Destinations Along the Way

It’s another long read. This is the fourth and final part of ‘A Musical Journey’.

4. Destinations Along the Way

I’ve always had a liking for the underdog. It may not be entirely a coincidence that Okinawan music caught my attention as the Okinawans are a people with a sad history of control and occupation by bigger powers after a long period as an independent kingdom. For them the Second World War isn’t over yet, as much of their land is still under occupation by American forces. Their plight and the democratically expressed wishes of the people are routinely ignored by the colonizers of Japan.

The late American guitarist Bob Brozman had a few radical music theories. One of them, expressed in The Power of Okinawa book, was that “colonizing cultures tend to play music on the downbeat and colonized cultures tend to play music on the offbeat…Japanese music is heavily downbeat oriented, and Okinawan music is offbeat.” And in comparing the cases of Hawaii and Okinawa he also believed “they are two fairly unique musics in that they are quite consistently in major keys, but quite sad. They both have the sound of a fragile culture being trampled.”

Whatever the truth, the fact was that for a long time, and still now, it was Okinawan music that appealed to me most of all and this in turn led to my making numerous visits to Okinawa’s main island and to many of the smaller Miyako and Yaeyama islands further south. It meant finding out about the history and culture of the islands as well as the music.

Since moving from Mie Prefecture to Okinawa I’ve met many more musicians and am happy that my interest in their music and in writing about it has always been warmly received. It has perhaps been an advantage too that many of the musicians whose albums I reviewed may have been unable to understand English well so have been satisfied simply that I’m writing about Okinawan music without really knowing what I’ve been saying. For on Okinawa there is a tendency for the media not to assess music critically and musicians are unused to frank reviews.

Sachiko Kina in brother Shoukichi’s band at Chakra (Photo: Stephen Mansfield)

Throughout these years another thread had been emerging in this musical journey and it’s one that runs alongside the Okinawan one. This is my interest in the music of the Basque Country. It’s a world which on the surface is very different from Okinawa but has underlying similarities, not least in that both are territories where music, culture and identity are very important. Unlike the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Basques have never enjoyed independence as a unified nation but they do share a similarity in being a territory controlled by bigger powers, in their case by Spain and France.

My first encounter with Basque music was through the UK music magazine fRoots. It probably took place during the Kobe earthquake year of 1995. At least this is when the album Uhinez uhin was released by Maixa ta Ixiar. The album’s first track is the glorious dance song ‘Espartzinarena’ and it was this that I heard first on one of the sample CD compilations given away with the magazine. A few years later I started writing articles for the same magazine, initially on Okinawan music and only much later about the Basques.

Maixa ta Ixiar were two young women who played trikitixa (accordion) and panderoa (tambourine) the popular combination found in roots music throughout the Basque Country. To these instruments were added electric guitar, bass and drums to create the genre known as triki-pop (sometimes triki-folk) that was in its heyday in the 1990s. I had my breath taken away by the Maixa ta Ixiar song. It was the same as the feeling I had when I first listened to Shoukichi Kina and then to Nenes.

I was writing about music for Kansai Time Out so I contacted Maixa ta Ixiar’s record company Elkar to ask if I could get a copy of their album for review. Before long I had a response from Elkar producer and coordinator Anjel Valdes. He sent me their album on CD together with a press release in English. More than that he soon afterwards sent a package with many CDs of Basque music releases and has continued to do so to this day.

The small album reviews in KTO magazine hardly justified his faith in sending these new releases all the way to Japan. As well as trikitixa and triki-pop there were releases of other roots, pop and rock music and a strong tradition of literary singer-songwriters led by Mikel Laboa, Benito Lertxundi and Ruper Ordorika. In time I was to learn that Anjel was not just concerned with selling records but keen to spread the word and establish friendships and good relations with like-minded people wherever they may be.

It wasn’t until many years later I discovered Elkar didn’t even produce press releases in English. They were all in Basque, Spanish or French. All this time Anjel had been writing the English ones just for me. My French has improved in leaps and bounds since I eventually let slip that I had some understanding of the language having learned it in school a lifetime ago. Now he only sends me the French ones.

One of the other early CDs I received was of triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider. This was another good surprise as their music was, to my ears, even better than Maixa ta Ixiar’s. I reviewed their debut album and some of the others I was getting for KTO and was then excited to discover a short tour of Japan had been arranged for Alaitz eta Maider by a promoter in Tokyo.

The trikitixa duo of Alaitz Telletxea and Maider Zabalegi – then both 24 years old – arrived together with manager and guitarist Jean-Lou Corrihons plus a bassist and drummer and they played two concerts in Tokyo with a third in Osaka sandwiched in between. I was invited to the Osaka gig which took place at Banana Hall on 6th December 2000 – the same venue where I had seen Nenes for the first time several years earlier and been equally blown away.

Alaitz eta Maider in Japan, 2000

It was great to finally meet up with some real live Basque musicians and they were all very friendly, while the music was melodic, joyous and life-affirming. And so, it was almost inevitable that, just as I had visited Okinawa after being so enticed by the islands’ music, a trip to the Spanish Basque Country was in order. It was arranged for the following year.

When the albums began arriving from Elkar Records I was initially puzzled that their address was in a place called Donostia that I couldn’t find anywhere on the map. This was the Basque name for San Sebastian, the beautiful and elegant seaside resort city. Of course, a company priding itself on its Basque language albums (and Basque books) is hardly going to prefer using the Spanish name to the Basque one. Together with Midori and our son Akira we spent a few days in the Basque Country in the summer of 2001. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet up with Anjel, who was away on a family holiday of his own, but I did meet guitarist Jean-Lou who drove us all the way from Donostia to the small town of Arrasate where Alaitz eta Maider were playing at an outdoor festival. After a late dinner with Alaitz, Maider and the band (everything happens late in the Basque Country) and a visit to the festival to see them play, we were driven back to our hotel in the early hours by Maider herself.

After three albums and some success in their homeland, Alaitz eta Maider went their separate ways a couple of years later. Roots music rarely leads to riches and it always seems a shame that even making a modest living through music is such a struggle for many creative people while lesser talents sometimes flourish. I was making a change too as I applied for the early retirement offer from Kogakkan University and moved to Okinawa in 2009.

When living in mainland Japan I had visited the Ryukyu Islands every year for holidays and spent much of the time investigating Okinawan music and visiting local folk and roots music venues. I once spent an entire week hanging out at Shoukichi Kina’s ‘live house’ Chakra and became such a fixture there that they put me on the staff list so I could eat and drink for free. A fair chunk of my university research allowance was also spent on ordering Okinawan CDs and DVDs from Campus Records in Okinawa. Bottles of awamori began to appear at my local supermarket in Mie Prefecture and were snapped up. And, of course, I avidly watched Churasan the morning drama series on NHK TV about an Okinawan family from Kohama Island.

The reality of actually living in Okinawa inevitably meant some changes and modifications to the image I’d had. In my first few years I hardly set foot in a folk music bar after previously gravitating towards them as a visitor to the islands. Many are run as shows for the benefit of tourists who want just a taste of the local music and culture as part of their holiday experience. And it gets tedious to be taught how to dance kachashii night after night.

If the live minyo venue can sometimes disillusion, the reality of music in everyday life really does live up to its reputation. I was once invited to a housewarming party on Miyako Island and seeing a sanshin in the corner proceeded to show off my limited skills rather proudly. It soon turned out that everyone in the room could play sanshin and all of them much better than me. The sanshin is still ubiquitous along with the sugar cane, the goya, and sadly, the Naha traffic jams and American military bases of the main island. While Churasan presented a stereotypical image of the relaxed Okinawan lifestyle it avoided entirely any reference to the problems that also face the islanders such as the unfair burden of the military bases. Hardly surprising given that it was produced by the Japan government’s NHK TV channel.

Anjel Valdes

I finally met up with Anjel Valdes in the Spring of 2014. By that time, he had been sending me albums and keeping me up to date on music for almost twenty years. My second visit to the Basque Country was just for three days on the way back from a trip to England to see family and friends. At last Anjel and I were able to meet in person and he came to the airport at Bilbao to greet us and take us to our hotel in the city. His thoughtfulness and hospitality were truly remarkable. This is best illustrated by a look at my diary for the day after our arrival. The entry for Tuesday 1st April reads (in part) like this:

“Anjel met us in the hotel at 9:30 a.m. and drove us all the way to Donostia-San Sebastian. We arrived at 11 and Anjel suggested we ‘take one beer’ before we visited the Elkar offices and recording studio… Then Anjel took us to the EITB television and radio studios and we were introduced to lots of people. We were shown around the building and saw several radio studios then went to a television studio where a show was being recorded … We went into Donostia for lunch with Anjel … After that it was on to the Etxepare Basque Institute where we met the director Aizpea Goenaga and others… Then to a café and a walk near the beach. After this we were driven by Anjel to the small town of Orio to meet the great Basque singer Benito Lertxundi. We sat with him outside a café and talked while Anjel interpreted. Finally, after an incredibly busy but very enjoyable day, Anjel drove us all the way back to Bilbao to our hotel.”

The next day he took us south to Vitoria-Gasteiz to meet the singer Ruper Ordorika and later to Durango – where Anjel lives – to meet his wife and son. We left on an early morning flight the next day and he insisted on driving to Bilbao to pick us up at our hotel and deliver us to the airport. He joked that if his work at Elkar ever fails he can always start a business as a tour guide.

Coming back to Bilbao three years later, this time for a week, I had very fond memories of the earlier stay and didn’t imagine that it could possibly be topped. But it was, and we had more time now and once again Anjel arranged many things including a concert by Ruper Ordorika and a meeting in Donostia-San Sebastian with musicians Beñat Igerabide and Gorka Urra. Also joining us after a gap of sixteen years was Maider Zabalegi of Alaitz eta Maider. Now a mother of two children, she had returned to the music scene and had just released her first solo album Zuei.

Ruper Ordorika and band, Basque Country, 2017

After retirement from my full-time job at Kogakkan University and arrival in Okinawa, I began teaching a couple of days a week at Okinawa University. I taught an English seminar course on Okinawan roots music and in 2015 expanded this to include the roots music of the Basques. The objectives in the syllabus were:

“…to listen to and learn something about the roots music of the people and its development in the Ryukyu Islands and then to compare it with the music and culture of the Basque Country (Euskal Herria)… Okinawans and Basques inhabit very different parts of the world but have many shared experiences and these will be explored with music as the starting point.”

In practice I became a glorified DJ as I got to show students lots of videos of music I liked. The Okinawans are too numerous to mention but the work of both Rinsho Kadekaru and Shouei Kina was explored first in detail as two of the early recording artists. From the Basques we watched and listened to a mix of singer-songwriters, trikitixa and txalaparta players, and rock bands, such as Laboa, Lertxundi and Ordorika, Kepa Junkera, Oreka TX, Beñat Igerabide, Alaitz eta Maider (of course), Kirmen Uribe, Mikel Urdangarin, Korrontzi, Elustondo, Esne Beltza, Fermin Muguruza and more.

Thankfully, the response from students to all this was generally very positive. Many of them didn’t know much about the evolution of Okinawan roots music so it was by no means a case of taking coals to Newcastle as I’d feared. And most had never even heard of the Basque Country let alone its music. Some found the txalaparta to be rather weird and wonderful. As always there were surprises and frequently the more traditional music was more popular than expected. At the same time one student wrote that her favourite song of all was Chihiro Kamiya’s ‘Coral Song’: “since I love nature and her song made me think how we can preserve the beautiful ocean and coral of our islands.”

We began a Basque Ryukyu Bridge page on Facebook. Its purpose to share the music and culture of the Basque Country with the Ryukyu Islands and the outside world. However, during my stay in the Basque Country in 2017 Anjel came up with an idea to take things further. After introducing me to the singer and songwriter Mikel Urdangarin, whose music I was already familiar with and had introduced to the university students, it was decided that Mikel himself would come to Okinawa to learn about Okinawan music and culture and to play with local musicians. So began what became known to us as the Basque Ryukyu Project.

Mikel visited Okinawa at the end of April 2018 staying with us on the island for five weeks and performing concerts, playing at a festival, doing radio and newspaper interviews, as well as collaborating with Okinawan musicians. In addition to all this a Basque film crew who were making a documentary on his career joined him in Okinawa for some of the time. As a result of all this Mikel now has what he calls his Okinawan trio along with singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki and percussionist Makoto Miyata. It was very exciting after all this time to be able to help put together some Basque and Okinawan music and musicians and I hope it won’t end there.

A view of Bilbao from Artxanda

A Few Words More…

On a bright sunny Wednesday in September I bought a ticket and boarded the funicular railway that climbs the short steep distance from Bilbao station to Artxanda. The journey takes only three minutes and I wished it took longer. At the summit it’s a different, quieter world after the busyness of the city. From the top there is a panoramic view over Bilbao and you can pick out its most famous landmark the Guggenheim Museum. Out there too is the San Mames stadium where I would be going that evening to see Athletic Club de Bilbao take on Atletico Madrid.

I felt happy to be in this oasis of calm and privileged too that my musical journey was still going on after all this time. Later that day I would meet Jean-Lou again, the French Basque who had played guitar with Alaitz eta Maider. It would be my first meeting with him for sixteen years. He would also bring his daughter who had been just two years old then and was now a college student.

The years rush by inexorably. It was nearly two decades since I first met Alaitz and Maider and Jean-Lou. Thirty years since I first listened to Okinawan music. I had been in that massive crowd at Blackbushe in 1978 when Bob Dylan sang ‘Changing of the Guards’ which began with the line: “Sixteen years”. We thought he was referring to the time he had spent as a musician. It seemed like an age but now it seems no time at all.

I’ve been having trouble lately reading the small print on CD booklets and sometimes need a magnifying glass. That may not be a problem much longer. Even the way we listen to music is changing and it’s becoming rarer for me to buy CDs nowadays when there are so many other quick and convenient ways to listen.

Athletic Club lost the football match that evening. Anjel says we should learn how to lose. In life we can win only once or twice so it’s better to learn how to get through all the setbacks and losses. To continue is more important than to win. It’s a lesson from a philosophical man. The Basques I’ve known are not afraid to be philosophical. They are also concerned with identity, perhaps even more so than Okinawans. The Athletic team only fields players with Basque backgrounds. It’s hard to imagine FC Ryukyu doing something like that even if it were possible. The Basques are simply keen to celebrate their heritage. It should be perfectly possible to do that and, at the same time, maintain respect, friendships and good relations with all around us.

In a way Okinawans see themselves as one big family and this is probably why they don’t criticise when Okinawan musicians sign with a major Japanese record company or achieve commercial success regardless of the consequences. All very well but I sometimes wish they would go it alone and think more about independence in every sense.

I still felt happy while thoughts like these ran through my head as I sat in the sunshine. Then I walked to the little station at Artxanda and took the ride back down on the funicular railway.

Many of the music people I’ve met became the focus of articles for fRoots and Songlines magazines that can now be read in the Features Archive of this blog.

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