Island Voices: Yoriko Ganeko

Most Okinawan music fans would include Yoriko Ganeko in any list of the top female singers of traditional songs and it’s possible to test that claim by catching her at one of the two venues she sings at on Okinawa’s main island. Like many Okinawans, Ganeko comes from a musical family and began singing early. Her father Seiei Ganeko was one of the singers brought up alongside the greats such as Rinsho Kadekaru and Shouei Kina, and Yoriko sang with him from the age of ten. In 1977 she released her first single ‘Jyoko Bushi’. The following year another single, ‘Musume Jintoyo’, became a big hit around the islands and is still fondly remembered and frequently performed today.

Yoriko Ganeko (centre) at her Naha club, Uta Hime

Soon after this success she toured Brazil and Argentina with her father, and by 1988 she was touring overseas again, this time in the USA as part of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘Neo Geo’ tour. In 1990 she joined Sakamoto again for his world tour ‘Beauty’ when she appeared on stage with Misako Koja and Kazumi Tamaki as one third of the Okinawa Chans. She also went to England in 1991 to take part in the Japan Festival, and collaborated with Irish musicians The Chieftains when they came to Japan, playing with them in Tokyo. A full length joint album was undertaken in 1993 when she went to Paris to record with the French punk band LSD – a most unlikely pairing. Unlike some of the livelier, raw singers of Okinawan minyo, Ganeko exudes a refined gracefulness which makes her meeting with the rowdy punk band all the more surprising. The album, Ganeko Yoriko Meets LSD, was the idea of the telephone company NTT and was one of a limited series of CDs on their Teledisc label. It’s a rarity now and Ganeko may well prefer it that way, though she sings her father’s song ‘Minami no Shima’ in an interesting ska version. In 1999 she joined up again with Ryuichi Sakamoto for his opera ‘Life’.

Album cover for Kui nu Hana

Despite being one of the finest female singers of her generation she has yet to make an album that really does full justice to her obvious talents. Her best effort was the Kui nu Hana album released on VAP in 1995. Generally it’s rather over-produced with a liberal use of keyboards and strings but it includes a wonderful duet with Kazufumi Miyazawa on ‘Nishinjo Bushi’, and an unusual take on Miyazawa’s ‘Shimauta’. Best of all, there is an absolutely superb arrangement of the traditional ‘Nakuni’ which is almost worth the price of the album alone. In the 21st century she has collaborated on two albums with the Japanese acoustic guitarist Chuei Yoshikawa, both on the Respect label. The first of these, Uta Asobi, in 2002, was a rather bland, disappointing affair and the second Uta Asobi 2, two years later, was no better.

Yoriko Ganeko is now in her 50s and it is as a live performer that she really excels. Visitors to Okinawa have many opportunities to see this outstanding singer of Okinawan minyo since she performs regularly at her own club Hime which is open every night in Koza from 21:00. She also occasionally sings at Uta Hime, a second club she has in Naha. Details of the two venues can be found at her website:

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