Archive for May 2019

Takashi Hirayasu: Kumu Ashibi~Cloud Wandering

May 30, 2019

Kumu Ashibi ~ Cloud Wandering is the new album by Okinawa’s Takashi Hirayasu who has been based in Tokyo for several years. Once guitarist with Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose he has since pursued his own path for a long time. Along the way he made the classic Warabi Uta collaboration with American guitarist Bob Brozman and more recently there was an excellent solo album Yuu that hinted at African connections.

The new release finds him once more in an adventurous mood. The album was recorded in Taiwan and co-produced by Japanese guitarist Ken Ohtake who has played with Hirayasu before. Now based in Taiwan, Ohtake plays guitar throughout and co-writes some of the original songs. There are also traditional Okinawan songs given a new spin by Hirayasu who sings and plays sanshin here as well as sanba and Okinawan drums.

Hirayasu and Ohtake are joined by other musicians – both Japanese and Taiwanese – on most tracks. They include Chung Yufeng (Fade to Blue) who plays pipa on a Chinese version of the Yaeyama song ‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’ with new lyrics and a vocal by Wan Fang.

The first three tracks are all familiar songs from Okinawa – ‘Daisanaja’, ‘Umi no Chinbora’ and ‘Achamegwa’ – but these are given Hirayasu’s special treatment and after that the album goes off in all kinds of other musical directions to embrace rock, funk, reggae, and jazz, with a notable contribution from Min-yen Terry Hsieh on saxophones, but always with Hirayasu’s sanshin prominently in the mix.

On first listen this is very different from Hirayasu’s other work and has a much bigger sound, for example, than his previous release Yuu. Where that album seemed very carefully constructed this is a bit rougher around the edges and has a very immediate, almost improvised feeling as if these arrangements were all made in the studio and then recorded live. No doubt the Taiwanese connection has enabled a different process and the overall results are very satisfying.

Takashi Hirayasu continues his journey of musical exploration and his absence from Okinawa may have, oddly enough, helped his creative impulses and opened the doors to some interesting new developments. Despite the presence of many Western elements this is an Asian album first and foremost with a very strong Okinawan atmosphere. Most of all it is quite obviously an album in which Hirayasu expresses himself in his own way.

The album booklet comes with lyrics of all the songs in Japanese, Chinese and English and there are also some useful English notes.

Kumu Ashibi ~ Cloud Wandering is released in Taiwan by Foothills Folk. It can be bought online at

Takashi Hirayasu will play a concert in Tokyo at Koenji Jirokichi on Friday 21st June starting at 19:30. Advance tickets 3,500 yen. Tel. 03-3339-2727.

Yuki Yamazato & Katsuko Yohen: Urisha Fukurasha

May 23, 2019

Urisha Fukurasha is an album by veteran Okinawan singers Yuki Yamazato and Katsuko Yohen. Both women have been well-known separately for a long time but have also recorded together and a few years ago made a joint album Doushibi along with another singer Keiko Kinjo.

The new album is divided quite distinctly into sections with five songs first from Yamazato then five from Yohen and finally two songs on which they sing together. There are also two bonus tracks recorded live in 2009 at a concert in Koza.

Most of the album is best described as shimauta with songs by known composers and three of the tracks are newly written. One of these is the first song ‘Inagu Hichui’ with lyrics by Naohiko Uehara and music by Minoru Kinjo. It’s also one of the standout tracks with a great vocal from Yamazato. At the age of 82 she doesn’t seem to have lost any of her power and her five songs that begin the album are quite sublime.

The title track, sung by Yamazato, was written by Shuken Maekawa and is another new composition, while another Maekawa song ‘Umui Shongane’ is sung by Yohen. Two Sadao China songs are included. One of these, performed by Yohen, is ‘Katadayui’ and the other is ‘Nageki no Ume’ on which Yamazato shares vocals with Hajime Nakasone. There is also a duet by Yohen and young singer Hikaru on a song by Teihan China and Choki Fukuhara.

As well as the two main singers there are notable contributions from musicians Hajime Nakasone and Hikari. Nakasone plays sanshin throughout and adds some taiko too and he is credited as the album’s director. Hikari, just 20 this year, plays Ryukyu koto, sanshin and sanba. All four get together on the two traditional songs and they make a fine job of ‘Kehitori Bushi~Kaisare’. There are also contributions from Asami Ohama (kokyū) and Marino Oshiro (hayashi).

It might seem a bit disjointed to have an album divided into separate sections in this way but it’s not uncommon in Okinawa and listening to it all the way through is proof that it works well. There are no surprises in choices of song or execution. You won’t find any synthesisers, strings or rock arrangements here. This is just straightforward Okinawan music played by some of its best practitioners. All involved deserve much credit, but special praise goes to Yuki Yamazato who has been singing for more than 60 years and can surely lay claim to being Okinawa’s greatest female singer.

Urisha Fukurasha is released this week by Campus.

Hedy West: Untitled

May 21, 2019

Hedy West has been mentioned many times on this blog and here she is again. The American singer and banjo player from northern Georgia died prematurely in 2005. Largely forgotten at that time, her reputation as one of the very finest interpreters of traditional Appalachian folk songs has since undergone a huge reappraisal beginning with the release of the award-winning Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians in 2011.

Other re-releases followed and last year’s From Granmaw and Me kept the ball rolling. Now comes the rather lamely titled Untitled which is previously unreleased and was recorded in the late 1970s when she was living in Germany. There are contributions from Eloise and Tracy Schwarz (New Lost City Ramblers) but it’s mostly West singing and playing her familiar banjo and occasionally guitar.

West drew heavily on the repertoire of songs handed down by her family and her best work is found in the old songs and ballads that she knew so well. Unlike some of the more popular big city-based folk singers of her generation she really was closer to the lives she describes and that she sang about in a plain uncompromising style.

Untitled is more varied than her other albums. It contains some traditional ballads but also tracks by modern songwriters and a wider range of musical styles. There is also a song sung in German. This is ‘Der Graben’ (The Trench) a pacifist, anti-militarist song by Kurt Tucholsky who died in 1935. A strong social and political thread runs through the album. ‘Bush Whacker’ is another pacifist song from the Civil War collected in North Carolina. ‘On the Rim of the World’ is a 1960s composition by Malvina Reynolds (of ‘Little Boxes’ fame) that sympathises with people living on the street, while ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ is a well-known Depression era song containing the lines:

I know the police cause you trouble / They cause trouble everywhere / When you die and go to heaven / You’ll find no policeman there.

This leads nicely into ‘There’ll Be No Distinction’ a 1929 song from West Virginia described by West as “A happy rollicking country gospel hymn, a celebration of justice in at least the afterlife.”

This being folk song there’s the obligatory story of incestuous rape (but no murder) in ‘Queen Jane’ which also has the best banjo playing on the album. And then there’s the delightful ‘The Three Friends’ learned from Leslie Haworth of Cheshire, England who created the song by adapting a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. On the surface it’s a fairy tale with animals (and a sausage) but with a philosophical edge and is sung and played wonderfully by West with a great contribution from Tracy Schwarz on fiddle.

Untitled is short with the eleven tracks running to around 35 minutes but who cares when we’re able to listen once more to the inimitable Hedy West. The late singer and scholar A.L. Lloyd believed that of all the women singers of the 1960s American folk song revival she was “by far the best of the lot”. Years later the continued unearthing of these recordings just reinforces that view.

Untitled is out now on Fledg’ling Records.