Archive for the ‘Book Feedback’ category

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.