Archive for the ‘Features Archive’ category

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)

 

 

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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)

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)