Archive for the ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ category

Akemi Johnson’s Book Talk

December 2, 2019

Last night I attended a Book Talk by former Fulbright scholar, author and journalist Akemi Johnson. She is currently on a tour of mainland Japan and Okinawa to promote her book Night in the American Village, subtitled ‘Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa’.

I’ve read many books in English on Okinawa, its history and politics, so it was very timely and convenient for me that the author herself, who lives in Northern California, should be visiting the island just as I had finished reading this one.

Akemi Johnson

Each of the book’s eleven chapters focuses on a different woman and this is the starting point for the story of how lives in Okinawa have been affected by the bases. As the book’s blurb states: “Focusing on the women there, she follows the complex fallout of the murder of an Okinawan woman by an ex-U.S. serviceman in 2016 and speaks to protesters, to women who date and marry American men and groups that help them when problems arise, and to Okinawans whose family members survived World War II.”

The book is beautifully written and at times reads like a novel. As well as its obvious literary merit, it’s also clear the author has done a lot of background research in addition to the year she spent living on Okinawa and meeting many of those connected in one way or another with the bases. And so, in the book we find her at one moment in a Naha bar drinking with American soldiers, the next in a boat on the ocean with anti-base protesters trying to stop the landfill at Oura Bay.

Meeting Akemi last night after her talk

What emerges from all this is a very balanced account of her findings that is also at times moving – and occasionally shocking.  The book it most resembles is Mary Ann Keyso’s fascinating Women of Okinawa, from 2000, but Night in the American Village is ultimately the more rewarding read.

It would be all too easy to dismiss the author as an outsider without a deep understanding of Japan or Okinawa. That would be a huge mistake. In fact, it’s her openness, willingness to learn, to investigate further, and to understand and make sense of it all that leads to a book that is both academically sound and at the same time enormously readable.

The talk last night was held in the informal setting of Esparza’s Tacos and Coffee, a Mexican restaurant in Chatan, in front of a large and varied audience. Akemi also read some selections from her book and concluded with a question and answer session. An unexpected bonus was the introduction in person of two of the women whose stories are featured in the book – Chie and Ai – and they joined her to speak and to answer questions.

More details of the book and its author are on Akemi Johnson’s website:

www.akemijohnson.com

Totally Obscure Records?

November 2, 2019

The late lamented fRoots magazine used to have a regular feature known as Rocket Launcher in which the same list of questions would be fired off to a roots person – usually a musician. One of these questions was always: ‘Which totally obscure record do you most treasure and would like more people to know about?’

I often pondered what my answer to that might be. Some of my friends would say my favourite records are all obscure to them. After some thought (but not too much) I’m going to indulge myself and choose not just one but five albums that I still really like. Most, if not all, could be described as obscure in one way or another.

At the top of my list is an Okinawan album, Miwaku no Duet by Yuki Yamazato and Minoru Kinjo. In fact, I’ve been going on about this recording for a few years now and boring anyone who will listen about just how good it is. Certainly, the artists themselves are not unknown, on these islands anyway, and for my money Yuki Yamazato is still the best of all the many wonderful female singers from the Ryukyus.

I discovered Miwaku no Duet quite by chance on CD at Bisekatsu’s fine Campus Records shop and bought it not really knowing what to expect, but the first few tracks brought me close to tears (in a good way). The CD has very little information and no details of the original recording or release dates. Never mind, it’s a cracker.

Moving from Okinawa all the way to Scotland, the next choice is an album by Dick Gaughan. (Dick and I have something in common as we share the same date of birth – what an auspicious day that was!) He is best known for his 1980s album Handful of Earth, chosen by fRoots as album of the decade. I’m going for a lesser-known record of his made in the same decade – True and Bold.

Its full title is True and Bold: Songs of the Scottish Miners. Not exactly a title that promises lots of fun and laughter, but it’s a wonderful collection of songs about the mining community. There are some lovely melodies and delicate acoustic guitar playing along the way as Gaughan shows off his uncompromising support for the miners and their struggles.

Next, a Japanese album, Ullambana by Tadamaru Sakuragawa. This was originally released in 1991 and is the only album he made. Sakuragawa is from Osaka and he sang in the goshu ondo style at obon festivals. He is joined on this remarkable album by the band Spiritual Unity who frequently played as live backing musicians for Nenes. The original Nenes also appear, all too briefly, to sing the Indonesian song ‘Bengawan Solo’.

Apparently, Ullambana has since been re-released as a 2 CD set so it might not be quite so little known now as it was when I started dancing to it in my head.

Mike Heron will be known as an original member of The Incredible String Band. In 1971 he made a solo album that sank almost without trace until released on CD at the beginning of the 21st century – when it sank once again. It’s called Smiling Men with Bad Reputations and is Heron’s diversion into rock music.

It took me over 30 years to pluck up the courage to buy Heron’s album. In the end I succumbed when I saw it in a record shop in London on a visit back to the UK. What a surprise to find it’s actually pretty good. It’s all over the place, of course, with many guests and wild changes of style but I always liked Mike Heron. Despite the rock agenda, quite a bit of it sounds like the ISB without all the Robin Williamson noodling and meandering.

Back to the Ryukyu Islands for my last choice, Takao Nagama’s Umi Dunan. Nagama was a member of Shoukichi Kina’s Champloose back in the day and was married to his sister. (Kina’s sister Sachiko, that is, not his own sister – that would surely have been illegal). He then left and formed Ayame Band. He also found time to make this solo album with members of Champloose in 1982. It was recorded in mono and was only on tape until finally released on CD in 2006.

Umi Dunan sounds more like a bunch of demos but for me it captures the spirit of Okinawa and especially of Nagama’s island Yonaguni. Even the great Shoukichi Kina himself would surely be pleased to have made it. Or maybe not. It’s totally obscure anyway.

Turning Japanese with Kina

October 4, 2019

This week a friend reminded me of something I’d written in the first edition of The Power of Okinawa book. I ended the chapter about Shoukichi Kina with the words: “Kina may still have some more surprises to give us.” I had forgotten that, but it obviously wasn’t a particularly perceptive thing to say as the great Okinawan singer’s middle name (if Okinawan people had middle names) would surely be ‘impulsive’.

Kina, of course, surprised many of us by going on to become a politician and was even a member of the short-lived government in Japan before eventually being expelled from Minshuto, the Democratic Party of Japan. He subsequently stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for Governor of Okinawa.

But the biggest surprise of all must surely be his recent return to the recording studio with the release of a new single, ‘Fujiyama Japan’. The surprise is not that he has paid so little attention to new music over the past few years. No, the clue is in the song’s title. For this is a song in praise of Japan. In fact, it’s something of a homage to the Japanese spirit. Yes, Japanese spirit, not Okinawan.

Shoukichi Kina (Photo: Stephen Mansfield)

This is little short of a seismic shock. It would be on a par with veteran octogenarian singer Misako Oshiro suddenly announcing she is heavily into gangsta rap and is going on tour with Ice Cube. (She isn’t).

In the music video for ‘Fujiyama Japan’ we follow our man Kina as he wanders the city streets before communing with nature while Mount Fuji looms in the distance. The co-written song extols the virtues of all things Japanese and has lyrics by Ryo Shoji and enka-style music by Kina. The only hint of Okinawa is the sanshin that Kina carries to let us know where he’s from and then plays briefly (though we can’t hear it). The video ends with lots of musicians playing violins. It’s awful, and awfully unoriginal too.

Never mind, I thought, maybe the B side is something very different. (Are there still B sides?) A sparkling new Kina original perhaps and too groundbreakingly radical to be the main song. Anyone who follows Kina must surely know, however, that he is not going to miss the chance to include the millionth recording (this time the so-called Reiwa era version) of ‘Hana’ and, yes indeed, here it is again. Oh no!

At the beginning of his recording career Kina released the single ‘Tokyo Sanbika’ (included on his first album). This was a song mocking the lifestyle of the busy, self-important Tokyo man. All his life Kina has oozed Okinawan spirit, fought against the injustices meted out to these islands by Japan, and once said: “I don’t just hope for independence, I think it’s absolutely right that these islands should be independent again. I want to make a model society in the Ryukyu Islands which has freedom and happiness and will be an example for the rest of the world.”

So, has Kina had a change of heart? Is he being ironic? Is there some underlying message that we’ve missed? Is it an attempt to ingratiate himself with Japan so he can sing at the Olympic opening ceremony next year? Or has he gone crazy? Well, I would have to ask him (if I dare) but it seems most likely he is just following those impulses again. If nothing more it’s a return to music.

Some people might like ‘Fujiyama Japan’, of course, and I’m sure it will go down well with Shinzo Abe if he ever gets to hear it. For now, we should perhaps be grateful that there is someone like Shoukichi Kina in Okinawa to continually surprise us, even if some of those surprises are occasionally unwelcome.

You can watch the ‘Fujiyama Japan’ music video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XznrEcIBYJ0&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3gMw4Q1eaKTrWTepWIUnBfPsU8CWpar-_rO4MNB2NiwiWcRcjVGlbuHEQ

Notes on Nenes

September 20, 2019

A British friend of mine is a professor in the music department of a New Zealand university. We met up earlier this year during one of his occasional research trips to Okinawa. Inevitably the talk turned to music and to some of the artists from these islands. Among those discussed were Nenes, the four women who caused a sensation when they arrived on the Okinawan music scene some years ago.

I hadn’t listened to the earlier Nenes albums for quite a while, so our conversation prompted me to return to the work of these four remarkable women. It was immediately a bit of a surprise to realise that next year, in 2020, it will be a whopping 30 years since the formation of the original band.

How the time flies (and other platitudes). It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I had another of my Okinawan music revelations when I saw the original Nenes for the first time at a packed all-standing Banana Hall in Osaka. I had been to this venue many times, but it was a big crush that night and I even gave up an attempt to get to the bar for another beer (previously unheard of!) as it was more like a football crowd than a concert audience.

Nenes (l. to r.) Yasuko, Yukino, Misako, Namiko

Nenes were superb that evening and were so again on the subsequent occasions I saw them. Shortly after the release of their second album I met up with members Misako Koja and Yasuko Yoshida for an interview before another great concert in Osaka, this time at Club Quattro. And lest we forget, the other members of that sublime original line-up were Namiko Miyazato and Yukino Hiyane.

From 1990 until the end of the decade the four made some wonderful music, not just in live performance but with some excellent recordings. They released eight studio albums during that decade, including the Koza compilation and then a final live album Okinawa subtitled (rather morbidly) Memorial Nenes. The one change of personnel occurred when Misako Koja left to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Eriko Touma for the last two of these albums.

Two more compilations arrived in 2002 and then a double retrospective Golden Best in 2004 on Sony, so there is still plenty out there to interest anyone yet to discover their legacy. And I haven’t even mentioned Sadao China, the man who put them together, acted as mentor, produced their albums and wrote many of the songs. He also created the Okinawan language version of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ that became one of their trademark songs in live shows.

It was thrilling to see Nenes at their peak especially when they played with backing musicians rather than pre-recorded tracks. They produced a hybrid sound combining Okinawan traditional songs, modern shimauta, and global pop with hints of Indonesia, Hawaii and Brazil. Usually the four sang in unison while each member occasionally took turns with the lead vocal.

They announced themselves on the cover of their third album Ashibi as an ‘International Uchina Pop Group’ but could sing straightforward Okinawan minyo too as they showed on their fifth album Narabi where the guests included Seijin Noborikawa and Tetsuhiro Daiku. It was a relatively stripped back Nenes after the glorious excess (and success) of its immediate predecessor Koza Dabasa recorded in Los Angeles with Ry Cooder, David Hidalgo and other American musicians.

Of course, the individual members were mostly established already as solo singers before Sadao China came along. Traditional Okinawan song remained their first love and Yasuko Yoshida once told me that, however big the sound was when they played on stage with the full backing band, it was always minyo she was listening to in her head.

They were not the first either, as Four Sisters (who, unlike Nenes, were real sisters) preceded them by many years. But while Four Sisters were committed to traditional Okinawan songs, Nenes pushed things into much more diverse territory. It’s a bit like Bob Dylan taking inspiration from Woody Guthrie but ultimately surpassing his idol to take his music in many new directions. At least Nenes didn’t get booed for going electric.

As ‘any fule kno’, Nenes didn’t finish after that live memorial show and album. New reincarnations continue to appear to this day as Frankenstein China still tinkers with different formations. Most recently they have become a trio. All the members of the ever-changing younger line-ups have been fine singers and Mayuko Higa – now a solo artist – is a favourite of mine. However, it’s better that I don’t go on about China’s inability to move with the times: just read my reviews of the last two or three albums to get the idea.

It was great to meet up with Henry (that’s my friend in New Zealand) and to talk again about music. While I’m just an enthusiast, he really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to musical theory and it’s always good to pick his brains. More importantly he reminded me of those halcyon days when Nenes ruled Okinawa.

End of an Era?

July 11, 2019

The most depressing piece of roots music news lately has been the announcement that UK magazine fRoots is suspending publication. This comes just as its latest issue celebrates 40 years of existence, and earlier this year the magazine was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award at Folk Alliance International in Canada.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been a contributing writer to the magazine for many years. The opportunity to write for them has given me a comparatively rare overseas platform for the introduction and promotion of Okinawan music.

Unlike the big corporate sponsored publications, fRoots has remained independent all this time under its founder and editor Ian Anderson. It has been at the forefront in championing the more adventurous, independent, sometimes downright wacky ‘local music from out there’ – an essential guide for anyone with an interest in folk, roots and what became known for a time as ‘world music’.

The magazine paid regular attention to music from Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands, and writer Paul Fisher and I have frequently been able to indulge our island music enthusiasms in its pages. So much so that the relatively unknown Jun Yasuba & An-chang Project even found themselves on the front cover in the April 2000 issue!

One of the most satisfying experiences for me was being able to interview the late Shouei Kina in a long leisurely conversation that ended up as a three-page feature in the June 2003 edition. And last year I was able to report on the Basque Ryukyu Project. In fact, it was an early fRoots CD that initially sparked my interest in the Basques at the end of the last century.

Many of the articles I wrote for fRoots can be accessed on the Features Archive category of this blog. Another I was still writing when the news came through will eventually be completed and included in the archive. The difficulty of running a print magazine independently is a sign of the times. But it may not be the end yet and fRoots may live on, at least in its online form. Thanks to Ian Anderson for all his hard work. Now he deserves a rest!

For more on fRoots and its demise see the article in this week’s Guardian:

www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/08/froots-british-folk-magazine-underground-music

The fRoots website is at:

www.frootsmag.com

The Singer and the Song

March 28, 2019

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote a while ago for a magazine. In the end it wasn’t published so you can read it here instead.

The Singer and the Song

I don’t sing but I’m a good listener. There’s nothing I like better than listening to a good song sung by a great singer. In fact, I like singing so much that I’m reluctant to listen to music that doesn’t have a vocal. Which means I sometimes skip the instrumental tracks on albums and much of the vast pantheon of European classical music leaves me cold. But Kate Rusby can sing any old song and I’m all ears.

There are exceptions to this general rule. When Liam O’Flynn’s uillean pipes kick in on a Planxty song, for example, I go all weak at the knees. Even so it’s usually the song that is still the most important thing and the uillean pipes just sneak into my consciousness a bit later to weave their spell.

I said I don’t sing but there have been exceptions to that rule too. As a child growing up in England, I had to sing hymns in school assemblies but surrounded by numerous other children, many of whom were lip-syncing as I usually was. My only public appearance as a solo singer came years later after I had moved to Japan, home of karaoke. On many more than seven drunken nights I ploughed through karaoke versions of ‘My Way’ and ‘Yesterday’ like everyone else did at the time, but my crowning moment on stage came at the wedding party of a Japanese friend.

At weddings in Japan – and indeed almost any formal celebratory occasion – it’s customary for each guest to perform a party piece. Word had got around that I was a bit of a Bob Dylan fan and so I was requested (a few days in advance) to sing a Dylan song at the wedding. After days of practicing at home – and fortified by a few glasses of lemonade on the day itself – I managed a half-decent rendition of ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ accompanying myself on guitar. The song was chosen mainly because of its simple enough chord structure which made it relatively easy to play while I concentrated fiercely on trying to remember the words and sing them in tune.

As for the lyrics it wouldn’t have made any difference if I’d made up new ones on the spot (as Bob himself has been known to do) or thrown in a few choice obscenities since none of the wedding guests had any understanding of English and were simply pleased to see the foreigner singing a song and doing his bit.

Barnsley’s nightingale Kate Rusby

That was the last time I sang in front of an audience but I well remember comments from the gathered guests along the lines of how good it was to hear a native English speaker singing and, even, how much better it is to hear a Westerner singing as they have the natural rhythm, phrasing and timing that is elusive to most Japanese vocalists.

This myth of the supremacy of Western singers – and specifically those who sing in the English language – was all pervasive in my early experience in Japan and I’ll come back to that in a bit, but first…

What I’ve also noticed among listeners of all countries – well, my UK and Japanese friends anyway – is that most people don’t really like music. Or not that much. I used to ask my students at the Japanese university where I was employed what they liked to do best. One of the most common responses was ‘listen to music’. Further probing failed to find anything but the vaguest interest in music, whether listening, singing, playing, going to concerts, buying music or any of the things that real music aficionados are supposed to do. Saying you liked music was simply the easy option that wouldn’t draw unwanted attention or mark you out as weird or strange. A safe hobby not like bungee-jumping or collecting antique bottle tops.

My academic colleagues were no different. The opinion most often aired was that so-and-so (insert famous pop vocalist here, but frequently Celine Dion) can be easily enjoyed because she/he has ‘a great voice’. I had never thought about ‘great voices’ when I first became excited by songs and singing. Surely anyone who makes a record or stands up on a stage (except me at a wedding party) must already have a pretty good voice or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Tom Waits: not a ‘pure’ voice but a great singer (Photo: Kenny Mathieson)

What they really mean is that it’s not too disturbing and makes a pleasant sound. Well yes, I adore Kate Rusby and her ‘pure’ singing but I also love Tom Waits who always sounds like he’s been out drinking and smoking way past his bedtime. Tom has a great voice, and so has Bob Dylan, of course. It’s not to do with whether you can hit the right notes and sound nice, it’s all in the phrasing, the blend of words and music, the ability to evoke an emotional response, to disturb and upset if necessary.

And it doesn’t matter what words you are singing, to get back to the point I was about to make earlier about language. A few years ago, many of my friends, family and acquaintances in the UK would have been mortified at the thought of having to listen to a song (or heaven forbid, an entire album) sung in a language other than English. Unless it’s opera, of course, and then it mustn’t be sung in English. They imagined that understanding the words was the most important thing. They deluded themselves. Even the lyrics of their favourite British and American pop songs were frequently misheard or buried under a wall of noise. They just felt more comfortable if they were at least mishearing in English. Thankfully, many of those attitudes are now changing but it’s still sometimes a struggle to convince them to really open their minds and ears to the wealth of great songs and singing all over the world.

The Japanese are a bit different as they are used to listening to songs sung in other languages they don’t understand and especially to English. In fact, they sometimes prefer to listen to English whether understanding it or not. They are also eager to insert often meaningless English phrases and words into their own songs.

Here on Okinawa, the iconic roots singer Shoukichi Kina still believes that he needs to have his Okinawan songs changed into English if they are to reach bigger overseas audiences. Not just translated, but he needs to sing them in English too. This, even though he doesn’t speak English and has never sung in anything other than Okinawan or Japanese. I have tried telling him the beauty of the original singing would be lost but he just gives me a funny look. Fortunately, the chances of this really happening are about as likely as my singing at another wedding.

I’m not likely to overcome my reluctance to sing but I will certainly never stop listening to others who do and who thrill and excite me with their wonderful voices – and it won’t matter if they are singing in Basque, Okinawan or Swahili.

Okinawa’s Message of Protest

March 1, 2019

Last Sunday’s referendum asked the people of Okinawa to vote on the issue of the new military base at Henoko. This issue has already dragged on for several years accompanied by numerous anti-base rallies, protests and demonstrations by Okinawans who have suffered the forced occupation of large parts of their main island by the American military for more than 70 years.

It becomes tedious to reiterate the details of the Okinawans’ burden and all the crimes, incidents, and accidents caused by the American occupation, not to mention the ongoing environmental destruction and degradation which is bound to get worse with the construction of the new base. The American military is not in Okinawa to protect the people but to pursue their own government’s interests and agenda as they always have.

The referendum result on the front page of the Okinawa Times

It therefore came as no surprise when the referendum found 71% voting against the construction at Henoko. It should also be no surprise that this overwhelmingly clear rejection of the base by voters in the Ryukyu Islands will be ignored by Japan’s government. They have already said as much. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not a fan of the democratic process unless it is advantageous to him. His government cares even less about the people of Okinawa who have always been discriminated against and treated as second-rate people by Japan.

I’m a great movie fan and recently watched the remarkable Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman which was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this week. (It didn’t win – that honour went to the admirable but much softer and more audience-friendly Green Book). BlacKkKlansman ends with some footage of Donald Trump and his disgraceful speech in 2017 in which he becomes an apologist for racism. All this in response to the riots unfolding at the time in Charlottesville, Virginia at a white supremacist rally.

Abe is, of course, a great friend and supporter of Trump and watching BlacKkKlansman I couldn’t help but be reminded of the parallels with the treatment of Okinawans over the years and their struggles to be accepted as equals in Japan. African-Americans faced, and still face, appalling violence and discrimination while many thousands of Okinawan lives were sacrificed by Japan in the Battle of Okinawa. Now the islanders’ peaceful pleas are met with cold indifference from Tokyo. And sometimes violence too against the peaceful daily protesters at Henoko who have even been reviled with the derogatory term dojin (savages).

Full marks to those who continue to protest in Okinawa and to those who organised the referendum. They might have been forgiven for tiring of their efforts in the face of such astonishing neglect from mainland Japan. Some form of independence from Japan has not been mooted yet, except by a few, but nothing changes while Okinawa is under Japanese rule.