Archive for September 2021

Harararude ~Yonaguni no Warabe Uta~

September 29, 2021

The new album Harararude contains a rare collection of Yonaguni children’s songs performed by three singers from that island – Izumi Ota, Keiko Yonaha, and Yuu Yonaha.

The original idea came from producer Kenichi Takahashi. Last year his record company Respect released an album of songs from Yonaguni by Yuu Yonaha. That album – Kaze no Fuku Shima – was reviewed here. Takahashi found himself moved by the children’s songs of Yonaguni and especially by their words. Discovering there were many more songs like this he decided to ask Yonaha to record them along with his sister Izumi Ota and wife Keiko. This album is the result.

What distinguishes these songs lyrically from those in Japan is that the words of the Yonaguni songs frequently describe the tough situation faced by families on the island, who were often at the mercy of harsh taxation and the outside elements. By contrast, Japanese children’s songs have less significant words and are more connected to the idea of play.

There are 24 children’s songs here and it all begins with the most familiar, the title track ‘Harararude’. (It was also the title of an An-chang Project album several years ago). ‘Nagayama’ is another well-known song while ‘Nichi nu Sanaiti’ describes the difficult lives of Yonaguni people: the children of the song pray that it won’t rain because their parents are working outside. Some songs are more carefree and ‘Kazoe Uta’ is one in which the names of fish are sung and counted.

It’s very unusual for these songs to be gathered like this and introduced on one album. Izumi Ota did extensive research to find the correct versions of the songs and the three singers combine to sing them. Most of the vocals are unaccompanied in the way they would have been sung originally and each track is very short.

Following the 24 children’s songs there are six lengthier bonus tracks – in fact these bonus tracks add up to more than half of the album’s 51 minutes. Here we find performances of other songs such as ‘Densa Bushi’ and ‘Tubarama’ sung in their Yonaguni variants. For these bonus tracks the three singers are joined by Toru Yonaha and Kazuaki Yamaguchi on fue and vocals.

A 44-page booklet accompanies the CD, containing photos and Japanese translations of the songs as well as the original lyrics. Top marks once again to all involved for revitalising these island songs from Yonaguni.

Harararude ~Yonaguni no Warabe Uta~ will be released by Respect Records on 3rd November.

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

Spiers & Boden: Fallow Ground

September 21, 2021

It’s been ten years since the last Spiers & Boden album The Works but now, after forays into other projects – most notably with the folk big band Bellowhead – the pair are back with this new album of songs and tunes, Fallow Ground.

The highly regarded Bellowhead established themselves as England’s folk super group (and were also enthusiastically reviewed on the Power of Okinawa). The band decided to go their separate ways in 2014 but two founding members, John Spiers and Jon Boden, had been playing as a duo for a long time before that and have now been making music together for 20 years.

And it’s great to have them back with this new album recorded during the UK lockdown. In fact, it’s a sheer joy and shows how important they are and how much their duo work has been missed. Right from the start there are two superb performances by an older, wiser, and better than ever John Spiers (vocals, melodeons, and concertinas), and Jon Boden (vocals, fiddle, and the occasional stomp).

The first of these is the Australian song ‘Bluey Brink’ learned from the great Norfolk traditional singer Peter Bellamy. It’s a wonderfully rhythmic and jaunty tale with excellent use of light and shade. More fun immediately follows with ‘Butter and Cheese and All’ another song recorded by Bellamy who learned it from Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner.

The title track is a love song while ‘Yonder Banks’ is another standout that deals with memories of lost time. There is also an atmospheric version of what is probably the best-known traditional song, ‘Reynardine’. It’s most familiar to me from Sandy Denny’s version sung with Fairport Convention all those years ago. Although it’s the most ominous and potentially dramatic of the selections, Boden sings it with admirable restraint and the arrangement breathes new life into a song of brooding menace.

But let’s not forget the tunes, as Fallow Ground has plenty of them and the album comprises seven instrumental tracks mixed in with the six songs. They include Morris dances, jigs, and hornpipes – see the video below. My own favourite though is the slower, melodic original piece ‘The Fog’ by John Spiers with its beautiful interplay of fiddle and melodeon. It almost brought me to tears (in a good way).

A slightly surprising thing – this being English folk song – is the absence of the usual doom-laden ballads of murder and death. The overall tone is far more upbeat, and Jon Boden has commented: “I guess we were looking for songs with a sense of fun.” On this they have succeeded and then some. With only the two of them and a bunch of songs and tunes, they have made an intoxicatingly vibrant noise. They are at the top of their game.

Fallow Ground is out now and is released by Hudson Records.

https://www.hudsonrecords.co.uk/

https://spiersandboden.com/

The Fragility of Life

September 13, 2021

Okinawa is still in a so-called ‘state of emergency’ because of the pandemic. Despite this, the beach near my home is more crowded than ever with weekend visitors, swimmers, snorkelers, and surfers. Few seem to take much notice of the crisis. But last week all this was overshadowed for me by news of how fragile life can be when I learned of the very sudden and unexpected death of my friend and neighbour Nao Nishimata. 

About ten years ago I was contacted for the first time by Nao. She had heard of my interest in Okinawan music and got in touch to introduce herself. It turned out that not only did she live close by, but she was living in the very same street just a few seconds walk from my home. 

Shortly afterwards, Nao introduced me to the Okinawan-Peruvian singer Lucy Nagamine and the two of them came to my house armed with sanshin, guitar and sanba to perform a live set in my own living room. Nao was a great organiser and as well as playing guitar for Lucy she was important in promoting her career in Okinawa. I once asked if she was Lucy’s manager, but she always insisted on describing herself simply as a ‘supporter’.

Nao (left) and Lucy at my home, February 2011

She arranged for me to interview Lucy that year for the UK’s fRoots magazine (now in the Features Archive of this blog). And in August of that year, she invited my family to a beach party in Nanjo where a photo session took place for the release of a new Lucy album. We are all there, captured on the CD inlay photo, dancing on the beach. Later that evening she and Lucy played at our local festival.

Three years ago, when Basque singer Mikel Urdangarin came to Okinawa for the Basque Ryukyu Project, Nao came to my aid again with ideas for venues for him to play, and she invited Mikel to be the guest on Ichariba Amigos! the weekly radio show she hosted so expertly. After playing music together on the show, she and Lucy then spent the rest of the day with him introducing him to all things Okinawan.

In her unobtrusive way Nao was also part of many other activities involving Okinawan music and the performing arts and she had connections everywhere. This was brought home to me at her funeral ceremony last week attended by so many people, some coming from mainland Japan. Apart from all this, she was the finest neighbour it’s possible to have. She is already greatly missed.

But the sadness of last week doesn’t end there as just three days after Nao’s passing came the news that English singer-guitarist-composer Michael Chapman had died at his home at the age of 80. Michael had been one of my teenage heroes ever since I first saw and met him at the Jacquard Folk Club in Norwich back in the 1960s. I’ll repeat (from a previous blog post) how this came about on the evening I went to see the Incredible String Band:

“… a small man with a northern accent appeared with a guitar and asked if he could play. He went on and performed to a very enthusiastic response. This turned out to be Michael Chapman. He almost stole the ISB’s thunder with his songs and guitar skills and a couple of weeks later was booked to play as guest at the club. He soon became a regular visitor to the area and his second album Fully Qualified Survivor contained ‘Postcards of Scarborough’ a song that to this day brings back many memories – even though I’ve still never been to Scarborough.

Chapman soon became a fixture on the folk circuit and went on to a long career with numerous albums. In the 1990s I finally ran into him again in London when I went to see him play at a small club and he was just as good as ever.”

Michael Chapman

That London meeting – in 1995 – was the last time I saw him in person. We talked during the break, he remembered me from the folk club days, and he was curious about why I was living in Kobe at the time. The city had just been struck by a major earthquake. He gave me a copy of his novel Firewater Dreams which he signed and inscribed “To John after all these years”.

He had just made the album Navigation which was a huge return to form. Much more was to follow and in his last years he made two of his best albums 50 recorded in America and True North (both reviewed on this blog) and was discovered by a new younger audience. We stayed in touch for a while after that last meeting and I tried unsuccessfully to arrange some dates in Japan for him in the 90s which is something I always regret not being able to do.

Michael Chapman was never a big star, but he was uncompromising in his musical honesty and integrity, and he managed to create and sustain a living as a professional musician for more than half a century. His unique guitar style draws on elements of blues and jazz as much as it does on the folk tag that was often erroneously given to him. He leaves behind a large body of recorded work – I’m listening again to some of it now – and there won’t be another like him. I just wish we could have met again.