Archive for the ‘Book Feedback’ category

Far Side Radio interview

October 23, 2010

Earlier this month I was interviewed by telephone from Okinawa on Paul Fisher’s weekly Far Side Radio programme which goes out every Wednesday on London’s Resonance 104.4fm. Paul is an old friend with a similar interest in Okinawan music. We have known each other for many years, ever since we first came into contact during the 1990s when we were both living in mainland Japan. Paul is now based in the UK and is involved in many aspects of the music business. He also runs his own website, Far Side Music, which is an online resource for music from East Asian countries.

Far Side Radio programmes also go out online and are eventually archived on Paul’s website. The one hour programme featuring my interview can be listened to again by going to the 6th October 2010 link here:

On the show I was asked about my book The Power of Okinawa and I also got to choose some selections of Okinawan music to listen to. I was relieved to find that the phone line seemed to be working well and the eight hour time difference meant that it began at 12 noon in London and at 8 pm here, so it was a very convenient time.  I hope the interview is of some interest.


Japan Times review

September 27, 2010

This review of The Power of Okinawa is by Kris Kosaka of The Japan Times newspaper and is reproduced here with permission. An edited version of the review will appear in The Japan Times next Sunday, 3rd October.

THE POWER OF OKINAWA: Roots Music from the Ryukyus (2nd edition), by John Potter, Ryuei Kikaku, 2010, 255 pp. 2,000 yen (plus tax).

Reviewed by Kris Kosaka

A breeze wafts by near the sea shores on the mainland of Japan, and in the gently fading summer heat, you can almost hear the strains of the sanshin, the far island’s traditional instrument. With the recent controversy over Futenma, most of Japan once again turns its gaze towards Okinawa and the rest of the former Ryukyu Kingdom of islands.

It is a complicated issue, and many in Japan harbor various misconceptions about Okinawa, including the origins of the sanshin. Take a bit of summer reading with you into autumn, and debunk the myths of Okinawa through its music: pick up The Power of Okinawa by John Potter.

Although primarily a chronicle of the roots music from the Ryukyu Kingdom, the first third of the book provides fascinating background to Okinawa, required reading for anyone confused about the islands and its peoples. You learn the origins of the sanshin (not an off-shoot of the Japanese shamisen, as many believe, but evolved from the original Chinese instrument, the sanxian, which the Chinese brought to the Ryukyu Kingdom as early as the 15th century), the many cultural influences active in the Ryukyu Islands (China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, America – to name a few) and why Okinawa has justification to ask for independence from Japan. (Caught for centuries between the larger powers that surround them geographically, The Ryukyu Kingdom maintained its independence all the way until 1879, when Japan forcibly invaded). In a straightforward, conversational tone, Potter explains the cultural and historical heritage of this island chain, with many anecdotal asides that make for enjoyable reading.

Potter does not back down from the controversy. There is an entire chapter devoted to Shoukichi Kina, musical activist and prominent Okinawan politician. From his early success with “Haisai Ojisan”, to his rebellious years and time in an Hawaiian jail to his musical success with Champloose and move into activism, Kina’s story itself pairs well with sun, water, and your own growing awareness of the myriad of influences at work in the Ryukyu Islands.

The book ends by detailing the international artists influenced by the ‘Okinawan Sound’, and by describing the foreign artists who have made the Ryukyu Islands their adopted home. Potter includes interviews and comments from a wide-range of musicians, and one finishes feeling the beat of an entire world within Japan – previously mostly unknown or misunderstood as a vacation paradise or centre for American/ Japanese tensions. As Potter explains, “The everyday existence of Okinawan music still pervades the lives of Okinawans in a way almost unthinkable in the rest of Japan. Stories of taxi drivers in Okinawa carrying a sanshin in the back of the cab are by no means fanciful. And on the mainland, the many Okinawans living in Osaka defend their culture fiercely.”

The reference at the end includes recommended CDs and websites to satisfy your burgeoning taste for Okinawan music, books for extended reading, and even live venues in the Ryukyu Islands to consult when planning your next trip.

As The Power of Okinawa teaches, “by the end of the seventh century, the Chinese had been searching for several hundred years for the supreme secret – the secret of everlasting life. They believed that somewhere out there in the Eastern Seas was a Land of Happy Immortals…in the year 608, the Chinese finally reached a land which they believed was the place they had been searching for.” Potter surmises the mystical island was Okinawa or the islands just to the north of it. Modern research supports the longevity of the Ryukyu peoples, and perhaps these relaxed peoples, eager to lend a song or friendship, once convinced visiting Chinese envoys they had discovered immortality. You can taste a bit of it yourself, along with a cold one at the shore, by dipping into their music in the waning heat of summer.

Songlines review

July 31, 2010

‘The Power of Okinawa’ is reviewed in the new Aug/Sept 2010 issue of the UK world music magazine Songlines. Here is a scan of the review:

Elkar and the music of the Basques

April 21, 2010

Last week I received an album by the Basque musician and composer Pello Ramirez. He is an accordion player and cellist and the new album, Eskuz lurrari, is an all-instrumental work which has the feel of a film soundtrack. It was the latest in a long list of album releases sent to me by Anjel Valdes, a record producer and music coordinator at the Elkar label based in Donostia-San Sebastian. Anjel has done great work over the years in recording and promoting a wide range of music from the Basque region of northern Spain and south-west France. The Basques have a long history of music-making and an ancient language unique to them which is unrelated to any other in Europe. It is spoken by around one million people. Like the Uchinaguchi language of the Ryukyu Islands, it is also widely used in the people’s songs and the Basques are rightly proud of their music and culture.

The first Basque music I listened to was in the late 1990s when I heard a wonderful track by the trikitixa band Maixa ta Ixia  from their debut album Uhinez uhin and was compelled to find out more. Trikitixa is a glorious accordion and tambourine driven mix of pop-folk and this led to my contacting Anjel Valdes who sent me several other releases for review. These included one by the excellent trikitixa duo Alaitz eta Maider who were later able to do a short tour of Japan, playing dates in Tokyo and Osaka. Inevitably, I finally travelled to Spain to meet up again with Alaitz and Maider and other musicians on their home ground in the Basque Country. It is a great shame that the brilliant music made by some of these musicians is not always economically viable and they often struggle to make a living. Meanwhile much of the dross put out by the major record companies enables some lesser talents to live like royalty. Alaitz eta Maider made three albums but have since split up.

Alaitz eta Maider’s 2nd album Inshala

Apart from the thrilling and energetic trikitixa style there are many other kinds of Basque music. The accordionist Kepa Junkera has achieved the highest profile outside his own country and is a regular at World Music festivals across Europe. A particular favourite of mine is Benito Lertxundi who has been singing and composing songs since the 1970s and has made many albums. His entire back catalogue was re-released by Elkar a few years ago. If there is such a thing as a Basque Leonard Cohen then it’s Lertxundi and he deserves to be much more widely known outside his native land. Others I’ve regularly listened to are the veteran band Oskorri, the duo Tapia eta Leturia, singer-songwriter Mikel Laboa, young triki-punk band Etzakit, and the singer and harpist Olatz Zugasti.

Elkar’s Anjel Valdes and I keep up our long-distance musical friendship though we have still not met in person. On the publication of the second edition of ‘The Power of Okinawa’ he wrote to say: “I’m sure that inside these pages I’ll find a lot of warm legends, sentimental sounds and nice musicians’ stories. It has given me a lot of courage to imitate you. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to write something about Basque music, Basque people, Basque feelings. I wish you a lot of success and happiness and a  long life in Ryukyu too.”

Elkar’s website (in Basque) is at

Okinawans in Hawaii

April 16, 2010

Okinawa and Hawaii have had a strong connection ever since the first immigrants from the Ryukyu Islands arrived in Hawaii in 1900. There is also a Hawaii United Okinawa Association and their home is at the Hawaii Okinawa Center which opened in 1990. The Center stands as a living tribute to the first immigrants from Okinawa who arrived in Hawaii. It was built with donations from Hawaii’s Okinawan and business communities as well as from supporters in Okinawa.

I donated a copy of the second edition of my Power of Okinawa book to the cultural center and was naturally very pleased to receive such a nice letter of thanks from the Executive Director of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, Jane F. Serikaku.

In her letter she writes:

“First, please accept my heartiest congratulations to you on your second edition of the book. I am aware that your first publication drew much attention in your coverage principally of the contemporary foundation of Okinawa’s musical legacy through shimauta which reflects the heart and soul of the Okinawan people.”

“Throughout its history, Okinawans have been known to be great lovers of their music and arts. Especially, through shimauta, we can recognize and understand the appreciation and value that Okinawans have for life, nuchidu takara. Reflecting upon its history, past and present, we can know the strength and tenacity of the Okinawan people and one art form which continues to be constant and yet flow with the times are the words and musical compositions of these ancient people. Your publication in English serves as a vehicle to introduce the public to the wide range of artists who are truly cultural torchbearers for the future generations.”

“Please accept my best wishes for your continued success in perpetuating, preserving and promoting the Okinawan culture through your work. As we say in Okinawan, IppeenNifee Deebiru~Thank you very much!”

The Hawaii United Okinawa Association website is at

On the new Power of Okinawa

March 24, 2010

Steve Burge is an old friend from the UK.  He’s been involved in a variety of musical genres and is currently experimenting with some music projects on his computer. He is also an accomplished poet and all-round good chap.  He got in touch with some thoughts after reading the new editon of ‘The Power of Okinawa’.

Steve writes:

I first met John Potter in London in 1982 and, although he moved to Japan in 1984, we have kept in touch and met up whenever John and Midori were in England. I was particularly pleased to receive the new edition of ‘The Power of Okinawa’, as I know how long John has laboured on this project. The result is a testament to his deep knowledge and an uncompromising attitude to production values.

I was particularly interested in the new section on Ryukyu Underground, as their sound has given me a more direct path into Okinawan music. I had in the past struggled to contextualise some of the islands’ music John had sent me.

This got me into thinking about the role of indigenous music on the world scene. World Music has emerged as a major force since John first went to Japan, giving rise to hybrids and fusions of practically any style you can think of. But I tend to come back to the simpler idea of a lone musician, singing and playing an instrument as accompaniment. In Ryukyu, voice and sanshin; in the West, guitar or piano. When I saw Kina Shoukichi and Champloose in London I was most moved by a sequence of Kina alone with his sanshin.

Central to the idea of a native music is the concept of dwelling, a sense of place and its importance as a home. The philosopher Heidegger coined a word Dasein, or being (t)here, to convey this essentially human feeling. In his words, “Poetically man dwells”. I get this sense strongly from John’s approach to Okinawa and its music. Whether or not the music needs a big star or more exposure to survive, I am glad to see that a younger generation, and new acts like Ryukyu Underground, are helping to keep the dream alive. May the people of Okinawa long enjoy their musical heritage.