Satoru Shimoji is an important singer from the Miyako Islands where he has his own Lagoon recording studio and also hosts a live weekly radio show on RBC. He is also the founder of the annual Kuicha dance and music festival. Perhaps most importantly his recent albums Myahk (2012) and Myahk-U (2015) are two of the best releases to have come out of Okinawa for a very long time. Both were reviewed on this blog and I was keen to ask him about these recordings.
I managed to catch up with him last weekend when he appeared along with daughter Minami Shimoji at the Niraikanai Matsuri in Ginowan. He was happy to sit down with me and answer some questions not long after he had captivated the audience with his remarkable voice and songs. He is very active and ambitious for his music while at the same time being both extremely polite and friendly – even carrying my chair for me as we found a quieter place to talk with the sounds of the festival still going on in the background.
(JP) Your two most recent albums Myahk and Myahk-U are a great step forward and they instantly became favourites of mine. I wonder if this new improved style was planned or did it just evolve by itself?
(SS) Even when I was living in Tokyo a long time ago I had already been thinking about making the kind of music that is on Myahk and Myahk-U. But I couldn’t find any pianist in Miyako who could do what I wanted so I thought at first about maybe playing guitars and using computers. Then I found a pianist. My purpose with this music is to find something important which is always there and is close to me and then to revitalize it through this process. This was especially true with the first album Myahk and it felt like a new debut for me because of this attitude of mine. There are various different lights shining such as the light of sound, light of life, and definitely the light outside.
It’s unusual to make an Okinawan album with mainly piano and violin rather than sanshin as accompaniment. Was there any special reason for this?
My image of the music I make is always simple. I don’t want to have too many sounds but I want it to be wide and deep. I already talked about this with the producer Goh Hotoda and he understood my ideas before we got together to make it. He visited Miyako about 12 years ago when he was living in New York.
At first we went out together eating and drinking. I didn’t know he was such a great man at that time. When I was thinking about the Myahk album I phoned him and he asked me how the album was coming along and then we decided to work together on it. I told my musician friends in Tokyo and asked them if they knew Hotoda. When I checked the internet I realised how important he was and wondered if it was really OK for me to work with him but he was very good about it.
He asked what kind of sound I wanted and I said I wanted a piano-based album but also with drums and a little bit of sanshin. If you play sanshin too much then it’s like a very obvious Okinawan sound and I didn’t want to do that. Just a little sanshin is enough to make it Okinawan. After that Hotoda came to Miyako with all the equipment ready to record.
You also worked with Makoto Kubota on his Blue Asia project didn’t you?
Yes. Working with Makoto Kubota was interesting but I think that Hotoda understands me best. It’s nothing to do with money it’s just about feeling and understanding each other. I helped Hotoda’s wife Nokko when she made an album in New York. When the three of us were in Miyako we got together to talk about her album and I suggested that Nokko do some new children’s songs for adults.
You used to be a rock musician in Tokyo and then moved back to Miyako several years ago. This must have been quite a change?
It’s a long story but when I moved to Tokyo I was working at other jobs, it wasn’t just music. You have to pay for studios to make music so my band and I got together to start running our own studio. We hired a room in a building and practised by ourselves. Sometimes we rented it out to other musicians to get money and some of those musicians became popular later on. We also planned our own live gigs, promoted ourselves and did everything else, then later on we started a live music venue.
I went back to Miyako in order to find and express my own roots. But by roots it doesn’t mean you have to play just old Miyako songs. Other songs too that are not from Miyako have had a big impact on me. I try to mix these things to create a new sound of my own. Kazufumi Miyazawa came to this year’s Kuicha Festival in Miyako and we co-wrote a song. I wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music. I have some ideas of how to arrange it and I told him I’d like to include it on my next album. He has offered to help in any way.
You presented your music together with your daughter Minami at the WOMEX event in Cardiff, Wales a few years ago. How was that?
It was very interesting. Can I be honest? I felt when I was there that I was sure I could do it and that my music was good enough to be accepted by anyone. If I have the right musicians I can do it very well. At the same time I found something I need to improve. Both albums have a feeling of quietness and balladry but if I do more danceable songs to add to this I can make even better albums with a good balance and a more varied stage performance.
How about the next album and the future in general?
As for the new album, to me the most important thing is to express the atmosphere of Miyako. If you open the world atlas, Miyako is just a tiny point but even so you can send a light from there to the outside world. I think that’s the most important thing for me. Almost every time I perform, like today, there are shamans who come to see me and I talk to them and they say they can feel something special from my voice. They can feel the soul of the islands.