Archive for April 2017

Young Okinawa

April 23, 2017

This is an article I wrote in 2003. It features three young women who are now in their 30s and still very active in Okinawan music. Mika Uchizato became the mother of two children and moved back to her native island Minami Daito. We met again a couple of years ago when she was back in Okinawa to record with English composer and musician Guy Sigsworth and we are still awaiting the results.

Kanako Hatoma continues to sing and perform both solo and with her family band, while Chihiro Kamiya has gone on to have a successful career and made her best album Utaui in 2012. In addition Mayuko Higa, who is also mentioned in the article, went on to become a member of Nenes and is now a solo artist with a debut album released last year.

Young Okinawa

Ry Cooder famously declared about Okinawa in these pages that “the great guys are dead. I do better Okinawan than they do now.” John Potter reckons differently, and sends in the new Okinawan girl power…

“Hi there soldier, where are you based?” I’m not used to being addressed this way. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve been mistaken for one of the American military. I’m an Englishman living in mainland Japan and have just stepped out of the airport at Okinawa’s capital Naha. I’m here for the umpteenth time on the first step of another journey to investigate the wonderful roots music of the Ryukyu Islands. The plane on the two hour flight from Osaka was sprinkled with beefy shaven-headed young men with American accents on their way back from leave, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised if this airport bus driver thinks I’m one of his charges. I name the hotel where I’m to stay, he’s nonplussed for a second, then directs me to the regular taxis.

Okinawa, by far the largest of the beautiful subtropical Ryukyu Islands, is still host to 75% of the US forces in Japan and their bases occupy 20% of the island’s land. In mainland Japan this is conveniently easy to forget but there are continual reminders here. On my way back from a visit to see Nenes the next night the taxi driver is reluctant to pick me up as he wants to make sure I won’t try to pay him in US dollars. The relief is enormous when I tell him in his own language that I’m not American, have been living in Japan for many years, and have a pocketful of yen. As I write, an American serviceman has just been jailed for the rape of a young Okinawan woman and people are still cautious about their largely unwanted guests, after a series of crimes involving rapes, theft and violence that stretch back many years.

Not so long ago Ry Cooder – who collaborated with the original Nenes, and years before that with Shoukichi Kina – grumpily announced in a fRoots interview that all the great Okinawan singers are dead. My own experience has been rather different. And lately has there been a steady stream of new young singers and musicians from the islands which has threatened to become a glut. Many of these seem to be women, and some of them are excellent.

In the past year or so a lot of attention has been given to two young Okinawan women singers – at least in mainland Japan where they have become big names on a par with the pop stars there. 23-year-old Chitose Hajime from the Amami islands, to the north of Okinawa, was the first to stun the nation when she sold a million copies of her debut album. When she was still a teenager I saw her at the Ryukyu Festival, singing with sanshin, and she reappeared there in 2002 to be almost mobbed by an adoring crowd. But her albums now eschew all reference to the sanshin and are instead competent but very much Japanised with session musicians for the mainland audience. Only her typical falsetto Amami singing remains. Even her own appearance has undergone a radical change for her new album, as she has lost weight, her formerly prominent teeth have been altered, and in general she now looks indistinguishable from most other Japanese pop idols. I passed a Chitose Hajime poster in a CD shop the other week and had to look twice to make sure it really was her.

Since the rise of Chitose Hajime the Japanese mainland has adopted and created a second Ryukyu star, this time from the southernmost islands of Yaeyama. Rimi Natsukawa is a few years older than Chitose Hajime but is the new face of Okinawan music for many Japanese. Her cover of a song by the popular trio Begin became a hit single and has now been followed by nationwide television appearances and best-selling albums. However, while Hajime retains her native island singing style, Natsukawa’s recordings are rather bland, her choice of material unadventurous. In short, the Okinawan spirit just doesn’t seem to be there as much as it is with many of her contemporaries.

It’s these other young and more rootsy contemporaries that I’m in search of. At least three of them who impress me much more than Hajime or Natsukawa are now in my range of fire. They are Mika Uchizato (23), Chihiro Kamiya (21), and Kanako Hatoma (20). All three come from musical families, have made singles and debut albums which have gained much critical approval, and are already well-known singers and sanshin players around the islands, if not in mainland Japan.

Of course, it’s difficult to find anyone in the Ryukyu Islands who doesn’t come from a musical family. Every other person I meet seems able to play the sanshin or sing minyo (folk songs) or be related to someone who’s made an album. Not surprising that Okinawa became known historically as ‘The Island of Songs and Dances’ and it really is the last outpost of Japan where the traditional music is still a vital and living thing. Eliza Carthy would love it here.

Mika Uchizato

The first one I track down is Mika Uchizato. As well as her own debut album and a new mini-album, she is the haunting voice on much of Ryukyu Underground’s second album, Mo Ashibi. Getting around Okinawa by public transport is not an easy task especially at night and a taxi fare can mount up. She is singing at a newish minyo-style bar situated in the plush Zanpa Misaki Royal Hotel – a hotel so big that you can see the brightly lit neon sign on its roof as you fly in to Naha airport at night. But the hotel is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in Yomitan, a good hour from Naha by car. To the rescue comes Ryukyu Underground’s Keith Gordon who takes me there in his open top two seater sports car. In the hot Okinawan night I gaze at the stars on the way.

Mika Uchizato sings to her own sanshin accompaniment, occasional taiko (drum) provided by Masao Teruya, and with backing tracks for some songs. Mika is tiny. Just 147 cm (4 ft 8 in) she later tells me, which is, well, short. But what a voice. Slightly husky (which she puts down to cigarette smoking), it’s really powerful and it comes as a surprise that one so small should have such a belting voice. It reminds me a bit of Misako Koja. Later she tells me unprompted that Misako Koja is her favourite woman singer. Her performance is also so happy, energetic and full of life that it simply makes you feel a whole lot better. The audience agree and are soon up and doing the arm-flinging katcharsee dance.

Several of her songs are from her native island of Minami Daito, one of the two isolated Daito islands – known as Minami (South) and Kita (North) – which are a long way to the east of Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean. After the show she answers some of my questions, first about her background. “I live on my own in Okinawa now so I miss my parents and brothers and sisters who live on Minami Daito. The ship takes 14 hours to get there but you can fly there in an hour. The first people who came to Minami Daito to start a new life were from Hachijo island in Tokyo prefecture, so they have some different customs and the music is different too. My own family originally came from Kume island. My grandparents moved to Minami Daito for work and this is why I was born there. The island’s history is very short and it’s just over a hundred years since the first people came there.”

“I speak now with an Okinawan dialect, but it seems that the dialect will disappear in the future. For example, if I didn’t sing minyo I probably wouldn’t speak in the dialect so much. I see a lot of young people who don’t speak it much. I don’t want it to disappear, so I try to use even little words like haisai (hello) and mensore (welcome) as much as possible.”

Mika is also full of life off stage, is very happy to talk, has a down-to-earth manner and a very positive outlook. So how about working with Ryukyu Underground, an American and a Brit who had previously only used samples rather than a ‘real’ vocalist for their modern technological take on Okinawan music. It must have been quite a challenge for her, and Keith Gordon had already told me that she was (like the airport bus driver) somewhat nonplussed at first. With Keith safely out of the way I pop the question.

“I knew Ryukyu Underground before I joined their recording. Keith asked me to sing with them. It was the first experience of this kind for me. I sang minyo but in some ways it was not like minyo. People of my age in Okinawa can find out about minyo through Ryukyu Underground’s music. This is really good. Also, to play with them for me was a very good experience. It was difficult because I usually just sing songs with a sanshin. So the rhythm is different. I thought Keith and Jon Taylor knew more than I do about minyo. They tried very hard to understand the meaning of the lyrics. There was a certain difficulty of having communication in different languages but they both have a passion for Okinawan music and so we could communicate well through music. I was very impressed and moved about their attitude. I want to carry on playing minyo and also I want to play with many different musicians like Ryukyu Underground. I don’t discriminate against any genre. I’m happy to play with any musicians, not just in Japan, but I’m also interested in going abroad and playing with other musicians there. I want people to listen to minyo through my performances.”

And the inevitable query came up of what she thought about the young musicians coming through. ”I think it’s a very good thing that there are many good young musicians coming up. In my case when I was a child the sanshin sound and minyo songs surrounded your life in a very normal daily way. So when I left Minami Daito to go to mainland Japan this was the first time I realized how wonderful Okinawan minyo is. And how important it is. I know a lot of other young musicians from Okinawa who feel the same way because they’ve had the same experience. Any Okinawan musician – it doesn’t matter which genre – they seem to have Okinawan roots of their own and it’s something you can’t forget. I can see those young musicians are actually increasing. Some of them often come back to their traditional roots even if they are playing rock music and they understand better because they are brought up this way.”

“I’m just doing Okinawan music in a simple way. There are always people who have a different taste. Some people like my music and some people might hate it depending on their taste. My idea is that I want to sing my music in a simple way. I don’t want to change like Chitose Hajime and Rimi Natsukawa have, though I respect them too. This new mini-album of mine has a very simple and basic sound in which I tried to remember some of the songs I used to sing when I was a child. I basically don’t want to be like anybody else. My idea is to never forget my roots and to do exactly what I want, which is a simple presentation, always going back to my roots.”

Kanako Hatoma at Bashofu

Later I am whisked back to Naha in the early hours and the next morning I’m off again, this time further south to Ishigaki island, 50 minutes by plane from Okinawa, and the main island of the Yaeyama chain. Tonight is the final of the Tubarama Taikai (contest). Tubarama is the most famous of Yaeyama minyo songs and a singer’s ability to perform it well is one of the benchmarks by which musicians are judged. Entries come in from all over the Ryukyu Islands as well as a few from mainland Japan and there are qualifying rounds. Tonight’s final is held outdoors under a full moon on another hot evening with the large audience sitting on the grass in a park in the small city of Ishigaki. Families are here with picnics and many are sipping beer or the local awamori liquor. There are 23 performances of the same song by 23 different singers. There’s a wide age range among the finalists too with the youngest just 15, the oldest 56.

Just a short walk from the park is Bashofu the minyo ‘live house’ run by Kanako Hatoma’s parents and it’s here where I adjourn after the Tubarama contest. Kanako’s mother Chiyoko is a well-known singer herself who is appearing at the Ryukyu Festival this year but her daughter has already released a single and album since being discovered by Okinawan singer, producer and songwriter Sadao China. The bubbly, ever-cheerful Kanako is now at university and her recording career seems to be on hold for the moment though she still does regular live performances. Tonight she gets on stage to sing alone, and with her parents, and to do a duet – of the song Tubarama of course – together with another remarkable talent, the 14 year old Mayuko Higa. I asked Kanako first about the Tubarama contest.

“I went to the Tubarama Taikai when I was 15 and I won the Shoreisho (Encouragement Award).  Often the youngest singer gets it to give them encouragement for the future. The listeners are interested in minyo very much, so they find each performance different – but of course I understand that your English readers might find it odd to hear the same song again and again! But I never get fed up with it. I’m very interested in the really young ones and I always wonder how they’re going to sing. A lot of young people are coming through because there’s always a qualifying round and many of them don’t get as far as the final. I went to the qualifying round in Ishigaki and the youngest singer was eight years old. Tubarama is a difficult song to sing and especially so for children. Sometimes they just sing the way their teacher tells them, but Mayuko Higa was always different. She just listens and then sings in her own way.”

How about the new young Okinawan singers in general? “I don’t think the great singers are dead at all. There are always great singers. It just goes on from one generation to the next in Okinawan music. Nowadays many people use Western electric instruments. That doesn’t mean the tradition has ended, it’s just a new development. A lot of young singers have come through in the same natural way. Going back in history it was forbidden for young people to play sanshin because they had to work. Things have changed now and people understand that playing sanshin and singing minyo is an important cultural thing and so older people know better about letting the young play minyo. I think it’s a good thing that someone like Rimi Natsukawa discovered Okinawan music and that’s fine, but I’m not sure she can do it well. I joined her two albums to do hayashi (backing vocals) but I had to change my own singing to fit in with her. I’m not so happy if everybody listens to her songs and thinks this is the real Okinawan music but I understand that this is one way to spread Okinawan music in Japan.”

And how about Kanako’s own music in the future. With still more than a year to go at university what does she think is next for her. “I don’t know about my next CD because I’m just concentrating on the university at the moment and I haven’t sung so much. Probably when I make another album it will be produced by Sadao China again because I like him. I haven’t decided yet about the long-term future. I’m studying history and I want to get a teacher’s diploma to teach on a small Yaeyama island or maybe I’ll become a professional singer. I live in Tokyo now during the university term and I’m having a good time but I can’t avoid thinking about the difference in the air and the colour of the sky. Definitely Okinawa is the place you want to be.”

Chihiro & Mika

A week or two later, at the annual Ryukyu Festival in Osaka, I finally manage to catch up with the third of these young women, Chihiro Kamiya, backstage after her performance. Chihiro’s uncle is a minyo singer and her cousin has already recorded and is well-known in Japan. Chihiro herself has been singing since she was three and is an accomplished sanshin player.  She has appeared several times on television, and has just made her debut album Miyarabi Shimauta. This is a strong set of Okinawan flavoured songs in which she is backed by an electric band including much in demand young multi-instrumentalist Toru Yonaha. Today was a completely different kind of performance with just simple sanshin accompaniment and she was joined on stage by Mika Uchizato to sing as a duo, something they have recently done in Okinawa too. (Kanako Hatoma is also at the festival today as a surprise guest, dashing past us to go on stage as I begin talking with Chihiro).

“My family traditionally were all minyo singers. We come from Tsuken (a small island off Okinawa) and my family runs a minshuku (guesthouse) there with a little stage, so I’ve been singing since I was three. When I was at high school I was sometimes a bit embarrassed to do minyo. So I formed a band there to do pop and rock music and I was the vocalist.”

“The album was not just my idea. The musicians and everyone involved all decided together. It has a traditional Okinawan base but we decided to use many different instruments and to sing some songs in Japanese to appeal to Japanese people and the younger generation too. I wanted it to be popular. It’s very difficult, even for me, to understand lyrics in Uchinaguchi (Okinawan) because nowadays young people don’t speak it much. So it’s not so natural for me but I read the lyrics and asked my parents about the meaning to get it into my mind. My uncle and cousin heard the new album and knew that it wasn’t exactly traditional but they think it’s good that now I do a lot of performances and they understand that I can do both styles of music.”

“Ever since I was a child I’ve been doing this kind of work. There are quite a few young people doing this but there are not many people who can be like me and go on a stage, for example at today’s Ryukyu Festival. I’m very lucky to be in that position so I want to carry on doing it. It’s a special thing. My friends generally are very supportive and they come to see my concerts and give my performances a very warm reception. But at first they were surprised, because I hadn’t told them much about my singing minyo ever since I was a small child.”

I wondered how she got together to sing with Mika Uchizato. “Mika Uchizato and I have both been playing minyo since we were children. Sometimes we were on the same stage at minyo contests but we never really talked to each other. Then last April we met and talked for the first time at a photo session for a CD jacket. At that time we realised that we came from quite similar minyo backgrounds. Then we started singing together. Not many people have such a similar background as us. Singing on my own is good but it’s also fun to sing together with Mika. I sometimes feel it’s a very motivating thing and that I want to sing well with her. It’s fun and I enjoy it.”

As far as these young women and their music are concerned, Okinawa is still very definitely the place to be.

Thanks to Mika, Kanako and Chihiro for their time, Keith Gordon for driving me around, and Midori Potter for help with translations.

(fRoots Magazine, Nos.247/248, January/February 2004)


Oshiro & Horiuchi

April 17, 2017

This is an interview I did with Misako Oshiro and Kanako Horiuchi after they released an album together in 2011. The feature was published in the UK’s fRoots Magazine. Misako Oshiro is regarded by many as the greatest female singer of traditional Okinawan songs. She continues to be active in her 80s and a double album compilation of some of her best work came out in 2012. A new album was released last year.

This was also my first meeting with Kanako Horiuchi who I’ve since met many times through her tireless involvement in numerous music projects. Last year I was asked to give a joint presentation with her at Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum. She travelled to Senegal to play and record an album in 2015 and has subsequently performed in Europe and Brazil as well as in various solo and joint projects around the Ryukyu Islands.

Oshiro & Horiuchi

Two generations of Okinawan minyo singers and sanshin players talk to John Potter.

I’m in Okinawa’s capital Naha with Misako Oshiro, widely regarded as the greatest living female singer of minyo (traditional songs) from the Ryukyu Islands. But this is a double meeting because I’m also talking with Kanako Horiuchi, more than 40 years Oshiro’s junior. The two women have just made an album together, Uta Nu In, released on Tokyo’s Respect label, and they are busy doing interviews and promotion.

Now 75, Misako Oshiro was brought up on the main Ryukyu island of Okinawa in the village of Henoko. She was a pupil of Teihan China (father of Sadao China) and made her debut single in 1962 with a recording of Teihan’s song Kataumui. In the 1970s she began playing with Okinawa’s best loved singer, the late Rinsho Kadekaru and their duets produced some of the greatest ever moments of Okinawan traditional song. In 1998 she also branched out into acting and played the leading role in the film Tsuru-Henry, though she claims in our meeting that she can’t really act and only plays herself.

Kanako Horiuchi’s background is very different. She’s not from the Ryukyu Islands at all but from Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. For the past decade she has been a pupil of Oshiro, learning minyo from her while working as a singer and musician at Oshiro’s club Shima Umui, and our meeting takes place here early one evening before the first customers arrive. The two women sit next to each other at one of the club’s tables and we sip the island’s popular jasmine tea (though Oshiro’s glass looks suspiciously as if it might contain awamori, the island liquor). Both women are happy to answer my questions and Horiuchi usually takes the initiative, behaving in a very friendly and natural way in the company of her distinguished mentor. The two obviously get on well. I ask Horiuchi how she came to be in Okinawa.

“I left Hokkaido when I was still very young and worked as a set designer in Tokyo for an advertising company. That was the first time I saw a sanshin being played or listened to Okinawan music and it was for a commercial by Seijin Noborikawa. I immediately wanted to play sanshin myself. My image of traditional music was that it’s rather stiff. The closest thing to minyo where I come from is the Tsugaru shamisen in which the musicians always play with very serious expressions on their faces. In Okinawa it’s different – the musicians encourage everyone to dance and the atmosphere is much friendlier. Moving to Okinawa was a big decision but I didn’t think all that deeply about it because I was only 22 at the time. I just felt strongly that I wanted to go there to play music.”

Soon after moving to Okinawa she was introduced to Misako Oshiro and began learning minyo from her, culminating in the new joint album, which was Horiuchi’s idea as a celebration of her decade of learning from Oshiro.

“I wrote down the songs I wanted to try on the album, and then gave the list to her. She went through them and suggested which ones were good or not for me. I did her famous song Kataumui. At first I thought maybe it wasn’t a good time to sing this song and that I should do it in the future, but then I thought, well, why not sing it now. Then she told me just to go ahead and sing it. Now I’d love to do a solo album…but maybe it will be in another ten years time!”

Oshiro & Horiuchi at Shima Umui

Apart from her love of minyo she is also involved with a project called Ska Lovers, a band playing ska versions of Okinawan and Japanese pop songs. Horiuchi is the vocalist and sanshin player and they have released two successful albums. It’s a world away from minyo but has ironically helped Horiuchi to understand that Okinawan traditional song is what she really loves most. She has also taken a break from the island to travel extensively, playing Okinawan music in England, France, Germany, the USA, Senegal and Brazil.

Misako Oshiro adds: “I don’t understand ska or any other music. I only know Okinawan minyo and I’ve just enjoyed making this album with Kanako. I’ve also enjoyed other duets I’ve done, most recently with Toru Yonaha, and of course most of all with Rinsho Kadekaru. The Ainu musician Oki is also interested in doing something with me and he came here the other day to talk about it. Apart from this, I just want to carry on the same as now at Shima Umui. I have no special plans or projects for the future.”

The album the two women have made is recorded very simply with mainly sanshin accompaniment and straightforward singing and playing. Toru Yonaha joins on four tracks but there are no other embellishments. “We thought about adding koto” says Horiuchi, “but in the end we didn’t because we decided there was probably no need for it. The title Uta Nu In also implies that the songs are more important than the singers or arrangements.”

Oshiro: “I was brought up listening to minyo so making the album was no problem for me but when I had to sing the two new songs it was a bit difficult at first.” On minyo in general she reflects: “The minyo world used to be more lively in Okinawa. Nowadays young people start playing minyo but they often don’t continue with it. A lot of them go into pop music. This makes me feel that it’s very important for me to carry on singing these songs in order to pass them on to the next generation.”

The collaboration with Kanako Horiuchi is a fine way to make sure this aim is achieved.

Uta Nu In is available through

Misako Oshiro’s Shima Umui website (in Japanese) is at

(fRoots Magazine, Nos.343/344, Jan/Feb 2012)

Oskorri – Xabi Solano – Mikel Urdangarin

April 12, 2017

Three different but equally important albums from the Basque Country recently arrived in Okinawa from Elkar record company. For more than four decades seminal band Oskorri have been vital exponents of traditional and modern Basque songs and music. Their work bears comparison with the likes of Fairport Convention in England and with Scotland’s Battlefield Band.

In November 2015 they finally decided to call it a day and now their last concert in Bilbao is preserved with the release of Hauxe Da Despedidia – which comes as a hardback book containing essays and many photos from all stages of the band’s history as well as a DVD of the concert and two additional CDs. The first CD is an edited version of the same concert while the second is a 20 track compilation with many rare live and studio recordings from the years 1971~2002.

Among the long list of Oskorri members and collaborators was famed trikitixa star Kepa Junkera and he also appears again on a new album by singer and trikitixa player Xabi Solano who first came to our attention several years ago with the band Etzakit and more recently as the leading member of Esne Beltza who have toured mainland Japan.

His new solo album Erenotzu (released under the name Xabi Solano Maizer) is a varied collection of 15 tracks with some traditional-sounding trikitixa as well as more modern mixes of styles – on ‘Nere mundu polit txiki hontan’ it comes close to the territory of The Pogues. The CD is released separately from the second volume of a new music book containing Solano’s compositions.

Mikel Urdangarin has been praised before on this blog as a great singer as well as a composer of songs. His previous release was a completely solo recording of a live tour. This time he has come up with a new studio album Margolaria recorded with a group of five hand-picked musicians. The most wonderful thing about Urdangarin is his emotional and heartrending vocals and there are some fine songs too among the ten tracks here. Best of all is ‘Itsasoan euria’ and the link below is to a video of its recording in the studio:

All albums are released by Elkar.

The Revival & Rusby

April 8, 2017

This is a really old one from deep in the vaults. Kate Rusby has been established as one of England’s greatest female folk voices for more than two decades. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time when she wasn’t at the forefront of what is now a very healthy traditional music scene throughout the UK.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of her solo debut album Hourglass. Not long after it was released in Japan I met up with Kate while on a trip back to England and she talked to me about her music. Since then she has gone on to make many more albums and has also developed into a fine songwriter. Her latest release, the excellent Life in a Paper Boat, was reviewed on this blog last year. Sadly for us, however, a tour of Japan never materialized.

The Revival & Rusby

John Potter speaks to fast-rising English folk star Kate Rusby about her popularity both here and at home

English folk music. If this conjures up visions of beer-swilling middle-aged men earnestly singing old sea shanties in cosy folk clubs, think again. For in 1998 a new, vibrant – some say even ‘sexy’ – young folk scene exists. A true English folk revival. This year is the centenary of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and old hand Martin Carthy was awarded an MBE for his services to folk music. But it’s Carthy’s own daughter Eliza who turned heads most with a cracking double album Red Rice, a Mercury Music Award nomination.

Before that there was the wonderful album Hourglass by another young upstart, 24 year old Kate Rusby, whose breathtaking singing and sensitive arrangements on guitar and piano have created new interest in an old tradition like you never thought possible. And that’s just two out of many. English folk music is now able to take its place alongside the ongoing Celtic boom and world music. Young people have even been out morris dancing.

At the Bridgnorth Folk Festival in Shropshire, I tracked down Kate Rusby – for my money the best of all the young singers – with some questions for KTO. She had just appeared with The Poozies, the band she sings and plays guitar with while continuing a parallel career as solo artist, and had agreed to meet me later backstage “outside the ladies’ showers”.  Kate is a small, friendly Yorkshire lass with a great Barnsley accent. These are just some of the answers she gave me…

Why do you think there’s such a big revival of interest in folk music, especially among young people?

I’ve sat and thought about that a lot. The generation that were in the original revival have all grown up now, and now it’s our turn to go out and play. A lot of us have just grown up loving this music. I come from a musical family and I’ve learned most of my stuff from them really. I learnt it the oral way like they used to years and years ago. It’s strange it’s happened like that really. I just love this music. I think the young people now have learnt from the older ones and have had the extra years to, kind of, broaden it and make it a wider music. I’ve got a huge record collection and I listen to absolutely everything, not just folk music, which must influence what I do as well as the stuff that I’ve learnt from my parents.

Your album ‘Hourglass’ and the earlier one that you made with Kathryn Roberts are both released now in Japan complete with Japanese sleeve notes. How did that come about?

My parents and I run our own record company, Pure Records, and a Japanese company approached my parents and arranged it all through fax and E-mail and things like that. It’s also a great thing that it’s all in the family because we can pick and choose what we want to do. But I’ve never sat down and thought, how can I expand my career? It’s something that’s just happened. I could have signed with a big label but I just wanted to stay in folk music really and have the choice if I wanted to. Whereas if I’d done that I’d have been told what I had to do, what to wear, where to go and all that. It’s not really me. But I’d love to go to Japan in the future, as I’ve already travelled quite a bit, especially for the British Council.

How did the British Council thing come up?

That was three years ago when I still worked with Kathryn Roberts. We were taken to Malaysia by the British Council for concerts and we just had a brilliant time. Just loved it. They phoned up and said: “We’ve heard about you, we’ve got your CD and we’re looking for two female performers, do you want to come?” It’s really great because you get to see some really interesting countries. We were in Egypt with The Poozies about two years ago and that was just brilliant too, and we’re playing in Turkey soon.

And the next Kate Rusby album?

That will be out next Spring. I’m going in the studio in December to make it but before that there’s a single coming out.  The new album will be more traditional songs and some of my own like Hourglass was.  I had a really brilliant time before in the studio making that but I never had any idea at the time how popular it would be. All the musicians on it, like Ian Carr who plays all the guitars, were so amazing.  And John McCusker from Battlefield Band. I recorded my album in Battlefield Band’s studio in Scotland, so we’re all linked up.

With Kate at the time of our talk

Kate Rusby also finds time to do the occasional tour with John McCusker as well as her work both solo and with the The Poozies. She also performed this year in Denmark, Holland and Belgium as well as at the major Cambridge and Sidmouth festivals in England.  In fact she’s on the road most of the time and has to make a real effort to fit in her recording, some songwriting, and trips back to Barnsley. We’ve had plenty of representatives of the Irish boom in Japan recently, how about someone bringing Kate Rusby over here so we can sample close up the best of English folk. British Council are you out there?

(Kansai Time Out, No.262, December 1998)

Maider: Zuei

April 4, 2017

This is the first solo album by Basque singer and musician Maider Zabalegi who was formerly one half of the triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider. They achieved great success in their homeland several years ago. The pair’s third and final album before they went their separate ways was released back in 2002. Maider has kept everyone waiting for a very long time but has now finally returned to the music scene with the release of this album, Zuei (To You), her first recording for 15 years.

The album contains nine songs and one instrumental all written or co-written by Maider. The triki-pop style that she helped to popularise by blending traditional Basque tunes played on accordion and tambourine with a rhythm section is only hinted at on the new album. For the most part this is straightforward pop with Maider surrounded by some excellent musicians on guitars, piano, keyboards, mandolin, banjo and drums. Her old friend and musical partner Alaitz Telletxea also reappears to make a special contribution on trikia (accordion) and backing vocals.

One thing that hasn’t changed at all is Maider’s voice which sounds exactly the same as ever and retains all of its distinctive sweetness. Her songwriting skills are also very much intact and this is an essentially uplifting and melodic collection of new songs. All lyrics are in Euskera, the Basque language, and it’s mostly themes of love and freedom that are explored in the words. This is nowhere better displayed than on ‘Hitz debekatuak’ (Forbidden Words) for which there is also a music video (see below).

It was back in 2000 that Alaitz eta Maider toured mainland Japan and I first met up with them in Osaka. They were both 24 years old at the time and their second album had just been released in Japan. The following year I met them again, this time on their home territory in northern Spain where I saw them perform in the Basque town of Arrasate. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since those days but it’s great to have Maider back again in the studio and she has made a very likeable album.

Zuei is released by Elkar.

Here’s a link to the music video for the song ‘Hitz debekatuak’:


April 2, 2017

This is my 2011 fRoots feature on Lucy. Since making her debut album she has gone on to release further recordings (reviewed on this blog) and is now well-established on the Okinawan music scene and overseas. Her performance of the song ‘Koi no Yoisura Bushi’ won the annual Miuta Taisho Grand Prix and was the title track of her mini-album in 2013.


Born in Peru, she’s returned to her ancestral Okinawan home for the music. John Potter gets a house concert.

Most of the interviews I’ve done have been on neutral ground, often at a concert venue, and very occasionally at the musician’s home. Well, today is a real exception. Okinawan-Peruvian singer and sanshin player Lucy has actually turned up at my house here on the south coast of Okinawa for our talk. She arrives with her fellow musician Nao who played on Lucy’s recent first album. Some months ago I discovered that Nao is a neighbour of mine and it was her suggestion for Lucy to come to my home. The two women arrive bearing a gift of apple pie. I note that Lucy is also carrying her sanshin and she is happy to serenade us later with some traditional songs from the Ryukyu Islands. When finalizing the arrangements for this meeting a couple of days ago, I hadn’t expected Lucy to be performing in my own living room!

Now known just as Lucy, she was born Lucy Nagamine in Lima, a third generation child of Okinawan immigrants to Peru: “I used to come to Okinawa with my grandmother when I was a child” she says. “When I grew up I came back to Okinawa in 1993 for an international karaoke competition which I won. Then I heard minyo (traditional folk songs) in Okinawa and it reminded me of my mother and grandmother, who are both dead now, and it made me think about doing minyo again and staying in Okinawa. I wanted to learn minyo properly.”

Lucy eventually moved to Okinawa and has stayed on this island ever since with occasional trips back to Peru. She now has a base in the island’s capital Naha; she has appeared on Okinawan television, and is also the resident singer at an Okinawan restaurant on the island. A meeting with well-known producer Kenji Yano (Surf Champlers, Sanshin Café Orchestra) led to the release of a debut album Ninufabushi which was arranged and mixed by Yano at his studio.

So why such a long wait for an album? “My cousin and her friend persuaded me to make a CD. They said I’d been doing minyo for 16 years so it was about time I made an album and so I was introduced to Kenji Yano by Nao.”

The album contains some beautifully sung, played and arranged versions of modern Okinawan songs such as Shoukichi Kina’s ‘Hana’ and Sadao China’s ‘Umukaji’, alongside traditional fare such as the Yaeyama classic ‘Tubarama’ and the much loved children’s song ‘Tinsagu Nu Hana’. Lucy’s sanshin is joined on many songs by guitar and ukulele, and she sings in Uchinaguchi (the Okinawan language) as well as in Japanese and Spanish.

“Originally I had studied Ryukyu classical music so this new project was very different and interesting for me. The first time I heard Yano’s arrangements for my album was at his studio and I thought they were very exciting. The idea to sing part of ‘Tinsagu Nu Hana’ in Spanish actually came from a friend. I translated it into Spanish from Uchinaguchi which was quite difficult to do, to find the right words. On my recent trip back to Peru I realised that first and second generation Okinawan-Peruvians were very impressed to hear that song in Spanish. It made me think that I want to sing some more minyo in Spanish if I can in the future.”

“I’m already thinking about the next album but haven’t done anything definite yet. I’d like to work with Kenji Yano again. Generally, I like to sing sad songs. My teacher Shizuko Oshiro often asked me to play the sanshin fast but, in fact, it’s the slow songs that I really like best.”

Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands are famed for their outstanding female singers and I wondered if Lucy doesn’t feel a bit daunted to be competing in a world populated by the likes of Misako Oshiro, Yuki Yamazato, Yoriko Ganeko, and Misako Koja. “I never feel any competition or anything like that from the great Okinawan female singers. This is important because in order to be a good minyo singer I need to listen and learn from them. Also, I’m friends with some of them such as Misako Koja and Yuki Yamazato, and they have all been very kind to me.

Throughout our meeting Lucy speaks very gently in Japanese and she frequently breaks into an endearing smile. But she has an underlying strength too, and not just as a minyo singer for she can also sing a wide variety of modern island songs and can sing in different languages. As we tuck into the apple pie she concludes: “My aim is to sing the minyo I learned in Okinawa in Spanish for people overseas in order for them to enjoy these songs in a new way. I want to be a singer beyond generations or borders.”

Lucy’s official blog (in Japanese) is at

(fRoots Magazine Nos.328/329, Aug/Sept 2011)