Archive for September 2018

Nenez: Mapai

September 28, 2018

Mapai is the latest album from Nenez. Some time ago they changed the spelling of their name from Nenes to Nenez. The group members have often changed too and so it’s a bit odd this time to see them appear on the cover of the new release as a trio rather than the more familiar quartet. The three women are Misuzu Okiyama, Nagisa Uehara and Rie Motomura.

As usual, the album is produced by their mentor Sadao China who also writes some of the songs. A large cast of musicians is brought in to help, especially with the songwriting and arrangements and they include Kazufumi Miyazawa, Shingo Maekawa (Kariyushi 58), Masaru Shimabukuro (Begin), Yasuko Yoshida and Satoshi Kadekaru while members of Nenez also contribute some original songs.

To begin with the positives, there are a couple of songs here that stand out as worthy recordings. The second track ‘Shinburi Manburi’ is an original by Shingo Maekawa and it’s a fine lively song in the shimauta mode that Nenez and all their earlier incarnations would surely be pleased with. The other high point comes midway through the album with the simple straightforward performance of Yoshinori Shinkawa’s classic ‘Ume no Kaori’.

Unfortunately, the stark simplicity of ‘Ume no Kaori’ is not evident anywhere else on an album which contains far too many tired-sounding songs, over-familiar tunes and unimaginative arrangements. The rot sets in right from the beginning with ‘Fai Fai’ and its tediously old-fashioned treatment. China’s co-written ‘Miyarabi Utagokoro’ is just as bad and another co-written China song ‘Jinsei Hanbun Sake Hanbun’ has a hackneyed tune and a dinosaur guitar band arrangement.

It gets worse. ‘Kanpai’ is not the rousing celebration of drinking we might have expected but instead begins in a vaguely Hawaiian style before a surprisingly dull and dreary descent into boredom. ‘Anata no Koe’ is no better with another plodding arrangement by Satoshi Kadekaru. The worst perhaps is saved for last with Sadao China’s ‘Harmony’ which is an utterly predictable and sentimental song about Okinawa that we seem to have heard a million times before.

The perfectly acceptable bonus track ‘Harikyamaku’ tagged on at the end is not quite enough to make us forget what an ultimately unexciting album we’ve just listened to. There can be no complaints about the three Nenez women who sing beautifully throughout and are obviously very talented. But there are too many re-treads here and the women are never really allowed to shine as they might: a case maybe of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Mapai ends up more like a parody of the old Nenes. It’s no better or worse than its predecessor Dikka but it still chips away at the great legacy of the original band.

Mapai is released by King Records.

https://nenes.ti-da.net/

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Okinawa Americana

September 27, 2018

A new one for the Features Archive. Earlier this year Merry and David Ralston paid me a visit to talk about their Okinawa Americana project. The article that came out of it is published in the Autumn edition of UK magazine fRoots.

Okinawa Americana

Indiana blues meets Okinawan sanshin. Oddly enough it works, reckons John Potter.

Okinawa based Merry and David Ralston are an unlikely pair. Merry, from Itoman in the south of the subtropical Japanese island, plays the ubiquitous three stringed sanshin. David Ralston, originally from Indiana, is a bluesman and a remarkable slide guitar player with many solo albums to his name. Together they formed the duo Okinawa Americana and last year released a self-titled debut album. Already very familiar to audiences on Okinawa they have toured mainland Japan and the USA where much of their album was recorded.

As a duo they play traditional Okinawan songs seasoned with blues, some country rock and a smattering of originals. They frequently share vocal duties within the same song – Merry singing in Uchinaguchi (the Okinawan language) and Japanese, and David in English – and perform both as an acoustic duo and sometimes with a band.

The traditional world of Okinawan minyo (folk song) is notoriously rigid and hierarchical but it’s obvious from the outset that Merry is different with her Afro hairstyle and pink sanshin. She explained her introduction to Okinawan music on a recent visit to my home along with David. “I first listened to sanshin when I was nine years old and my grandmother used to play. Later I began to play myself and learned from three different teachers. When I lived in Tokyo for a while I also learned Yaeyama Island songs which are very different from those of Okinawa, and I began performing solo while I was there.”

“I like Okinawan traditional music but I also like to play in a more casual way. With the old style I’m supposed to sing correctly in a certain way but I don’t care about that, I just want to sing the way that I like. I love singing with blues and Okinawan music joined together. Every song is different and it’s a mix but you can still feel it’s very Okinawan and you have more freedom. Of course, I really like the old singers too and I was influenced by some of them and especially by Hiromi Shiroma who often sang and recorded with the great Shouei Kina.”

David Ralston has lived on Okinawa for over 25 years– more than half his life. A meeting with the late American musician Delaney Bramlett set him on the path to the blues and it was Bramlett who encouraged him. “When I met him there was an unbelievable explosion of music because he was an amazing producer. He taught me about Mississippi blues and urged me not to sing or to play like anyone else but instead just to be myself. Merry is the same way because she wants to do something different and that’s why I think it works.”

“I met Merry through Kanako Horiuchi who was singing in my band at the time. We were doing music with a bit of Okinawan influence but not very much. Merry came to see me one day and she just started playing sanshin and singing Aha Bushi and I started playing Preachin’ Blues the old Son House song and they just came together naturally.”.

I saw Okinawa Americana last year when they played a storming set at a ‘live house’ in Okinawa in front of a very enthusiastic crowd but I wondered what the reaction was like when they played overseas.

“I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work in Nashville where there are some of the best musicians in the world” says David. “As soon as we started to play everybody said ‘what’s that?’ and the musicians came over and said things like: ‘I’ve never seen a banjo like that’. But it went very well.”

“We played one place and an old guy came up, he was a WW2 veteran and he walked up on the stage real slow when Merry was done. He grabbed hold of her kimono. He said ‘I was in Okinawa 1945 and it was the worst time of my life’. Merry was crying. And he said ‘I just want to say you guys made me happy. I tried to forget about that but then I see you guys’. He was 92 years old and his family came up and they said he never ever says anything about the Battle of Okinawa. That’s the kind of story you can’t make up.”

“When I have an experience like that I have found my purpose in doing this music” adds Merry.

When the two play simply as an acoustic duo they are perhaps at their most impressive. “We do more acoustic shows now because it’s easier to travel” David says.” It’s the most difficult way to play because you have to be good. You don’t need to have all these gadgets like when you’re playing electric. I play a 1930s National steel guitar and she’s playing a sanshin and there’s something of a cool factor about that. Her timing, doing what she does and I’m playing something else, She’s going up and I’m going down. Somehow it works.”

“We’re building a studio on the island in Yomitan. We’ve been working hard to get that together and we’ve got almost everything finished for our next album. We’ve just got to finish it up. It should be out at the end of this year or early next year because we’re doing some peace events… but that’s another story.”

www.okinawaamericana.com

(fRoots Magazine No.422, Autumn 2018).

Okinawa Americana in fRoots Magazine

September 12, 2018

My interview with the duo Okinawa Americana – Merry and David Ralston – is included in the new Autumn issue of the UK magazine fRoots published this week. The one page feature is part of the magazine’s Root Salad series. The article will eventually appear in the Features Archive category of this blog.

A selection of musicians featured in the Autumn 2018 fRoots. Bottom left: Okinawa Americana

In the meantime it can be read in all its glory by buying the magazine. There is also a digital edition that can be subscribed to through the newly revamped and updated fRoots website.

http://www.frootsmag.com