Ryukyu Underground

Here’s another one for the archive. It will soon be nine years since Ryukyu Underground released their last album so it’s anyone’s guess if there will be any more. Meanwhile FC Ryukyu achieved J3 status but still play in the third tier of Japanese football. This feature was published back in 2009 in the UK magazine fRoots.

Ryukyu Underground

In which the UK ex-pat and his US collaborator continue their Okinawan adventures. John Potter pitches in.

It’s Sunday afternoon in Okinawa and I’m at the football with Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground. The island’s team FC Ryukyu is playing against a team from mainland Japan in the JFL – the third tier of Japanese soccer. FC Ryukyu are bottom of the table with no points but have a celebrity manager in former Japan, South Africa and Morocco coach Philippe Troussier. He hasn’t been able to do much yet but in the warm up to the game the sounds of Ryukyu Underground are played loudly over the public address system. Keith’s connection with the club has also wangled us some complimentary tickets and he reveals that Troussier is apparently keen on the duo writing a new club song for the players to run out to. Perhaps they’ll even change their name to FC Ryukyu Underground.

Ryukyu Underground with Mika Uchizato (centre)

It’s some years since Ryukyu Underground were featured in these pages. To recap, they are a duo comprising the said Keith Gordon, originally from Newcastle but now resident in Okinawa, and his cohort, American Jon Taylor based in California. They first met in Okinawa while living on the island and began sampling and experimenting with its music. With the recent release of their fourth album, the challenge for Keith and Jon is always to try and find new ways of mixing Okinawan music and modern technology. Keith says: “Our core is Okinawan traditional music fused with our western musical backgrounds. That is the basis for everything – I can’t see myself ever stopping experimenting with new forms and new directions to go in that doesn’t follow this idea. Whether anyone is interested in listening is another question and one that doesn’t trouble me too much! Our music is for us a release, an escape from everything else going on around us and I believe we’ll always still have the need of that escape.”

The new album Umui came out in April on the Tokyo-based Respect label. Famed Okinawan singer, musician and producer Toru Yonaha lends a hand on these recordings, and once more the new album features the sublime vocals of Mika Uchizato. Additional vocals are again supplied by two more young women, Ayano Uema and Natsuki Nakamura. The three women had previously sung together on Warabi Uta, an album of Okinawan children’s songs produced by Yonaha.

On Umui there is a slightly more relaxed, slower mood to the music. So what does Keith think of it: “Well, it’s always difficult to know, but I think, in general terms, this is a very natural and relaxed album. As ever, it goes from one genre to the next and we find it difficult to do a whole album of, for example, reggae or techno. We did have some faster tunes which didn’t make the album. So it wasn’t a conscious decision that most of the tunes on the album should be mid or slower tempo. A lot of the source material came from recorded sessions from the Warabi Uta recordings that Mika, Ayano and Natsuki did for Respect. I am now a father and we started working on the album just about the time that my daughter was born so to be working on these songs while she was a baby was very natural. Part of the reason why we have strong reggae tunes on this album is that she liked the bass vibes and could sleep and calm down to them when she was very young.”

And how is it different from previous albums? “Well, I did set out to deliberately try going in a more electronic direction with a few songs – two of which have made the album. Paikaji is a new departure and very electronic. All those years of growing up in the heyday of synth pop coming through there. Also, Urizun, similarly electronic though more ambient. That’s something that we’ve never really done before and it’s something we will definitely explore more in the future. Also, Umaku Kamade – the Afro beatish track – although we’ve used African influences before we haven’t done anything quite as direct as this.”

Jon Taylor (left) and Keith Gordon

I wondered if it is difficult working with Jon when he’s on the other side of the world. “It’s not really a problem. The whole method of making music like ours often involves long hours sitting in front of a computer screen which doesn’t really lend itself to working other than alone really. We communicate constantly all the time though.”

So how about the opposite problem of working closely here with traditional Okinawan singers. How much do they understand what you’re trying to do? “Good question and one that I’m afraid I don’t really know the answer to. Maybe you could call them and ask? Not being cheeky but it’s not really something I am aware of or actively question them about. What certainly helps is that I often see them around and have a very natural relationship when we get in the studio which relaxes them I guess. Toru Yonaha also has a big hand in coordinating the studio sessions and he is very open to new ideas and likes the challenge of what we do which is so very different from his approach. Natsuki definitely gets what we are about musically as she is very knowledgeable about club music and the Asian Underground scene we seem to have been a part of. Mika and Ayano less so I suppose though it has never presented any problems – unlike the time we played live with legendary old Okinawan singer Minoru Kinjo – bless him. He had trouble playing along to a drum and bass track – not surprisingly – though the audience were all on his side and loved it.”

With Umui the UK/US duo has produced one of the most interesting albums of Okinawan music in recent times. Now if only Philippe Troussier can do something similar to inspire his football team who lost again. Maybe that new RU club song will do the trick.

www.ryukyu-underground.wwma.net

(fRoots Magazine No.312, June 2009).

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