Archive for the ‘Island Voices’ category

Island Voices: Koutoku Tsuha

November 1, 2010

At 83 years of age, Koutoku Tsuha is the oldest performing singer and sanshin player from the first generation of Okinawan recording artists. Born in 1927 in Yomitan on the main island of Okinawa, his father was a teacher of classical Ryukyu music, and his uncle was also a music teacher and a Ryukyu dancer. In his early teenage years, Koutoku enjoyed the Eisa festivals around the island where he would sing and play the sanshin. He also joined the infamous mo-ashibi events – the all night outdoor revelries which were eventually forbidden by the mid-20th century. Before the war he had moved to mainland Japan for a time because of the need for work and he lived in both Osaka and Nagasaki. After the war ended he returned to Okinawa and learned classical Ryukyu music from his father and minyo from Teihan China.

Koutoku Tsuha’s first record was a single entitled ‘Hijigwa Bushi’ which he made together with Setsuko Ishihara. The record became a big hit in the island minyo world. During this time he was working at a barber shop which he ran with his father but he was also becoming an established part of the boom in minyo radio and live shows on the island. He wrote songs too and the most famous of these is his 1950s song ‘Chibumi’ which has been recorded many times, most notably by Aiko Yohen.

At the turn of the new century he made an unexpected return to the recording studio to make a remarkable double album entitled Singapore Gwa (B/C Records). This project was directed by Kazuyoshi Kamiya with Bisekatsu as supervisor. The guests included Minoru Kinjo on sanshin and vocals, and Koutoku’s son Koei Tsuha (sanshin, taiko and hayashi), while other musicians provided electric guitar, drums, bass and saxophone. The songs were mainly traditional but many of them were performed in an unusual, playful and adventurous way under the guise of ‘Captain Koutoku and his Roochoo Magic Band’. The entire album is a major success.

In 2006 he released another album Satukui Chijuya (Campus Records). This was a more standard traditional set of songs sung together with Satoko Oshiro, a singer from Onna village in Okinawa who had been Tsuha’s pupil. In the same year he topped the bill at the annual Ryukyu Festival held in Osaka. Tsuha is somewhat frail nowadays and there are few chances to see him performing live, but he is still remembered affectionately as one of the important early recording artists alongside the likes of Rinsho Kadekaru and Shouei Kina.

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Island Voices: Yuki Yamazato

August 25, 2010

Of all the female singers from the so-called first generation of recording artists in the Ryukyu Islands, Yuki Yamazato has long been at the forefront as an interpreter of traditional songs. Now 73 years old, she was born in Motobu on the main island of Okinawa. Her father had a great love for Okinawan minyo and she soon developed a similar interest in the old songs. She began singing and playing sanshin and soon developed into a tremendous singer with an elegant way of performing.

Yamazato became a pupil of Tsuneo Fukuhara, whose father Choki – a musician, songwriter and producer – had established Marufuku Records in Osaka and recorded many of the early singers. Yamazato originally recorded with the legendary Rinsho Kadekaru and in 1965 she became the first woman singer to record the song ‘Motobu Nakuni’. Along with her contemporary, Misako Oshiro, who is one year older, she can lay a strong claim to being the outstanding female performer of Okinawan songs. While Oshiro is probably better known because of her many trips to perform in mainland Japan, the less outgoing Yamazato has maintained her vocal power and is still singing as well as ever.

Yuki Yamazato's album Nuchi Tichi Bushi

The best introduction to her recorded work on CD is the 17 track Marufuku album Yamazato Yuki Tokushu which was made several years ago. On here she sings a number of traditional songs as well as compositions by Choki Fukuhara. Haha nu Fuchukuru is another good album from her earlier days but is available only as a cassette tape. On this and some other older recordings she is called Yukiko Yamazato. My own favourite is her duet album with Minoru Kinjo, entitled Miwaku no Duet, which is now available on CD and must rank as one of the classics of island recording history. More recently, she made a solo album Nuchi Tichi Bushi, in 2007, also on Marufuku, and a joint album Doushibi together with fellow singers Katsuko Yohen and Keiko Kinjo. Doushibi was released through Campus Records.

Yuki Yamazato has won various awards for her singing. She also appeared at the annual ‘Sanshin no hi’ event in Yomitan earlier this year along with Katsuko Yohen and Keiko Kinjo and sounded as good as ever. Unlike some singers who run their own minyo ‘live houses’, Yamazato and Yohen host their own bar (or ‘snack’ as it’s known to the Japanese) in Koza (Okinawa City) – which like their album is also named Doushibi. Here they serve the drinks and also sing to a select group of regular customers. When I went there Yamazato told me that she used to have the more usual minyo place but found it was no fun having to perform on stage every night. Here she sings only when she feels like it and takes requests from the small clientele of true Okinawan music enthusiasts.

Island Voices: Rinsho Kadekaru

July 28, 2010

Towards the end of 2007 I was asked to write a regular page on Okinawan music for a new quarterly magazine ‘The Okinawan’. This became a column called ‘Sounds of Okinawa’. Sadly ‘The Okinawan’ ceased publication last year, presumably a victim of the economic squeeze. The second of my columns featured Rinsho Kadekaru and is reprinted below. It seems a good idea (to me anyway) to continue with short profiles of Okinawan singers and musicians here in an occasional series which I will call ‘Island Voices’. Much of the information in this Kadekaru article is also available in expanded form in ‘The Power of Okinawa’ book, and an excerpt is already on the website, but it seems fitting to begin with a profile of the person who many regard as the greatest singer of the old songs…  

Ask fans of Okinawan traditional song who is the greatest singer and sanshin player in the music’s history and the likely answer will be Rinsho Kadekaru. As both a live performer and a recording artist Kadekaru enjoyed a long career right up until his death in 1999 at the age of 79. Since then record companies have been re-packaging and releasing recordings of his on CD almost as if he was still with us.

Kadekaru was born near Koza on 4 July 1920 and began playing sanshin at the age of seven. As a teenager he went to mainland Japan and worked at a factory in Osaka while singing and playing sanshin in his free time. At 19 he returned to Okinawa and to enforced military service. He was then sent back to the mainland for two years during the war, which he detested. After the war ended he travelled around the Micronesian islands, eventually returning to an Okinawa still devastated by battle.

From the 1950s he travelled throughout the Ryukyus where he played and sang in all kinds of events, from theatrical performances to local rituals and celebrations. Discovered by the musician and entrepreneur Choki Fukuhara, he went on to make around 250 recordings for Fukuhara’s Marufuku record company and other labels. A total of 82 singles were released – 40 on Marufuku, 15 for Maruteru Records, and various others for different labels. In all there were 23 albums and countless other recordings on compilations. In 1969 Kadekaru started appearing regularly at the singer Aiko Yohen’s minyo club Nantahama, in Koza. He was to perform there for the next 26 years, becoming established as the outstanding singer of his generation.

The Umi Koi Ikusa box set contains 4 CDs of studio recordings and 4 CDs of live recordings

Why is he so popular? Kadekaru’s voice sounds weak on first listening and may be an acquired taste but his performance of such songs as the classic ‘Nakuni’ sets the standard for others to follow. A master interpreter of the old songs, he also enjoyed making up his own words and setting them to traditional melodies. He recorded all the important minyo that everyone else does nowadays as well as many other lesser-known songs. In fact, part of the reason for his fame rests on this eclecticism and the fact that he was willing to try everything and make so many recordings. The Okinawan film director Go Takamine made a video documentary about him which also features Misako Oshiro, his most frequent female singing partner. In the year of his death the Ryukyu Minyo Association awarded him the title Minyo Meijin – Master of Minyo. In later years he was a somewhat reticent figure on stage, but also a lifelong smoker who for relaxation liked a day’s gambling at the pachinko parlour.

With most of his recordings now available on CD it is impossible to recommend a definitive album, but two Victor releases from 2000 – Hukyokajin: The Best of Rinsho Kadekaru, and Jiru: Rare Tracks of Rinsho Kadekaru – are essential. Uta Awase, on B/C Records, a joint album with Yaeyama singer Yukichi Yamazato made only a year before Kadekaru’s death, finds him still in superb form. And if you can afford it, Umi Koi Ikusa is Victor’s magnificent 8 CD set of studio and live recordings.

Of today’s artists, his former ‘pupil’ Seijin Noborikawa has taken over the role of Okinawa’s outstanding veteran performer. But a much younger generation reveres Kadekaru too. Yasukatsu Oshima has even written and recorded a song, ‘Ryusei’, which is dedicated to him. Kadekaru’s own son, Rinji, who sometimes accompanied his father on violin, has also recorded his own album My Sweet Home Koza.