Nenes: Okurimono

At last the long-awaited album from the newest line-up of Sadao China’s protégées Nenes has been released on the Dig label. Okurimono (the title means ‘gift’) contains thirteen tracks and runs to 54 minutes. This time Nagisa Uehara is the only surviving member from the previous quartet who made the Sai album in 2008. Among the three new additions in personnel is the excellent young Yaeyama singer and sanshin player Mayuko Higa who figures prominently on the new CD.

The original line-up of the four women known as Nenes set the Okinawan music scene alight in the 1990s with albums such as Ikawu, Ashibi, and the groundbreaking Koza Dabasa which mixed up Okinawan music with other influences to make a glorious island pop sound. The women also showed off their great ability in playing strictly roots music on their 1995 album Narabi and they continued to make very worthwhile music following the departure of leader Misako Koja right up until their final farewell live album Okinawa in 2000. Since then China has experimented with a number of different line-ups of a ‘new’ Nenes but has failed to come up with anything to rival these earlier successes on CD.

The bad news is that Okurimono will do nothing to change the perception of the new Nenes as little more than a shadow of their illustrious predecessors. This album has much more in common with other recent lacklustre Nenes releases than it has with the glory days of the original band. The blame for this lies less with the young women and more with the uninspired choice of songs and with the disappointing arrangements which strive to be novel and different but are, in fact, hopelessly old-fashioned and unimaginative.

A Dixieland jazz band rather incongruously opens the album as the women tackle the title track which was co-written by the Miyako singer Isamu Shimoji. In fact, Shimoji’s songs feature on two other tracks too – on ‘Sakishima no Tema’, and on the unusual ‘Kaze no Michi’ which is the most interesting of the three. Sadao China supplies eight of the remaining songs, while the other two tracks are both traditional – Yaeyama’s ‘Yamabare Yunta’ and ‘Akatasundunchi’ from Okinawa. The traditional songs are performed adequately but, unfortunately, there is nothing remarkable lyrically or musically about any of the China songs and one of them, ‘Sanga, Ima wa Toku’, already appears on the Nenes album Shu from 2004.

Okurimono hits rock bottom with the song ‘Koza!’ which employs electric guitar, bass and drums on a dinosaur hard rock arrangement. It’s supposed to generate excitement (hence the title’s exclamation mark) but only succeeds in making the listener wonder whether all concerned have been locked in a time capsule for decades. This is the problem with much of the album. The attempts at jazz, waltz, and rock only sound forced, calculated and unconvincing, There is also no point in including ‘Sakishima no Tema’ if it’s done exactly the same way as Isamu Shimoji and Yukito Ara’s original – oh for the freshness of covers such as the reworking of Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ from the Ashibi album years ago.

So, despite a good vocal performance from the four women this is ultimately no better or worse than the previous Shu and Sai albums. Sadao China is a master singer and sanshin player unrivalled in the Okinawan minyo world, but as a producer and arranger of young musicians he badly needs an injection of new ideas.

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