Isamu Shimoji: No Refuge

Back in 2002, the Miyako Islands singer Isamu Shimoji released a single, ‘Banta ga Nmeri-Zuma’. The song caught people’s attention partly because Shimoji was singing in the old Miyakufutsu dialect of his native islands. Seldom heard nowadays, it is very different from other Ryukyu languages and is generally incomprehensible to most Okinawans. Even Shimoji didn’t begin learning it seriously until he was an adult. His debut album, Tin, was released later the same year. Since then Shimoji has continued to sing in Miyakufutsu and has become a prolific songwriter with a large number of recordings under his belt. The latest, No Refuge (Teichiku), is his 8th album.

Shimoji’s previous albums have tended to be rather long, sprawling and unfocused affairs. The most successful was his 2008 release 3 Percent which contained several strong songs. With No Refuge he seems at last to have tightened up his act and the album also marks significant further progression in both songwriting and production. He composed all the songs and sings them mostly in Miyakufutsu. He also plays acoustic guitar and is accompanied by a band which uses electric guitar, bass, piano, and drums.

On four of the ten songs there is also a string section arranged by Yasushi Matsumoto. In fact, the album’s opening track ‘Kari’ begins with the strident sound of strings before the band joins in. The violins, viola and cello work best of all on ‘Reset’ which builds gently into an emotional seven minute epic which is the highlight of the album. There is usually no sanshin on Shimoji’s songs. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think of this as Okinawan music in some indefinable way, as there’s an atmosphere of Miyako always bubbling close to the surface. Other good songs on the album include ‘Ureshiku Naritai’ – a clunky singalong waltz which seems to have been recorded live; ‘Atudama du Upudama’ which experiments with a ska arrangement; and the closing ‘Hamabe no Rojin’, a partly spoken piece with just acoustic guitar.

Now 41, Isamu Shimoji has found a solid niche for himself in the islands’ music – his face even appears on television commercials throughout the Ryukyus advertising the local Orion beer. His albums have been released in South Korea and Taiwan, and 3 Percent won a best album award in Korea. He has toured both countries and also played in Mexico, Cuba and Jamaica.

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