Culturally Appropriate

This one for the archives is my story of the Basque Ryukyu Project that took place earlier this year. The feature is published in the UK in the new Winter issue of fRoots magazine.

Culturally Appropriate

The Basques and Okinawans both have unique cultures and languages while being part of larger nations. So what happened when they were put together by John Potter…?

On the face of it the Basque Country and the Ryukyu Islands don’t have much in common. One is a territory spread over part of north-east Spain and south-west France, the other a group of subtropical islands in the Pacific Ocean with Okinawa at its hub. Even the music bears little similarity.

As an Englishman living in mainland Japan I’ve been enthralled by Okinawan music for a long time, finally moving to Okinawa nine years ago. During my long stay in Japan an odd thing happened as I also became fascinated by the Basques and their roots music, initially through the trikitixa (accordeon) and panderoa (tambourine) music, then by some of the Basque language singer-songwriters.

Seizing the chance to indulge these two musical passions I persuaded Okinawa University to let me teach a course of English seminars on the ‘Roots Music of Okinawans and Basques’. In doing so I discovered a number of things the two peoples share. The most obvious is they both have a unique culture, language and music existing proudly today despite both territories being part of larger nations.

Okinawa may belong to Japan but its sad history of invasions continues as it is still forced to host a huge number of American military bases supported by the Japanese government against the wishes of most Okinawan people. There was also an attempt by Japan to systematically destroy the Okinawan language and although making a small comeback it’s heard nowadays mainly in songs. The Basques suffered a similar fate though their language has shown greater resilience. The importance of the sea and the existence of many unique customs as well as iconic musical instruments (such as the sanshin and trikitixa) is another factor linking the two.

Last year I made my third visit to the Basque Country primarily to meet up again with Anjel Valdes, record producer and coordinator for Elkar Records (fR415/416). For about two decades he has been sending releases for review to Japan and for the past few years to Okinawa since my relocation there. Over the years Anjel has introduced me to the roots music of his homeland and to the strong tradition of literary singers and songwriters led by the late Mikel Laboa, and followed by Benito Lertxundi and Ruper Ordorika.

Mikel Urdangarin’s Okinawa trio: Mutsumi Aragaki, Makoto Miyata, Mikel Urdangarin. Pic: John Potter

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Mikel Urdangarin has been a full-time musician for over twenty years, releasing fourteen albums and gaining a high reputation. Although fluent in Spanish and English, he made the decision early on to compose and sing entirely in Euskara, the Basque language.

Anjel was keen for us to meet and so a lunch date was fixed at a restaurant deep in the Basque countryside. As the food and wine was consumed at a leisurely pace an idea arose that after all these years of exchanging music between Okinawa and the Basque Country it was perhaps time to take it a step further and instigate a real live get together. Mikel is a self-confessed risk taker. (I could see that when he turned up supported by a crutch because of a broken bone sustained in a fall while rock climbing). He was immediately interested and promptly put himself forward to be the first Basque to boldly go to the Ryukyu Islands to learn more about Okinawan music and culture and to play solo and with Okinawan musicians. So began the Basque Ryukyu Project.

I also discovered that his latest album Margolaria (The Painter) is also the title of a ninety-minute documentary film about his career. A Basque film crew had already been following him around for two years and had filmed his travels in the Basque Country and in London, Edinburgh, Argentina and elsewhere. The next step was to conclude the film with a section shot on Mikel’s visit to Okinawa and in doing so to hint at the political and cultural similarities between the two peoples. As well as Mikel taking on a solo visit of five weeks to learn about the islands, meet musicians and play concerts, there would be a three-man film crew following him around for some of this time. Film director Oier Aranzabal and his team arrived along with Mikel at the end of April on their first visit to Asia.

I’m not a promoter and was faced with the task of arranging gigs for someone famous in his homeland but totally unknown in the Ryukyu Islands. On top of this he would be singing in a language incomprehensible to potential listeners. This was a step into the unknown but luckily there are enough music enthusiasts on Okinawa who are open-minded and curious enough to make it a success. Okinawans (and Japanese) generally are very used to listening to songs in English which most don’t understand at all and so listening to Basque was just a small step further.

Getting the right people to help was key. Ryuji Noda is responsible for music at Sakurazaka Theatre in the capital city Naha and he also runs the music label ‘Music from Okinawa’. He was first to come to my assistance with a firm booking for Mikel to play a concert at his theatre and he also took over arrangements for the necessary visa and provided other contacts for further gigs.

Just days after Mikel’s arrival, and with the film crew in tow, he met popular Miyako Island singer Isamu Shimoji at a club in Naha where Shimoji (also the face of the island’s Orion Beer TV commercials) agreed to let Mikel join a Spanish-themed night at the venue. Meeting barely an hour before the event began and with little language in common, Mikel taught Shimoji one of his own Basque compositions and Shimoji was able to join him on stage to accompany him on the song during Mikel’s guest spot.

Days later Mikel was introduced to Okinawan-Peruvian singer Lucy (fR328/329) and they had a session together with sanshin and guitar at my home on the south coast where Mikel settled in as our house guest for the rest of his stay following a week in a Naha hotel. The next week he and Lucy sang together and talked (in Spanish with a Japanese interpreter) on Lucy’s weekly radio programme ‘Lucy No Ichariba Amigos’. The duo Okinawa Americana (fR422) were also visitors to our music-filled home for a session with Mikel.

All this was just preparation for the main collaboration which was with Okinawan singer, composer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki and our house hosted her visits to rehearse with Mikel for the two main Basque Night events at the end of May: one in the north of the island at Ginoza Farm Lab café overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the other at the prestigious Sakurazaka Theatre. Aragaki is an innovative and exciting sanshin player. Currently working on her own solo album, she has collaborated with the likes of Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia.

For the first of these events the focus was on Basque culture and cuisine as well as the music. The spacious Ginoza café has a spectacular view of the ocean and opened its doors for the first time just days before Mikel’s visit. Mikel himself supervised the preparation of Basque-style pintxos. Tickets sold out two days in advance. Before the music there was a half hour talk session on identity and culture in which Mikel spoke with the Okinawa-based Swiss-Spanish photographer and film director Daniel Lopez.

The Sakurazaka Theatre concert a few days later was also sold out with Mikel playing a solo set of his own compositions before being joined by Mutsumi Aragaki again on sanshin and vocals and Makoto Miyata on percussion. Aragaki’s sanshin and Mikel’s acoustic guitar flowed together in a seductive blend as if they had played together for years. The trio soon became what Mikel called his Okinawan band. They played arrangements of his original songs plus three songs from the Ryukyu Islands that Mikel had learned during his stay. Particularly successful was Tsuki Nu Kaisha a traditional song from the Yaeyama Islands for which Mikel added a new verse in Basque. The encore was a first ever live performance of the well-known Okinawan song Tinsagu Nu Hana.

Audiences were clearly won over not just by his passionate but controlled singing but crucially by his willingness to engage with Okinawan music, people and culture and to share his own thoughts, feelings and stories from the Basque Country.

Reflecting on their collaboration a few weeks later Aragaki told me: “This wonderful encounter had a great impact on me and I realized again the unique roots of Okinawa. It has opened my mind and lifted me higher. Our music resonated much more than I expected to create a fascinating new sound that crosses borders. I’m also very attracted to Mikel’s music and to Basque music and culture in general. I’d love to develop this project and hope we can keep on inspiring each other.”

Mikel also appeared with Aragaki at a beach bar in the north and played a solo set on what he said was the smallest stage he had ever stood on at the annual Ajiru Music Festival held in the grounds of a Shinto shrine. There was a newspaper interview and a final Sayonara Party at a Naha bar where Mikel’s trio played an impromptu set. The Margolaria film is now complete and was in competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September.

Financial support permitting, it’s hoped this could be just the start of the Basque Ryukyu live experiences. Ideally the next step would be for Okinawan musicians to travel to the Basque Country and for bigger collaborations between Basque and Ryukyu folk musicians in Okinawa to showcase some of the more traditional styles.

Mikel Urdangarin should have the last word. “I thought I was living in another era, a few centuries ago, when. I first found myself listening to an old Okinawan song. Nowadays, in an era of expansion and globalization, in which everything tends to unify and the different is penalized, is a time in which we can hardly hear and identify our own voice, Still treasures are found, such as the unique and antique culture expressed in the music from Okinawa. This is the main gift, the unforgettable experience I was given in my stay on that old island.”

“My gratitude to Mutsumi Aragaki and all the nice people that accompanied me on that intense journey. It’s two months since I returned and I can still hear the sanshin notes in my head, the purity of the islanders singing. How an old and high-pitched singing is so close to roots, to the underworld, it’s a stunning feeling that will never disappear in my future life.”

Many thanks to all who helped with this project, especially Anjel Valdes, Ryuji Noda, Tomoya Ogoshi, and Daniel Lopez.

(fRoots Magazine No.423, Winter 2018-19).

Explore posts in the same categories: Features Archive

2 Comments on “Culturally Appropriate”

  1. What an interesting read.

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