Ayano Uema: Uta-sha
Ayano Uema is without doubt one of the best young singers of Okinawan traditional song. She is also a songwriter and an accomplished sanshin player. Uta-sha is her third solo album and the first release since Majun (2009). A debut album Negai Boshi was released in 2006 when she was 21. Her two solo albums were both relatively short with just eight tracks apiece but the new album is almost an hour long and contains twelve songs including a ‘bonus track’.
The big difference now is that Uta-sha has been released on the major Columbia label. This means it has already received much advance publicity and is being hailed as her ‘major debut album’ – a phenomenon that strangely still seems to excite Okinawans and Japanese alike. (Many other musicians in the 21st century just get on with making good music on their own terms which they release successfully in a variety of ways without the help of music corporations). Unfortunately, signing with a big label also means that along with the obvious advantages there is a danger that the artist becomes a product to be packaged and presented for a mainstream audience while the essence of what was good can be diluted or lost.
This is not necessarily to say that Uta-sha is the result of cynical manipulation by a big record company and Uema herself may be perfectly happy with the results. But the question is worth raising not least because Columbia is so eager to show off Uema as a young woman with strong Okinawan roots and she is pictured carrying her sanshin on the cover of the album. Despite this, the sanshin is only heard on three songs. The predominant sound on Uta-sha is that of piano, guitar and strings against a rather bland, safe and predictable production.
The album opens with that most familiar of Okinawan songs ‘Asadoya Yunta’. This may seem an uninspired choice as it has been done so many times before. However, Uema’s version is driven along nicely by sanshin and piano and she manages to make an old song sound fresh again. Less inspiring is ‘Tida Chichi nu Hikari~Amazing Grace’ which is performed quietly with just keyboards and uilleann pipes and is sung in Uchinaguchi, but this has already been done much better by Misako Koja on her album Meguru Inochi as well as by (rather too many) others before.
‘Harikuyamaku’ comes midway through the album and is the only traditional Okinawan song. Uema gets a chance to play her sanshin here alongside guitar and percussion. The sanshin also appears on ‘Toone’ which is otherwise swamped in an unimaginative rock arrangement. ‘Toone’ is one of three tracks – the others are ‘Imi Shijiku’ and ‘Koe Naki Inochi’ – which also appeared on Uema’s previous album Majun. Why on earth do we need them again? The businessmen at Columbia must think they are onto a winner with ‘Koe Naki Inochi’ as not only is this big ballad re-recorded for the new album but it’s included twice – the second time in a slightly different version as a ‘bonus track’.
Four of the original songs were co-written by Uema with the album’s co-producer Tatsuya Iju who also does some of the arranging. Choro Club make a guest appearance on ‘Imi Shijiku’ but it only adds to the general inertia. Altogether six different arrangers work on the twelve songs. These include Akira Inoue who did his best to spoil Yoriko Ganeko’s Kui nu Hana album several years ago with his over-lush meddling. In the end Uta-sha is still a decent album and Uema sings very well. But there is nothing vital, new or exciting about any of this and ultimately it runs the risk of being just a little dull and boring. If it’s Okinawan roots music you’re after then it’s probably best to look elsewhere.