More Notes on Nenes

It’s almost two years since I wrote the first ‘Notes on Nenes’ for this blog. It’s still there so you can look it up. At that time, my interest in the original Nenes quartet had been rekindled by a meeting with Henry Johnson who was visiting Okinawa from New Zealand where he is Professor in the Department of Music at Otago University.

I’ve only met Henry a few times when he has been let loose on one of his research trips to these islands, but – apart from us being fellow exiled Brits – we always have plenty to talk about and he’s obviously a very fine chap. He is the music expert while I’m just the music enthusiast, so it’s always good to learn more by asking him lots of theoretical questions.

His further planned visits to Okinawa have had to be curtailed owing to the dreaded pandemic so I don’t know when we’ll see each other again. However, on our last meeting he talked of a book he was working on about the Nenes phenomenon. This year the book sees the light of day as part of the Bloomsbury Publishing series of short books on popular music albums.

The Nenes book is published under Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Japan series. These are in-depth examinations of Japanese albums of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (so Okinawa is shoehorned in). Among the titles already published are studies of albums by Perfume and Shonen Knife.

At under 200 pages, the new book is titled Nenes’ Koza Dabasa and subtitled ‘Okinawa in the World Music Market’. As its name suggests it is focused on an analysis of Koza Dabasa the fourth album by Nenes released in 1994. The album received critical acclaim (not least from me) and is widely regarded as their best with contributions from several American musicians including Ry Cooder and David Hidalgo.

This is much more than just a study of the album. What the book also does is to place Okinawan music in relation to Japan and the world. An early chapter on ‘Uchina Pop and Chanpuru Culture’ explains much of the background to the music of these islands. This is followed by a chapter on the members of Nenes and their related personnel such as mentor Sadao China, arranger Kazuya Sahara, and the guest musicians they have worked with.

Another chapter on ‘Island Culture’ discusses the concepts of shima, hometown, and shima-uta, with a detailed look at their recording of the traditional song ‘Kurushima Kuduchi’. Later, there is another close analysis, this time of an original song, ‘Amerika-dori’. This forms part of the chapter ‘War and Peace’, where there is a discussion of history and the relative lack of focus on war and military base issues in much of the Nenes repertoire. Generally, their song lyrics prefer to celebrate the positive aspects of island life. ‘Amerika-dori’, for instance, is a joyful song about the mix of people and cultures in Koza and it steers clear of both the conflict between Okinawa and its military occupiers America and colonial oppressors Japan. It is suggested, however, that it’s possible to read the song in a slightly different way if you scratch beneath the surface.

Koza Dabasa was, of course, a product of the original Nenes line-up, but the book doesn’t shy away from addressing the fact that the group has continually changed its members since that time and has evolved into a kind of music franchise under the direction of Sadao China. His energy is now mostly channelled into promoting live performances at their home venue in Naha where they cater mainly to audiences of tourists.

The appendices to the book gather details of all the recordings and include a run down on members of the ever-changing Nenes line-ups. I also learned some interesting nuggets of peripheral information along the way. I had no idea that Japanese band Shang Shang Typhoon had guested on Cyndi Lauper’s 1986 album Sisters of Avalon – an album I’ve listened to many times. I was also initially surprised that Four Sisters had toured overseas – until I saw the reference to this was from my own book The Power of Okinawa. Thanks for the reminder.

Nenes’ Koza Dabasa is well-written in a readable and clear style. For such a relatively slim volume it covers just about everything you need to know. It may be primarily an academic book, but it will be of great interest to any general reader, myself included, who is an Okinawan music enthusiast. It will be especially valuable to those who would like to know more of the story behind Nenes.

That story continues up to the present day and since the completion of Nenes’ Koza Dabasa there has been yet another new Nenes album release. (Or rather Nenez, as the romanisation of their newest incarnation now appears). The album was released last month and is titled Gajumaru. It is being promoted as music to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of the first Nenes album.

Much like one of its recent predecessors Reborn, the Gajumaru album contains re-recordings of 14 songs from previous albums. Whereas Reborn was a reworking of some of the classic Nenes songs of old, the new release contains what is described as recordings of songs ‘carefully selected’ by Sadao China from four albums by the post-original line-ups: Chura Uta (2002), Shu (2004), Sai (2008), and Okurimono (2010).

The cover image is created in the same style and in similar red colours to the Nenes debut album Ikawu (1991). This would seem to be one for completists only though it may well satisfy tourists and some uncritical Okinawans. For the rest of us, it’s perhaps better to read Henry Johnson’s book and give ourselves a treat by listening again to Koza Dabasa when the original Nenes were at their very best.

Explore posts in the same categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

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