Archive for December 2019

Roots Album Round-up 2019

December 23, 2019

It’s almost the end of another year and the time when I’d normally be thinking about choosing best albums for the fRoots critics poll. In fact, I would already have done it, some weeks ago. However, the magazine ceased publication this year, not long after celebrating its 40th anniversary, so instead I’ll tell you here about my favourite albums of 2019.

There were not so many new releases of Okinawan music to come my way this time but the obvious choice for most significant recording goes to Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019. This 30-track double album features the singing of veterans Hirokazu Matsuda and Seibun Tokuhara alongside Mika Uchizato and Akane Murayoshi.

As I wrote in my review (and to quote myself): “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.” There is added poignancy now as Hirokazu Matsuda sadly died shortly after its release.

If I allow myself a runner-up in the ‘best’ Okinawan album category – and why not? – it would be From Myahk by Satoru Shimoji who continues to move and impress with his late flowering of atmospheric emotional songs from the islands of Miyako.

Among other notable Okinawan albums this year was Urisha Fukurashi by the evergreen Yuki Yamazato and Katsuko Yohen. The late Rinsho Kadekaru had an important release with his Maruteru Recordings from the 1960s, and there was a first release for Live! a double album by Seijin Noborikawa and Sadao China.

The always adventurous Takashi Hirayasu came up with Kumu Ashibi~Cloud Wandering recorded in Taiwan. And for something completely different, the young duo Harahells deserve praise for their Delicious Club which was such a lot of fun.

As ever, there were also lots of albums of ‘Roots Music from Out There’ – the music that reached me from other parts of the world. It was an especially rewarding year for the Appalachian music of North America and I was really spoilt for listening choices. Some more previously unreleased recordings came from the late Hedy West, but what was so refreshing was the number of younger singers and musicians with such a deep interest and love of this music.

In the end my favourite album from ‘out there’ has got to be Even the Sparrow the debut from Kansas City based singer and banjo player Kelly Hunt. What was so good about this is that she arrived seemingly fully formed and able to play and sing any style of American roots music with confidence. You might expect her to slip up or make a wrong turn along the way, but she never does and the whole album is devoid of unnecessary ornamentation.

A very worthy mention must also go to another debut album Rearrange My Heart by Buenos Aires based band Che Apalache. The scope of their musicianship is very wide, and they managed to fit bluegrass, Latin, and Japanese minyo onto an album with some strong political messages. The Nagano song 春の便り (The Coming of Spring) was given a world premiere on this blog and the album itself has recently been nominated for a Best Folk Album Grammy award.

All the albums mentioned above were reviewed on the Power of Okinawa blog this year so please look them up if you want further information or missed them first time around.

Happy listening to everyone in 2020!

Three Basque Releases

December 18, 2019

As we near the end of 2019 there are still some new Basque music releases to cover so here is a round-up of three very different albums that have recently arrived in Okinawa.

First up is the release of an album simply entitled Txalaparta. This is an anthology of tracks by Artze Anaiak (Artze brothers). It’s a special album that pays homage to the work of Josean Artze who died last year and his brother Jesus who died in 2002.

The txalaparta is a uniquely traditional Basque wooden percussive instrument. It’s usually played in unison by two players. The Artze brothers made great efforts to revive an interest in txalaparta and it is now commonly listened to again and has been popularised further by the likes of Oreka TX. This album shows off the txalaparta on its own with recordings made between 1966 and 1975.

Zuberoako kantariak subtitled in French Les Chanteurs de la Soule is an attractively produced 80-page hardback book containing two CD compilations. More attention is generally paid to the Spanish side of the Basque Country but there is also a long tradition of Basque songs in France. These focus on the small province of Zuberoa (Soule in French). The book contains the original Basque lyrics of all 34 songs here, almost all of them sung unaccompanied by different singers.

Several of the performers are dead now and the only familiar names to this listener are Pier-Paul Berzaitz and Jean-Mixel Bedaxagar. But there are some younger vocalists too such as the vibrant women’s groups Tehenta and Amaren Alabak.

The illustrated book contains explanations of all the songs and singers as well as introductory essays in both Basque and French. It’s not recommended to listen to all of this in one sitting but it’s an important historical release showcasing the Northern Basque songs from the people of Zuberoa.

Finally, Eñaut Elorrieta is the lead singer of the Gernika pop-rock band Ken Zazpi who have been one of the most commercially successful bands singing in the Basque language with a large following extending beyond their own region into Catalonia. Elorrieta’s new solo album Irteera argiak (Exit Lights) is an immaculately produced and played set of nine songs. The singer plays acoustic guitar together with a small band of musicians including electric guitar, bass, drums, violin and theremin.

It’s all very much in the style of the literary Basque singer-songwriter movement. All compositions are written or co-written by Elorrieta and there are two with lyrics by well-known literary names. ‘Hariak’ (Threads) is by exiled poet Joseba Sarrionandia, and ‘Ezbeharra’ (Misfortune) has words by novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga. Also, of great interest is the song ‘Inesa Gaxen’ which tells the story of the 17th century woman of the title who was accused, tortured and imprisoned for witchcraft.

It is especially welcome that Eñaut Elorrieta’s album comes also with Spanish, French and English translations of all the song lyrics in its CD booklet.

All three albums are released by Elkar.

Satoru Shimoji: From Myahk

December 17, 2019

It’s been quite a while since Miyako singer Satoru Shimoji’s last album, but now we have a new collection of songs, From Myahk. In fact, the album was released earlier this year but has only just reached my ears, so this is rather a late and overdue review.

The new release is in a similar vein to its predecessors, Myahk (2012) and Myahk-U (2015). Together they form a trilogy that presents traditional songs from Miyako given new arrangements, and original compositions by Shimoji. As before, the music is centred around piano and guitars. There are some big productions, as well as songs with just piano or guitar, and a final track with Shimoji’s lone vocal accompanied only by background sounds of the ocean.

This time all eleven tracks are either written or co-written by the singer, and as before he co-produces with Goh Hotoda. The strongest impression is Shimoji’s ability to evoke emotion and atmosphere. Everything oozes Miyako and that’s only the music. In a previous interview with him (on this blog) he summed it up in his own words: “For me the most important thing is to express the atmosphere of Miyako. If you open the world atlas, Miyako is just a tiny dot but even so you can send a light from there to the outside world.”

The lyrics are mostly in Japanese with some Miyako words, while the themes are almost exclusively concerned with Miyako life and the singer’s love for his islands. All of this is served up with Shimoji’s inimitable voice and expressively emotional singing. His daughter Minami plays sanshin on four of the tracks.

Titles such as ‘Boku no Shima’ and ‘Otori Song’ place us straight away in this world while the lovely song ‘Kaze no Ayagu’ is up there with some of his very best work. There’s also a song co-written with Kazufumi Miyazawa who joins as featured vocalist. It’s not the best thing here but the high-profile Miyazawa is obviously an admirer of Shimoji and he also writes the essay included in the CD booklet.

It’s slightly more varied than before regarding the pace of the individual tracks and there’s the inclusion of one song from earlier days. This is ‘Tida no Uta’, a fine song from the album Ryugu no Shima: The Peaceful Island (2000) that is given a reworking here. From Myahk is a very fine album that stands alongside the two previous ones. If you liked them then you’ll need this.

From Myahk is released by Lagoon Music.

Ruper Ordorika: Kafe Antzokian

December 13, 2019

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Ruper Ordorika has long been established as one of the most important figures in the modern history of popular music from the Basque Country. Ever since his debut in 1980 he has been at the forefront of a cultural awakening in Euskal Herria with his original use of poetry within pop and rock settings.

Kafe Antzokian is the title of his new album and it’s also the name of the popular venue in Bilbao where this live performance was recorded last year. He is accompanied by a small band of four musicians playing guitars, bass, drums, violin and mandolin.

As the warm tones of the first song ‘Egia Da’ (It’s True) begin we know we’re not just in safe hands but in for a real treat. The song is one of three here from his superb 2014 album Lurrea Etzanda. The shortest song ‘Ahots Urrunak’ (Distant Voices) is from a subsequent album and is also one of the concert’s highlights.

Most of the selections are his own and there is one with words by the iconic exiled poet Joseba Sarrionandia. Midway through the concert there’s a break from the more familiar Ordorika compositions with the introduction of the folk song ‘Zazpi Nobio’ which at once exudes its Basqueness and at the same time slips perfectly into the set.

Something seems to have happened to Ruper Ordorika in these later years of his career. Over the past six years he has released some of his very best work. There has been an album of covers of his favourite songs by other writers; two albums of new songs with different bands; the completely solo Bakarka (which won the prize for best album in Basque at the Spanish Independent Music Awards last year); and now this live album to consolidate his formidable reputation.

Kafe Antzokian is released by Elkar.

Choho Miyara Music Award 2019

December 12, 2019

Last night I was invited to the 17th annual Miyara Choho Ongaku Sho (Choho Miyara Music Award) ceremony which was held at Ryukyu Shimpo Hall in Naha. It’s nine years since I last attended one of these ceremonies and the time has passed very quickly. This year, as always, there were two awards. The main one is the Ongaku Sho which is usually given in recognition of a lifetime’s work. The other is the Tokubetsu Sho or Special Award.

Yoshikatsu Bise (left) receiving his award

This year’s Ongaku Sho was given to Yoshikatsu Bise, better known to everyone on Okinawa simply as Bisekatsu. For many years he has been a massively important figure in the promotion of Okinawan music. As well as running Campus Records, his own shop and record label, for almost half a century, he is a promoter, record producer, songwriter, and a walking encyclopedia of traditional music from these islands.

Bisekatsu’s acceptance speech

For at least the past couple of decades Bisekatsu has also been enormously generous and helpful to me personally. (My 2005 interview and feature on Campus Records for fRoots magazine can be found in the Features Archive of this blog). The Ongaku Sho award comes in the year that he became 80 years old and it is richly deserved.

Recipients of the Tokubetsu Sho last night were the Okinawa Dansee Gashodan (Okinawa Men’s Choir) who began in 1972 with just four people and now have 54 members. They have also travelled overseas to sing in several different countries.

Kazutoshi Matsuda

Okinawa Dansee Gashodan

After the ceremony there was a party with music on stage from Okinawan singer and sanshin player Kazutoshi Matsuda and others, and the evening ended with a performance by Okinawa Dansee Gashodan.

Akemi Johnson’s Book Talk

December 2, 2019

Last night I attended a Book Talk by former Fulbright scholar, author and journalist Akemi Johnson. She is currently on a tour of mainland Japan and Okinawa to promote her book Night in the American Village, subtitled ‘Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa’.

I’ve read many books in English on Okinawa, its history and politics, so it was very timely and convenient for me that the author herself, who lives in Northern California, should be visiting the island just as I had finished reading this one.

Akemi Johnson

Each of the book’s eleven chapters focuses on a different woman and this is the starting point for the story of how lives in Okinawa have been affected by the bases. As the book’s blurb states: “Focusing on the women there, she follows the complex fallout of the murder of an Okinawan woman by an ex-U.S. serviceman in 2016 and speaks to protesters, to women who date and marry American men and groups that help them when problems arise, and to Okinawans whose family members survived World War II.”

The book is beautifully written and at times reads like a novel. As well as its obvious literary merit, it’s also clear the author has done a lot of background research in addition to the year she spent living on Okinawa and meeting many of those connected in one way or another with the bases. And so, in the book we find her at one moment in a Naha bar drinking with American soldiers, the next in a boat on the ocean with anti-base protesters trying to stop the landfill at Oura Bay.

Meeting Akemi last night after her talk

What emerges from all this is a very balanced account of her findings that is also at times moving – and occasionally shocking.  The book it most resembles is Mary Ann Keyso’s fascinating Women of Okinawa, from 2000, but Night in the American Village is ultimately the more rewarding read.

It would be all too easy to dismiss the author as an outsider without a deep understanding of Japan or Okinawa. That would be a huge mistake. In fact, it’s her openness, willingness to learn, to investigate further, and to understand and make sense of it all that leads to a book that is both academically sound and at the same time enormously readable.

The talk last night was held in the informal setting of Esparza’s Tacos and Coffee, a Mexican restaurant in Chatan, in front of a large and varied audience. Akemi also read some selections from her book and concluded with a question and answer session. An unexpected bonus was the introduction in person of two of the women whose stories are featured in the book – Chie and Ai – and they joined her to speak and to answer questions.

More details of the book and its author are on Akemi Johnson’s website: