Archive for June 2019

Rauma: Deep Ocean

June 28, 2019

The new album Deep Ocean (Fukai Umi) is a collaborative project by the duo known as Rauma. Both musicians are based in Hokkaido and the album was recorded and mixed there in Sapporo. However, they both bring some very different influences from outside Japan to the eleven mainly instrumental compositions here.

Hiroko Ara is an accomplished, award-winning kantele player. The kantele is the best-known traditional plucked stringed instrument from Finland. Although very different in conception, its sound has some echoes of the Ryukyu koto in Okinawa. On these recordings Ara plays a 39-string concert kantele as well as the 5-string and 10-string versions of the instrument.

Her partner on the album is Haruhiko Saga, an experienced musician with many recording credits to his name. He plays morinkhuur (horse-head fiddle) on most of these pieces and provides some rather unobtrusive throat-singing on three of the tracks. Together the pair manage to seamlessly combine the music of Finland, Mongolia and more.

The album generally has a slow, relaxed atmosphere, bordering at times on the ambient. The selections contain both traditional Finnish and Mongolian compositions and there are also three original pieces. It all begins, however, with a version of Ireland’s ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ which provides a fine introduction and is one of the highlights.

The title track is a traditional Mongolian urtin duu or ‘long song’ and is a meditation on the deep ocean and ‘a prayer for the happiness of all living things’. Nevertheless, it somehow manages to squeeze in a snippet of the Okinawan song ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’ as well. The album ends with ‘Red Bird, Blue Bird, White Bird’ which puts together a Japanese nursery rhyme and a Finnish kantele melody.

Perhaps best of all is ‘Night Flower’ an original composition by Hiroko Ara. This is a simple, evocative and haunting melody on which the musicians find the perfect blend of emotion with their instruments.

Deep Ocean is released by Green Pigeon Music.

http://tarbagan.net/saga/RaumaDeepOcean.html

Agurtzane eta Ion Elustondo: Bizirik dauden eskuak

June 26, 2019

This is the new album from Basque trikitixa duo Agurtzane eta Ion Elustondo. Their previous album four years ago, simply titled Elustondo, was also reviewed here. But first a useful definition: “The word trikitixa can be a generic term, applied to a kind of dance, a style of music or the instrument. But, nowadays, the term is almost always used to refer to this last meaning: the Basque diatonic accordion.”

The Elustondo pair are sister and brother. Agurtzane is one of the most important Basque musicians and she is also the president of Trikitixa Elkartea –an association that finds opportunities for young players and offers a wealth of information about the world of trikitixa, its festivals and albums. (The trikitixa definition above is from their website). Her brother Ion sings and plays panderoa (tambourine) the instrument most often played alongside trikitixa.

Agurtzane Elustondo learned the instrument when she was a child from the legendary master Laja who died recently at the age of 74. The album’s title can be translated as ‘Hands that remain alive’ and is intended as a tribute to all the forerunners who helped create such a vibrant people’s music in the Basque Country. They believe that “each time we play the keys of the accordion, their hands move together with ours”.

The album contains 16 tracks divided equally between songs sung by Ion Elustondo and tunes that include a good deal of irrintziak: the loud joyous yelling which plays a similar role to hayashi in Okinawan music. For this, and on some of the songs, they are joined by a small number of collaborators. Ten of the compositions are by Martin Aginalde, a veteran musician and influential figure for all younger players.

Some of the songs have traditional melodies and it was a surprise to find the familiar tune of ‘Bagoaz’ corresponding to the 1920s American gospel song ‘I’ll Fly Away’. It shows how universal the links in roots music can be. The final track ‘Adio amets’ also has a traditional tune and this time it’s arranged in a Latin American style by Agurtzane.

It’s familiar nowadays to hear trikitixa mixed up with many other styles, from triki-pop to hip-hop. Most recently it has been achieved very effectively by the bands Esne Beltza and Huntza. But it comes as a very refreshing experience to listen to this album of straightforward music and song played so lovingly by two of the best musicians around. It’s an advance on their previous album and can be highly recommended to anyone with even the slightest interest in Basque roots music.

Bizirik dauden eskuak is released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

http://trikitixa.eus/

Okinawa Day 2019 in London

June 11, 2019

For those in London next week the annual Okinawa Day is being held on Saturday 22nd June at Spitalfields Market. The nearest station is Liverpool Street. As before, it will be an all-day event from 10:00 until 18:00 and admission is free. This is a great chance to find out about and celebrate the unique culture of the Ryukyu Islands. There will be performances of Okinawan music as well as karate and Eisa dancing.

As a preview to Okinawa Day there will also be an Okinawan Music Concert by the guest musicians on the 21st. They will play songs from the Miyako, Yaeyama, and Amami islands. This has been organised by the London Okinawa Sanshinkai and will take place at SOAS University of London in the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre of their campus at Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square. Once again admission is free. Doors open at 19:00 and the performances will go on until 21:00.

https://sanshinkai.uk/okinawa-day

https://www.facebook.com/okinawadayinlondon

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019

June 10, 2019

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 is the title of a significant new release of Okinawan music from Tokyo’s Respect label. It’s a double album comprising 30 tracks, two CDs, and two hours of songs from four featured artists. The singers are Hirokazu Matsuda, Seibun Tokuhara, Mika Uchizato, and Akane Murayoshi.

The title can be translated as ‘elegy for the lost sea’. This harks back to a 1975 double album of 27 songs under a similar title produced by Okinawan writer, critic and entrepreneur Rou Takenaka that showcased some important Okinawan singers. Takenaka was a prominent supporter of Okinawa and its music as well as a vociferous opponent of the islands’ reversion to Japanese rule.

In his essay included with the new release, producer Tsukasa Kohama writes of this as the inspiration for the new recordings and says he believes it’s the right time to release this album as it has never been so important to save Okinawa’s beautiful sea and nature from threats posed by America and Japan. He also writes of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists led by Shouei Kina, Rinsho Kadekaru and Shotoko Yamauchi.

The new album features some of the leaders of the ‘second generation’. Hirokazu Matsuda and Seibun Tokuhara, both in their 70s, have been important in carrying on the songs and both are stalwarts of the island music scene. The two women are much younger. Mika Uchizato is already well-known as one of the top female voices with several recordings to her name. Akane Murayoshi, now 30, has released a couple of albums. The second was the frankly awful Challenge in 2011 so it’s good to see her recovering from that and back at her best. Matsuda and Tokuhara are both from Okinawa’s main island while Uchizato hails from Minami Daito, and Murayoshi from Kume Island.

The songs will be well-known to those familiar with Okinawan music. Most are traditional and some, but not all, are directly connected with the sea. All convey the atmosphere of everyday life on these islands which has always been inextricably linked with nature and the sea. There are songs from around the Ryukyus rather than just Okinawa. One of the best is ‘Yonaguni Kouta’ sung here by the two women. Another is ‘Tenyou Bushi’ with a vocal by Matsuda. There are both fast and slow songs. Outstanding among the latter is ‘Hama Sodachi’ with vocal and sanshin by Murayoshi.

The title song, in full ‘Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 (Jintoyo-gwa)’, is a traditional tune to which producer Kohama has added some new verses. The song laments the dreadful changes in Okinawa – the unwanted presence of hotels and military bases; the disappearance of coral and fish; how beautiful Henoko used to be and how it is changing. And it concludes that when we get Okinawa back the people can smile again.

(L to R): Hirokazu Matsuda, Mika Uchizato, Akane Murayoshi, Seibun Tokuhara

The songs are all performed straightforwardly with sanshin accompaniment plus shima-daiko and hayashi. There is the occasional addition of Keiko Hamakawa’s Ryukyu koto, and Hiroyuki Kinjo’s fue. The four singers share the vocals and find several different combinations to play with on individual songs. It almost goes without saying that everything is sung and played with enormous skill and vitality. Most importantly the album just sounds very good indeed and the two hours passed by very quickly for this listener.

One small caveat is that in Okinawa it’s impossible, even now, to escape the hierarchical nature of the music world. It would have been nice to have Mika Uchizato and Akane Murayoshi take the lead on more than the six songs they are given. But at least they do have this much as it wouldn’t have been a complete surprise to see them appearing only as backing singers.

This is a timely and important release and serves as a reminder of the wealth of wonderful songs from these islands. Also, for the urgent need to protect the islands and their environment for future generations.

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 will be released by Respect on 24th July.

An album release concert will be held in Naha at Sakurazaka Theatre (Hall A) on Saturday 7th September.

http://www.respect-record.co.jp

Kishi Bashi: Omoiyari

June 3, 2019

Omoiyari is the fourth album by singer, songwriter and musician Kishi Bashi who was born Kaoru Ishibashi to Japanese immigrants in America and currently lives in Athens, Georgia. His previous albums have featured both sweeping orchestral pop and more experimental loop arrangements blending the singer’s vocals and violin.

The new album finds him at his most accessible as well as his most melodic. At the same time this is an ambitious work in terms of theme. It resulted from his reflecting on history and on the state of things today. He says: “I was shocked when I saw white supremacy really starting to show its teeth again in America. My parents are immigrants, they came to the United States from Japan post-World War II. As a minority I felt very insecure for the first time in my adult life in this country. I think that was the real trigger for this project.”

Kishi Bashi’s songs were inspired specifically by the unjust forced internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and he visited former prison sites to listen to the stories of survivors. The ten songs feature his distinctive vocals and violin and they veer from the lighter pop sounds of opening track ‘Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear’ to the heavier almost classical opening of ‘Violin Tsunami’.

‘Marigolds’, ‘A Song for You’ and ‘Summer of ‘42’ are all outstanding but this is a timeless album with songs that are heartfelt and often irresistibly catchy. The closest he gets to American roots music is on the final track ‘Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea’ a fiddle and banjo-driven song that sounds as if it could have come from a 1920s jug band. It’s also one of the biggest successes.

Joining Kishi Bashi along the way are many other musicians and we find banjo, bass, cello, guitar, organ and flute all represented as well as a group of string players with violins and violas. Despite all the extra help it never becomes too cluttered and all hangs together with a lightness of touch produced by the singer.

It’s all too common, especially in Japan, for musicians taking on ‘serious’ political subjects to churn out earnest but ultimately dire songs while thrashing away on guitars. By contrast Kishi Bashi’s music is big and emotionally uplifting and his lyrics are full of themes of empathy, compassion, and understanding, hence the album title.

To return to Kishi Bashi for the last word: “Omoiyari is a Japanese word. It doesn’t necessarily translate as empathy, but it refers to the idea of creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them. I think the idea of omoiyari is the single biggest thing that can help us overcome aggression and conflict.”

Omoiyari is out now on Joyful Noise Recordings.

www.kishibashi.com/