Nenes: Koza Dabasa

The 7th in the series revisiting classic albums and old favourites.

Koza Dabasa was the most ambitious of all the albums made by Okinawa’s Nenes. Recorded in Los Angeles in 1994 and released on Ki/oon Sony, the list of celebrated guest musicians included Ry Cooder and David Lindley (guitars), David Hidalgo (accordion), Bob Glaub (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums). Now this could have been a recipe for disaster with too many cooks spoiling the broth but happily it turned out to be a great success. The album manages to show off the brilliance of both Nenes and Okinawan music in general without diluting or interfering with what is really good about it.

Much of the credit must go to the arranger Kazuya Sahara who was responsible for the distinctive Nenes sound. Many of the songs on this and other Nenes albums were written or co-written by the band’s mentor Sadao China who put the members together, chose what they were to sing, played sanshin and produced. The four women who sang on Koza Dabasa were Misako Koja, Yasuko Yoshida, Namiko Miyazato and Yukino Hiyane. This Nenes line-up made the band’s first six studio albums. All of them are superior to the albums made by subsequent line-ups. While Koza Dabasa is the most wide-ranging musically, both this and its predecessor Ashibi are equally successful.

The second track on the album ‘America-dori’, is an exuberant song co-written by Bisekatsu and China. It celebrates the ‘champloo’ mix of people and cultures in Koza and contains an irresistible sanshin riff embedded in a rock arrangement. Other highlights on an album packed with them are ‘Katadayori’ which has solos from each of the four women; the traditional Okinawan ‘rap’ ‘Kurushima Kuduchi’; the popular and much requested ballad ‘Kogane no Hana’; and the exquisite last track ‘Shimajimakaisha’ a song about these beautiful islands which has Ry Cooder playing some of his inimitable slide guitar.

It must have been around 1991, when their debut album Ikawu was released, that I first saw Nenes. Still relatively new to Okinawan music at that time, it’s no exaggeration to say I was gobsmacked by their amazing singing and by their entire performance at Osaka’s Banana Hall, which was seemingly packed to the rafters with exiled Okinawans clutching glasses of awamori and cans of the island’s Orion beer. A year or so later I met up with Koja and Yoshida for an interview when Nenes were back in Osaka for another concert to promote their second album Yunta. Listening to Koza Dabasa now it is slightly surprising how little sanshin there is to be heard on many of these songs but also how Okinawan in spirit it still sounds.

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