afar from You’) in which the singer reflects on his native island after a long time away. As Primrose writes in her notes, “Like McGregor, you may never return permanently but it’s always home.”

Christine Primrose was brought up in a Gaelic speaking culture on the Hebridean island of Lewis where she sang in her native language from a very young age. On this album she gives a master class in how to interpret these songs. There is nothing remotely flashy or showy on display. Instead, the emotions of each song are conveyed with subtlety, clarity and a quiet power.

The album booklet contains Primrose’s explanations in English of all the songs. Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris: Love and Loss – A Lone Voice is released by Temple Records and is available directly from their website.

www.templerecords.co.uk

www.christineprimrose.com 

Uchina Love Song

Posted June 29, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Uchina Love Song is a new compilation of songs from the Ryukyu Islands sung by six different women singers. The album contains 18 tracks and the songs are shared equally between the singers so they have three tracks each. The singers are Lucy Nagamine, Yoko Ishikawa, Kaori Yamashiro, Kanako Horiuchi, Megumi Aragaki, and Mina.

It has been said many times that there are so many Okinawan compilation albums that it needs something rather special or different to justify the release of yet another one. Well, Uchina Love Song is certainly different as it focuses on both Ryukyu minyo and classical love songs all concerned with women’s feelings towards men. (Despite this, all of the songs seem to have been written by men). Generally, the stories told in the songs have unhappy endings and this makes for an unusual theme and atmosphere throughout.

The responsibility for choosing the 18 songs was with Setsuko Kikuyama, a famed teacher of minyo and she gave guidance on singing and sanshin playing as well as appearing on the album along with a few other musicians in supporting roles. The songs are performed uniformly well but among those that stand out is a version of Teihan China’s ‘Kataumui’ by Lucy Nagamine – a song much associated with Misako Oshiro. Megumi Aragaki takes on the standard ‘Shirakumu Bushi’, Kanako Horiuchi sings Choki Fukuhara’s ‘Yotakara Bushi’, and Mina performs ‘Musume Jintoyo’ a song written by Fukuhara’s son Tsuneo and a big hit for Yoriko Ganeko in 1978.

What is interesting about the artists who appear on the album is that only one of them – Megumi Aragaki – was born and raised in Okinawa. Of the others, Lucy is well-known for her upbringing in Peru, and Horiuchi moved to Okinawa from Hokkaido in order to study Okinawan singing and sanshin. Yamashiro was born in Osaka but came back to live in Okinawa, while Yoko Ishikawa is from the Okinawan island of Iyeha-jima but was brought up in Osaka. Mina is Swiss-Japanese and lives in London.

Kanako Horiuchi and Lucy Nagamine may be the best known of these singers and not surprisingly their contributions are outstanding but everyone deserves credit for a new compilation with a slightly different focus and purpose. The release comes with a second CD containing a nine minute recording of ‘Nakuni~Kaisare’ featuring all of the singers. The CD booklet contains Japanese translations and explanations of the songs by the writer Tsukasa Kohama.

Uchina Love Song will be released on 2nd August by Respect.

www.respect-record.co.jp