Archive for the ‘Features Archive’ category

Postcard from Okinawa

March 19, 2017

Here’s another one for the archive. In 2008 I wrote an article on Okinawa for the UK world music magazine Songlines. It focuses on two singers from different generations – Chihiro Kamiya and Yuki Yamazato. Both singers are still going strong. In fact, Kamiya went on to make her best album to date, Utaui, a few years later and also performed at the Trans Asia Music Meeting showcase last year. The photo of Yuki Yamazato I’ve included was not from the original feature but is a later one I took of her in 2011.

Postcard from Okinawa

Despite a large American presence, Okinawa’s traditions survive through its music, as John Potter discovers

Chihiro Kamiya is singing tonight at Mod’s in the seaside town of Chatan, Okinawa. She comes from the tiny island of Tsuken off the Okinawan coast. Now 25, she has been singing since the age of three, and her father runs a minshuku (guest house) on their island. Her uncle and cousin are both singers too, not unusual in these islands where – unlike mainland Japan – the music is still very much a living thing.

Chihiro Kamiya

The American presence on Okinawa is evident everywhere but especially so in Chatan. Around 20% of the subtropical island is occupied by American military bases. Chatan, in the west, is a mix of old Okinawan buildings, a large flea market, and a shopping centre called ‘American Village’, all overlooked by a large ferris wheel. Mod’s is a small live music venue up a flight of steps in the midst of all the shops. Young Okinawan musicians play here regularly in front of small, enthusiastic audiences of around 100 people and tonight it is Chihiro Kamiya’s turn. The audience is exclusively Okinawan or Japanese (except for me) and a mixture of all ages.

Kamiya sings beautifully and plays the sanshin, the ubiquitous three stringed banjo-like instrument ever present in Okinawan music. But she’s a modern girl too and she introduces a small group of male musicians to accompany her on guitar, keyboards and percussion. This works best of all on ‘Tinjara’ the title song of her second and most recent album. If the songs are not exactly traditionally Okinawan they are definitely tinged with island spirit and make superior pop to rank with the best that mainland Japan has to offer.

But I’m in a hurry because it’s already ten o’clock as her performance ends and the night is just beginning on the island. A short drive north-east from Chatan brings us to the inland city known as Koza to the locals (officially Okinawa City), a shabby run down place which is the second city of Okinawa. Here there are many minyo (folk song) ‘live houses’ where the music doesn’t get under way until late and goes on for most of the night. My destination is slightly different though.

Yuki Yamazato

Yuki Yamazato is one of the top living Okinawan women singers. At her small bar Doushibi (which means ‘friends’), she serves drinks and snacks to regulars and is helped by another well-known singer of the old songs, Katsuko Yohen. Both women have recorded a number of albums, and recently made a joint CD – also entitled Doushibi – with another female singer, Keiko Kinjo. Yuki Yamazato, the eldest, is still a remarkably youthful looking 70-year-old. While Yamazato and Yohen serve the drinks, customers can sing their own versions of the island songs to a karaoke machine, but this is stopped when one or other of the women is asked to perform. Then out comes the familiar sanshin and the most exquisite songs are played just inches in front of our faces.

Yamazato, who owns the bar with Yohen, used to have a more usual minyo place but found it was no fun having to perform on stage every night. Doushibi is an excellent compromise as she sings only when she feels like it, and takes requests from the small clientele of true Okinawan music enthusiasts. As a foreigner I’m lucky to have found the place at all.

I request the song ‘Umi No Chinbora’ which she sings standing behind the bar with her sanshin. (A customer objects at first to my request as not being a good enough song for such a great singer as Yamazato!). Katsuko Yohen then treats the handful of customers to ‘Himeyuri No Uta’, a song which tells of the Battle of Okinawa and the island’s terrible wartime past. Later, Yamazato offers me her sanshin to play, but I’m rather overawed by the whole occasion and instead we all end up doing the katcharsee, Okinawa’s arm-flinging dance of celebration.

(Songlines Magazine No. 51, April/May 2008)


March 13, 2017

This latest addition to the archive was originally published nine years ago and the sad fact is that it’s even more relevant today than it was then. The proposed US military base at Henoko remains contentious but matters have become even worse now for the Okinawan people who are at best ignored by America and treated as an inferior colonial outpost by Japan.

Despite Okinawa’s refusal to accept the new base, and fierce opposition, demonstrations and protests by local people, the Japanese government has recently allowed offshore construction work to begin at Henoko with the dumping of a large number of concrete blocks into the ocean.


Musicians in Okinawa are leading a protest movement against a US military base. John Potter reports.

Okinawa is rightly known as an island of music, songs and dance, but also has unwanted notoriety as an outpost for the US military. Last year musicians got together to protest US plans to close the Futenma airbase on the island’s city of Ginowan and relocate it to a new site further north in the small town of Henoko. Apart from the noise and danger to residents, this will inevitably damage the environment in and around this area of great natural beauty.

A combined DVD and CD package Live at Henoko Beach in Okinawa has just been released by Japanese roots-rock band Soul Flower Union and their alter ego, the acoustic Mononoke Summit. The Peace Music Festa of February 2007 was not the first of its kind but was the largest to date, attracting musicians from near and far, and among its organisers was Soul Flower’s Hideko Itami who now lives on the island in Ginowan. Further events are planned in the future, not just in Okinawa but as far afield as Tokyo.

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit at Henoko

Among those who gathered for the Henoko Peace Music Festa were Henoko’s own Misako Oshiro, now in her 70s and possibly the greatest living singer of Okinawan minyo (folk song), plus another veteran singer and sanshin player, Masao Teruya. Also present was the flamboyant Yukito Ara, from the Yaeyama island of Ishigaki further south, one of the greatest exponents of the island’s ubiquitous three-stringed sanshin. But it was not only the traditional Okinawan musicians who took to the stage. In both mainland Japan and Okinawa there is a strong following for hip-hop and reggae and among those appearing were the island’s own duo U-Dou & Platy. Their blend of these styles has made them enormously popular and their most recent album Buss Up combines hip-hop and reggae with a very Okinawan sensibility. Their song ‘Uchinanchu in Tokyo’ defines Okinawans as foreigners within Japan and is sung in the local language, while ‘Haisai Ojisan’ updates Shoukichi Kina’s classic song with humour and contemporary references. Duty Free Shopp from Okinawa were another hip-hop act of substance, while from mainland Japan there was Nanjaman, a politically-charged rapper from Osaka.

In WW2 an estimated 240,000 people were killed during the Battle of Okinawa. Despite reversion to Japan in 1972, the American occupation of the once independent Ryukyu Islands continues to this day, with the full support of the Japanese government. Approximately 20% of the main island of Okinawa is still occupied by US military bases, and about 75% of the American forces stationed in Japan are based here. This occupation has been characterised by appropriation of the islanders’ land and environmental problems, as well as military accidents and a long list of crimes committed by the American forces against Okinawan people, including theft, rape and murder. The islands, meanwhile, have been promoted by Japan’s government as a tourist destination or tropical paradise resort for the Japanese. This in turn has led to its own problems as a large number of building works projects have not helped the islands’ environment, while coral reefs and wildlife, such as the dugong which resides off the coast of Henoko, have been endangered.

The US base issue continues to be extremely topical after two alleged rapes this year by American servicemen on the island – in the first of these the victim was a 14-year-old Okinawan girl. This was a chilling reminder of the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl which took place in 1995 and led to massive anti-base protests throughout the island.

Soul Flower’s Hideko Itami

Hideko Itami’s husband is well-known to readers of these pages as the Irish musician and producer Donal Lunny. He has discovered at first hand the problems of living on an island fortress and in addition to taking part in last year’s Peace Festa, where his bouzouki joined forces with Japanese saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu, he recently wrote a letter to the Commander of the US Forces on Okinawa calling on them to abandon plans to build the new base at Henoko, and demanding the closure of all other military facilities and the return of the land to its rightful owners.

In part of the letter, reproduced in the Soul Flower DVD he writes: “I have found the people of Okinawa to be civilised, honourable and kind – even though I am often assumed to be American – and I believe that it is this very tolerance and good nature that has accommodated the intransigent attitude of the US authorities for so long – despite the fact that most Okinawans undoubtedly abhor the fact that their country is being used to train American soldiers for active service (which usually involves killing people) in other countries. The numerous protest demonstrations by Okinawans have achieved no change whatsoever.”

Lunny’s collaboration with Kazutoki Umezu has led to their combining with a third member, Hiromi Kondo of the trio Amana, on a four track mini-album entitled Dreaming Dugongs of Henoko which is being released on Hideko Itami’s label Zo-San. Some proceeds from the CD will go towards the campaign to fight the proposed base at Henoko.

While Okinawa is still stuck between the governments of Japan and the USA there is nevertheless optimism that this beautiful island will one day be returned to its own people.

Soul Flower website (in Japanese):

Live at Henoko Beach in Okinawa is also available at

(fRoots Magazine No.300, June 2008)

Jamaican Punch – Bob Andy

March 6, 2017

Here’s a much older one for the archive. Bob Andy was first known to me as part of the Bob & Marcia duo who had a big hit in the UK with the Nina Simone song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. What I hadn’t realised was just how important Bob was as one of the great songwriters in Jamaican music. We talked backstage before his show at a reggae festival in Osaka in 1994 and he impressed enormously with his intelligent and thoughtful answers to my occasionally naïve questions.

Jamaica conferred its Order of Distinction on him in 2006 for his contribution to the development of reggae music and in 2011 the Jamaican musical community honoured him with a tribute concert.

Jamaican Punch

 Jamaica’s ambassador of reggae music, Bob Andy, took ‘time out’ before a recent show in Osaka to talk to John Potter

Ask anyone over a certain age if they remember the song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ and their eyes should sparkle. They may also recall that this 1970 international hit was recorded by Bob and Marcia. Now known by their full names – Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths – they are two of the most important early stars of Jamaican music. Marcia was to find fame as a member of Bob Marley’s female trio, the I Threes and later as a solo artist. The other half of the duo, Bob Andy, after producing one of the early classics from the legendary Studio One with his album Songbook, then worked briefly with rock steady group the Paragons and since then as both solo artist and songwriter. Now based in Florida, where he also operates his own record company, he headlined the 10th Anniversary Reggae Japansplash tour earlier this year.

Bob Andy backstage at the time of our meeting in Osaka

Bob Andy backstage at the time of our meeting in Osaka

What started your interest in music?

I was always interested in all kinds of music. Growing up in Jamaica and getting exposed to early radio was a thrill. In those days we were able to tune in to short wave radio and we could listen to Cuba and Haiti and get different musical influences. I had an idea that I would be doing something in the field of entertainment when I was about 13 years old and I found out that I had some kind of musical talent when I sang in the church choir for a while.

You partnered Marcia Griffiths in the early days of reggae music. What was this period like?

I met Marcia at Studio One. We were sweethearts for ten years but we never actually married. Our joining into a musical duo was purely convenient. It was most surprising when it paid such handsome results. The interaction and dynamics that prevailed in the mid-60s at Studio One were very exciting. They were such intense, talented, forceful, aggressive people coming together. It was a very competitive but also cooperative spirit – more often than not another singer or singers would enjoy your project and extend themselves to be a part of it. They might offer you an alternative phrase to make your song better, and help you with some harmony. So I have to say the sixties, my early adolescent years, were some of the richest, having shared companionship with the Marleys, the Toshs, the Heptones. And when we started we never imagined how this thing would permeate the planet and we didn’t have a clue that we were creating history. I can say that today I’m a very proud person having gone about doing what I love – with a lot of struggle – and getting the kind of appreciation and recognition that we have is making it all worthwhile.

To what extent do you see yourself as a representative of Jamaican culture?

Even if you go out into the world thinking that you’re just going to be an artist, because of the demands that are placed on you by the media, your fans, promoters, government officials… you find yourself playing a much wider role than being just a singer or entertainer. In our case, the kind of music we have – the ethnicity and African associations – requires much more energy than just being a singer. So I’d say it is expected of us to be truly representative of the culture.

Reggae has a surprisingly large following in Japan. Why is this?

Well, it surprises me too and as this is my third trip here I’ve had time to think about it quite often. It’s the vast contrast. It’s almost as if the generation that has responded to Jamaican music is looking for some kind of new culture or art. Accomplished as they are in today’s world, in all aspects of technology and industry, the Japanese people seem to have retained the common touch. And as much as they are being bombarded with Western influences and goods, they are still pretty much firm in their own culture. Having that firm culture they have then become interested in a culture like ours which does not have the First World or great exposure… ours is a moving culture so to speak. Japanese culture has paid off in industry and technology, ours has paid off in the arts. Anyway, they love coffee and we have the best coffee. So that starts the relationship!

 What do you think of some of the newer bands that play a kind of reggae, such as UB40?

One could hardly call UB40 a new band. I’d say they have become the acceptable face of reggae music – for obvious purposes and reasons. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t represent reggae music very well. You are speaking to someone at the moment who has a different outlook. I don’t call myself a reggae singer. Because I was singing before there was ska. I went through the ska, the rock steady, and the reggae phases and now I’m surviving the dancehall stage. So I would call myself an exponent of Jamaican music, because reggae is just one facet of Jamaican music – the one that Bob Marley internationalized so successfully. Of course UB40 are very good, but I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘proper reggae’… or proper pop. One comes across a good melody, a good hook line, music to go with it. People who love it respond by buying. I’m here to tell you that this is what matters and so I say, let UB40 live for ever! I’d rather have UB40 playing our music than hear what some DJs and rap stars do to it.

Bob & Marcia reunited (Photo: BBC)

Bob & Marcia reunited (Photo: BBC Music / (c) Spinello)

You have your own record label now.

Yes, I’ve had my own label, I-Anka, for ten years. I’m based in Florida now and the records are distributed in Japan through Alpha Enterprises. My work wasn’t being picked up by any of the major labels and I want to make records. I couldn’t just sit and wait so I moved myself. Being a small company it seems to be working out. But it’s a lot of hard work, trying to be both the artist and the businessman.

Do you have any plans for the immediate future?

Well, I have a new album coming out, which I call Spectrum. The new album moves away from music that people have associated me with and has ventured into new areas. Living in America I have exposed myself to ‘adult contemporary’. When it was called ‘middle of the road’ I always wanted to have a look inside those doors, and now I’m giving myself that opportunity. My whole attitude towards writing has changed. What people call reggae music is a music that requires a certain kind of attitude. The kind of voice I have requires a little different kind of measure to get the full effects. I wanted rather more sophisticated arrangements because I seem to have been stuck in a particular idiom all my artistic life. I’m bursting at the seams with excitement to see how the critics will respond to my work. Anyway, it’s already made. If they like or dislike it, it’s my work and I’m still growing. I’m not denying myself the privilege of trying something new just in order to hang on to a small set of devotees. I’m taking a risk with audiences.

(Kansai Time Out, No.208, June 1994)

Footnote: Spectrum, the new album that Bob Andy mentions in the interview, did not in fact materialize. Instead he released the album Hanging Tough (1997, Heavy Beat Records) which was produced by Willie Lindo.

Geoffrey Keezer

February 26, 2017

It’s already ten years since American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer got together with Yasukatsu Oshima to make an album that is a strong contender for the best ever collaboration involving an Okinawan musician. I am very pleased to have been the go-between who put them together. The album Yasukatsu Oshima with Geoffrey Keezer came out in April 2007 and this article for fRoots is my interview shortly afterwards with Geoffrey Keezer.

Geoffrey Keezer

 The American jazz pianist recently made a great CD with Okinawa’s Yasukatsu Oshima. John Potter tells how.

“So maybe we’re both old souls” says American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer about his recent partnership with famed Ryukyu Islands singer Yasukatsu Oshima. The pair recorded in New York last year together with a handful of jazz musicians and their album – Yasukatsu Oshima With Geoffrey Keezer – has just been released by Victor in Japan. 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.

Thankfully, the results are all we could have hoped for and Keezer’s sensitivity, understanding and sheer love of the islands’ music quickly dispel any misgivings. After the first few tentative tracks it comes to life with a remarkable version of the traditional ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, probably the highlight and centrepiece of the album. In fact, it’s on the more adventurous tracks that the CD succeeds most, leaving us to wonder if future experiments might be on the way. The selections on the album are also nicely balanced with four songs each from the Okinawa and Yaeyama islands plus two new Oshima compositions.


Yasukatsu Oshima is already well-known to Okinawan music aficionados of these pages, but Geoffrey Keezer is from a very different musical world. Born into a musical family in Wisconsin in 1970, he studied piano from the age of three and joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at eighteen. Since those early days he has played with virtually all the living legends of jazz and appeared on countless recordings, both as leader and accompanist. His two releases in 2003, Falling Up and Sublime: Honoring The Music Of Hank Jones, were both collaborative efforts. Sublime is an ambitious set of piano duets with Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Benny Green and Mulgrew Miller. Falling Up features several pieces with the Hawaiian slack key guitarist, Keola Beamer. The 2005 live album Wildcrafted, captured his trio in concert at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. Here we have the first official sighting of Okinawan music, with the inclusion of an instrumental cover of Sadao China’s song ‘Koikugari Bushi’.

So how did a jazz musician with such a pedigree become enthralled by Okinawan music? Keezer: “I first heard the music of the Ryukyu Islands in the early 1990s, while I was performing with a jazz group in Fukuoka, Japan. My hotel room had a cable radio system with 400 channels, and one day as I was browsing the ‘traditional Japanese music’ channels I came across the ‘Okinawa’ program. I was immediately struck by how different this music sounded from anything else I’d ever heard, yet there was something eerily familiar about it. It felt very old, like I’d known these melodies all along, as though some part of me was already deeply connected to them – like I recognized this music from a recent past life. From that day onward I sought out and listened to as much Okinawan music as I could find – Nenes, Rinsho Kadekaru, Rinken Band, Shoukichi Kina, and countless archival recordings of music from all over the Ryukyus.”

This is where I come in, for Keezer got hold of my book The Power of Okinawa and because of it – I’m happy to report – discovered Yasukatsu Oshima, subsequently buying four of his CDs at once. Realising that here was the musician he wanted to work with, Keezer contacted me out of the blue one day, and I was pleased to act as the go-between to link him up with Oshima, realising that here was someone with a similar passion to my own for Okinawan music. The two musicians met in Osaka in 2005 when Keezer was playing concerts in Japan. They immediately hit it off and soon rented a little dance studio with an upright piano in Osaka where they practised for the first time and the idea for an album began to take shape.


The Okinawan traditional music world is rather hierarchical, so I wondered if it’s like that at all in the jazz world?: “There is a little bit of that hierarchy in the jazz world, to the extent that any intelligent jazz musician realizes he/she stands on the shoulders of those that came before us, and therefore we show respect to our elder statesmen. Many of the older jazz musicians that are still around lived through some very difficult times in America, with segregation and so on. They paid a lot of those ‘dues’ so the younger generation doesn’t have to. Jazz is now a respected idiom and we play concert halls as well as the smaller clubs. Oshima has a similar spirit to a jazz musician, in that he never plays a song the exact same way twice. It was fun and challenging to play with him at first because I had transcribed the demo MD he sent me, made nicely notated piano parts and all, and when we started recording it was like, “Whoa…that’s totally different already!” I relied on my ears playing with him, the same way I do when I accompany another jazz musician.

How difficult was it to go from being a fan of Okinawan music to actually arranging and playing Okinawan songs?  “There were no real mishaps. Oshima was so easy to work with. The only problem is my Japanese language skills are so bad right now. I used to live in Yokohama and my Nihongo was rockin’ then. Now, I can barely remember how to ask where the bathroom is. As for the selections, Oshima chose all of the songs initially, but at the end of the session he asked me if there was anything else I’d like to do, so we added ‘Sukikanna’.”

“I’m really thrilled with this record. I can’t wait to make another one. I hope the next one can be with a full string section.” Let’s hope their partnership is just beginning.

(fRoots Magazine Nos.290/291, August/September 2007)

Bouzoukinawa! – Donal Lunny

February 20, 2017

The latest addition to the Features Archive is an interview I did with Donal Lunny for fRoots magazine in 2006. Donal had moved to Okinawa and his reflections on island life and on his music were immensely interesting. The talk we had at that time had to be edited quite a bit to fit into what was already a lengthy feature. It hardly needs mentioning that Donal is an Irish music legend. As a member of the band Planxty he helped revolutionise Irish traditional music and went on to do more groundbreaking work with The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, and Mozaik. And I haven’t even mentioned his long list of credits as a producer of other musicians. Sadly for me, he didn’t stay in Okinawa and eventually returned to Ireland where he continues to be active with numerous projects. In March/April 2017 he will tour mainland Japan to play ‘Songs and Tunes from Ireland’ as part of a duo with Andy Irvine.


Donal Lunny has taken up residence in subtropical Okinawa with his Japanese wife Hideko Itami of Soul Flower Union. John Potter gets to sit in their kitchen…

My idea of a great time is listening to Okinawan music. But listening to the very best traditional Irish music runs it a close second. Soon I may be able to do both at the same time. As a long time fan of Okinawan music, living in Japan, I’ve frequently toyed with the idea of moving to the Ryukyu Islands. After all, this is where the real music is in Japan. But for various reasons, too tedious to relate, I’m still waiting to take the plunge and my own move is temporarily on hold. Irish music legend Donal Lunny has no such qualms and has seized the initiative by relocating there recently, and already has plans to work with Okinawan musicians. I met up with Donal and his wife, musician Hideko Itami, when we found ourselves near neighbours in the Ginowan area of Okinawa during the summer.

In Donal’s kitchen in Ginowan, over a glass of the island’s awamori liquor, he answers my query of just what he’s doing on a subtropical island a long way from home: My wife had been to Okinawa years ago, and has always had a great love for its music and people. More recently, she and Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union sang and played on Seijin Noborikawa’s Spiritual Unity CD, and it renewed her interest in Okinawa. Late last year, we decided to go and check it out. And then we decided to move there. It took another trip to sort out accommodation and so on, and we finally arrived early last May. My hope is to find a niche in the Okinawan music scene, and to perform, produce, and record here. At the moment my work is still in Ireland and Europe, so I travel to Dublin every few months, which keeps me in touch with the scene there. I’ve managed to do some work on music files which have been sent to me.  I can see interesting possibilities for collaborations between Okinawan and Irish musicians, so I’m going to start a project which hopefully will culminate in a CD of songs and instrumentals, and possibly some concerts of Irish and Okinawan artists. The sooner I get working in a studio with Okinawan musicians, the better.”


I wondered what kind of problems he might have experienced as a foreigner in Okinawa, with such a different culture and climate from Europe as well as a language and dialect which even the Japanese are sometimes puzzled by. “My Japanese is still only a jumble of words and phrases, some of which are actually useful” he says. “I can’t converse yet, and I understand only about 20% of what’s being said around me. So I’m experiencing the same difficulty in Okinawa as I had in Japan. But I’m working on it.  Fortunately I like hot weather, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t last a week in Okinawa’s summer. The weather here is pretty extreme, particularly the rainy season and the typhoon season.”

The reason for Donal’s being in Japan in the first place is another musical mix as his wife Hideko (or “Hidebow” as he calls her) is a founder member and guitarist (and now bouzouki player) with Japanese band Soul Flower Union and their acoustic offshoot Soul Flower Mononoke Summit. The Lunnys also have a young daughter, Sora. The introduction of the bouzouki into Soul Flower’s music smacks of Donal’s influence, so I asked Hideko to elaborate on her meetings with Irish music. “Before I met Donal my knowledge of Irish music was only The Pogues and Van Morrison”, she says. “Of course I didn’t know anything about Donal. Since I met him I’ve been to Dublin a few times and every time I’ve been there he has introduced me to many musicians. I didn’t realise until then that he was so famous. At first, I thought that he just had a lot of friends! The biggest reason for this misunderstanding was probably because I didn’t understand English enough. About a year after my first visit I went back to Dublin again and Donal was organising a benefit concert there. Elvis Costello played and he told me that Donal helped to produce his album Spike. It was a big surprise for me because only then did I begin to realise how important Donal is.”

Before coming to Okinawa, Donal had already spent quite a bit of time in mainland Japan with Hideko. Moving to these islands must have been another big change, as the Ryukyus were formerly an independent kingdom with their own quite separate culture, which still largely remains. “Okinawa has a distinctive air of ease and freedom about it. I’m still identifying the elements which give it its unique character, but what is obvious is the friendly spirit of the Okinawan people. There are basic traits which seem to be shared by Okinawa and Japan, but Okinawa has what I can only describe as an island culture. Ireland has something similar, and it has to do with the size of the island, and its relationship with the rest of the world. Both islands have parallels in their histories: attempts by more powerful nations to subsume their identities and cultures, and partial occupation by foreign powers – I can’t help noticing how Okinawans manage to flow their lives around the presence of 25,000 American military personnel, in occupation since WW2 – which is not to say that people don’t mind; 85% of the population want a military-free Okinawa. But both islands have retained their cultural personalities.”

Getting back to Okinawan music, I know that when I first heard it I was completely hooked but that hasn’t always been the case for many Western listeners. Asian music in general has fared less well in gaining acceptance and popularity as world music in the mainstream. Like me, Donal was introduced to Okinawan music by his Japanese wife.  “After that I soon became aware of how many of my friends in Japan also love it. I immediately related to it at heart level. The spare and elegant accompaniment of the sanshin has an even pace, and the singing floats alongside and often trails slightly behind, which gives great depth and feeling to deceptively simple melodies. To me, the steadiness of the sanshin adds elements of strength and constancy, and offsets the emotional ebb and flow of the singing.”

Donal & Hideko

Donal & Hideko

So who in particular has impressed Donal? “The first live concert I went to in Okinawa featured Yasukatsu Oshima and Kanako Hatoma. It was a sublime experience. Both of them have in their singing that quality of ecstasy which is to be found in the singing of all the great Okinawan artists. I spoke to Oshima-san afterwards. He expressed an interest in my bodhrán playing, so I’m hoping to get the opportunity to play with him soon. On stage with them was Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone, playing shimadaiko, or island drum – two drums, one big and deep, and the other lighter. His playing was beautiful; the rhythms shifted continuously, but never broke the groove. It sounded like a complex and inscrutable discipline, but I get the impression there are actually no rules; it might be different every time he plays. He also provided hayashi, which means cheering along, or giving encouraging support, in the form of short sung interjections. This is also an intrinsic part of the Japanese tradition, but Okinawan hayashi is mostly sung in syncopation between the main beats, and this gives it a lightness it wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Many years back I finally realised that I couldn’t use the kitchen sink with Irish music without obliterating the very boundaries that define its personality. It’s the same with Okinawan music. Its singularity depends as much on what’s left out as on what’s played. Some modes exclude certain notes from the scale, and this has a clear effect on the flavour of the music. I’m still discovering things, and the more I hear, the more I like it.”

There have already been some musical connections made between Ireland and Okinawa. The Chieftains performed with Okinawan singer Yoriko Ganeko when they visited the island a few years ago, and I introduced Donal to Ganeko on a visit we made to her minyo ‘live house’. In the opposite direction, Yasukatsu Oshima has been to Ireland to perform and his latest album features a track with Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Dermot Byrne of the Irish band Altan. Altan have toured Japan many times and also played with Soul Flower. Yasukatsu Oshima thinks that the Irish have a strong musical culture which is similar to Okinawa, but that in Ireland it’s mainly based on tunes whereas in Okinawa it’s based around songs. Donal has some sympathy with this view.

“I think it’s a fair comment, given what you will encounter if you drop in on the average Irish pub trad session. You’ll hear scores of reels and jigs, and maybe a handful of songs. I have to say, this is a reflection on the fact that the atmosphere of the average Irish pub session is too turbulent for all but the most robust songs. It’s unfortunate that traditional music is so closely linked to the culture of the pub. Several musicians playing together can enjoy themselves regardless of the hubbub of happy, relaxed people and the ching of the cash register in the background (I’m not being cynical – I’ll cheerfully join a session under these circumstances, and play till we’re thrown out). And if there are singers in the house, they will be called on for a song, and if the moment’s right, you’ll hear a pin drop while the song is being sung. And there’ll be real appreciation from the audience. But the feeling that occurs to me now as I think about it, is that for each song, the evening is holding its breath; that things jolt back into action again when the song is finished. On with the session! Not to say that there aren’t brilliant singer’s sessions to be found if one seeks them out. Ireland has many wonderful singers. They’re just not as mainstream as some others.”


“I don’t know how many Irish tunes there are; probably tens of thousands. But as it happens, the last album I produced was of the late Frank Harte (it was our sixth album together – he died within a week of completing the singing). Over the years, he collected no less than 24,000 Irish songs! He had 80 songs relating to Napoleon alone, some of them tender, some of them mountainous epics which only a redoubtable singer like Frank could render. This is a massive legacy, which must measure up well to the great heritage of instrumental music which Ireland has.”

The omnipresent instrument in Okinawan music is, of course, the three stringed sanshin, and since arriving on the island Hideko Itami has already started taking regular sanshin lessons. Will Donal soon be following suit?I’ve had a few goes at the sanshin, and even though it relates closely to the bouzouki, it’s not a straightforward proposition. I went to a lesson with Hidebow, and her teacher handed me a sanshin, whereupon I started trying to play it left-handed, which was not to the teacher’s liking! But I’ll have one within a few weeks, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of getting music out of it.”

And producing? Will living away from Europe affect opportunities to produce other people’s albums there? “I’m sure that being away so much will mean that people will naturally move on to alternatives. But I think (hope!) there’s still plenty for me to do on that side of the world. And I can work on computer files here. Also, I think there are several of my musical friends and associates who’d enjoy a bit of recording in Okinawa.”

Andy Irvine & Donal Lunny who will play seven dates in Japan starting in March

Andy Irvine & Donal Lunny play seven dates in Japan in March/April 2017

In Japan he has already lent a hand to the forthcoming Soul Flower Mononoke Summit album, which will be their third album of chindon-inspired music after a hiatus of eight years. When they started rehearsing for their new album, there was nobody to supply chords to the arrangements, so I sat in with the bouzouki. It was a stopgap measure, and even though I also played on the studio recordings, a lot of it will probably be redundant, as the regular musicians’ parts were overdubbed later. I think it’s a really good album, with a strong selection of songs.”

I asked Donal’s wife how living in Okinawa, while the rest of her band is in mainland Japan, will affect things. “I think that living in Okinawa, my job now is to create and send things from this island. I cannot do Soul Flower activities the same as before, but the positive side is that because I live in Okinawa and I’m a mother now I can do many other things. One of these things is this new Mononoke Summit album, and some musicians I met since moving here to Okinawa have joined the recording and they made it a livelier album.”

Donal meanwhile has been busy with Mozaik, along with former Planxty mate Andy Irvine, and Mozaik members Bruce Molsky, Nikola Parov and Rens van der Zalm. They toured Europe recently and now have plans to make a studio album.Mozaik is recording the next CD in Budapest, in November, and we have some interesting material prepared for it. Hopefully it’ll be available by the New Year. The next big tour we have lined up is in Australia next March. We’d all like to play together more often, but the logistics of getting together are complicated, given how scattered we all are. I think it’ll be easier to organise tours next year if we get this CD right.”

 I cannot leave Donal without asking the question which has been on my mind ever since I listened to that spellbinding reunion of Planxty during 2004. Will the boys from Planxty ever get together again? “I honestly don’t know whether Planxty will sally forth again. The best way to put it is, because we’ve managed to leave the future open, the occasion of another reunion will be all the sweeter if and when it happens!”

Many thanks to Donal Lunny and Hideko Itami for their generous time and help with this feature.

(fRoots Magazine, April 2006, No.274)

Mio Matsuda

February 11, 2017

Here’s another addition to the Features Archive. Japanese singer Mio Matsuda is an interpreter of songs from many diverse places and musical traditions and has been especially active in Portugal, Cape Verde and Brazil. In 2014 she turned her attentions to her own roots in Japan with the production of an excellent CD and book Creole Japan. She was interviewed for this blog at that time but I first met Mio back in 2005 shortly after the release of her debut album. The article below was published the following year by UK magazine fRoots and another version also appeared in Kansai Time Out.

Mio Matsuda

A Japanese fado singer? Yes indeed, says John Potter

She has already travelled Europe, appeared on Portuguese TV, performed on the islands of Cape Verde, and recorded in Rio de Janeiro. Now she has a debut album on the Victor label showcasing her own brand of fado and other styles. But this exciting young singer isn’t from any of these places. Despite singing in apparently flawless Portuguese, 26 year old Mio Matsuda is from Japan, where she lives in Kyoto. Late last year I met her for the first time when she played to a warmly appreciative audience at a packed concert hall in Osaka. More recently I renewed our acquaintance by phone as she prepared to travel again from Japan to Portugal and Brazil for two months of music making which includes recording for a second album.


Mio Matsuda bubbles with enthusiasm when speaking about her musical passion. In fluent English, with more than a hint of a Portuguese accent, she starts by explaining how the fado fascination came about: “I grew up in Akita in the north of Japan in a performing theatre commune. All the children lived and grew up together in the same place and we learned plays based on both Japanese and world folklore. My mother was an actress in the theatre and my father played viola in an orchestra. We were always moving about. When I was 18, at university, I met some Brazilian friends, and also began to learn Portuguese as well as English, Italian and Greek. Then I studied sociology in Vancouver so this helped my English too. As for music, everyone in Japan already knew about the Brazilians, but European music from Portugal was much less known especially at that time. One of my friends recommended me to listen to Amalia Rodrigues, so I bought a CD of hers.”

This was to be her Road to Damascus moment as Matsuda rapidly became hooked on the fado of Portugal. In 2001 she made her first trip to the country and returned in 2003 to stay for a year after winning a scholarship to study Portuguese. During her time there she took advantage of opportunities to visit the many casa do fado of Lisbon where the songs are performed. Soon she was up there performing as well and also singing in restaurants in old areas such as Alfama.

“I wanted to learn from the local people and I especially wanted to learn how they create the mood of fado. I was interested to be with them. They have a special way – like a ritual – of creating fado.” Being Japanese and singing fado might have created problems but her experiences were all positive. “I had no problems at all. They accepted me very well. They were interested in my singing, they loved me and they asked me to sing and even offered me dinner. In the beginning I didn’t understand what fado really was. All I had was a passion but I didn’t know how to express it. Language is very important but I didn’t speak Portuguese very well so I studied and gradually I could feel what the people were feeling. The last three months I was there they really accepted me. I also began to understand the meaning of saudade  (the spirit of yearning at the heart of fado).”


“During my time in Lisbon I also made friends with people from Cape Verde.. I sang a song from their islands on Cape Verdean radio in Lisbon. After that a pianist wanted me to come and sing in Cape Verde so I went there for one month. I was surprised that when I went to the island of Santo Antao a restaurant owner there already knew me from the radio in Lisbon!” Having recently recorded a cover version (in Portuguese) of Kazufumi Miyazawa’s popular Okinawan-style song Shimauta, I wondered whether she thought there was any similarity between different island musics? “Yes, I think there is a special quality in island music. The idea of ‘fatalism’ is important to Cape Verdeans and I think this is also the case in Okinawa. Everything comes from the sea.”

This idea of the sea is pursued on her debut album Atlantica which is broadly based around the theme of the Atlantic Ocean. “I didn’t want my first album to be just a Japanese singer doing fado. I’m a traveller. So I wanted to make a CD which expressed the idea of travel and was not only fado but other kinds of music that I’d been involved with in Cape Verde and from Brazil too, all connected by the ocean. I wanted to mix things up and so I sometimes sing fado with all these different kinds of rhythms. I chose the songs partly because of their poetry but also the melodies. There are Brazilian musicians on the album and we made the recordings in Rio de Janeiro. Rogerio Souza, who co-produced with me and plays guitar on the album, helped me to understand other musical styles such as choro when I was planning the album.”

If the audience reaction in Osaka was anything to go by Japan may have produced a new world music star, but as almost everything was sung in Portuguese, except for the infectious Saiko which has Japanese lyrics written by her, I wondered how she felt about the different audiences? “It’s true there are different reactions from people in Japan and Portugal. The audiences in Portugal are very lively because they can understand the language. But I always explain the songs before singing them in Japan and the audiences have been very good here as well.”

“I am satisfied with Atlantica but the next one will be totally different. The stories and the songs and also the musicians may be different… I’m very positive about the future and I will do it little by little. I hope my songs can open people’s hearts.”

(fRoots Magazine, May 2006, No.275)

Okinawan Elder – Shouei Kina

February 6, 2017

‘Features Archive’ is a new category for some of the longer articles that were previously on the website for The Power of Okinawa book. The first of these is below. In 2003 I met Shouei Kina for an interview that was originally published in the UK magazine fRoots. This is the article that appeared in the magazine and I have added some different photos. I met Shouei Kina several times and he was always welcoming, friendly and modest – a lovely man and a truly great singer. The last time I saw him was in May 2009 when he was very ill in hospital but still managed to join his daughter Keiko and her group to play sanshin for the staff and patients. He died on 24th December 2009.

Okinawan Elder

Shouei Kina, Okinawan roots music icon, is still going strong at the young age of 83. John Potter meets Shoukichi’s dad.

He is father to 11 children, has 33 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. But it’s not for his great services to increasing the population of the Ryukyu Islands that Shouei Kina is famous. It’s for being one of the most important figures in the history of Okinawan music. He’s recorded over 500 tracks in his career, is a maker and teacher of the ubiquitous three-stringed sanshin, devised the method of writing music for the instrument, and singlehandedly introduced and popularized another instrument, the sanba, now an essential ingredient of Okinawan music. And the 83 year old is still singing and playing sanshin almost every night in Naha, Okinawa with his own Shouei Kina Minyo Group.

The subtropical Ryukyu Islands have their own unique culture and music which is far removed from that of mainland Japan. As many have already discovered, the islands’ laid -back lifestyle and its vibrant music is an intoxicating brew. Okinawans also have the longest life expectancy in the world and studies completed on why this is so usually focus on the relaxed lifestyle, as well as its renowned healthy food and sunny climate. In the Ryukyu Islands a special ‘kajimaya’ celebration is held on the attainment of your 97th birthday, so by these standards Shouei Kina is still an adolescent.

But if the name Kina sounds familiar it’s probably because of Shouei Kina’s even more famous son. The best known of all Okinawan musicians, Shoukichi Kina’s very name elicits both widespread adoration and controversy in almost equal measure. Together with his band Champloose, the charismatic Shoukichi Kina first attracted attention for his early embracing of reggae and rock, and latterly as a self-styled ‘musical activist’ with various projects to spread his message of borderless peace and love. In addition to Shouei’s most famous musical offspring, there is also son Masahiro who was Champloose bassist for several years, while daughters Keiko and Sachiko are still members of the band.

The Shouei Kina Minyo Group at the club Chakra in Naha, Okinawa

The Shouei Kina Minyo Group at the club Chakra in Naha, Okinawa

The high profile of Shoukichi Kina and the success of Champloose, as well as their occasional feuds with other Okinawan musicians, has obscured the fact that without Shouei Kina none of them would exist – not just literally but because the influence of their father on their own musical development has been enormous. Listen to any Shoukichi Kina album and then go back and listen to Shouei Kina and you might be forgiven for thinking it’s the same singer at different stages of his career. The phrasing and intonation is uncannily similar, and as well as the obvious similarity of their voices there’s the fact that large chunks of the children’s repertoire were learned from their father. But while Shoukichi has attracted most of the attention and has been happy to court the famous and influential, his father Shouei could hardly be more different.

Shouei’s reticence is somewhat unavoidable these days. Throat surgery has weakened his voice and his ears are not as sharp as they used to be. Nevertheless, for the past ten years the Shouei Kina Minyo Group has been performing twice nightly at his son’s club Chakra on Kokusai-dori, the main street and entertainment district of Naha, Okinawa’s capital. On my most recent visit to the club I decided to sit him down and pop a few questions about his eventful life.

A tiny man – he must be little more than 5 feet – he is quiet but friendly and with a natural modesty. Despite previous health problems, Shouei is still a sprightly character and takes it upon himself to jump up and fill my glass with draught beer whenever he feels it’s due for a top up. At one point he almost overbalances while stretching his small frame over the bar counter to get me another refill. His wife Chiyo is also his manager and like many Okinawan women she seems in complete control. “Let Chiyo tell you, she knows everything about me”, says Shouei. In the Okinawan native religion only women can become priests and they also perform the important tasks of fortune telling and giving advice. It’s certainly true that in the Kina clan the women are a driving force alongside their men. Chiyo loves to talk and with the tape running it’s several minutes before Shouei gets a word in, but eventually his story unfolds.

He was born in 1920 in Kitanakagusuku village in the middle of the main island. “When I was eleven I started to learn the sanshin and then I played children’s Eisa in the local village.” Eisa is the dancing and drumming usually performed at summer festivals in the Ryukyus. “I left school at 15 and began playing in the local village theatre group because I originally wanted to be an actor. But at that time people thought that being an actor meant you were lazy and everyone was against the idea of my becoming one. So then I moved alone to Osaka to work in an iron factory. But even while in Osaka I never stopped playing the sanshin. Then I came back to Okinawa to work. During the day you worked hard and then in the evening you did mo-ashibi.” (The all-night outdoor partying and revelry finally outlawed during the 2nd World War). “Everyone was singing and dancing, more like a disco today. In mo-ashibi some people put a hood over their face to disguise themselves and young people dressed up in various different ways. Some men were chasing after women and then fell down in the field and found they’d caught their own sister! It was fun to hide your own face to play. I think a lot of good singers and artists were produced in this area because we had such an environment.”

“Just after the war I played kankara sanshin (a makeshift sanshin made with tin cans) when I was a prisoner of war in the camp at Yaka, Okinawa. I’d been a member of the defence army, and I was captured by the Americans. I played both classical Okinawan music and minyo (folk song) with sanshin there for the other prisoners. After release from the camp I joined the police school and became a policeman. It was while working in Koza at this time that I met Chiyo.  She was living as a lodger with Shuei Kohama, and because of this Kohama became my mentor and I learned minyo from him. Chiyo and I got married in 1948.” This was in fact his second marriage – a first marriage when he was 21 had produced six children, and Chiyo was to bring up these children alongside five of her own.


“My uncle had emigrated to Hawaii and then came back to Okinawa after the war. He showed me a photo of a percussion instrument, made of bamboo. So I made a smaller version of that. There was no information about how to use it so I started to make smaller versions and devised a unique way of playing it using all the fingers.” Thus began the castanet-like sanba, now an ever-present feature of modern Okinawan music.

After Shoukichi was born, he gave up his job as a policeman and became a carpenter. Chiyo looked after all the children while growing vegetables and doing a kind of fishing, just diving into the sea to catch food. Then when Shouei was 29 he started learning Ryukyuan classical music but soon after opted for the minyo world of folk song. Adds Chiyo: “He was learning Ryukyuan classical music but he changed to minyo because he couldn’t make money at that time. You need money to live and bring up eleven children. I was prepared to do any jobs to help him. The thing he wanted to do most was music. He lost his father when he was seven and then was with his mother who suffered from asthma. He stopped going to school and helped his mother work in the sugar cane field. Just before his mother died she asked me to let him do his music. Not only that but I knew that this was what he really wanted to do. I became more like his mother and was concerned about his sanshin playing so I wouldn’t let him do any hard labour. Instead I did it.”

He learned very quickly and began teaching others to play the sanshin. Shouei soon became the first minyo musician to sing on the radio, impressing all with his singing and fast sanshin technique. Even his mentor Shuei Kohama was surprised, and Kohama asked him to go on the same stage together to play the song ‘Achamegwa’. Numerous song contests and awards followed. Shouei’s modesty sometimes intervenes when he feels the story is becoming too grand:

Chiyo: “Shouei was the first one to form a Minyo Kenkyujo (Study Centre), with people like Chosho Maekawa and Shuei Kohama.”

Shouei: “No, that’s not right. Koutoku Tsuha started one before me.”

Chiyo: “Oh, Tsuha just had a small sign outside his house. Ours was bigger.”

In 1957 he helped found the Marufuku Records Minyo Kenkyukai. (Folk song study group). This included many of the later stars of minyo, such as Rinsho Kadekaru, Seijin Noborikawa, and Shuei Kohama. “Sadao China, at that time a junior high school student, used to come to the Minyo Kenkyukai to learn minyo from me. I had a lot of pupils such as Aiko Yohen, Yukiko Yamazato and Misako Oshiro, who all became important in Okinawan music. Many of my pupils are now playing in clubs and I still go to see them with Chiyo. I’m very pleased about that. They always treat us very well.”

This was a great time for minyo. His meeting with Marufuku Records founder Choki Fukuhara led to his first recordings the next year for them and to 1959’s big hit ‘Kayoibune’ (‘The Returning Ship’), which was written by Fukuhara and is still included in Shouei Kina Minyo Group performances. At that time every port played this song when a ship left to go to mainland Japan. This big hit led him to have a contract to play regularly at a club in Urasoe which usually had jazz and pop bands. This was quite a sensation and led to the spread of a lot of clubs including minyo, and eventually to today’s minyo ‘live houses’.

Shouei Kina with son Shoukichi

Shouei Kina with son Shoukichi

The next big project was with his pupil Kosei Takihara, to devise ‘kunkunshi’ –  the first musical notation of minyo for sanshin. The first volume of minyo using kunkunshi was published, eventually running to ten volumes and covering 579 songs. This spread minyo to more people and helped greatly in the development of the people’s art. Shortly after this time Shouei went to Columbia recording studios to record over 200 songs in a week along with Rinsho Kadekaru, Sadao China and others. The cream of Shouei’s recordings from this time, but still only the tip of the iceberg, were finally released on two CDs in 2001 on the Kina family’s own Mu Paradise label.

Problems with his voice in the mid 1970s forced him to temporarily gave up singing and he opened a sanshin shop, turning his attentions to the making of sanshins. There followed a successful operation for a throat tumour and then his voice miraculously became better. “I’d only expected to be able to play sanshin, so I was surprised that I could sing again too.” Further appearances with Champloose came and a cameo role on their album ‘Niraikanai Paradise’. When the club Chakra opened in December 1993, the Shouei Kina Minyo Group began residency there and have been playing solidly for the past decade. Shouei features strongly on his son’s last great return-to-the-roots album ‘Akainko’.

Health has been a concern and a heart problem has led to two operations, both successful. Even worse followed five years ago when tongue cancer was diagnosed, and doctors recommended removal of part of the tongue, an operation that could have literally left him speechless. But because of his passion for music and his family’s support he was on stage singing again a few months after the operation.

The list of achievements goes on. He was the first Okinawan roots musician to play with an orchestra, and the first to use a variety of new instruments on stage: violin, mandolin, woodblock, sanba, as well as sanshin were added to the mix in his minyo group. He even played electric guitar on stage at one time but Chiyo says: “He looked terrible so I told him he should stop!” Many of his songs were on the first jukeboxes which were introduced to Okinawa by the Americans after the war.  His family think he should be made a national treasure. “If I had an award like that I’d probably die very soon. My children are successful so I don’t want anything. This is enough. Every night playing at Chakra is the secret of why I’m fine. I enjoy singing with my children.”

With these words Shouei gets up to prepare for tonight’s first show. Earlier in the day he had been to the funeral of his mentor Shuei Kohama, who by unhappy coincidence had died suddenly a couple of days before our talk. His great contemporary Rinsho Kadekaru also passed on in recent times. Shouei Kina’s eyes fill with tears as he remembers, but he soon recovers and is off to the bar to bring another glass for his guest.

Many thanks to Shouei Kina and to all the Kina family for their help and hospitality. Thanks also to Midori Potter for assistance with translations.

(fRoots Magazine, June 2003, No.240)