Archive for March 2019

The Singer and the Song

March 28, 2019

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote a while ago for a magazine. In the end it wasn’t published so you can read it here instead.

The Singer and the Song

I don’t sing but I’m a good listener. There’s nothing I like better than listening to a good song sung by a great singer. In fact, I like singing so much that I’m reluctant to listen to music that doesn’t have a vocal. Which means I sometimes skip the instrumental tracks on albums and much of the vast pantheon of European classical music leaves me cold. But Kate Rusby can sing any old song and I’m all ears.

There are exceptions to this general rule. When Liam O’Flynn’s uillean pipes kick in on a Planxty song, for example, I go all weak at the knees. Even so it’s usually the song that is still the most important thing and the uillean pipes just sneak into my consciousness a bit later to weave their spell.

I said I don’t sing but there have been exceptions to that rule too. As a child growing up in England, I had to sing hymns in school assemblies but surrounded by numerous other children, many of whom were lip-syncing as I usually was. My only public appearance as a solo singer came years later after I had moved to Japan, home of karaoke. On many more than seven drunken nights I ploughed through karaoke versions of ‘My Way’ and ‘Yesterday’ like everyone else did at the time, but my crowning moment on stage came at the wedding party of a Japanese friend.

At weddings in Japan – and indeed almost any formal celebratory occasion – it’s customary for each guest to perform a party piece. Word had got around that I was a bit of a Bob Dylan fan and so I was requested (a few days in advance) to sing a Dylan song at the wedding. After days of practicing at home – and fortified by a few glasses of lemonade on the day itself – I managed a half-decent rendition of ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ accompanying myself on guitar. The song was chosen mainly because of its simple enough chord structure which made it relatively easy to play while I concentrated fiercely on trying to remember the words and sing them in tune.

As for the lyrics it wouldn’t have made any difference if I’d made up new ones on the spot (as Bob himself has been known to do) or thrown in a few choice obscenities since none of the wedding guests had any understanding of English and were simply pleased to see the foreigner singing a song and doing his bit.

Barnsley’s nightingale Kate Rusby

That was the last time I sang in front of an audience but I well remember comments from the gathered guests along the lines of how good it was to hear a native English speaker singing and, even, how much better it is to hear a Westerner singing as they have the natural rhythm, phrasing and timing that is elusive to most Japanese vocalists.

This myth of the supremacy of Western singers – and specifically those who sing in the English language – was all pervasive in my early experience in Japan and I’ll come back to that in a bit, but first…

What I’ve also noticed among listeners of all countries – well, my UK and Japanese friends anyway – is that most people don’t really like music. Or not that much. I used to ask my students at the Japanese university where I was employed what they liked to do best. One of the most common responses was ‘listen to music’. Further probing failed to find anything but the vaguest interest in music, whether listening, singing, playing, going to concerts, buying music or any of the things that real music aficionados are supposed to do. Saying you liked music was simply the easy option that wouldn’t draw unwanted attention or mark you out as weird or strange. A safe hobby not like bungee-jumping or collecting antique bottle tops.

My academic colleagues were no different. The opinion most often aired was that so-and-so (insert famous pop vocalist here, but frequently Celine Dion) can be easily enjoyed because she/he has ‘a great voice’. I had never thought about ‘great voices’ when I first became excited by songs and singing. Surely anyone who makes a record or stands up on a stage (except me at a wedding party) must already have a pretty good voice or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Tom Waits: not a ‘pure’ voice but a great singer (Photo: Kenny Mathieson)

What they really mean is that it’s not too disturbing and makes a pleasant sound. Well yes, I adore Kate Rusby and her ‘pure’ singing but I also love Tom Waits who always sounds like he’s been out drinking and smoking way past his bedtime. Tom has a great voice, and so has Bob Dylan, of course. It’s not to do with whether you can hit the right notes and sound nice, it’s all in the phrasing, the blend of words and music, the ability to evoke an emotional response, to disturb and upset if necessary.

And it doesn’t matter what words you are singing, to get back to the point I was about to make earlier about language. A few years ago, many of my friends, family and acquaintances in the UK would have been mortified at the thought of having to listen to a song (or heaven forbid, an entire album) sung in a language other than English. Unless it’s opera, of course, and then it mustn’t be sung in English. They imagined that understanding the words was the most important thing. They deluded themselves. Even the lyrics of their favourite British and American pop songs were frequently misheard or buried under a wall of noise. They just felt more comfortable if they were at least mishearing in English. Thankfully, many of those attitudes are now changing but it’s still sometimes a struggle to convince them to really open their minds and ears to the wealth of great songs and singing all over the world.

The Japanese are a bit different as they are used to listening to songs sung in other languages they don’t understand and especially to English. In fact, they sometimes prefer to listen to English whether understanding it or not. They are also eager to insert often meaningless English phrases and words into their own songs.

Here on Okinawa, the iconic roots singer Shoukichi Kina still believes that he needs to have his Okinawan songs changed into English if they are to reach bigger overseas audiences. Not just translated, but he needs to sing them in English too. This, even though he doesn’t speak English and has never sung in anything other than Okinawan or Japanese. I have tried telling him the beauty of the original singing would be lost but he just gives me a funny look. Fortunately, the chances of this really happening are about as likely as my singing at another wedding.

I’m not likely to overcome my reluctance to sing but I will certainly never stop listening to others who do and who thrill and excite me with their wonderful voices – and it won’t matter if they are singing in Basque, Okinawan or Swahili.

Michael Chapman: True North

March 6, 2019

A couple of years ago Yorkshire-born English singer-songwriter-guitarist Michael Chapman made the album 50 (reviewed here) to celebrate half a century as a professional musician. With 50 he achieved a late career high and some attention from a new younger audience. It was a fine album of new and reworked old songs recorded for the first time in America with a small band of musicians including producer Steve Gunn.

Chapman first gained a formidable reputation as an innovative guitarist on the UK folk club scene though he was never a typical folkie and was more influenced by American jazz, blues and roots music. Along with Richard Thompson he has a guitar style that is instantly recognisable and all his own. He is also a gruff-voiced singer with a gift for creating poignant songs about love, loss, regret, and life on the road.

50 seemed a fitting end to a long career but Chapman obviously had other ideas and he isn’t finished yet. At 78 he is back now with a new album recorded this time in rural West Wales but with Steve Gunn returning as producer and guitarist. Also on board are Bridget St. John (vocals), Sarah Smout (cello) and B.J. Cole (pedal steel).

True North follows a similar formula with recordings of new songs plus a few older ones and there are also a couple of guitar instrumentals. The album is more atmospheric and minimalist and is generally not as loud or intense as its predecessor. The addition of some lovely colours from cello and pedal steel really brings out the best in allowing the songs to breathe and in complementing Chapman’s vocals and guitar.

No-one coming cold to this album would be entranced by the vocals on first listen but this is Michael Chapman and his admirers know exactly what to expect and rightly wouldn’t want it any other way. His laconic phrasing is exactly what’s needed and then there is always that gorgeous deep acoustic guitar sound which gets under the skin whether on the instrumentals or on the melodic and melancholy songs

Not surprisingly Chapman’s concerns here are most often focused on memory and regret and there is an elegiac and reflective note as he comes to terms with it all. Titles such as ‘It’s Too Late’, ‘After All This Time’ and ‘Youth is Wasted on the Young’ tell their own tale. On ‘Vanity and Pride’ he sings: “if only time were on my side” but this and another song ‘Hell to Pay’ are in fact re-imaginings of songs from his 1997 album Dreaming Out Loud.

Despite the sombre tone this is never a depressing album, rather it’s an uplifting one as Chapman really gets into his inimitable stride. The longest track ‘Truck Song’ is the centrepiece of the album and in its lyrics and languid rolling guitar phrases it encapsulates everything that is great about the man and his music. Its images evoke a Giorgio de Chirico painting of lengthening shadows and the distant sound of a train. True North is his strongest work for a couple of decades and stands up there with the very best of his many recordings.

True North is out now on Paradise of Bachelors.

www.paradiseofbachelors.com

www.michaelchapman.co.uk

Okinawa’s Message of Protest

March 1, 2019

Last Sunday’s referendum asked the people of Okinawa to vote on the issue of the new military base at Henoko. This issue has already dragged on for several years accompanied by numerous anti-base rallies, protests and demonstrations by Okinawans who have suffered the forced occupation of large parts of their main island by the American military for more than 70 years.

It becomes tedious to reiterate the details of the Okinawans’ burden and all the crimes, incidents, and accidents caused by the American occupation, not to mention the ongoing environmental destruction and degradation which is bound to get worse with the construction of the new base. The American military is not in Okinawa to protect the people but to pursue their own government’s interests and agenda as they always have.

The referendum result on the front page of the Okinawa Times

It therefore came as no surprise when the referendum found 71% voting against the construction at Henoko. It should also be no surprise that this overwhelmingly clear rejection of the base by voters in the Ryukyu Islands will be ignored by Japan’s government. They have already said as much. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not a fan of the democratic process unless it is advantageous to him. His government cares even less about the people of Okinawa who have always been discriminated against and treated as second-rate people by Japan.

I’m a great movie fan and recently watched the remarkable Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman which was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this week. (It didn’t win – that honour went to the admirable but much softer and more audience-friendly Green Book). BlacKkKlansman ends with some footage of Donald Trump and his disgraceful speech in 2017 in which he becomes an apologist for racism. All this in response to the riots unfolding at the time in Charlottesville, Virginia at a white supremacist rally.

Abe is, of course, a great friend and supporter of Trump and watching BlacKkKlansman I couldn’t help but be reminded of the parallels with the treatment of Okinawans over the years and their struggles to be accepted as equals in Japan. African-Americans faced, and still face, appalling violence and discrimination while many thousands of Okinawan lives were sacrificed by Japan in the Battle of Okinawa. Now the islanders’ peaceful pleas are met with cold indifference from Tokyo. And sometimes violence too against the peaceful daily protesters at Henoko who have even been reviled with the derogatory term dojin (savages).

Full marks to those who continue to protest in Okinawa and to those who organised the referendum. They might have been forgiven for tiring of their efforts in the face of such astonishing neglect from mainland Japan. Some form of independence from Japan has not been mooted yet, except by a few, but nothing changes while Okinawa is under Japanese rule.