Okinawa Americana

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).

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2 Comments on “Okinawa Americana”

  1. Linda Fallon Says:

    What an AMAZING story David and Merry…after living in Okinawa 26 years, and loving the culture and people there, I really hope too be able to see your show someday. Meanwhile I can think of a really neat gig you might like in the spring, where I might be able to see you…😄😄😄💕💕💕

  2. Pat Says:

    Love this article about you and Merry, Dave. I cannot tell you enough how great it was to see you again in Kokomo. The best of luck in your future.


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