Archive for the ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ category

Listening to Roots Music

May 11, 2023

Not so long ago, people from my country didn’t listen to songs unless they were sung in English. That’s changed now, but there’s still a reluctance in England to engage with other languages. While it’s also the norm in Okinawa to watch foreign language movies with Japanese subtitles, it’s been harder for many in the UK to break away from their aversion to subtitles and to anything not presented in their own language. No doubt it’s one of the legacies of their British colonial past.

More than once I’ve cited Bob Brozman’s interview with me for The Power of Okinawa book when he said, “Why don’t people just listen to foreign singing as music? It’s all about the sound.” Yes, indeed. But there has also been a reverse problem with a small minority of English roots music enthusiasts refusing to accept their own folk songs as ‘world music’ alongside what they think of as authentic traditional music from Africa, Asia and elsewhere. In their view, it mustn’t be sung in English.

It can also backfire when roots music from the furthest corners of the world is given a makeover to appeal more readily to Western ears. Softening the blow of having to listen to very unfamiliar sounds doesn’t always do the trick, especially when the Western listener may prefer to be challenged by something different anyway. 

This works both ways. In the university seminar I taught a few years ago, many students were indifferent to their own Okinawan music when mixed with synthesisers or given Western musical settings. (An exception was Oshima and Keezer’s jazz version of ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’ which was universally loved). The simple lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t predict what someone is going to like and there’s no point in sugar-coating it to try and gain their attention or approval.

(Photo: Stephen Mansfield)

Of course, it also didn’t go unnoticed that one of my students was a relative of the great Okinawan singer Misako Koja, and he was impatient to listen to more traditional sanshin music.

This leads to the thorny question of just what constitutes Okinawan roots music. Must it always have a sanshin? Well, of course not. The music comes in all shapes and sizes and some of the best musicians – Hidekatsu, for example – eschew the sanshin altogether. The superb Satoru Shimoji from Miyako gets by with the minimum of sanshin, but his sweeping keyboard-led arrangements evoke his islands’ atmosphere like no other. Further south in the Yaeyama islands there is, of course, a long tradition of unaccompanied work songs with no musical instruments at all.

Hip-hop singer and poet Awich has said that her own rapping is totally Okinawan in the tradition of kuduchi and she’s right. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean any old thing is representative of Okinawan roots music just because the artist happens to be from here.

The sanshin has been the sound of Okinawa since it was taken up by the people after the fall of the Ryukyu Kingdom, just as the kora is strongly evocative of West Africa. It’s by no means obligatory, but it’s still a bit strange to get rid of it completely when showing off the islands’ musical culture to the outside world. Performing ‘Guantanamero’ at an overseas Womex showcase, as one Okinawan group has done, only caused bemusement for the fRoots reviewer who hurried off to find something else to listen to.  

How we access recordings of all this music is another question that provokes various responses. This goes around in circles and although the CD may be almost obsolete for some listeners it’s still the most pervasive way to release music in Okinawa. In fact, it’s often the only way as many of the albums I review are only available to buy on CD and no other format.

For the rest, vinyl records and even cassette tapes have returned with an increasing number of devotees, and, of course, there are always downloads and streaming for those who want it quick and are not bothered about collecting music as an artifact. But a Bob Dylan follower will not be content with streaming or downloading the great man’s works (it would be heresy!). For others it will be enough to seek out something on YouTube. Many, including myself, will employ a combination of these depending on the circumstances.

All this diversity is a fine thing as there are so many languages, singers, and music genres to be discovered, and sounds from all over the globe can be more easily found and listened to these days in such a variety of ways. There’s a whole world of music out there.


Rediscovering Tanita

February 24, 2023

It was Valentine’s Day this month. To mark this romantic occasion a friend of mine in Japan shared a song on social media. The song was ‘Valentine Heart’ by Tanita Tikaram. Listening to it again immediately sparked some old thoughts and hazy memories.

In 1988 I was living in Kobe and had just begun writing about music for Kansai Time Out magazine. At the same time, 19-year-old Tanita Tikaram was releasing her debut album Ancient Heart, and it may well have been mentioned in one of my earliest columns – it seems so long ago that I can’t remember.

The album sold around four million copies and ‘Valentine Heart’ was one of its songs. I bought it as a cassette tape. My favourite tracks were the first two: the upbeat ‘Good Tradition’ (see video) and the gorgeously romantic ‘Cathedral Song’. Tanita Tikaram had quite a deep voice and apart from the catchy opening track her songs were dark and meditative, but thinking back, it was just an impression many of us had, as I don’t think I ever really stopped to wonder about the lyrics. I just liked the melodies.

Soon after, a tour of Japan was announced, and it included a date in nearby Osaka. I had completely forgotten this until reminded the other day by my wife Midori who has a much better memory. Apparently, we even bought tickets for this highly anticipated event only to have our hopes dashed as the tour – or at least the date in Osaka – was subsequently cancelled.

Perhaps Tanita was ill. In any event, my interest in her music waned, either because of this disappointment or possibly other unknown factors. My burgeoning interest in the music of Okinawa was beginning to take over. I didn’t listen to her again for almost 35 years.

Tanita Tikaram is from an internationally diverse background. Her father is from Fiji and her mother from Malaysia. She was born in Germany but moved to Basingstoke, England when still a child and now lives in London. Following the early success of that debut album her subsequent releases had diminishing returns in terms of sales. There were also lengthy periods when she didn’t record at all and seemed to put her music career on hold.

The world is a different place now that we can check up on musicians’ lives online. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that Tanita didn’t disappear. She always returned to making music and writing songs and has made nine original albums to date. Her latest To Drink the Rainbow is an anthology that focuses on her post-teenage years right up to 2019. And she is currently in the studio recording a new album.

It was my friend’s post that finally returned me to her music after all these years. Listening to it again I initially felt nostalgia tinged with a bit of sadness. But why? I interviewed Kate Rusby when she was 24, and she will be 50 this year. And I met Okinawa’s Chihiro Kamiya when she was only 21 and she has turned 40. I don’t feel any sadness about them. I suppose it’s because I’ve kept up with their music all along. So, it’s my own fault and not Tanita’s. Any sadness is for not having paid attention to her music as the years flew by.

I have a lot of catching up to do but it appears her career is moving along nicely at her own pace. Good music doesn’t depend on popular ‘success’ but on personal evolution and creativity and in this she seems to be well ahead of her 19-year-old self. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the compensation for early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. I wonder if Tanita felt this. I suspect she must be very happy with the way things have turned out now that she is in her 50s. She has every right to be.  

Now whatever happened to Tracy Chapman?

Roots Round-up 2022

December 2, 2022

As we near the end of the year it’s time for another round-up of roots music to come my way in 2022.

There were several interesting and varied Okinawan albums that I listened to, and these included the youthful, experimental Okinawa Electric Girl Saya with her album Doomsday. At the other end of the age spectrum there was Uchina Jazz Goes On by the revitalised veteran musicians of Uchina Jazz All Stars.

But my favourite album came early in the year. This was Tenmikachi Donmikachi Hiyamikachi by Keiko Higa. It was good to see Higa in the studio again surrounded by so much Ryukyu talent. The musicians included the ever-popular Shuken Maekawa who composed the title song, and Miyako’s Tadayuki Matsubara whose debut album was one of my picks last year. What confirmed this as my number one was seeing Higa and her ensemble cast of musicians in a superb concert in Koza to promote the album release.

Another to lend Higa a helping hand was Seishin Taba whose own double album retrospective Shiawase Retto is my second favourite this year. 32 tracks from all stages of Taba’s long career provide the perfect introduction to his work and there’s also one newly recorded song.

My third choice is Toru Yonaha’s Roots~Ryuraku Keisho. Yonaha is no longer the bright young spark I first saw at the Ryukyu Festival in Osaka years ago but is a long-established artist now who often takes a back seat in the support and promotion of others. Here he is centre stage with a completely solo album.

Above: Amy Lou and Lisa Maria of Mama’s Broke (Photo: Blanca Chavez)

The roots albums from ‘out there’ included a 16 track 30-year celebration from Kate Rusby and the impossible to categorise Sweet Tooth from Wabanaki bassist Mali Obomsawin. However, it was the heartfelt singing and playing of East Canadian duo Mama’s Broke on their Narrow Line release that gets my vote.

You can find reviews of all these albums on the Power of Okinawa blog.  

In Love with Shoukichi

September 28, 2022

A few evenings ago, I listened again to In Love by Shoukichi Kina & Champloose. It was the first time for quite a while. But In Love must be a bit old now, I was thinking. Then I frightened myself at just how quickly my life is slipping away by checking the date. It was released by Toshiba-EMI on 30th September 1992 which means it will be its 30th anniversary on Friday!

Of all the albums made by Kina this is one that is often missed. Or even dismissed. Westerners especially are more attracted to what they imagine is ‘authentic’ roots music and, for many, In Love was just a bit too slick. Even Salif Keita received sniffy reviews around the same time for his use of synthesisers.

In Love is not too slick. In fact, it’s well-recorded, produced and played, and sounds almost as fresh today as it did three decades ago. It was the first time Kina had created such a polished concoction (in the right way) since his Earth Spirit album two years previously, recorded in Paris with the help of African musicians. It is a step up from some of the ramshackle hit and miss performances on some of his other albums.

A major reason for its success is the sheer quality of the songs, which include many Kina originals alongside a few tried and tested island songs. It all begins with the ever-popular Okinawan staple ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’. I remember very well a live show by Kina and his band in Osaka when they began their set with a blistering, all-action version of this. The studio recording on In Love is not as wild but still captures the glorious essence of the song.

Among the originals – and Kina was writing more in those days – is the beautiful ‘Shimusayutasasa’. Very surprisingly (knowing Kina’s penchant for endless re-recordings) this is the only album on which it appears. If only he could write another like it now. ‘Maitreya’ was another fine original song, this time co-written by Kina with former Champloose member Takao Nagama.

I have an awkward memory of a very different live performance of this at Chakra in Naha. This was six months to the day after the release of In Love. I know this as my CD was signed and dated by Shoukichi Kina moments before he took to the stage for his live show. He enquired before going on if I had any requests, and I asked for ‘Maitreya’. This was not a song his band were familiar with yet. Kina dedicated it to me, but my delight soon turned to alarm as the musicians mangled the tune and made several errors. After the set, Kina marched the musicians into the dressing room and his angry shouts of admonishment made all who heard them squirm with embarrassment. I knew then I should have requested ‘Hana’.

It may well have been later the same evening when, after having had a bit too much of the liquid refreshment on offer, I announced to Shoukichi Kina that I loved him. He took this in his stride with a simple nod of acknowledgement as if my declaration was of course the most natural response of any right-thinking person.

The nine-member line-up on In Love included Kina’s brother Masahiro and sisters Keiko, Sachiko, and Junko. It was augmented by some guest musicians and followers of the great man. Among them was British keyboardist Morgan Fisher whose ancient history involved spells as a member of Love Affair and Mott the Hoople.

There was a huge mix of influences in the music. You can find minyo and shimauta as well as rock, reggae, some eisa, a rap, even a bit of African guitar that crept in from Earth Spirit. And perhaps there’s still a hint of the spiritual guru Osho Rajneesh who was once followed by some members of Champloose before Shoukichi Kina himself usurped him as their guru. 

The often-maligned title track finds them all clustered together in a singalong in which they take a minute to get going as they struggle to learn the unfamiliar English words: “Your love, I feel it takes me to the depth of my being…” and so on. It might be thought tacky but it’s very good to hear so much enjoyment and a spirit of fun that certainly wasn’t there on that night when they played ‘Maitreya’ for me.

Irei no hi 2022

June 23, 2022

Today is ‘Irei no hi’, a public holiday in the Ryukyu Islands. This year is the 77th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa in which more than 241,000 died. Most were Okinawans murdered by the U.S. and Japan.

There is no public holiday for this in Japan where it really ought to be a day of shame. I am also getting tired of writing about it every year as it’s always the same.

Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo

As usual, Japan’s Prime Minister – this time Fumio Kishida – came to Okinawa Peace Memorial Park near my home in Itoman and delivered a speech full of platitudes and lies about how Japan cares for Okinawa. This was met with some heckling. The reality is very different and unless Ryukyu regains independence is unlikely to change.

Only 340 were allowed into the ceremony itself but many gathered in the park to pay their respects to the dead and there were also some protesters (photo above). For today we remember all those who died and were sacrificed by Japan in the Battle of Okinawa.

When time heals nothing

June 1, 2022

In April I wrote a piece anticipating the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan. This has now been updated and expanded. The new article ‘When time heals nothing’ is published today by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in the June issue of their Number 1 Shimbun.

The front pages of the Ryukyu Shimpo on the 50th anniversary of reversion, and on 15 May 1972, with almost identical headlines.

The article can be read online here:

The 50th Anniversary of Reversion

April 8, 2022

In just a few weeks, on the 15th May to be precise, the 50th anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa to Japan will be commemorated. I am reminded of ‘Jidai no Nagare’ (The Passage of Time) a song associated with Rinsho Kadekaru. Its opening lines (in English translation) are:

From rule by China to rule by Yamato

From rule by Yamato to rule by America        

How astonishing the changes in this Okinawa of ours!

Claiming rule by America was wrong          

Rule by Yamato returned                   

Which is better? One never knows for sure   

One thing we do know for sure is that reversion to Yamato (Japan) promised many things that have not come to pass, not least the hope that American bases would finally disappear, Okinawans would get their land back, and the islanders would be treated as equal citizens by Japan. None of this has happened and so the war still isn’t over for Okinawa.

As I’m almost tired of saying… not much has changed under the colonial rule of Japan, with the use and misuse of land stolen by US occupation forces for military bases. Accidents and incidents, crimes, and environmental degradation, all continue with the tacit approval of a Japanese government that has no intention of doing anything to seriously relieve Okinawans of their burden.

Only last week at Naha military port, an American soldier pointed a gun at a Ryukyu Shimpo reporter who was just doing his job. The chilling photo (below) says a lot about the reality of life under virtual occupation.

Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo

Returning to ‘Jidai no Nagare’, a newer version of the song contains these lines:

Long ago the hills and forests were ours      

Where we picked oranges freely         

Now as bases they are American                 

Long ago the seas were ours too                 

We could have a dip at any time         

Now the resorts keep us out                         

Change after change is our fate         

But bases on the island never change 

When will things become better?

It would be very optimistic to imagine things will soon become better. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that people on these islands are not yet calling for independence, since the prospects of ever achieving any kind of autonomy under Japan are extremely bleak. This is especially so in view of Japan’s slavish following of America and support for its wars.  

A few years ago, a referendum for independence in Scotland was a close-run thing and may yet come to fruition. By contrast, regaining independence has been almost a taboo subject in Okinawa. In my local community it’s not something that’s discussed, while some students at the university where I lectured were shocked at the idea. For younger Okinawans the Battle of Okinawa and its combined 240,000+ deaths, is something from the murky past and they have grown up used to the bases and the American war machine.

There is a sense of Stockholm Syndrome in all this. Many fear the unknown of going it alone and live in hopes they will somehow be treated better by their oppressors. There is, however, more enthusiasm for autonomy among some Uchinanchu Americans and others outside the islands, judging by what I read daily on social media: perhaps being away from it all they can see something that those closer cannot. They are also able to view it in the broader sense of a struggle by indigenous peoples worldwide.

On Saturday 30th April starting at 14:00 there will be a Kenmin Taikai or People’s Gathering at Onoyama Rikuyokyogijo in Naha. Its purpose is to protest about the American bases and to tell the younger generation about the problems of the last 50 years. It’s hoped to attract 10,000 participants. This is unlikely to lead to any significant change but that’s not the point. What is important is to show the unfairness meted out to these islands as Kadekaru’s song continues to resonate.  

Roots Round-up 2021

December 8, 2021

It’s that time again when everyone chooses their best albums of the year, so here are some of my favourites.  

In 2021 several new Okinawan releases came my way but best of all was Utayui by Chihiro Kamiya. This was her first full-length album for nine years and it really confirmed her place as one of the great singers from these islands with a set of songs mixing both old and new. The review of Kamiya’s album (and of all the albums here) can be found on the Power of Okinawa blog.

Next in my top three is the debut album Churaumi, Churashima by Miyako singer and sanshin player Tadayuki Matsubara who is following strongly in the footsteps of his mentor Genji Kuniyoshi who died earlier this year. Matsubara captures the mood of his islands perfectly on an album of traditional songs that would surely have made Kuniyoshi himself proud.

My third choice must be the double CD Mo Ashibi Magic recorded live in Tokyo in 1999 by Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman and released for the first time this year. As I wrote in the review: “For anyone familiar with their original albums this will be an unexpected and essential bonus. It also serves as a wonderful reminder of one of the most successful collaborations in any musical genre.”

Of the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ recordings to reach me, here are three favourites, in no special order:

Spiers & Boden’s Fallow Ground was a very welcome return for the Bellowhead pair working again as a duo with a great mix of songs and tunes. The two Englishmen made an intoxicatingly vibrant noise to prove they are still at the top of their game. While mainly an upbeat set, the instrumental track ‘The Fog’ is possibly the best thing John Spiers has ever done.

Meanwhile from America there were two recordings that I listened to more than any other. The first was the Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno self-titled album which contained a lovely selection of original songs, typified by the melancholy ‘Love and Chains’ (see video). It’s a remarkable album made with great skill, care, and love by young musicians already steeped in a tradition way beyond music fashions.

My other favourite was Joe Troop’s solo debut Borrowed Time a collection of self-composed protest songs plus a couple of instrumentals. The dominant sound is that of Troop’s voice and banjo and to this he adds some gifted musicians while slipping effortlessly between English and Spanish vocals. 

With the persistent pandemic affecting live shows there weren’t many trips out but I did see a terrific set from the Okinawa Americana duo Merry and David Ralston at Mod’s in Chatan last month.

This was with their full band line-up for the CD release of their second album Tachi. The earlier digital release was reviewed here some time ago. There’s another chance to see them when they play on 24th December at Stage Coco in Itoman. I’ll be there to start the Christmas celebrations.

Cover Story

November 24, 2021

I read this month of an exhibition of the ‘world’s worst album covers’ in Huddersfield, England. It was all the work of a record collector who assembled the showcase after going on a lengthy mission to find disastrous LP covers. He wasn’t just interested in bad cover designs: his first rule was that the cover had to make him laugh.

This got me thinking about Okinawan covers and I wondered if there were any from these islands that might have been contenders. There’s one in my own collection that has always struck me as being so hastily put together that it never fails to provoke merriment in our house. This is Satukui Chijuya, a duet album by Koutoku Tsuha and Satoko Oshiro.

Now don’t get me wrong. Koutoku Tsuha is one of the greatest singers and sanshin players of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists. His partner here, Satoko Oshiro, was originally one of his pupils. It’s a fine recording. But unless Oshiro is a giant of a woman – or Tsuha has shrunk alarmingly in his later years – they have clearly not been photographed together. It looks more as if Oshiro is leading her prematurely aged little boy safely through the sugar cane field.

This isn’t the only Okinawan example of photos taken at different times and pasted together but it’s the one that makes me laugh. There are a few other covers that could, I suppose, lay claim to being either disastrous or funny. One in the former camp is the cover for the album Challenge by Akane Murayoshi that came out ten years ago and was reviewed here at the time.

This went a bit overboard with its garish design which does the singer no favours. Sadly, the album itself is no great shakes either. It took a while but to her credit, Murayoshi has completely recovered from this and went on to contribute to one of my albums of the year when she appeared on Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 along with Hirokazu Matsuda, Seibun Tokuhara, and Mika Uchizato.

My other example is the cover for the compilation Okinawa Sobayasan no BGM. It was released by Respect in 2006 and this is a case of intentionally funny artwork so, in fact, it succeeds very well. The album contains a selection of songs related to the joys of eating Okinawa soba with diversions into the delights of mango and awamori. It also includes the wonderfully tacky ‘Goya Bushi’ by Yoko Yokota.

There may be others, but these are the ones that came to mind, though it would be harsh to say any of them would find a place in an exhibition of ‘worst’ covers. Whether intentionally or not they did make me smile though.

Dreamtime for the Ryukyus

October 20, 2021

I read a news report this week about the Marshall Islands, a nation comprising more than a thousand islands in the north Pacific. Because of rising sea levels, some of the islands are likely to disappear completely as they go underwater. Majuro, the islands’ capital is projected to find 40% of its buildings permanently flooded. Marshall Islands’ status as a nation would even come under threat.

It’s not such a stretch to imagine a similar scenario eventually arising in parts of the Ryukyus. As if there wasn’t already enough for the islanders to contend with along with colonisation by Japan and land taken without the people’s consent for American military bases.

Dreamtime…with shisa

This is all a far cry from the tropical tourist paradise frequently portrayed, or the ‘healing islands’ image of mainland Japanese: an image that never fails to annoy me. Apathy among the electorate in Japan also means this month’s election won’t change anything for Okinawa. Those who do vote will return a government that has no interest in democracy or the will of the Okinawan people. Sadly, many Okinawans are disillusioned with politics too and see resistance as futile.  

Outside these islands (and even within Japan) there is little or no awareness of the history of the Ryukyus and of their ongoing problems. However, there have been several books recently published in English by ‘outsiders’ who through their writings have tried to draw attention to what goes on here.

Welsh investigative journalist Jon Mitchell has done painstaking work, in the face of much opposition, to uncover secrets the American military would rather we hadn’t found out. Akemi Johnson has written an excellent book drawing on the stories of women connected in various ways with the bases; and Elizabeth Miki Brina’s superb memoir Speak, Okinawa seamlessly blends a summary of Ryukyu history with her own experiences of coming to terms with her Okinawan heritage.

All these books have been mentioned before on the Power of Okinawa, but now there’s a new addition to this small but distinguished group of publications that in their different ways have all focussed on the predicament facing Okinawa. This time it comes in the form of a novel by English author Venetia Welby whose new book Dreamtime is set largely in the Ryukyu Islands. 

This is Welby’s second novel and she spent considerable time travelling in the Ryukyus while researching the background for her book. The story is set in a dystopian near future and its protagonist is Sol, a young American woman who emerges from rehab in Arizona to embark on a journey, together with friend Kit, that takes her to Okinawa in search of her absentee father who was stationed on the island as a marine. All of this takes place against a backdrop of global climate meltdown.

In what is also something of a road novel, there are scenes in Naha, Chatan, and Yomitan, as well as the outer islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote. These locations along with the characters and cultural depictions from the Ryukyus are convincingly represented and it’s clear that Welby has done her research thoroughly.

But this is a novel, not a factual account, and is all the better for it. It should first be appreciated as literature and as such is a very satisfying read. The story is fast-paced, and the genre defies categorisation. It’s science fiction set in a near future (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a relative). At the same time, it looks back to the history of the Ryukyu Islands. Important issues are addressed such as climate change, the evils of colonisation, and the continual dangers arising from hosting military bases. There’s also a love story at its heart.  

Welby has done a fine job of creating an unusually compelling and prescient novel that should be of great interest to all readers, not just those with a particular interest in Okinawa. Perhaps it will also help to awaken the outside world to what is happening in the Ryukyus now and what might happen in the future.