Tetsuhiro Daiku: Blue Yaima

Blue Yaima is the latest release from one of the great singers of these islands, Tetsuhiro Daiku. It comes not long after his previous album Agi in which he sang Yaeyama traditional songs as part of a series of recordings going back a number of years. The release of Agi slipped out almost unnoticed but this new album has been promoted by his record company as a “masterpiece” because it has been produced by the highly-regarded Japanese musician Makoto Kubota whose many activities have included his innovative Blue Asia world music project.

One of Kubota’s most recent adventures was the album Sketches of Myahk for which he travelled to the Miyako Islands to record and play with local singers, subsequently adding electric guitar, keyboards and beats to the mix in order to revitalise some traditional Miyako songs. This was generally considered a great success though on subsequent listens some of the recordings seem just a little too busy and cluttered. With Daiku’s album a similar experiment with Yaeyama songs could reasonably have been expected. However, the addition of Kubota has not produced any startling results and Blue Yaima as a whole is not especially different from much of Daiku’s previous work.

Daiku sings and plays sanshin on most tracks and is joined by his wife Naeko for some of the vocals. Kubota meanwhile adds some guitar, bass, keyboards, backing vocals and beats. The recordings were made in Tokyo, Yokohama and Okinawa. Unusually, Kubota’s presence is neither distracting nor is it particularly effective and for the most part Daiku is in the driving seat singing and playing in his usual way.

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Kubota’s presence isn’t always evident either. On one song just percussion accompanies Daiku’s voice and on ‘Rokucho Bushi’ there’s just sanshin and taiko. ‘Maguro ni Iwashi’ features some rather heavy-handed drumming and electric guitar but only on ‘Yaeyama Otome no Kazoe Uta’ does Kubota’s contribution, though still relatively restrained, add something really worthwhile to the song. The pulsating rhythm behind Tetsuhiro and Naeko’s alternating vocals makes it one of the most successful tracks. There is also the inevitable ‘Asadoya Yunta’ but it’s very welcome here as Daiku does it so well.

Perhaps the most surprising thing – especially about an album entitled Blue Yaima – is that not all the songs are from Yaeyama or even from Okinawa. There are two songs from mainland Japan and one from Ogasawara, and two others are poems by Okinawan poet Yamanokuchi Baku set to music by Japanese musician Wataru Takada. In the past Daiku has often recorded Japanese songs so this in itself is not a great surprise but on an album which advertises itself as being from the heart of Yaeyama it’s a bit odd. To these ears, the Japanese songs are the weakest part of the album.

So this is not a groundbreaking release in any way and Daiku has made more surprising and rewarding albums in the past. Nevertheless it’s another to add to his long catalogue of recordings; it does contain some good songs and performances; and, of course, nothing Daiku does is ever less than interesting. Just don’t expect a masterpiece.

Blue Yaima is out now on Tuff Beats.

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