Archive for the ‘Features Archive’ category

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)

Campus Records

May 1, 2017

This article was written in 2005 on the occasion of Bisekatsu celebrating 35 years of Campus Records. Since then he has reached a new milestone with the release of a 45th anniversary album compilation two years ago. He was one of the first people in the music business to welcome and support me long before I moved to Okinawa and has been an enormous help and source of knowledge on Okinawa’s music history.

Campus Records

A mainstay of Okinawan music, discovers John Potter.

I’ve been in Campus Records, the Okinawan music shop on the island’s Koza City, for ten minutes and its owner Bisekatsu can’t stop giving me presents. I asked something about the singer Shuken Maekawa, and he’s rushed off to present me with the original vinyl single of a duet Maekawa made with Misako Koja years ago. He also gives me Sadao China’s original single ‘Bye Bye Okinawa’, a huge poster for this year’s Ryukyu Festival, a Campus T-shirt, and more CDs. Yoshikatsu Bise (better known to everyone as Bisekatsu) is celebrating 35 years as the owner of Campus Records – not just a music shop but also a small but prolific record label. As well as his life as shop owner and record producer, he has for many years been a songwriter, and a concert promoter both in Okinawa and occasionally in mainland Japan. The genial Bisekatsu is also a walking encyclopedia on the Ryukyu Islands’ music history.

Bisekatsu with a drawing of Rinsho Kadekaru

Born in Koza 65 years ago, Bisekatsu was brought up in Motobu, the beautiful western peninsula further up the coast of this subtropical island. He came back to Koza when he was 15. He’s not from a musical family but caught the Okinawan music bug early, which is not surprising given that this is one place in Japan where traditional music is still very much a living thing. It was in May 1970 that he founded Campus Records. At the same time he was employed as an office worker in a company, so his wife, who had never listened to music, was given the task of running the shop while he was absent.

By this stage of the story, Bisekatsu and I have adjourned to a coffee shop down the street and he takes up the tale. “I was a pupil of the musician and producer Tsuneo Fukuhara, and I learned to write songs and play the sanshin from him. But not long after I’d been playing, Fukuhara said I had no talent for playing the sanshin so I stopped and concentrated on other sides of the music business! I helped instead with production for Fukuhara’s company Marufuku Records and then started Campus Records myself.”

In 1972 when Okinawa reverted to Japan after its American occupation, Campus moved to its present location (officially re-named Okinawa City but still known as Koza to the islanders) and he stopped working at the company to be full time at Campus. In 1975 he also started making the first albums on the Campus label. “During wartime there was no minyo (folk song) in Okinawa because if you were singing in Uchinaguchi – the  Okinawan language – you might be mistaken for a spy by the Japanese army and killed. So singers like Rinsho Kadekaru and Shuei Kohama went to the South Pacific or to Osaka to sing minyo. Actually, the great Rinsho Kadekaru was not particularly popular in Okinawa at that time. Instead, the most popular musicians were Shouei Kina and Shotoku Yamauchi because they had nice, sweet voices. But I always liked Kadekaru. He was a kind of cult figure and he eventually became the most popular of all the minyo singers after his appearances in mainland Japan.”

“Just after the war, during the American occupation, jukeboxes were introduced to the island and became very popular. Because of them, a lot of singles were recorded. Also, if you played the same song many times on the radio it would become a hit, so people came to Campus to buy them. First of all there was only Marufuku and Victor running record shops in Okinawa. Then several others started. When you make a single and play it on the radio there’s a big connection made in people’s minds. Now is the digital time so it’s completely different. Then was the best time for record shops.”

“When I was a teenager minyo wasn’t so popular. But then Shouei Kina started a minyo sakaba (club) around about 1962 and at that time the first stars were himself and Seijin Noborikawa, Shuei Kohama, Teihan China (Sadao’s father) and then Rinsho Kadekaru. The popular women singers were Kame Itokazu and Kiyo Funakoshi. Every year Kina used to do a minyo show on the island, in Nakagusuku, and it was so popular that for three days the road to Nakagusuku was competely packed. My own car broke down because it overheated.”

Campus has distribution only around the Ryukyu Islands but this year a deal with Tokyo’s Respect Records has meant that two ‘Best’ compilation albums of Campus artists are being released throughout Japan to commemorate the 35th anniversary. These are called Campus Omote (Front) and Campus Ura (Back). Omote is as good an introduction as you can find, with big names Kadekaru and Noborikawa alongside bright new stars such as Mika Uchizato and Toru Yonaha. Ura is Bisekatsu’s more indiosyncratic selection of personal favourites and lesser-known musicians from around the Ryukyus. The albums sport two different Okinawan Sgt. Pepper style covers. “It was the idea of Kenichi Takahashi from Respect to make the covers like Sgt. Pepper. I chose the tracks. Omote is selling better outside Okinawa, but in fact, Ura has better sales on this island.”

So of all his many activities, what makes Bisekatsu happiest? “I like producing and making albums most of all. I feel this is what makes me happiest. Recently, Minoru Kinjo’s Jidai album, which we released, is the one I feel most proud of because through his songs you can find out and understand a lot of things about the war here, as well as before the war and after. I like that. This year we also made the debut album of Akira Wakukawa. He’s almost 60 but he sings real Okinawan songs and ever since he was a child has been singing and playing sanshin. I’m proud of that one as well.”

Considering Bisekatsu’s wild generosity and his great enthusiasm for sometimes obscure Okinawan music, I wondered how he continues to thrive and what will happen in the future. “I don’t worry about the future. My sons and daughter all work for Campus (daughter Makiko is manager of the young singers Chihiro Kamiya and Mika Uchizato) so I’m happy just to enjoy the rest of my life. Once or twice my daughter said that she wished I’d make a big record that would make some money! But I don’t care.”

(fRoots No.269, November 2005)

Young Okinawa

April 23, 2017

This is an article I wrote in 2003. It features three young women who are now in their 30s and still very active in Okinawan music. Mika Uchizato became the mother of two children and moved back to her native island Minami Daito. We met again a couple of years ago when she was back in Okinawa to record with English composer and musician Guy Sigsworth and we are still awaiting the results.

Kanako Hatoma continues to sing and perform both solo and with her family band, while Chihiro Kamiya has gone on to have a successful career and made her best album Utaui in 2012. In addition Mayuko Higa, who is also mentioned in the article, went on to become a member of Nenes and is now a solo artist with a debut album released last year.

Young Okinawa

Ry Cooder famously declared about Okinawa in these pages that “the great guys are dead. I do better Okinawan than they do now.” John Potter reckons differently, and sends in the new Okinawan girl power…

“Hi there soldier, where are you based?” I’m not used to being addressed this way. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve been mistaken for one of the American military. I’m an Englishman living in mainland Japan and have just stepped out of the airport at Okinawa’s capital Naha. I’m here for the umpteenth time on the first step of another journey to investigate the wonderful roots music of the Ryukyu Islands. The plane on the two hour flight from Osaka was sprinkled with beefy shaven-headed young men with American accents on their way back from leave, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised if this airport bus driver thinks I’m one of his charges. I name the hotel where I’m to stay, he’s nonplussed for a second, then directs me to the regular taxis.

Okinawa, by far the largest of the beautiful subtropical Ryukyu Islands, is still host to 75% of the US forces in Japan and their bases occupy 20% of the island’s land. In mainland Japan this is conveniently easy to forget but there are continual reminders here. On my way back from a visit to see Nenes the next night the taxi driver is reluctant to pick me up as he wants to make sure I won’t try to pay him in US dollars. The relief is enormous when I tell him in his own language that I’m not American, have been living in Japan for many years, and have a pocketful of yen. As I write, an American serviceman has just been jailed for the rape of a young Okinawan woman and people are still cautious about their largely unwanted guests, after a series of crimes involving rapes, theft and violence that stretch back many years.

Not so long ago Ry Cooder – who collaborated with the original Nenes, and years before that with Shoukichi Kina – grumpily announced in a fRoots interview that all the great Okinawan singers are dead. My own experience has been rather different. And lately has there been a steady stream of new young singers and musicians from the islands which has threatened to become a glut. Many of these seem to be women, and some of them are excellent.

In the past year or so a lot of attention has been given to two young Okinawan women singers – at least in mainland Japan where they have become big names on a par with the pop stars there. 23-year-old Chitose Hajime from the Amami islands, to the north of Okinawa, was the first to stun the nation when she sold a million copies of her debut album. When she was still a teenager I saw her at the Ryukyu Festival, singing with sanshin, and she reappeared there in 2002 to be almost mobbed by an adoring crowd. But her albums now eschew all reference to the sanshin and are instead competent but very much Japanised with session musicians for the mainland audience. Only her typical falsetto Amami singing remains. Even her own appearance has undergone a radical change for her new album, as she has lost weight, her formerly prominent teeth have been altered, and in general she now looks indistinguishable from most other Japanese pop idols. I passed a Chitose Hajime poster in a CD shop the other week and had to look twice to make sure it really was her.

Since the rise of Chitose Hajime the Japanese mainland has adopted and created a second Ryukyu star, this time from the southernmost islands of Yaeyama. Rimi Natsukawa is a few years older than Chitose Hajime but is the new face of Okinawan music for many Japanese. Her cover of a song by the popular trio Begin became a hit single and has now been followed by nationwide television appearances and best-selling albums. However, while Hajime retains her native island singing style, Natsukawa’s recordings are rather bland, her choice of material unadventurous. In short, the Okinawan spirit just doesn’t seem to be there as much as it is with many of her contemporaries.

It’s these other young and more rootsy contemporaries that I’m in search of. At least three of them who impress me much more than Hajime or Natsukawa are now in my range of fire. They are Mika Uchizato (23), Chihiro Kamiya (21), and Kanako Hatoma (20). All three come from musical families, have made singles and debut albums which have gained much critical approval, and are already well-known singers and sanshin players around the islands, if not in mainland Japan.

Of course, it’s difficult to find anyone in the Ryukyu Islands who doesn’t come from a musical family. Every other person I meet seems able to play the sanshin or sing minyo (folk songs) or be related to someone who’s made an album. Not surprising that Okinawa became known historically as ‘The Island of Songs and Dances’ and it really is the last outpost of Japan where the traditional music is still a vital and living thing. Eliza Carthy would love it here.

Mika Uchizato

The first one I track down is Mika Uchizato. As well as her own debut album and a new mini-album, she is the haunting voice on much of Ryukyu Underground’s second album, Mo Ashibi. Getting around Okinawa by public transport is not an easy task especially at night and a taxi fare can mount up. She is singing at a newish minyo-style bar situated in the plush Zanpa Misaki Royal Hotel – a hotel so big that you can see the brightly lit neon sign on its roof as you fly in to Naha airport at night. But the hotel is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in Yomitan, a good hour from Naha by car. To the rescue comes Ryukyu Underground’s Keith Gordon who takes me there in his open top two seater sports car. In the hot Okinawan night I gaze at the stars on the way.

Mika Uchizato sings to her own sanshin accompaniment, occasional taiko (drum) provided by Masao Teruya, and with backing tracks for some songs. Mika is tiny. Just 147 cm (4 ft 8 in) she later tells me, which is, well, short. But what a voice. Slightly husky (which she puts down to cigarette smoking), it’s really powerful and it comes as a surprise that one so small should have such a belting voice. It reminds me a bit of Misako Koja. Later she tells me unprompted that Misako Koja is her favourite woman singer. Her performance is also so happy, energetic and full of life that it simply makes you feel a whole lot better. The audience agree and are soon up and doing the arm-flinging katcharsee dance.

Several of her songs are from her native island of Minami Daito, one of the two isolated Daito islands – known as Minami (South) and Kita (North) – which are a long way to the east of Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean. After the show she answers some of my questions, first about her background. “I live on my own in Okinawa now so I miss my parents and brothers and sisters who live on Minami Daito. The ship takes 14 hours to get there but you can fly there in an hour. The first people who came to Minami Daito to start a new life were from Hachijo island in Tokyo prefecture, so they have some different customs and the music is different too. My own family originally came from Kume island. My grandparents moved to Minami Daito for work and this is why I was born there. The island’s history is very short and it’s just over a hundred years since the first people came there.”

“I speak now with an Okinawan dialect, but it seems that the dialect will disappear in the future. For example, if I didn’t sing minyo I probably wouldn’t speak in the dialect so much. I see a lot of young people who don’t speak it much. I don’t want it to disappear, so I try to use even little words like haisai (hello) and mensore (welcome) as much as possible.”

Mika is also full of life off stage, is very happy to talk, has a down-to-earth manner and a very positive outlook. So how about working with Ryukyu Underground, an American and a Brit who had previously only used samples rather than a ‘real’ vocalist for their modern technological take on Okinawan music. It must have been quite a challenge for her, and Keith Gordon had already told me that she was (like the airport bus driver) somewhat nonplussed at first. With Keith safely out of the way I pop the question.

“I knew Ryukyu Underground before I joined their recording. Keith asked me to sing with them. It was the first experience of this kind for me. I sang minyo but in some ways it was not like minyo. People of my age in Okinawa can find out about minyo through Ryukyu Underground’s music. This is really good. Also, to play with them for me was a very good experience. It was difficult because I usually just sing songs with a sanshin. So the rhythm is different. I thought Keith and Jon Taylor knew more than I do about minyo. They tried very hard to understand the meaning of the lyrics. There was a certain difficulty of having communication in different languages but they both have a passion for Okinawan music and so we could communicate well through music. I was very impressed and moved about their attitude. I want to carry on playing minyo and also I want to play with many different musicians like Ryukyu Underground. I don’t discriminate against any genre. I’m happy to play with any musicians, not just in Japan, but I’m also interested in going abroad and playing with other musicians there. I want people to listen to minyo through my performances.”

And the inevitable query came up of what she thought about the young musicians coming through. ”I think it’s a very good thing that there are many good young musicians coming up. In my case when I was a child the sanshin sound and minyo songs surrounded your life in a very normal daily way. So when I left Minami Daito to go to mainland Japan this was the first time I realized how wonderful Okinawan minyo is. And how important it is. I know a lot of other young musicians from Okinawa who feel the same way because they’ve had the same experience. Any Okinawan musician – it doesn’t matter which genre – they seem to have Okinawan roots of their own and it’s something you can’t forget. I can see those young musicians are actually increasing. Some of them often come back to their traditional roots even if they are playing rock music and they understand better because they are brought up this way.”

“I’m just doing Okinawan music in a simple way. There are always people who have a different taste. Some people like my music and some people might hate it depending on their taste. My idea is that I want to sing my music in a simple way. I don’t want to change like Chitose Hajime and Rimi Natsukawa have, though I respect them too. This new mini-album of mine has a very simple and basic sound in which I tried to remember some of the songs I used to sing when I was a child. I basically don’t want to be like anybody else. My idea is to never forget my roots and to do exactly what I want, which is a simple presentation, always going back to my roots.”

Kanako Hatoma at Bashofu

Later I am whisked back to Naha in the early hours and the next morning I’m off again, this time further south to Ishigaki island, 50 minutes by plane from Okinawa, and the main island of the Yaeyama chain. Tonight is the final of the Tubarama Taikai (contest). Tubarama is the most famous of Yaeyama minyo songs and a singer’s ability to perform it well is one of the benchmarks by which musicians are judged. Entries come in from all over the Ryukyu Islands as well as a few from mainland Japan and there are qualifying rounds. Tonight’s final is held outdoors under a full moon on another hot evening with the large audience sitting on the grass in a park in the small city of Ishigaki. Families are here with picnics and many are sipping beer or the local awamori liquor. There are 23 performances of the same song by 23 different singers. There’s a wide age range among the finalists too with the youngest just 15, the oldest 56.

Just a short walk from the park is Bashofu the minyo ‘live house’ run by Kanako Hatoma’s parents and it’s here where I adjourn after the Tubarama contest. Kanako’s mother Chiyoko is a well-known singer herself who is appearing at the Ryukyu Festival this year but her daughter has already released a single and album since being discovered by Okinawan singer, producer and songwriter Sadao China. The bubbly, ever-cheerful Kanako is now at university and her recording career seems to be on hold for the moment though she still does regular live performances. Tonight she gets on stage to sing alone, and with her parents, and to do a duet – of the song Tubarama of course – together with another remarkable talent, the 14 year old Mayuko Higa. I asked Kanako first about the Tubarama contest.

“I went to the Tubarama Taikai when I was 15 and I won the Shoreisho (Encouragement Award).  Often the youngest singer gets it to give them encouragement for the future. The listeners are interested in minyo very much, so they find each performance different – but of course I understand that your English readers might find it odd to hear the same song again and again! But I never get fed up with it. I’m very interested in the really young ones and I always wonder how they’re going to sing. A lot of young people are coming through because there’s always a qualifying round and many of them don’t get as far as the final. I went to the qualifying round in Ishigaki and the youngest singer was eight years old. Tubarama is a difficult song to sing and especially so for children. Sometimes they just sing the way their teacher tells them, but Mayuko Higa was always different. She just listens and then sings in her own way.”

How about the new young Okinawan singers in general? “I don’t think the great singers are dead at all. There are always great singers. It just goes on from one generation to the next in Okinawan music. Nowadays many people use Western electric instruments. That doesn’t mean the tradition has ended, it’s just a new development. A lot of young singers have come through in the same natural way. Going back in history it was forbidden for young people to play sanshin because they had to work. Things have changed now and people understand that playing sanshin and singing minyo is an important cultural thing and so older people know better about letting the young play minyo. I think it’s a good thing that someone like Rimi Natsukawa discovered Okinawan music and that’s fine, but I’m not sure she can do it well. I joined her two albums to do hayashi (backing vocals) but I had to change my own singing to fit in with her. I’m not so happy if everybody listens to her songs and thinks this is the real Okinawan music but I understand that this is one way to spread Okinawan music in Japan.”

And how about Kanako’s own music in the future. With still more than a year to go at university what does she think is next for her. “I don’t know about my next CD because I’m just concentrating on the university at the moment and I haven’t sung so much. Probably when I make another album it will be produced by Sadao China again because I like him. I haven’t decided yet about the long-term future. I’m studying history and I want to get a teacher’s diploma to teach on a small Yaeyama island or maybe I’ll become a professional singer. I live in Tokyo now during the university term and I’m having a good time but I can’t avoid thinking about the difference in the air and the colour of the sky. Definitely Okinawa is the place you want to be.”

Chihiro & Mika

A week or two later, at the annual Ryukyu Festival in Osaka, I finally manage to catch up with the third of these young women, Chihiro Kamiya, backstage after her performance. Chihiro’s uncle is a minyo singer and her cousin has already recorded and is well-known in Japan. Chihiro herself has been singing since she was three and is an accomplished sanshin player.  She has appeared several times on television, and has just made her debut album Miyarabi Shimauta. This is a strong set of Okinawan flavoured songs in which she is backed by an electric band including much in demand young multi-instrumentalist Toru Yonaha. Today was a completely different kind of performance with just simple sanshin accompaniment and she was joined on stage by Mika Uchizato to sing as a duo, something they have recently done in Okinawa too. (Kanako Hatoma is also at the festival today as a surprise guest, dashing past us to go on stage as I begin talking with Chihiro).

“My family traditionally were all minyo singers. We come from Tsuken (a small island off Okinawa) and my family runs a minshuku (guesthouse) there with a little stage, so I’ve been singing since I was three. When I was at high school I was sometimes a bit embarrassed to do minyo. So I formed a band there to do pop and rock music and I was the vocalist.”

“The album was not just my idea. The musicians and everyone involved all decided together. It has a traditional Okinawan base but we decided to use many different instruments and to sing some songs in Japanese to appeal to Japanese people and the younger generation too. I wanted it to be popular. It’s very difficult, even for me, to understand lyrics in Uchinaguchi (Okinawan) because nowadays young people don’t speak it much. So it’s not so natural for me but I read the lyrics and asked my parents about the meaning to get it into my mind. My uncle and cousin heard the new album and knew that it wasn’t exactly traditional but they think it’s good that now I do a lot of performances and they understand that I can do both styles of music.”

“Ever since I was a child I’ve been doing this kind of work. There are quite a few young people doing this but there are not many people who can be like me and go on a stage, for example at today’s Ryukyu Festival. I’m very lucky to be in that position so I want to carry on doing it. It’s a special thing. My friends generally are very supportive and they come to see my concerts and give my performances a very warm reception. But at first they were surprised, because I hadn’t told them much about my singing minyo ever since I was a small child.”

I wondered how she got together to sing with Mika Uchizato. “Mika Uchizato and I have both been playing minyo since we were children. Sometimes we were on the same stage at minyo contests but we never really talked to each other. Then last April we met and talked for the first time at a photo session for a CD jacket. At that time we realised that we came from quite similar minyo backgrounds. Then we started singing together. Not many people have such a similar background as us. Singing on my own is good but it’s also fun to sing together with Mika. I sometimes feel it’s a very motivating thing and that I want to sing well with her. It’s fun and I enjoy it.”

As far as these young women and their music are concerned, Okinawa is still very definitely the place to be.

Thanks to Mika, Kanako and Chihiro for their time, Keith Gordon for driving me around, and Midori Potter for help with translations.

(fRoots Magazine, Nos.247/248, January/February 2004)

Oshiro & Horiuchi

April 17, 2017

This is an interview I did with Misako Oshiro and Kanako Horiuchi after they released an album together in 2011. The feature was published in the UK’s fRoots Magazine. Misako Oshiro is regarded by many as the greatest female singer of traditional Okinawan songs. She continues to be active in her 80s and a double album compilation of some of her best work came out in 2012. A new album was released last year.

This was also my first meeting with Kanako Horiuchi who I’ve since met many times through her tireless involvement in numerous music projects. Last year I was asked to give a joint presentation with her at Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum. She travelled to Senegal to play and record an album in 2015 and has subsequently performed in Europe and Brazil as well as in various solo and joint projects around the Ryukyu Islands.

Oshiro & Horiuchi

Two generations of Okinawan minyo singers and sanshin players talk to John Potter.

I’m in Okinawa’s capital Naha with Misako Oshiro, widely regarded as the greatest living female singer of minyo (traditional songs) from the Ryukyu Islands. But this is a double meeting because I’m also talking with Kanako Horiuchi, more than 40 years Oshiro’s junior. The two women have just made an album together, Uta Nu In, released on Tokyo’s Respect label, and they are busy doing interviews and promotion.

Now 75, Misako Oshiro was brought up on the main Ryukyu island of Okinawa in the village of Henoko. She was a pupil of Teihan China (father of Sadao China) and made her debut single in 1962 with a recording of Teihan’s song Kataumui. In the 1970s she began playing with Okinawa’s best loved singer, the late Rinsho Kadekaru and their duets produced some of the greatest ever moments of Okinawan traditional song. In 1998 she also branched out into acting and played the leading role in the film Tsuru-Henry, though she claims in our meeting that she can’t really act and only plays herself.

Kanako Horiuchi’s background is very different. She’s not from the Ryukyu Islands at all but from Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. For the past decade she has been a pupil of Oshiro, learning minyo from her while working as a singer and musician at Oshiro’s club Shima Umui, and our meeting takes place here early one evening before the first customers arrive. The two women sit next to each other at one of the club’s tables and we sip the island’s popular jasmine tea (though Oshiro’s glass looks suspiciously as if it might contain awamori, the island liquor). Both women are happy to answer my questions and Horiuchi usually takes the initiative, behaving in a very friendly and natural way in the company of her distinguished mentor. The two obviously get on well. I ask Horiuchi how she came to be in Okinawa.

“I left Hokkaido when I was still very young and worked as a set designer in Tokyo for an advertising company. That was the first time I saw a sanshin being played or listened to Okinawan music and it was for a commercial by Seijin Noborikawa. I immediately wanted to play sanshin myself. My image of traditional music was that it’s rather stiff. The closest thing to minyo where I come from is the Tsugaru shamisen in which the musicians always play with very serious expressions on their faces. In Okinawa it’s different – the musicians encourage everyone to dance and the atmosphere is much friendlier. Moving to Okinawa was a big decision but I didn’t think all that deeply about it because I was only 22 at the time. I just felt strongly that I wanted to go there to play music.”

Soon after moving to Okinawa she was introduced to Misako Oshiro and began learning minyo from her, culminating in the new joint album, which was Horiuchi’s idea as a celebration of her decade of learning from Oshiro.

“I wrote down the songs I wanted to try on the album, and then gave the list to her. She went through them and suggested which ones were good or not for me. I did her famous song Kataumui. At first I thought maybe it wasn’t a good time to sing this song and that I should do it in the future, but then I thought, well, why not sing it now. Then she told me just to go ahead and sing it. Now I’d love to do a solo album…but maybe it will be in another ten years time!”

Oshiro & Horiuchi at Shima Umui

Apart from her love of minyo she is also involved with a project called Ska Lovers, a band playing ska versions of Okinawan and Japanese pop songs. Horiuchi is the vocalist and sanshin player and they have released two successful albums. It’s a world away from minyo but has ironically helped Horiuchi to understand that Okinawan traditional song is what she really loves most. She has also taken a break from the island to travel extensively, playing Okinawan music in England, France, Germany, the USA, Senegal and Brazil.

Misako Oshiro adds: “I don’t understand ska or any other music. I only know Okinawan minyo and I’ve just enjoyed making this album with Kanako. I’ve also enjoyed other duets I’ve done, most recently with Toru Yonaha, and of course most of all with Rinsho Kadekaru. The Ainu musician Oki is also interested in doing something with me and he came here the other day to talk about it. Apart from this, I just want to carry on the same as now at Shima Umui. I have no special plans or projects for the future.”

The album the two women have made is recorded very simply with mainly sanshin accompaniment and straightforward singing and playing. Toru Yonaha joins on four tracks but there are no other embellishments. “We thought about adding koto” says Horiuchi, “but in the end we didn’t because we decided there was probably no need for it. The title Uta Nu In also implies that the songs are more important than the singers or arrangements.”

Oshiro: “I was brought up listening to minyo so making the album was no problem for me but when I had to sing the two new songs it was a bit difficult at first.” On minyo in general she reflects: “The minyo world used to be more lively in Okinawa. Nowadays young people start playing minyo but they often don’t continue with it. A lot of them go into pop music. This makes me feel that it’s very important for me to carry on singing these songs in order to pass them on to the next generation.”

The collaboration with Kanako Horiuchi is a fine way to make sure this aim is achieved.

Uta Nu In is available through www.farsidemusic.com

Misako Oshiro’s Shima Umui website (in Japanese) is at www.shimaumui.net

(fRoots Magazine, Nos.343/344, Jan/Feb 2012)

The Revival & Rusby

April 8, 2017

This is a really old one from deep in the vaults. Kate Rusby has been established as one of England’s greatest female folk voices for more than two decades. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time when she wasn’t at the forefront of what is now a very healthy traditional music scene throughout the UK.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of her solo debut album Hourglass. Not long after it was released in Japan I met up with Kate while on a trip back to England and she talked to me about her music. Since then she has gone on to make many more albums and has also developed into a fine songwriter. Her latest release, the excellent Life in a Paper Boat, was reviewed on this blog last year. Sadly for us, however, a tour of Japan never materialized.

The Revival & Rusby

John Potter speaks to fast-rising English folk star Kate Rusby about her popularity both here and at home

English folk music. If this conjures up visions of beer-swilling middle-aged men earnestly singing old sea shanties in cosy folk clubs, think again. For in 1998 a new, vibrant – some say even ‘sexy’ – young folk scene exists. A true English folk revival. This year is the centenary of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and old hand Martin Carthy was awarded an MBE for his services to folk music. But it’s Carthy’s own daughter Eliza who turned heads most with a cracking double album Red Rice, a Mercury Music Award nomination.

Before that there was the wonderful album Hourglass by another young upstart, 24 year old Kate Rusby, whose breathtaking singing and sensitive arrangements on guitar and piano have created new interest in an old tradition like you never thought possible. And that’s just two out of many. English folk music is now able to take its place alongside the ongoing Celtic boom and world music. Young people have even been out morris dancing.

At the Bridgnorth Folk Festival in Shropshire, I tracked down Kate Rusby – for my money the best of all the young singers – with some questions for KTO. She had just appeared with The Poozies, the band she sings and plays guitar with while continuing a parallel career as solo artist, and had agreed to meet me later backstage “outside the ladies’ showers”.  Kate is a small, friendly Yorkshire lass with a great Barnsley accent. These are just some of the answers she gave me…

Why do you think there’s such a big revival of interest in folk music, especially among young people?

I’ve sat and thought about that a lot. The generation that were in the original revival have all grown up now, and now it’s our turn to go out and play. A lot of us have just grown up loving this music. I come from a musical family and I’ve learned most of my stuff from them really. I learnt it the oral way like they used to years and years ago. It’s strange it’s happened like that really. I just love this music. I think the young people now have learnt from the older ones and have had the extra years to, kind of, broaden it and make it a wider music. I’ve got a huge record collection and I listen to absolutely everything, not just folk music, which must influence what I do as well as the stuff that I’ve learnt from my parents.

Your album ‘Hourglass’ and the earlier one that you made with Kathryn Roberts are both released now in Japan complete with Japanese sleeve notes. How did that come about?

My parents and I run our own record company, Pure Records, and a Japanese company approached my parents and arranged it all through fax and E-mail and things like that. It’s also a great thing that it’s all in the family because we can pick and choose what we want to do. But I’ve never sat down and thought, how can I expand my career? It’s something that’s just happened. I could have signed with a big label but I just wanted to stay in folk music really and have the choice if I wanted to. Whereas if I’d done that I’d have been told what I had to do, what to wear, where to go and all that. It’s not really me. But I’d love to go to Japan in the future, as I’ve already travelled quite a bit, especially for the British Council.

How did the British Council thing come up?

That was three years ago when I still worked with Kathryn Roberts. We were taken to Malaysia by the British Council for concerts and we just had a brilliant time. Just loved it. They phoned up and said: “We’ve heard about you, we’ve got your CD and we’re looking for two female performers, do you want to come?” It’s really great because you get to see some really interesting countries. We were in Egypt with The Poozies about two years ago and that was just brilliant too, and we’re playing in Turkey soon.

And the next Kate Rusby album?

That will be out next Spring. I’m going in the studio in December to make it but before that there’s a single coming out.  The new album will be more traditional songs and some of my own like Hourglass was.  I had a really brilliant time before in the studio making that but I never had any idea at the time how popular it would be. All the musicians on it, like Ian Carr who plays all the guitars, were so amazing.  And John McCusker from Battlefield Band. I recorded my album in Battlefield Band’s studio in Scotland, so we’re all linked up.

With Kate at the time of our talk

Kate Rusby also finds time to do the occasional tour with John McCusker as well as her work both solo and with the The Poozies. She also performed this year in Denmark, Holland and Belgium as well as at the major Cambridge and Sidmouth festivals in England.  In fact she’s on the road most of the time and has to make a real effort to fit in her recording, some songwriting, and trips back to Barnsley. We’ve had plenty of representatives of the Irish boom in Japan recently, how about someone bringing Kate Rusby over here so we can sample close up the best of English folk. British Council are you out there?

(Kansai Time Out, No.262, December 1998)

Lucy

April 2, 2017

This is my 2011 fRoots feature on Lucy. Since making her debut album she has gone on to release further recordings (reviewed on this blog) and is now well-established on the Okinawan music scene and overseas. Her performance of the song ‘Koi no Yoisura Bushi’ won the annual Miuta Taisho Grand Prix and was the title track of her mini-album in 2013.

Lucy

Born in Peru, she’s returned to her ancestral Okinawan home for the music. John Potter gets a house concert.

Most of the interviews I’ve done have been on neutral ground, often at a concert venue, and very occasionally at the musician’s home. Well, today is a real exception. Okinawan-Peruvian singer and sanshin player Lucy has actually turned up at my house here on the south coast of Okinawa for our talk. She arrives with her fellow musician Nao who played on Lucy’s recent first album. Some months ago I discovered that Nao is a neighbour of mine and it was her suggestion for Lucy to come to my home. The two women arrive bearing a gift of apple pie. I note that Lucy is also carrying her sanshin and she is happy to serenade us later with some traditional songs from the Ryukyu Islands. When finalizing the arrangements for this meeting a couple of days ago, I hadn’t expected Lucy to be performing in my own living room!

Now known just as Lucy, she was born Lucy Nagamine in Lima, a third generation child of Okinawan immigrants to Peru: “I used to come to Okinawa with my grandmother when I was a child” she says. “When I grew up I came back to Okinawa in 1993 for an international karaoke competition which I won. Then I heard minyo (traditional folk songs) in Okinawa and it reminded me of my mother and grandmother, who are both dead now, and it made me think about doing minyo again and staying in Okinawa. I wanted to learn minyo properly.”

Lucy eventually moved to Okinawa and has stayed on this island ever since with occasional trips back to Peru. She now has a base in the island’s capital Naha; she has appeared on Okinawan television, and is also the resident singer at an Okinawan restaurant on the island. A meeting with well-known producer Kenji Yano (Surf Champlers, Sanshin Café Orchestra) led to the release of a debut album Ninufabushi which was arranged and mixed by Yano at his studio.

So why such a long wait for an album? “My cousin and her friend persuaded me to make a CD. They said I’d been doing minyo for 16 years so it was about time I made an album and so I was introduced to Kenji Yano by Nao.”

The album contains some beautifully sung, played and arranged versions of modern Okinawan songs such as Shoukichi Kina’s ‘Hana’ and Sadao China’s ‘Umukaji’, alongside traditional fare such as the Yaeyama classic ‘Tubarama’ and the much loved children’s song ‘Tinsagu Nu Hana’. Lucy’s sanshin is joined on many songs by guitar and ukulele, and she sings in Uchinaguchi (the Okinawan language) as well as in Japanese and Spanish.

“Originally I had studied Ryukyu classical music so this new project was very different and interesting for me. The first time I heard Yano’s arrangements for my album was at his studio and I thought they were very exciting. The idea to sing part of ‘Tinsagu Nu Hana’ in Spanish actually came from a friend. I translated it into Spanish from Uchinaguchi which was quite difficult to do, to find the right words. On my recent trip back to Peru I realised that first and second generation Okinawan-Peruvians were very impressed to hear that song in Spanish. It made me think that I want to sing some more minyo in Spanish if I can in the future.”

“I’m already thinking about the next album but haven’t done anything definite yet. I’d like to work with Kenji Yano again. Generally, I like to sing sad songs. My teacher Shizuko Oshiro often asked me to play the sanshin fast but, in fact, it’s the slow songs that I really like best.”

Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands are famed for their outstanding female singers and I wondered if Lucy doesn’t feel a bit daunted to be competing in a world populated by the likes of Misako Oshiro, Yuki Yamazato, Yoriko Ganeko, and Misako Koja. “I never feel any competition or anything like that from the great Okinawan female singers. This is important because in order to be a good minyo singer I need to listen and learn from them. Also, I’m friends with some of them such as Misako Koja and Yuki Yamazato, and they have all been very kind to me.

Throughout our meeting Lucy speaks very gently in Japanese and she frequently breaks into an endearing smile. But she has an underlying strength too, and not just as a minyo singer for she can also sing a wide variety of modern island songs and can sing in different languages. As we tuck into the apple pie she concludes: “My aim is to sing the minyo I learned in Okinawa in Spanish for people overseas in order for them to enjoy these songs in a new way. I want to be a singer beyond generations or borders.”

Lucy’s official blog (in Japanese) is at http://ameblo.jp/luces-okinawa

(fRoots Magazine Nos.328/329, Aug/Sept 2011)

Shimauta King – Sadao China

March 27, 2017

In 2010 I did a lengthy interview with Sadao China at his home in Okinawa. Below is the feature that came out of it which was published in the UK by fRoots. Less than two years later China announced his retirement from singing because of problems with his voice but has since recovered and is performing once again.

Shimauta King

Sanshin player, singer and producer Sadao China has a special place in modern Okinawan music. John Potter enjoys his hospitality.

It’s a sizzling hot Wednesday afternoon in August on the subtropical Ryukyu island of Okinawa and at last I’ve caught up with singer, sanshin player, songwriter and producer Sadao China. In fact, I’m sitting in the living room of his home, a spacious house in Kitanakagusuku only a stone’s throw from the radiant blue Pacific Ocean.

Probably best known overseas as producer of the four-woman group Nenes, China himself is something of a legend in the Ryukyu Islands as a performer and last year won a national record award in Japan for his 6 CD box set Shimauta Hyakkei, a magnum opus comprising 101 traditional songs. I’ve been trying to arrange this meeting for a couple of months but China’s son Sadanori, who runs his father’s Dig Promotions music company, was under strict instructions not to make any appointments while Sadao was busy producing a new album for the latest line-up of his protégées Nenes. Well, the album is finished now and Sadao China has suggested we meet at his home. We’ve come across each other a few times before but always on neutral ground so I feel privileged to be invited into the family home. The entrance and several rooms are decorated with framed photos and posters, not just of China’s achievements but also of his own father, the late minyo (traditional song) singer Teihan China.

Sadao China’s wife keeps us well refreshed with coffee and then the island’s popular jasmine tea while her husband relaxes into the sofa next to the open windows where we try to get a cooling breeze. China is certainly a busy man. He runs his own music club or ‘live house’, known as Shimauta, on the main entertainment street Kokusai-dori in the island’s capital Naha, and he has produced a number of albums for other artists on his Dig label. He has also helped organize the annual Ryukyu Festivals held in Osaka and other venues around Japan. This has meant that his own recording has not been as prolific as it might have been. It picked up a bit over the past decade with the release of a duet album with Seijin Noborikawa and then a solo album Utamai in 2005. Nevertheless it was a great surprise when he suddenly came up with the Shimauta Hyakkei 6 CD box set at the end of last year. At first I thought it must be a collection of older recordings or re-releases, but not so, these are all brand new recordings.

China explains: “This plan had been going on for quite a long time and we had many discussions about it. Manabu Oshiro, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus, had been saying that he wanted me to do a big compilation album. The idea began about ten years ago but then there were some difficulties. For example, one of the directors of King Records, who released the album, became ill and there were various other problems. But Oshiro strongly wanted to have my songs recorded for posterity. I was a little unsure at first because I feel that I’m still a singer and my career is still going on so I haven’t finished yet! Anyway, I did this project in the end to show my thanks and appreciation to everyone such as the great older artists who inspired me, including those who are dead, and also to say thanks to other singers and friends. It’s because of them I’m still singing and doing this work.”

With such a large project it must have been difficult to choose the songs to be recorded. The songs are grouped by theme and so there are songs of celebration, songs of play and didacticism, immigration and travel, songs from plays and drama, songs about the islands, and finally two CDs of love songs. A single album was also released, entitled Utadamashi, which includes selections from the major work.

“In making the choices, I just recorded the songs I wanted to sing one after the after. Manabu Oshiro then sorted out the songs into each of the themes. I didn’t think about which song was from which particular island, it was more like doing a live performance in the studio. Almost all of the songs were recorded in one take. There were only two songs which took longer. I just sang and played the sanshin and the whole thing (apart from mixing) was finished in only four days. After that it took a week to do the overdubbing and other things.”

Although the album is mainly a solo project featuring just China’s voice and sanshin there is also some use of other accompaniment and he is also joined on some songs by a roll call of famous female island singers: Misako Oshiro, Yoriko Ganeko, Katsuko Yohen, Keiko Kinjo, Yasuko Yoshida, and Kanako Hatoma. I wondered how this was organized. China replies: “I carefully chose which song is better for which singer and thought about the whole thing a lot beforehand. For example, I can’t sing a duet on my own so I thought a lot about who to sing those songs with. I also thought about the key of the singers’ voices and which songs were more suitable for each singer. There are 101 songs altogether. I’ve never counted but possibly I know about three or four times the amount of songs on these CDs. That’s just minyo (traditional) or shimauta (island songs). If you add classical Ryukyu music then I must know about another 300 songs.”

The prestigious Nihon Record Taisho Kikaku Sho was awarded in late 2009. Getting a national award then must have been, well, very rewarding? “I was very surprised to get the award. It was a revolutionary thing even to be nominated for an award in Japan as an Okinawan musician. And then I actually won the award so I was very pleased. Also, I think this will encourage young musicians in Okinawa. I won a national arts award some time ago but I don’t rate it so highly because it’s just an academic thing, but a record award is a people’s thing. The record company recommended me to the committee without telling me. When we were recording and having a drink we sometimes made jokes about how this should be getting a record award, but I never thought it would really happen.”

China was not born in Okinawa but spent his first few years in Osaka in the Kansai area of mainland Japan where a large number of exiled Okinawans still live. His father Teihan China was one of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists along with the likes of Shouei Kina, Koutoku Tsuha and Rinsho Kadekaru. The young Sadao made his debut as a singer at the age of 12 and recordings of him at that age still exist. His high pitched vocals are in complete contrast to the deep resonance of his singing voice today at the age of 65. China, who seems to be a keen smoker, lights a cigarette and then reveals something I hadn’t known at all – he didn’t even want to be involved in Okinawan music in those early days.

“I began to sing when I was about five or six years old. I learned hardly any songs from my father. He used to teach classical Ryukyu music and I just used to listen. I hated music at that time, especially Ryukyu music. I didn’t even want people to recognize me as an Uchinanchu (Okinawan person). I was living in Kansai then and there was so much discrimination against Uchinanchu in Japan. It was the time of the Korean War and it was a very rough period for everyone and especially for minorities like us. My father used to say there will be a time in the future when Okinawan music is going to be written down and so there’s no need to grab someone like me to force them to learn, because they can learn in the future.”

When did he change his thinking about music? “I seriously thought about doing music after I was 20 years old. I had already been playing music before that, but very reluctantly, and when I became a pupil of Seijin Noborikawa at the age of 12 I really didn’t want to do it. I never thought it was fun to record when I was very young. I started playing Western classical music when I was about 16 on classical guitar. I did it because it was a good way to make myself popular with the girls. The sanshin wasn’t fashionable and girls wouldn’t fancy you if you played one because they had a bad image about it. Then one day I just played some Ryukyu minyo on my classical guitar and I felt that it sounded quite good. From that time I began to get more interested in Ryukyu music and I began to think that maybe we should be proud and show this music to people in the outside world.”

“That happened after I had moved to Okinawa from Osaka. I was discriminated against by Okinawans who said I spoke more like a Japanese but that was nothing compared to the discrimination I had suffered in Osaka. The difference was that Okinawans wanted you to be part of them in the end. They were just testing me and I had fights with several of them, but in the end they wanted me to be a part of the community. In Osaka they didn’t want me to be one of them at all. This also made me start to learn Okinawan dialect very hard. My parents spoke Okinawan but I only understood a little, rather like young Okinawans nowadays. People spoke Uchinaguchi (Okinawan) in daily life and they only spoke Japanese at school because they were forced to.”

In the 1970s China made his breakthrough Akabana album, but this was revolutionary in itself because it contained Okinawan-sounding songs written by China, some with traditional melodies and an overlay of rock and reggae. “People in Okinawa reacted with outrage and said these songs are rubbish because I already had the reputation of being a talented young minyo singer and was a great hope for the future of traditional song. They thought I was leaving the minyo world because of this album. This was about four or five years after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan and many young people wanted to leave for Tokyo or the mainland. They had the idea that things in Japan were better. I felt worried about this. So it had a big meaning for me to release this in Tokyo in order to protest and show Okinawan people their own music in a modern way and make them proud of it. That album was satisfying because I had a lot of feedback from people who said it made them happy as well. After that I just carried on with my music career on a small scale. But through these activities I met quite a few Japanese musicians who were interested in Okinawan music, such as Ryudo Uzaki, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Tokiko Kato. As you know, Okinawan music then became more recognized in Japan.”

So does he see himself primarily as a performer or a producer? “I learned so much from old singers of the past that this is why I am still a minyo singer today. I think I have a duty to hand down these songs to future generations. On the other hand, I’m also producing young people because I want to do so many other things apart from singing minyo. I produce Nenes, Kanako Hatoma, and The Fere, and I have to say that this is a good way to do things because they can sing on my behalf. I’m well over 60 now and if you think about me as someone with important responsibilities in the minyo world then it’s difficult for me to sing and perform like they do. Also, I really enjoy producing Nenes because when I write songs for them I really like writing in a subjective way and then producing the results objectively. But I never tell Nenes that you must sing in a certain way. So possibly being a producer is more fun.”

The original Nenes

The new Nenes are much changed from the four women led by Misako Koja who rocked the world of Okinawan music back in the early 90s. Quite apart from the completely new personnel, it has to be said that up to now these young women sound much less vital and charismatic than their famous forerunners. China’s productions also seem not to have developed much and follow the same formula. I approach the subject with caution when I ask how things went with the new album: “The recording is over but we have to do the mixing. Nenes are young and they like many different kinds of music such as rock, jazz, pop, and shimauta, so my aim is to make an album they will be satisfied with. So there will be different kinds of arrangements with elements of rock and Dixieland jazz. There are 13 jazz musicians involved on some of the album. We also use Okinawan instruments but in a very poppy way. The songs are all original except for two.”

“There’s no pressure whatsoever in producing the present Nenes, but the first Nenes were much more difficult. The original Nenes were four very strong characters and there was more pressure on me. I thought after the great first Nenes finished that I should change their name. But then I realized the original meaning of Nenes itself is a project to bring up new singers and so I thought maybe I shouldn’t change the name.”

“I think many young musicians in Okinawa have good sense and originality so the future will settle quite brightly and there will be a stable future for Okinawan music in general. The only thing I worry about is there are quite a few musicians who instead of sticking to shimauta, become professional and want to do too many original songs. Some even say they aren’t going to sing minyo or shimauta for a while. I think this is wrong. They probably think if they don’t do original songs they can’t be popular. I want them to learn more minyo because they are singing with a sanshin. If you are singing with a sanshin then you should study more music for sanshin. However, there are many good middle-aged singers and sanshin players who know about minyo. This is the reason why I think the future is good.”

While China has giant stature on the Okinawan minyo scene I feel that he, like many other Okinawan musicians, is welcoming to outside influences but is not so good at going outside the islands in search of new music and ideas. China is a great enthusiast of the excellent Okinawan singer Yasukatsu Oshima but is typically less enthralled with his recent successful collaboration with American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer, who has also recorded China’s own work: “Oshima has a great attitude and his singing is wonderful. He actually bought my Shimauta Hyakkei box set and told me that because of it his repertoire is going to be much bigger. He always wants to know about the old musicians. I understand that Geoffrey Keezer is a great musician too but I couldn’t really understand that album they made. Why couldn’t they do it a bit more simply?”

I hesitate to say that if China himself had been as ambitious and adventurous with his own recent productions he might have achieved better results. Instead I turn the subject to the topic of world music in general and wonder whether China would include his own minyo and shimauta under this broad umbrella.

“I never thought about world music. It’s fine if people think Okinawan music is world music…or not. I don’t mind at all. Once you put music into the public eye it’s going to go on its own and it’s no longer in your hands. In that sense, anybody can call music anything they like. I know when Nenes became popular in the early 1990s everyone was talking about world music. Before that, when I produced Akabana my music was called ‘island music’. It’s up to the listener. I don’t really try hard to find out a lot about other kinds of music. I listen to music depending on how I feel. Every day is different. Sometimes I listen to rock music, and sometimes to chanson.”

On these islands – though always friendly and welcoming to outsiders – traditional musicians are often unaware of what is going on in the world of roots music worldwide. China is even mystified by Oshima and Keezer’s jazz experiments, and I get the impression he wouldn’t know a Portuguese fado from a Congolese rumba. But get him back onto the solid ground of Okinawan minyo and nobody has more knowledge and understanding. There can also be little doubt that at the present time China is the greatest living male singer of Okinawan songs. He is still at the peak of his powers and has now surpassed even his mentor Seijin Noborikawa as a live performer. I tell him so and he thanks me without embarrassment. He signs my copy of Shimauta Hyakkei and says he wishes he could understand English better so that he could read this article in fRoots. And he adds a request. “Please let me play in England!”

Many thanks to Sadao China and his family, and to Midori Potter for help with translations.

(fRoots Magazine No.328, October 2010)