Archive for June 2021

Irei no Hi 2021

June 24, 2021

23rd June is a public holiday in the Ryukyus. This is Irei no Hi, the day when all those who died in the Battle of Okinawa are remembered. The total number of dead is currently 241,632.  Yesterday was the 76th anniversary and there were ceremonies throughout the islands.

The main ceremony was held as usual at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park near my home in Itoman. In recent years there has been very sunny weather but this time the rainy season lingers on, and the televised ceremony took place in wet conditions. The pandemic also shows little sign of abating and with Okinawa still in a state of emergency, the event was drastically scaled down with only around 30 invited guests.

The 2021 ceremony at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park (Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo)

Fortunately, this meant there was no appearance from Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who must have been relieved not to face the Okinawan public again. Instead, he sent a video message. His face appeared on a large screen, and he talked of the wounds of the Okinawan people and the need to ease their base burden. It was an emotionless speech of hypocrisy and insincerity from someone who has claimed not to know about the history of Okinawa, or want to talk about it, because he was born after the war.

Much more impressive was the peace poem recited (also partly sung) by Miharu Uehara, aged 13, from Miyako Island. Her poem ‘Mirukuyu no Uta’ (Songs of Peacetime) was chosen from 1,500 entries from schoolchildren around the islands.  

It’s sadly ironic that while people gathered here to remember the dead, just up the road on the Itoman coast the digging continues. This is where remains of the war dead are almost certainly mixed in the earth used as landfill for the unwanted new American base at Henoko. Even Okinawa’s governor Denny Tamaki seems unwilling, or else unable, to put a stop to it. Meanwhile, news this week reported on the continuing danger of many unexploded US shells from the Battle of Okinawa.

While Irei no Hi is a public holiday here, it is just another day in mainland Japan. In a survey conducted this month, and just published in the Okinawa Times newspaper, it was reported that 75.5% of Japanese had never even heard of Irei no Hi. This underlines just how far from justice and fair treatment Okinawa remains, with a large part of its main island still occupied by US bases, and the ‘prefecture’ a colony of Japan.

JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain: Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man

June 22, 2021

JP Harris sings and plays fretless banjo with Chance McCoy (fiddle and backing vocals) on this ten-track album. The pair give themselves the unlikely name JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain and it’s their debut recording of traditional Appalachian ballads, square dance tunes, and old-time music.

Harris was born in Alabama and brought up in the punk underground. He left home at an early age to travel on the road as a teenager and is now based in Nashville where he works as a carpenter building recording studios and restoring historic buildings. He is also known as a country singer, and as a powerful banjoist playing handmade instruments.

Meeting up again with Chance McCoy (from Old Crow Medicine Show) the two decided to record these songs – and one instrumental – at McCoy’s studio in an old barn in the mountains of West Virginia. McCoy produced. Says Harris, “You are hearing the real me, shoeless in cutoff jeans up in the mountains, playing old music with an old friend.” The story of how this all came about is told by Harris in an illuminating essay in the notes to the album.

The songs were learned through oral tradition and antique songbooks with a nod to many of the musicians who have helped to keep them alive. This being traditional music, there are tales of murder, devils, adoration, love lost, and all manner of weirdness. Among the best-known ballads is the classic ‘Barbry Ellen’ learned from recordings by Jean Ritchie.  

There is also a fine version of ‘Old Bangum’, a playful piece that Harris learned from a cassette recording of children’s songs by members of the Seeger family, sung by Peggy Seeger. The song was revived in recent times by Rayna Gellert, and Harris mentions listening to the version played by her father Dan Gellert.

It’s perhaps no surprise that – Harris being a carpenter in his other incarnation – it is the well-known ‘House Carpenter’ that opens the album, and later on there is the sombre ballad ‘The Little Carpenter’ which is a bit less familiar. There are also some lively hints of bluegrass on a couple of tracks, ‘Closer to the Mill’ and ‘Otto Wood’. 

JP Harris (Photo: Libby Danforth)

There was no detailed plan of how the album should evolve, and in this case, it obviously worked out as the results of just the two of them playing music and seeing what happens are totally compelling. New life is breathed into the songs by Harris and McCoy who play around with different ways of telling the stories and expressing old truths.

The last word should be with JP Harris who concludes his personal essay like this:

“I could write pages about the many facets of this music; why it is still relevant, its impact on various communities’ and individuals’ lives, the problems with its past and the reason we must ensure its future, if not possibly in a different light. But I will leave these thoughts to you, the listener, and hope that if nothing else, you can feel the connection to this uniquely American sound; born of migration, violence, compassion, fear, love, and pure unbridled joy.”

Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man is released on 25th June by Free Dirt Records.

Sakishima Islands Mix

June 17, 2021

Here is my latest music mix which can be listened to now online at K.O.L. Radio. This time it’s a mix of songs from the Sakishima Islands that stretch from Miyako to Yaeyama. The playlist contains some of the best-known traditional songs from these islands as well as some more modern compositions.

The first six tracks are from Miyako and inevitably, there is a song by Miyako’s most famous traditional singer Genji Kuniyoshi who died recently. It is followed by a track from his former pupil, Tadayuki Matsubara, whose debut album is released next week. The Miyako section ends with Satoru Shimoji’s epic arrangement of ‘Togani Ayagu’.

The duo Sakishima Meeting (Isamu Shimoji and Yukito Ara) provide the link between Miyako and Yaeyama that leads into the Yaeyama part of the playlist and takes us to the islands further south. This begins with a song from the late Ishigaki singer Yukichi Yamazato. He was the mentor for Tetsuhiro Daiku whose sparse recording of the most representative Yaeyama traditional song ‘Tubarama’ ends the playlist.

The playlist order is below with artists and song titles:

Hirara ‘Tsunahiki nu Agu’

Isamu Shimoji ‘Banta ga Nmari Zuma’

Genji Kuniyoshi ‘Irabu Togani’

Tadayuki Matsubara ‘Pyarumizu nu Kuicha~Yonamumi nu Anigama’

Miwa Yonashiro ‘Nariyama Ayagu’

Satoru Shimoji ‘Togani Ayagu’

Sakishima Meeting ‘Sakishima no Tema’

Yukichi Yamazato ‘Shibiraoza Bushi’

Parsha Club ‘Gokoku Hojo’

Yasukatsu Oshima with Kanako Hatoma ‘Kunatsuyu’

Hidekatsu ‘Mirukumunari’

Suguru Ikeda ‘Densa Bushi’

Begin ‘Taketomi-jima de Aimasho’

Hatoma Family ‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’

Ayame Band ‘Donan Shima’

Tetsuhiro Daiku ‘Tubarama’

The K.O.L. Radio website has just been updated and is easier than ever to navigate with an archive of all the programmes.

Joseph Spence: Encore

June 3, 2021

This is an unexpected release of ‘new’ recordings by the late Joseph Spence whose guitar playing has influenced generations of roots musicians around the world. Encore is subtitled Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing, and it captures Spence in 1965 when he was still at the peak of his powers.

The live recordings were made in New York City when Spence appeared in concert along with other artists from the Bahamas. The show was taped by producer and engineer Peter Siegel who looked after Spence on his visit, and there are two further tracks made in Siegel’s own apartment. Soon after, Siegel visited the Bahamas to make field recordings at Spence’s home in Nassau. These three sources make up the 13 tracks on this album. 

Listening to Spence is a strange experience for the newcomer. His voice is anything but smooth and it makes Tom Waits sound like an angel by comparison. The press release puts it likes this: “As he sang, lyrics tumbled over exclamations, swaying between guttural interjection and fast-rhyming patter.”

It’s hard to identify exactly where he’s coming from as there are musical influences from a number of different places with everything underpinned by his inimitable acoustic guitar playing. He’s not quite blues, but he sings gospel, and at times he sounds almost Hawaiian – but the one constant is that he is always playfully experimental.

The album includes hymns he grew up with on the islands, as well as the fishermen’s songs he came to know well, and other pieces from further afield. Much of Spence’s work is grounded in the rare vocal traditions of the Bahamas and of the original Bahamian rhyming groups of which he was a part, while the guitar playing is always nimble and wonderfully expressive.

Joseph Spence (Photo: Guy Droussart)

There are classic Spence songs such as ‘Out on the Rolling Sea’, ‘Bimini Gal’, and ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’. One of the most powerful is ‘Run Come See Jerusalem’ which tells the harrowing story of the sinking of the ship Pretoria in 1929 when the Bahamas was hit by a hurricane. Spence was just 19 at the time but remembers running to help and pulling bodies from the water.

Echoes of his legacy can be heard in many contemporary guitarists, from Richard Thompson to Michael Chapman to Sunny War. But no-one was quite like Joseph Spence, the most brilliant guitarist and interpreter of traditional song. His creativity lives on in these recordings.

Encore will be released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on 23rd July. The CD booklet has more than 30 pages with notes on each of the songs, essays, and rare photos. A vinyl LP release will follow in October 2021.