Ska Lovers in Naha

Last Saturday I was invited to a live show by the band Ska Lovers at the Sakurazaka Central ‘live house’ in Naha. The invitation came from Kenichi Takahashi, who runs the Tokyo record label Respect. He has long supported various roots music from around the world and it was good to see him again on one of his infrequent trips to Okinawa. At the centre of the Ska Lovers project is the DJ and music producer known as DJ Sasa who gathered the musicians to form the band in which he also plays keyboards. The aim of Ska Lovers is to mix ska with Okinawan and Japanese music, and recently Respect Records released their second CD, Lovers Ska, an album of Japanese pop covers.

Ska Lovers’ main vocalist is Kanako Horiuchi who also plays sanshin and is responsible for adding a large dash of the Okinawan flavour – even though she is originally from Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. Horiuchi came to Okinawa at the age of 23 in order to study Okinawan traditional song and became a pupil of one of Okinawa’s greatest singers Misako Oshiro. She has been singing at Oshiro’s club, Shima Umui, for around ten years and still performs there most evenings. She has also travelled extensively and has performed in the UK, France, Senegal, and the USA.

DJ Sasa & Kanako Horiuchi of Ska Lovers

Saturday night’s audience was treated first to almost an hour of Kanako Horiuchi singing minyo, and she was joined for the whole of this time by her special guest Misako Oshiro. Horiuchi then changed out of her bingata and let her hair down – literally – for the second half of the show to front the nine members of Ska Lovers on a lively set of ska-influenced pop. Her singing style is reminiscent of Amami’s popular Chitose Hajime, and the set included a number of traditional Okinawan songs given the ska treatment. This big exuberant sound is played on sanshin, sanba, guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and a brass section which features trumpeter Enna who also plays with another ska and reggae-influenced band, All Japan Goith.

Ska Lovers appeared on Okinawan TV earlier in the week when a trimmed down line-up gave a rather tame, insipid performance of just one song, but the full member live show in Naha was completely different and much more powerful – so powerful in fact that the sanshin was occasionally in danger of being drowned out by the big band sound. No doubt they will eventually work out the right balance. The fact that Misako Oshiro’s guest appearance was advertised beforehand led to a larger number of older faces than usual in the crowd and it was good to see such a mix of ages doing the katcharsee at the end of Oshiro and Horiuchi’s opening set. All in all it was a successful and unusual blending of styles, musicians – and audience members.

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