Archive for the ‘Features Archive’ category

Okinawa Americana

September 27, 2018

A new one for the Features Archive. Earlier this year Merry and David Ralston paid me a visit to talk about their Okinawa Americana project. The article that came out of it is published in the Autumn edition of UK magazine fRoots.

Okinawa Americana

Indiana blues meets Okinawan sanshin. Oddly enough it works, reckons John Potter.

Okinawa based Merry and David Ralston are an unlikely pair. Merry, from Itoman in the south of the subtropical Japanese island, plays the ubiquitous three stringed sanshin. David Ralston, originally from Indiana, is a bluesman and a remarkable slide guitar player with many solo albums to his name. Together they formed the duo Okinawa Americana and last year released a self-titled debut album. Already very familiar to audiences on Okinawa they have toured mainland Japan and the USA where much of their album was recorded.

As a duo they play traditional Okinawan songs seasoned with blues, some country rock and a smattering of originals. They frequently share vocal duties within the same song – Merry singing in Uchinaguchi (the Okinawan language) and Japanese, and David in English – and perform both as an acoustic duo and sometimes with a band.

The traditional world of Okinawan minyo (folk song) is notoriously rigid and hierarchical but it’s obvious from the outset that Merry is different with her Afro hairstyle and pink sanshin. She explained her introduction to Okinawan music on a recent visit to my home along with David. “I first listened to sanshin when I was nine years old and my grandmother used to play. Later I began to play myself and learned from three different teachers. When I lived in Tokyo for a while I also learned Yaeyama Island songs which are very different from those of Okinawa, and I began performing solo while I was there.”

“I like Okinawan traditional music but I also like to play in a more casual way. With the old style I’m supposed to sing correctly in a certain way but I don’t care about that, I just want to sing the way that I like. I love singing with blues and Okinawan music joined together. Every song is different and it’s a mix but you can still feel it’s very Okinawan and you have more freedom. Of course, I really like the old singers too and I was influenced by some of them and especially by Hiromi Shiroma who often sang and recorded with the great Shouei Kina.”

David Ralston has lived on Okinawa for over 25 years– more than half his life. A meeting with the late American musician Delaney Bramlett set him on the path to the blues and it was Bramlett who encouraged him. “When I met him there was an unbelievable explosion of music because he was an amazing producer. He taught me about Mississippi blues and urged me not to sing or to play like anyone else but instead just to be myself. Merry is the same way because she wants to do something different and that’s why I think it works.”

“I met Merry through Kanako Horiuchi who was singing in my band at the time. We were doing music with a bit of Okinawan influence but not very much. Merry came to see me one day and she just started playing sanshin and singing Aha Bushi and I started playing Preachin’ Blues the old Son House song and they just came together naturally.”.

I saw Okinawa Americana last year when they played a storming set at a ‘live house’ in Okinawa in front of a very enthusiastic crowd but I wondered what the reaction was like when they played overseas.

“I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work in Nashville where there are some of the best musicians in the world” says David. “As soon as we started to play everybody said ‘what’s that?’ and the musicians came over and said things like: ‘I’ve never seen a banjo like that’. But it went very well.”

“We played one place and an old guy came up, he was a WW2 veteran and he walked up on the stage real slow when Merry was done. He grabbed hold of her kimono. He said ‘I was in Okinawa 1945 and it was the worst time of my life’. Merry was crying. And he said ‘I just want to say you guys made me happy. I tried to forget about that but then I see you guys’. He was 92 years old and his family came up and they said he never ever says anything about the Battle of Okinawa. That’s the kind of story you can’t make up.”

“When I have an experience like that I have found my purpose in doing this music” adds Merry.

When the two play simply as an acoustic duo they are perhaps at their most impressive. “We do more acoustic shows now because it’s easier to travel” David says.” It’s the most difficult way to play because you have to be good. You don’t need to have all these gadgets like when you’re playing electric. I play a 1930s National steel guitar and she’s playing a sanshin and there’s something of a cool factor about that. Her timing, doing what she does and I’m playing something else, She’s going up and I’m going down. Somehow it works.”

“We’re building a studio on the island in Yomitan. We’ve been working hard to get that together and we’ve got almost everything finished for our next album. We’ve just got to finish it up. It should be out at the end of this year or early next year because we’re doing some peace events… but that’s another story.”

www.okinawaamericana.com

(fRoots Magazine No.422, Autumn 2018).

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Ryukyu Underground

March 8, 2018

Here’s another one for the archive. It will soon be nine years since Ryukyu Underground released their last album so it’s anyone’s guess if there will be any more. Meanwhile FC Ryukyu achieved J3 status but still play in the third tier of Japanese football. This feature was published back in 2009 in the UK magazine fRoots.

Ryukyu Underground

In which the UK ex-pat and his US collaborator continue their Okinawan adventures. John Potter pitches in.

It’s Sunday afternoon in Okinawa and I’m at the football with Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground. The island’s team FC Ryukyu is playing against a team from mainland Japan in the JFL – the third tier of Japanese soccer. FC Ryukyu are bottom of the table with no points but have a celebrity manager in former Japan, South Africa and Morocco coach Philippe Troussier. He hasn’t been able to do much yet but in the warm up to the game the sounds of Ryukyu Underground are played loudly over the public address system. Keith’s connection with the club has also wangled us some complimentary tickets and he reveals that Troussier is apparently keen on the duo writing a new club song for the players to run out to. Perhaps they’ll even change their name to FC Ryukyu Underground.

Ryukyu Underground with Mika Uchizato (centre)

It’s some years since Ryukyu Underground were featured in these pages. To recap, they are a duo comprising the said Keith Gordon, originally from Newcastle but now resident in Okinawa, and his cohort, American Jon Taylor based in California. They first met in Okinawa while living on the island and began sampling and experimenting with its music. With the recent release of their fourth album, the challenge for Keith and Jon is always to try and find new ways of mixing Okinawan music and modern technology. Keith says: “Our core is Okinawan traditional music fused with our western musical backgrounds. That is the basis for everything – I can’t see myself ever stopping experimenting with new forms and new directions to go in that doesn’t follow this idea. Whether anyone is interested in listening is another question and one that doesn’t trouble me too much! Our music is for us a release, an escape from everything else going on around us and I believe we’ll always still have the need of that escape.”

The new album Umui came out in April on the Tokyo-based Respect label. Famed Okinawan singer, musician and producer Toru Yonaha lends a hand on these recordings, and once more the new album features the sublime vocals of Mika Uchizato. Additional vocals are again supplied by two more young women, Ayano Uema and Natsuki Nakamura. The three women had previously sung together on Warabi Uta, an album of Okinawan children’s songs produced by Yonaha.

On Umui there is a slightly more relaxed, slower mood to the music. So what does Keith think of it: “Well, it’s always difficult to know, but I think, in general terms, this is a very natural and relaxed album. As ever, it goes from one genre to the next and we find it difficult to do a whole album of, for example, reggae or techno. We did have some faster tunes which didn’t make the album. So it wasn’t a conscious decision that most of the tunes on the album should be mid or slower tempo. A lot of the source material came from recorded sessions from the Warabi Uta recordings that Mika, Ayano and Natsuki did for Respect. I am now a father and we started working on the album just about the time that my daughter was born so to be working on these songs while she was a baby was very natural. Part of the reason why we have strong reggae tunes on this album is that she liked the bass vibes and could sleep and calm down to them when she was very young.”

And how is it different from previous albums? “Well, I did set out to deliberately try going in a more electronic direction with a few songs – two of which have made the album. Paikaji is a new departure and very electronic. All those years of growing up in the heyday of synth pop coming through there. Also, Urizun, similarly electronic though more ambient. That’s something that we’ve never really done before and it’s something we will definitely explore more in the future. Also, Umaku Kamade – the Afro beatish track – although we’ve used African influences before we haven’t done anything quite as direct as this.”

Jon Taylor (left) and Keith Gordon

I wondered if it is difficult working with Jon when he’s on the other side of the world. “It’s not really a problem. The whole method of making music like ours often involves long hours sitting in front of a computer screen which doesn’t really lend itself to working other than alone really. We communicate constantly all the time though.”

So how about the opposite problem of working closely here with traditional Okinawan singers. How much do they understand what you’re trying to do? “Good question and one that I’m afraid I don’t really know the answer to. Maybe you could call them and ask? Not being cheeky but it’s not really something I am aware of or actively question them about. What certainly helps is that I often see them around and have a very natural relationship when we get in the studio which relaxes them I guess. Toru Yonaha also has a big hand in coordinating the studio sessions and he is very open to new ideas and likes the challenge of what we do which is so very different from his approach. Natsuki definitely gets what we are about musically as she is very knowledgeable about club music and the Asian Underground scene we seem to have been a part of. Mika and Ayano less so I suppose though it has never presented any problems – unlike the time we played live with legendary old Okinawan singer Minoru Kinjo – bless him. He had trouble playing along to a drum and bass track – not surprisingly – though the audience were all on his side and loved it.”

With Umui the UK/US duo has produced one of the most interesting albums of Okinawan music in recent times. Now if only Philippe Troussier can do something similar to inspire his football team who lost again. Maybe that new RU club song will do the trick.

www.ryukyu-underground.wwma.net

(fRoots Magazine No.312, June 2009).

Anjel Valdes

January 16, 2018

Last September I spent a week in the Basque Country of Spain and while there interviewed record producer Anjel Valdes for an article published in the current edition of UK magazine fRoots. Anjel spoke about many things and this feature only scratches the surface of his philosophy on music and life and his important work at Elkar Records. It’s also Anjel’s idea that Basque and Okinawan musicians will soon be able to meet and there are now plans for a Basque Ryukyu project to bring them together.

Anjel Valdes

Elkar Records have grown a massive catalogue of Basque music. John Potter meets their founder.

I’m in a wood at the foot of a mountain in the Basque Country with Anjel Valdes and he is looking for mushrooms. It’s a passion of his to walk in the silence of this spectacular scenery in Gipuzkoa province and a bonus if he can collect some big mushrooms along the way.

But this isn’t why we’re here. Valdes has been producer and coordinator at Elkar Records for 30 years. He has chosen to talk to me about it all in one of his favourite locations in the south of Euskal Herria (or Basque Country) which straddles part of northern Spain and south-west France. Elkar (it means ‘together’) has long been promoting Basque music, language and culture, and the purple and yellow logo on their shops is familiar throughout the region.

Valdes explains: “Elkar Records was founded in 1972. We began with literature and books and then started working on music and traditional songs, all in the Basque language, first with singers from the northern part of the Basque Country. Elkar began in Bayonne but then came to the south at the beginning of the 80s.” Their recording studio is based in Donostia-San Sebastian.

“We have a very important catalogue of music that now has more than 1,300 releases. Songs express the culture of the people, their dreams, and in our case the most important compositions speak about freedom and love and territory. And so if you put all of our tracks and recordings one after the other you can tell a very good story of our culture and our development.”

My own first encounter with Basque music was through this very magazine in the late ‘90s through the phenomenon of triki-pop. Traditional trikitixa (accordeon) and panderoa (tambourine) music had been given a new lease of life by the addition of pop rhythm sections and young bands such as Maixa ta Ixiar and Alaitz eta Maider were quick to attract listeners, including me. My first long distance contact with Anjel Valdes was at that time and he has been sending me review copies of albums ever since. Although trikitixa is still a vital ingredient of much of the music there are many other popular styles and new singers and musicians appear all the time.

But let’s go back to the beginning. “We can find our roots in traditional instruments and singers and we must speak about Oskorri, a very important band that finally disbanded two years ago. They did their last concert in Bilbao and we released a special album with a DVD. Mikel Laboa is also an important singer in our catalogue as is Benito Lertxundi and some others who began their careers in the 1960s and ‘70s. The passing of time has given them authority. Benito Lertxundi is now 76 years old and he continues recording and giving concerts. After him comes Ruper Ordorika who was from a new generation closer to a pop and rock style. Ruper is a very good songwriter who writes lyrics in a special way that connects with people. His last three albums are remarkable and very important for me. Mikel Urdangarin is another very special singer from a younger generation.”

Valdes is a philosophical man who thinks deeply about the wider issues and implications of what he does. “The most important thing is always the artist and the song. All of us need to be consoled and music offers us one essential way. If you have made 1,300 productions you will find some albums among them that are very, very important. So my work is to listen to the artist and to coordinate the ideas with my team.”

“I’ve learned that it’s better to continue than to win. You can win once or twice in your life but if the moment arrives when you have to disappear it is very sad. So sales are never the most important thing. The continuation of our work regardless of sales is what is most vital. It’s not possible to work in this job if you don’t like the music. People need freedom and we need love and freedom and we need dreams and this is the essence of the songs, of the poetry. I think that we must believe that someday the world will be changed, like we thought in the ‘60s.”

The Basque language, known as Euskara, seems to be unrelated to any other language and is possibly the oldest in Europe. There are around one million who understand and speak it while 400,000 use it as their first language. With a language not even spoken by all Basques does this present an obstacle to wider recognition? “There is great music everywhere” says Valdes, “in Cuba, in Okinawa, in Africa and so on. We are just a small territory in Europe and we aren’t expecting to achieve a lot of worldwide attention. For now, it’s just important that we try first to spread these songs and music among the Basque people.”

“I want to say strongly that songs are the last guardians of the culture – and even if people don’t understand the language they will recognise the songs.”

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

(fRoots Nos. 415/416, January/February 2018)

 

 

England’s roots revivalists

November 22, 2017

Here’s another one for the archive from long ago. In April 1995 – just three months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake – I interviewed folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick before a concert in Osaka on their tour of Japan. It was an exciting meeting, for me at least, as my enthusiasm for English folk music had been reawakened around that time partly because of my discovery of the roots music of Okinawa. It’s strange how things can work out that way.

Both musicians were very approachable and we talked of many other things including the earthquake, Martin’s daughter Eliza (already a budding folk star) and the chances of Blackburn Rovers winning the Premier League. A few years later I met Martin Carthy again, very briefly, at the annual Cropredy Festival in Oxfordshire. It seems odd now that I refer to him in the interview as a ‘veteran’ as he is still very active today and continues to perform at the age of 76.

Dave Swarbrick also had a long and successful career and he toured the UK with Martin Carthy for the last time in 2015. Sadly, he died in June 2016.

England’s roots revivalists

John Potter meets folk duo Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick

Are we about to experience another folk revival? Veteran folksinger Martin Carthy thinks so. “Suddenly there’s a whole lot of 18 to 24 year olds who are taking an interest on their own account. Many of them are the children of old buggers like us but a lot of them aren’t. Musical horizons have widened in the last few years. People have heard all these different kinds of music and maybe they’ve started thinking that perhaps they’ve got one of their very own and have gone looking in that direction.”

Singer, guitarist and mandolin player Martin Carthy was on his first trip to Japan. Many years ago he partnered Dave Swarbrick in England’s most famous folk duo. Now reformed as an occasional touring duo, Carthy and Swarbrick made a whistle-stop six day visit to Japan in April and spoke to me before their concert at Osaka’s Muse Hall. Minutes later, they delighted the appreciative Japanese audience with a stunning two hour set. The years were rolled back and the confidence and sheer joy of their performance shone through.

Swarbrick (left) and Carthy: this photo was taken on stage in Osaka just after their concert.

Swarbrick’s former band Fairport Convention (who play at the same venue on June 26) practically invented English folk-rock at the end of the 60s. Their 1969 album Liege and Lief, featuring a number of traditional songs played with electric instruments, is still the yardstick by which all subsequent mixing of old and new has to be judged. What the Pogues were to do with Irish music had already been defined by Fairport many years before. The Fairport line-up of that year has changed almost beyond recognition as Richard Thompson left to pursue a successful solo career and bassist Ashley Hutchings to form a new band, Steeleye Span. Vocalist Sandy Denny – perhaps the greatest English singer of all – died tragically after a fall at the age of 31, and violinist Dave Swarbrick eventually left after 13 years with the band. Fairport seems to have thrived on the changes, though. Now fronted by original member Simon Nicol, they have released an impressive new album, Jewel in the Crown which has received rave reviews.

In the 70s, Carthy also had two brief spells as a member of Fairport offshoot, Steeleye Span. How do they view the change back from the big electric band sound to the acoustic partnership? “Duos are not always satisfying”, says Swarbrick, “but ours is to us, I suppose, because we aim to extend what we do. I like playing in groups too, as there is more chance to improvise. There was plenty of opportunity for that with Fairport. In comparing the two groups I always thought that Steeleye added rock to folk, and Fairport added folk to rock.”

“But”, says Carthy, “the great thing that Fairport did for folkies was to bring in that element of really free blowing. It was different every time. With Steeleye we always played arrangements. And that’s fine. It just makes the two things different. Of the two bands I think Fairport is the really interesting one because they change around so much.”

Both Carthy and Swarbrick are now involved in another new project, the Band of Hope. The five member acoustic band, formed to play what they call ‘songs of dissent’, released a debut album Rhythm and Reds last year.

Carthy is well known as a writer and adapter of songs with a strong leftist political and social message. “I think the political is an important part of folk music. There was definitely a time in the 70s when it became a little bit like going to a museum – which can be very nice, but is not connected with anything that matters to me. Folk music was going through a bad period and I began to think about the time when I was 18 to 21 and there was always something interesting happening. How come it wasn’t there any more? Because people aren’t basically that different, are they? Their aspirations are similar. So I rethought my repertoire, dumped a lot of stuff and focused more on socially relevant material.”

Cover of the duo’s 1990 album Life and Limb recorded in the USA.

In 1982, soon after the Falklands War, at a folk festival in England, Carthy realized that there was a need to fight back in song. “A guy stood up and he sang a song called ‘Ghost Story’ which was about the ghost of a soldier coming back and haunting Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street. And he got booed. That staggered me. And enraged me too. That’s when I realized that things had gone badly adrift. I mean, people didn’t have to agree, but in the 60s they would never have booed.”

The situation is now a bit better following the arrival on the music scene of the likes of Billy Bragg who, says Carthy, “shook people up. But in Australia this year it was very noticeable how much more optimistic the Australian people are. In England it’s not like that. In Australia, I suppose, it can be a bit overwhelming.”

“Yes”, adds Swarbrick, who now lives there, “they keep telling me I should lighten up!”

The traditional song is still the major part of the Carthy/Swarbrick repertoire though and I wondered how Martin Carthy kept coming up with so many ‘new’ traditional songs. “I just read all the time and find songs that way. I’ve now got a fairly good library of slightly more obscure books. I can still find new things after all these years because you always miss something in books until you read again and again. Sometimes it’s nice to experiment and marry the wrong song with the wrong tune. And sometimes it’s nice to just do it straight and interesting things happen.”

Later this year they get together again to tour England and next March plan an invasion of America. But for the moment they have gone their separate ways – to Robin Hood’s Bay on the north coast of England and to the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.

(Kansai Time Out, June 1995).

Island Meetings

October 10, 2017

Here’s another one for the archive. This originally appeared in Kansai Time Out in 2009. It was the last issue of the monthly English language magazine which began publishing in Japan in 1977. The article focuses on a few of the many duet albums to come out of Okinawa. Since her album with Toru Yonaha, Misako Oshiro has gone on to make further duet albums with Kanako Horiuchi, Ainu musician Oki, the late Seijin Noborikawa, and this year with a host of guests on her new album Shima Umui ~ Juban Shobo.  She also performs regularly at the age of 81. The duet album continues to thrive and this year Okinawa Americana (Merry & David Ralston) helped push the boundaries further still with their own self-titled album.

Island Meetings

John Potter listens to things with two singers and three strings

The duet album is popular in Japan, and especially so in Okinawa, where over the years there have been a number of collaborations by stars of the local music. This year the tradition has continued with the important release of a new album by two leading lights of the traditional Okinawan music scene – Misako Oshiro and Toru Yonaha. Their joint album is entitled Futari Uta and is released on Tokyo’s Tuff Beats label.

Misako Oshiro

For many years Misako Oshiro has been acknowledged as the greatest female singer of her generation. Born in Osaka in 1936, and then brought up in Okinawa, she was singing and playing as a child and was a pupil of Teihan China (father of Nenes producer and songwriter Sadao China). She sang duets with the most famous Okinawan male singer Rinsho Kadekaru and also recorded with him. She has appeared in Okinawan films, and, at the age of 73, is still performing regularly at her own live house in Naha.

Yonaha is also an extremely busy, some say workaholic, young man. He may be 40 years Oshiro’s junior but he has already made several albums of his own – all of them completely different – and has produced or appeared as guest musician on many others. Yonaha is a multi-instrumentalist and a teacher of the ubiquitous three-stringed sanshin. His collaboration with Oshiro works really well and the pair stick to basics on a set of twelve songs, plus two live bonus tracks recorded together in April at Oshiro’s live house. There is a mix of traditional songs and compositions such as Choki Fukuhara’s “Hawaii Bushi”, and two songs by Oshiro’s mentor Teihan China. Oshiro plays sanshin and shares the vocal honours with Yonaha, while Yonaha plays sanshin, Ryukyu koto, shimadaiko, and sanba.

Another recent get together by Ryukyu Island musicians resulted in the four track CD Sakishima Meeting, released on Okinawa’s Ariz label last year. This was by Yaeyama Islands singer Yukito Ara and Isamu Shimoji from Miyako Island. Ara is well-known for his work with the band Parsha Club and for his flamboyant sanshin playing and dynamic live shows. Meanwhile Shimoji is famous for singing in the Miyakufutsu dialect of Miyako which is completely different from that of the other islands. On “Sakishima no Tema” Ara’s sanshin and Shimoji’s guitar combine on a song they wrote together celebrating their respective islands. They also try an unexpected cover of “Tennessee Waltz” with sanshin and guitar.

Oshima & Keezer

In 2007, there was an unusual collaboration between an Okinawan and a Westerner when American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer formed a partnership with Yaeyama singer Yasukatsu Oshima – himself a close friend of Yukito Ara during their schooldays together in Ishigaki. Oshima and Keezer recorded in New York together with a handful of jazz musicians and their album – Yasukatsu Oshima with Geoffrey Keezer – was released by Victor. It may not be the first time an Okinawan sanshin has joined forces with a piano but there hasn’t been anything quite like this before, where a traditional Ryukyu musician has been plucked from his own setting and dropped into a New York studio with previously unfamiliar musicians. Geoffrey Keezer has played with virtually all the living legends of jazz and appeared on countless recordings, both as leader and accompanist and has made several jazz-oriented albums. He is also a fairly regular visitor to Japan and even lived here for a time in Yokohama.

The results of the Oshima/Keezer recordings were more than just a curiosity and the pianist’s sensitivity, understanding and love of the islands’ music, along with Oshima’s singing and sanshin, make it a memorable outing. The traditional “Tinsagu nu Hana” is the highlight and centrepiece of the album. It’s on the more adventurous tracks that the album succeeds most, leaving us to wonder if future experiments might be on the way – Keezer has already spoken of a possible recording with strings. The selections on the album are also nicely balanced with four songs each from the Okinawa and Yaeyama islands plus two Oshima compositions.

We have to go back ten years to find the first classic meeting on record of an Okinawan musician and a Westerner. This resulted in the album of Okinawan children’s songs released as Warabi Uta on the Respect label in Japan. It was made by Okinawan Takashi Hirayasu – a former guitarist with Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose – and the American guitarist Bob Brozman. The two were brought together for the very first time on the tiny Yaeyama island of Taketomi where they lived together and recorded the album over several days in a makeshift studio. It rapidly became the best selling Okinawan album overseas and remains an important and unique introduction to Okinawan music. A master musician, Brozman has travelled the world to work with musicians from many different countries and cultures. He made a second album with Hirayasu in which the process was reversed and Hirayasu travelled to California to record along with American musicians, but this simple first meeting of Hirayasu’s vocals and sanshin with Brozman’s guitar on Taketomi still takes some beating.

(Kansai Time Out, No.391, September 2009).

My Instrument – Mutsumi Aragaki

August 28, 2017

Here’s another new one for the Features Archive. The UK magazine Songlines has a regular series on musicians and the instruments they play. Earlier this year I met up with Mutsumi Aragaki and we had a long and fascinating talk about her sanshin playing and about music in general. The article below covers just some of the interesting things we discussed.

MY INSTRUMENT

Mutsumi Aragaki & her sanshin

John Potter speaks to the Japanese sanshin player and singer about her connection with this most Okinawan of instruments

The banjo-like twang of the three-stringed snakeskin-covered sanshin is intimately associated with the subtropical islands of Okinawa. These small islands, stretching from southern Japan to Taiwan, were once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. The sanshin was adapted from the Chinese sanxian after its introduction to the islands in the 14th century. It was first played only by the Ryukyu nobility but after the kingdom was invaded and abolished by Japan in 1879 the sanshin was introduced to ordinary people and it soon became (and remains) the most popular instrument of the people.

Okinawan singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki grew up in Nagoya, Japan and first encountered the instrument as a high school student. “The very first day I held a sanshin was when I went to my grandfather’s”, she says. “When you’re 17 or 18 you start to think about your identity and I became interested in Okinawan things so that’s why I wanted to touch a sanshin. After I returned to mainland Japan I couldn’t forget the sound and the feeling when I held the instrument.”

“My grandfather gave me my first sanshin which was roughly 200 years old from the Ryukyu Kingdom era, after I passed my first minyo (folk song) test. The neck is Yaeyama kuruchi (ebony from the Yaeyama islands), the best quality material.” She then went on to make a sanshin by herself using the one her grandfather had given her. “Ever since I could remember I was always making something. I became an artisan about 20 years ago and those precious years of experience have led me to a much deeper understanding of the sanshin.”

The sanshin comprises a soundbox or drum covered with snakeskin, usually python. The neck is often made of ebony wood coated with lacquer and the three strings (sanshin means ‘three strings’) are made of nylon.

Aragaki uses seven different sanshins, each different in size and in the quality of the neck and soundbox or drum. “I maintain all seven myself – sensitive maintenance really makes a difference to the sound. The tension of the skin influences the sound itself. The one I use depends on the kind of music I’m playing. It’s interesting that for a classical player there’s a typical sound they want to have but for folk music it depends on the islands. Miyako and Yaeyama people love a higher tension and a very sharp sound but Okinawan islanders mostly like a more relaxed sound.” As for maintenance, she says: “To fit my unique fingering and picking style, I adjust the curve of the area touched by the fingers, the angle of neck and drum, and the tip of the bachi (pick) to the appropriate shape and keen edge.”

She is also a sanshin teacher, leads the experimental trio MKR Project, and performs solo and in collaboration with Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia. “I did African Studies at college in Japan and studied Swahili. I could see the world through African cultures and political things like colonialism, so now I can see Okinawa through this viewpoint as well.”

Songlines Magazine

Although the sanshin is an accompanying instrument, some sanshin players became known for their fast playing. The most famous is Seijin Noborikawa who died in 2013 at the age of 80 and was known as the ‘Jimi Hendrix of shimauta (island songs)’. Currently, Yukito Ara from Ishigaki Island has also gained a reputation for his flamboyant playing style.

Aragaki believes that the sanshin has great versatility and can blend well with other instruments despite its typical role as accompaniment to traditional Okinawan vocals. “Usually singers sing very technically but the sanshin is played very simply compared with the vocal style. The sanshin is important, of course, but it’s just a stringed instrument like a violin or any other instrument, so I feel it’s very strange if even a professional player doesn’t try to balance it with their beautiful vocal style. I think it can be more than just accompaniment. I’m trying to realise its potential with my original songs by using effects and so on. This is my vision for this instrument.”

“I hope that through my performances people will know a little bit more about diversity and that’s what I want to do with this instrument”. The pioneering early Okinawan singer, sanshin player and songwriter Choki Fukuhara was a big inspiration for her, she adds: “He was also a record company owner and it meant he could listen to music from everywhere and get to know other instruments. So I’m always trying to listen to different kinds of music and learn from other musical cultures.”

+ALBUM Mutsumi Aragaki’s solo album is released later this year

+WEBSITE www.aragakimutsumi.com

(Songlines Magazine, No.130, August/September 2017)

Dispatch from Okinawa

May 7, 2017

A more recent one for the Features Archive. This is my report of the 2016 Trans Asia Music Meeting in Okinawa. It was published in the UK magazine Songlines.

Dispatch from Okinawa

John Potter reports from the capital of the Japanese archipelago on the initiatives to showcase and promote Okinawan music to a wider audience

As a resident of Okinawa I’m used to the sticky, subtropical climate, so the unusually cold January weather comes as a surprise to all who attend the 2016 edition of the Trans Asia Music Meeting in the island’s capital, Naha. Okinawa is the largest of many islands in the archipelago which stretches from southern Japan to Taiwan. Once the independent Ryukyu kingdom, the islanders here have a distinct culture and music of their own, which they defend proudly.

This second annual music meeting is a two day international trade fair, conference and showcase of music from all over Okinawa’s Ryukyu Islands. Its purpose is to establish relationships with other Asian promoters and producers and to help expand Okinawan music around the world.

Okinawan music is mainly concerned with songs and singing. Traditionally these songs were sung about the everyday lives of the people and there co-exist plaintive love songs and earthy work songs as well as songs for dancing at all kinds of gatherings. The tribulations caused by war, invasions and typhoons also play their part in the singing culture.

Hirara

The instrument that most defines Okinawan music is the three-stringed snakeskin-covered lute known as the sanshin which is often likened to the banjo with its distinctive twang. It’s primarily an instrument to accompany singing and to fill in the spaces between the words. Originally introduced and adapted from the Chinese sanxian several centuries ago, it’s now ubiquitous with its sound seeping from bars, restaurants and houses wherever you go.

At the showcase that follows this year’s music meeting, the organisers are keen to promote not just traditional roots music but also some of the newer styles from around the islands, influenced by the champloo (mix) of history and culture here. The main venue is Sakurazaka Theatre, an arts centre in central Naha close to the tourist-packed entertainment street Kokusai-dori but there is also live music at another venue close by.

Impressive among the more roots-based contingent is Hirara, a singer and sanshin player from the Miyako Islands. The Ryukyu island chain contains a variety of songs each unique to its own island or island group. Miyako songs are especially rich in sad melodies but there are also a number of livelier tunes and Hirara ends her set with one of these, the well-known ‘Kuicha’ a song performed by groups in a circle as they danced at festivals and celebrations. She is joined on stage by two guitarists who also provide the joyous background yelps and vocal sounds known as hayashi.

In complete musical contrast the charismatic young poet and rapper Awich delivers a powerful set accompanied by a standard Western band line-up of electric guitar, bass and drums and sings her own songs in both Japanese and English. Awich maintains that her rapping is indeed Okinawan at its core in that it shares a base with the traditional Okinawan kuduchi which are songs delivered in a quick volley of spoken words to sanshin accompaniment.

MKR Project

The trio MKR Project stand out with their experimental blending of old and new. Their singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki composes her own songs to which bass and drums are added. The drummer is Rob Goodman an American resident on Okinawa. Aragaki also sings solo, is a sanshin teacher and has just collaborated on live shows as a duo with Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia. She is the focus of MKR Project’s music and the traditional Okinawan songs are given languid jazzy arrangements with her voice and sanshin to the fore. It’s a mix which is still evolving but is one of the most promising at the showcase.

The evening is rounded off by Kachimba4 who describe themselves as an Okinawan salsa band. Their music is almost entirely influenced by Cuba rather than Okinawa. The four members play accordion, guitar, double bass and lots of percussion and also bring out a trombone for some audience participation with an improvised dance around the auditorium. Their ‘Guantanamera’ is hardly going to spark an interest in Okinawan music but they frequently sing in the Okinawan language (which still thrives in the songs and is completely distinct from Japanese) thus adding a touch of Ryukyu island flavour but one that may be lost on overseas audiences.

The champloo mix of styles and genres highlights both the strength and the possible weakness of current music from Okinawa as people search for a way in; a point made at the meeting by keynote speaker Paul Fisher from the UK. But one thing nobody was denying is that these islands are still full of music.

+ ONLINE http://musicfromokinawa.com/

(Songlines Magazine, No.117, May 2016)