Notes on Nenes

A British friend of mine is a professor in the music department of a New Zealand university. We met up earlier this year during one of his occasional research trips to Okinawa. Inevitably the talk turned to music and to some of the artists from these islands. Among those discussed were Nenes, the four women who caused a sensation when they arrived on the Okinawan music scene some years ago.

I hadn’t listened to the earlier Nenes albums for quite a while, so our conversation prompted me to return to the work of these four remarkable women. It was immediately a bit of a surprise to realise that next year, in 2020, it will be a whopping 30 years since the formation of the original band.

How the time flies (and other platitudes). It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I had another of my Okinawan music revelations when I saw the original Nenes for the first time at a packed all-standing Banana Hall in Osaka. I had been to this venue many times, but it was a big crush that night and I even gave up an attempt to get to the bar for another beer (previously unheard of!) as it was more like a football crowd than a concert audience.

Nenes: Yasuko, Yukino, Misako, Namiko

Nenes were superb that evening and were so again on the subsequent occasions I saw them. Shortly after the release of their second album I met up with members Misako Koja and Yasuko Yoshida for an interview before another great concert in Osaka, this time at Club Quattro. And lest we forget, the other members of that sublime original line-up were Namiko Miyazato and Yukino Hiyane.

From 1990 until the end of the decade the four made some wonderful music, not just in live performance but with some excellent recordings. They released eight studio albums during that decade, including the Koza compilation and then a final live album Okinawa subtitled (rather morbidly) Memorial Nenes. The one change of personnel occurred when Misako Koja left to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Eriko Touma for the last two of these albums.

Two more compilations arrived in 2002 and then a double retrospective Golden Best in 2004 on Sony, so there is still plenty out there to interest anyone yet to discover their legacy. And I haven’t even mentioned Sadao China, the man who put them together, acted as mentor, produced their albums and wrote many of the songs. He also created the Okinawan language version of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ that became one of their trademark songs in live shows.

It was thrilling to see Nenes at their peak especially when they played with backing musicians rather than pre-recorded tracks. They produced a hybrid sound combining Okinawan traditional songs, modern shimauta, and global pop with hints of Indonesia, Hawaii and Brazil. Usually the four sang in unison while each member occasionally took turns with the lead vocal.

They announced themselves on the cover of their third album Ashibi as an ‘International Uchina Pop Group’ but could sing straightforward Okinawan minyo too as they showed on their fifth album Narabi where the guests included Seijin Noborikawa and Tetsuhiro Daiku. It was a relatively stripped back Nenes after the glorious excess (and success) of its immediate predecessor Koza Dabasa recorded in Los Angeles with Ry Cooder, David Hidalgo and other American musicians.

Of course, the individual members were mostly established already as solo singers before Sadao China came along. Traditional Okinawan song remained their first love and Yasuko Yoshida once told me that, however big the sound was when they played on stage with the full backing band, it was always minyo she was listening to in her head.

They were not the first either, as Four Sisters (who, unlike Nenes, were real sisters) preceded them by many years. But while Four Sisters were committed to traditional Okinawan songs, Nenes pushed things into much more diverse territory. It’s a bit like Bob Dylan taking inspiration from Woody Guthrie but ultimately surpassing his idol to take his music in many new directions. At least Nenes didn’t get booed for going electric.

As ‘any fule kno’, Nenes didn’t finish after that live memorial show and album. New reincarnations continue to appear to this day as Frankenstein China still tinkers with different formations. Most recently they have become a trio. All the members of the ever-changing younger line-ups have been fine singers and Mayuko Higa – now a solo artist – is a favourite of mine. However, it’s better that I don’t go on about China’s inability to move with the times: just read my reviews of the last two or three albums to get the idea.

It was great to meet up with Henry (that’s my friend in New Zealand) and to talk again about music. While I’m just an enthusiast, he really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to musical theory and it’s always good to pick his brains. More importantly he reminded me of those halcyon days when Nenes ruled Okinawa.

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