Former Nenes member Yasuko Yoshida has just released her first album for nearly 14 years. Now we have a new ‘debut’ album from the three other original members of Nenes who reunite under the group name Unaigumi. It’s a bit like having the original Nenes back after nearly 20 years as only Yoshida is missing, her place taken by Emiko Shimabukuro. The others (Misako Koja, Namiko Miyazato and Yukino Hayane) are still in strong voice and the album is produced by Kazuya Sahara the keyboard player responsible for much of the original Nenes sound.
Unaigumi have already been playing live and appeared at last year’s Ryukyu Festival. Their album is named Unaijima (The Sisters’ Island) and is long at 67 minutes. This includes an eight minute title track co-written by Koja and Sahara, a lengthy version of the traditional song ‘Nanyo Kazoeuta’, and two recordings of the opening song ‘Winagu Dushi’. Most songs were written – and all of them arranged – by Sahara. Some have additional lyrics by Misako Koja and there are also traditional Okinawan songs with new arrangements.
Sahara has previously produced two solo albums for Misako Koja and it is the sound of those albums which dominates this one. So there are lots of musicians and some sweeping string arrangements to reinforce the core sound of the four women’s voices and the acoustic instruments led by the sanshin. It’s a sound which will be familiar to both Koja’s fans and to early aficionados of Nenes. There is also a strong anti-war theme running through several of the songs, such as Sahara’s ‘1945 no Haru’ (The Spring of 1945).
At its best this is a glorious album with some fine songs both new and traditional and it always catches that strong and indefinable island feeling. It goes without saying that the singing is powerful and is always a delight. The hand of Sahara is very much in evidence and there is the occasional suggestion that he is so pleased with himself that there’s a danger of over-indulgence and just a little too much ambition where a bit of editing might not have gone amiss. Some songs might have benefited from a shorter length or less embellishment.
Of course, it’s fascinating to compare this with Yasuko Yoshida’s generally much simpler and more straightforward Sadao China produced album. Perhaps, instead of taking sides in the China v Sahara production battle, it’s best just to be grateful that we have both albums and to enjoy them on their own terms. The singing by all four members of Unaigumi is as good as it gets and it must be said that the album is much more rewarding than anything the newer line-ups of Nenes have come up with over the past decade or so. In fact, Unaijima is the closest to the original Nenes experience that it’s possible to get. That in itself is a cause for celebration.
Unaijima is released by Disc Milk. The CD booklet has English translations of all the songs (which nevertheless contain several mistakes and oddities of expression).