Archive for the ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ category

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

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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.

Best of the Year 2018

December 28, 2018

It’s almost the end of another year and so it’s time to look back over the music we listened to. As usual there was a lot going on in the world of roots music and many fine new albums were released. My favourite of all was The Invisible Comes to Us which is the third album by Anna & Elizabeth. The young American duo took things into new territory by somehow managing to combine traditional Appalachian ballads with field recordings from the archives and with avant-garde experiments too. A superb achievement.

On the Okinawan front the debut solo album by Yoko Ishikawa was a very welcome release and showed there are many younger musicians around the Ryukyu Islands who are carrying on the song traditions and taking them forward. Her simply produced album owed a lot to her mentor Shizuko Oshiro. If anything, Ishikawa has been a bit too keen to acknowledge this fact – such is the way in the hierarchical world of Okinawan traditional song. Her album Shami No Yorokobi nevertheless demonstrated the emergence of yet another top singer from these islands.

There was also a good new album this year by Ishigaki singer-songwriter tidanomiyuki whose Now and Then was a fine discovery. Okinawa’s Maltese Rock released Otobune, and there was a double album Chimu Churasa from the ubiquitous Kanako Horiuchi. All these albums were reviewed on the Power of Okinawa blog.

There seems to have been a bigger influx of overseas artists performing live, at least on the main island of Okinawa. In the past many foreign musicians touring mainland Japan have been unable for logistical or financial reasons to include Okinawa in their tour schedule. Now a few are beginning to get through.

Trad.Attack! (Photo: Stina Kase)

The best concert I saw all year was by Estonian trio Trad.Attack! who played the last date of their Japan tour in October at Naha’s Sakurazaka Theatre. Like Anna & Elizabeth, they also use samples of archive recordings and they produced a thrilling sound with 12-string guitar, bagpipes, whistles and drums. Their second album, the wonderful Kullakarva, also received a release in Japan.

I mustn’t end without mentioning another great concert at the same venue in May when Mikel Urdangarin from the Basque Country played solo and with his ‘Okinawa trio’ of Mutsumi Aragaki and Makoto Miyata. This was the culmination of much planning and preparation for what we named the Basque Ryukyu Project which saw Mikel spending five weeks on Okinawa learning about the islands’ music and culture and collaborating with local musicians. It was also a rare occasion as Mikel played only in Okinawa and not in mainland Japan.

All the best for a happy and music-filled year in 2019!

A Conversation with Kirk – Part 2

January 25, 2018

Here’s the second part of my discussion with ethnomusicologist Kirk King. Many thanks to Kirk for engaging in this conversation with me and I hope to talk a lot more with him in the future – preferably  over a glass or two of Orion beer in Okinawa. 

JP: I can see that when I condemn enka for its predictability I am on dodgy ground as it is quite true that blues is the most predictable form of all and that doesn’t offend me in any way. I used to listen to a lot of blues especially when I was very young and just discovering lots of British and American music in the folk club I frequented every week in Norwich.

I would agree that although we both love Okinawan music it almost certainly means different things to us and we bring our own feelings and experiences to it. I am sometimes horrified when (usually Japanese) people say to me that they also love Okinawan music and then go on to say they love all that ‘healing’ stuff or their taste in the music begins and ends with Namie Amuro or Rimi Natsukawa.

Many years ago I listened to a radio programme in which some music ‘expert’ made the point that classical music is always superior to pop music. His reasoning was that we listen to a three minute pop song and like it for a few weeks but then we get fed up with hearing it because it is so repetitive and so simple. On the other hand, a classical symphony has such complexity and goes on for so long that we never get tired of it. I think at the time I perhaps believed what he said, although reluctantly as I’ve always preferred listening to pop music. It’s only now, many years later, that I realize he must have been talking a load of bollocks. In those comparatively early days of pop music, no-one knew that years later we would come back and listen to lots of those old songs again and like them all over again. It strikes me as the most appalling snobbery that anyone should claim such superiority for classical music based only on its complexity. The same opinions can still be heard today though much less frequently. Of course, the same is true of painting, art installations and no doubt other artistic spheres as well.

Lady Gaga: better than Beethoven?

To get more to the point, I think it is very difficult to compare one kind of music with another. I personally prefer Lady Gaga to Beethoven, by the way, if I had to choose (and notwithstanding her cringe-worthy Bowie medley). However, some judgements have to be made regarding value otherwise there is no point in my writing album reviews. I think that if it is possible to compare and judge then these comparisons have to be made within specific music genres so that we aren’t comparing chalk with cheese. Therefore, it might be possible to say that one artist in the same field is better than another, though even here we’re on very shaky ground. In the end, the only thing I’m fairly sure about is that I can say an album or song by the same artist is better than one of that artist’s other albums or songs. For example, Bob Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ or ‘Visions of Johanna’ (to name a couple of my favourite songs) are both superior to, say, his song ‘Trouble’ (on the album Shot of Love) which is just Dylan repeating that there’s a lot of trouble in the world for about four minutes to a plodding repetitive tune.

I might also be able to show that the original Nenes albums are all better than the latest album by the new Nenez. A lot may be down to my personal taste but I find it hard to believe that anyone who has listened to all of their albums could disagree.

So where does that leave me? Well, I agree that music serves a function, and I think that complexity is not important, or at least nowhere near as important as a lot of people have always believed. And matters of value can perhaps be made but only within very narrow boundaries.

I’ve just realized that I haven’t answered your fundamental question which was about the criteria we must have if we are to judge if one kind of music is better than another. I suppose I would have to say that it’s just not possible to say one kind of music is better than another, so it’s not possible to invent some criteria. That’s the point. My dislike of some kinds of music is simply my own personal taste (or prejudice) and I can’t say that one kind of music is inferior or better than another.

However, I do say that it may be possible to judge music in narrower ways within the same genre but have no special criteria for doing it other than my own instincts and the usual things such as whether it’s inventive or surprising or emotionally satisfying. But these things can’t be measured scientifically.

KK:  You made some very good points in your last emails, and I’d like to respond to some of them here. What I also dislike is when people say that Okinawan music all sounds the same. No doubt, their only experience with Okinawan music has been in some touristy izakaya on Kokusai-dori (Naha’s most popular entertainment street) where, indeed, a lot of the music sounds the same.

Incidentally, on my last trip to Okinawa I was a bit miffed at a performing duo (in such a touristy izakaya on Kokusai-dori) that sang ‘Haisai Ojisan’ (meaning ‘hey, old man’) replacing the lyrics with comedian Shimura Ken’s ‘hen-na ojisan’ (meaning ‘strange old man’) so as to pander to the largely mainland Japanese audience that seemed to delight in making fun of something because they could not understand it, as people often do. (Or, perhaps, I was in a bad mood and just being overly sensitive.) I’ve seen the ‘Hai-sai/hen-na’ switch done in other places, too, which caused me to think, ‘Oh Lord, not again!’ I happened to be wearing my Shoukichi Kina T-shirt, and the musicians afterward complimented me on it, saying how much they revere ‘Shoukichi-sensei.’ I suggested that if they indeed revered him, they should consider using the correct lyrics. (I suppose I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

The original Nenes: better than Lady Gaga?

Like you, it also strikes me the same way as snobbery to claim superiority for classical music based on its complexity. Yet, ALL OUR MUSIC INSTITUTES ARE STILL BASED ON THIS ASSUMPTION! When I was an undergrad in music, a fellow classmate commented that he didn’t believe jazz was good music. ‘Miles Davis taking a ten minute solo,’ he declared, ‘that’s not good musicianship’. Unbelievable.

I agree with you that it’s very difficult to compare one kind of music with another, and that matters of value can only be made within very narrow boundaries. It makes sense. But some people are trying to measure the differences. I’m not sure they are doing a good job at it, though.

You prefer Lady Gaga to Beethoven. That’s OK — we can still be friends.

Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose it would depend on the purpose for which I would have to make a choice. If I were taking a cruise in the car with a friend and I had to choose between only two CDs, Gaga and Beethoven, I would probably choose Gaga. If I were to stay at a secluded cabin in the woods for a month, and I were given the same choice, I would probably choose Beethoven. I suppose this goes back to the idea of what function the music serves. For the car ride, I might want something more upbeat. For a relaxing month at the cabin, I would have to choose Beethoven.

JP: I was especially interested to read about your visit to the izakaya where you put the musicians straight about getting Shoukichi Kina’s lyrics correct. I don’t think it was just your bad mood at the time because I’m sure I would have felt exactly the same. It really annoys me when people change ‘Haisai’ to ‘Henna’ just to amuse the Japanese tourists. I doubt whether I would have been as brave as you in pointing it out to the musicians though. But well done for saying it!

You are quite right, of course, about musical snobbery and I’m glad to have the support of a real live ethnomusicologist to back me up. On the same topic, I belong to a literature discussion group (in one of my other lives as a literary man) and a while ago the subject of children’s literature and in particular J.K.Rowling came up. Someone said that the Harry Potter books are not good literature and are only useful if they encourage children to go on and read much better novels as adults. The analogy was made that the only benefit in listening to the Spice Girls is if it eventually leads the listener to an appreciation of Debussy. I’m sure most people would still share that person’s view wouldn’t they? And they would be wrong wouldn’t they?

Spice Girls: not as good as Nenes or Lady Gaga but might lead to Debussy?

KK:  It seems to me that people who so freely grace us with their opinions about what is good and what is bad, right and wrong, etc., often fail to begin with the phrase, “In my opinion…” Because ultimately that is all it is: one person’s opinion. Worst case, people don’t even think their view is merely an opinion; they think it is objective truth. Maybe most people believe that adult literature is better than children’s literature, or that Debussy is better than The Spice Girls, but when it comes to aesthetic preference, there really is no way to establish that the majority opinion therefore represents the truth. Ironically, in the examples you gave me, I’m pretty sure that both Harry Potter and The Spice Girls would win in public opinion. But in answer to your question, I believe those people would be wrong to think that their opinion is fact, but that would not mean they are wrong to have an opinion.

I’m also pretty certain that anyone raised on The Spice Girls would not grow up to love Debussy — that doesn’t seem like a natural progression. Because Debussy is no longer ‘popular music’ as he was in his time, an appreciation of his music, and any classical music, is usually something that is fostered in someone through the study of that music (whether formally or simply in the sense of music appreciation). And where does it end? Could we say that appreciating Debussy would lead us to appreciate Mahler? Charlie Parker? One could argue that most forms of jazz music are more complex than any forms of classical music, but that might be getting too close to popular music for some people, especially because jazz led to rock and pop, and God forbid we go there!

Consider this: why is classical music still listened to today? Is it because it is truly great (the greatest?)  music? Or is it because it has been preserved and perpetuated by a certain group of people as a means to some end? What and whom does classical music represent?

Also, why is jazz music not included in the standard curricula of most music schools and conservatories? A lot of the early jazz greats (Ellington is a good example) went beyond what Mahler did harmonically in his music, picking up where he left off as it were, yet classical music is still thought to have ended with Mahler. In this case, the reason is likely due to institutionalized racism, I think. At least it was so at one time in history, and we have just continued in the same way until today.

Regarding criteria for measuring and comparing the value of different musics/musicians, I think you are talking about two very different things: measuring and comparing. I think it is a useful exercise to compare musics, and in a sense, that is what you are doing as a music critic, no? Even if you don’t explicitly compare one musician to another, you are still appraising a musician/music based on a set of values that you have acquired over years of music and life experience. However, I believe there is no way to ‘measure’ the value as such, at least not in any objective way. You could give a CD four stars, for example, but it’s still just four stars on the John Potter five star system, for example. Ultimately, I guess I am saying that your assessments as a critic are still ‘just’ your opinions, but they also happen to be opinions that are based on years of listening and comparing — and caring about — music. Therefore, your readers put some stock into what you write and say — rightly so.

This is how I see this. What do you think?

JP: I would agree that reviews (such as mine) are just one person’s opinion albeit based on experience and years of listening and comparing. I watch lots of movies and always go to the reviews, especially of the critics I trust most, because it’s interesting for me to find out what others think, but in the end it’s just an opinion however well-informed.

I’d just add that as far as the person is concerned who talked about the Spice Girls and Debussy, he was, I expect, deliberately choosing this example because he knows very well that it is very unlikely that a Spice Girls fan would ever go on to be a fan of Debussy or whatever other classical composer he cares to name. So he is basically saying that there is no point in listening to the Spice Girls. This brings me to another point regarding education in general, which is that I am one of those who believes that children and young people should follow their own interests and only ‘study’ what they really want to. It should not be seen as a preparation for some possible future life. Life is to be lived, especially when you are very young, and so it follows that liking music or anything else is something that should not be done with a future aim in mind. I know I’m still in the minority on this one – though a lot of people pay lip service to children’s rights and freedom of choice – and I won’t go on about it but I think it’s relevant to the Spice Girls vs Debussy argument as well as the things we’ve already said.

KK: I agree with your views on education 100%, and I see how it ties into the Spice Girls topic — interesting, I hadn’t thought of that before.

I’ve also enjoyed our discussion, and your deep thinking about music inspires new ways of thinking in me. So thanks for that!

I might also add that I think good reviewers, such as yourself, are helpful indeed to guide people to new music, especially when we have so many choices of music to spend our money on nowadays. I took your book with me the first time I went into Campus Records and bought a stack of CDs!

A Conversation with Kirk

January 23, 2018

I sometimes wonder why it is that I was so immediately enraptured by Okinawan music as soon as I first listened to it almost 30 years ago. There is also the question of why I have a similar fascination with music from the Basque Country. This has led me to many other questions such as the aesthetic value of different kinds of music and how, or even if, they can be compared or judged.

Not being an ethnomusicologist – nor having any academic background in music – I did the obvious thing and got in touch with my Canadian friend Kirk King who lives in Nagano. As well as being an ethnomusicologist he is an aficionado of Okinawan music with a special interest in Rinsho Kadekaru. (My earlier talk with Kirk about his studies is still available to read in the Interviews category of this blog). My questions became an email conversation that went on for some time. Even the much edited version here is a good deal longer than usual posts on this blog so it will be published in two parts (so as not to exhaust readers!).

Here is the first part. The second will follow in a day or two. Kirk begins by addressing my initial question about our attraction to the music of Okinawa.

Kirk K: John, it was the same for me — in my case after hearing Kadekaru. I was literally in tears, I was so moved. Yet, of course I had no idea what he was singing, and I knew very little about Okinawa. Okinawan music definitely has some kind of power, doesn’t it? It led you to move to Okinawa and devote much of your time and attention to its music. It led me to pursue minyo as a field of research. Ultimately, it brought you and me together, too!

John P:  It’s interesting (and rather reassuring) that you felt the same way when first hearing Okinawan music, in your case Kadekaru. In my case it was Shoukichi Kina and only a bit later that I came to appreciate the more sparse traditional songs, though Kina’s music is also steeped in Okinawan roots of course.

Kirk King: ethnomusicologist with sanshin

KK: Regardless of the fact that your connection with Okinawa was very slight at the time, your attraction to its music might still have something to do with your location, your environment, and what this music represented for you. For me, for example, I had been researching a local music tradition in Nagano for some nine years, and it was the topic of my MA dissertation. Those nine years were somewhat of an emotional roller coaster, though, in that despite all the good that came with my research, I also faced enough discrimination and ‘othering’ that it led to somewhat of a personal identity crisis. I became bitter and resentful toward the tradition and some of the people involved. I was also very dissatisfied with my job at the time, and it caused me to resent Japanese society in general. I became depressed and bitter, and I focused on the negative aspects of Japanese society. Okinawan music represented something new and liberating for me. I felt somewhat of a kinship with Okinawa, which had also been discriminated against and treated horribly by Japan. (Of course, my problems aren’t comparable with those of the Okinawa/Japan relationship, but still, somehow the music spoke to me). So even though I and my location were far removed from Okinawa, it was, on the other hand, this very distance that drew me closer to Okinawa and its music. Does this make sense, and if so, might something like this have been true for you?

JP: Your answer makes complete sense to me but I’ll come to that in a bit. First I’d say that I had probably never even heard of Okinawa when I came to live in Kobe, Japan. I’m not sure. Anyway, the proximity to Okinawa once I was there obviously led to my discovery of its music. I listened to a couple of tapes of Kina’s music and that was the moment of revelation for me. If I had stayed in England I would almost certainly never have made this discovery.

Your nine year emotional roller coaster in Nagano is something I can understand. I didn’t have such negative experiences as you but when I think about it now there was often a sense of frustration when I lived in mainland Japan and when I first moved there it was much more unusual for a foreigner to be living and working there, even in a so-called ‘international’ city such as Kobe. When I eventually became full-time professor at Kogakkan University in Mie I was employed by a very traditional and conservative Shinto university whose fundamental ethos and values are very different from mine with my background in radical alternative education. This didn’t cause any obvious problems at the university but almost certainly increased my radical views and support for the underdog – such as Okinawa. I became very keen to explore more about the culture and history of Okinawa and its music and came to see Okinawa as a colonial outpost of Japan that has been treated shamefully by successive Japanese governments ever since the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom. So in a way something of your experience is also present in mine.

As for the revelation with Basque music, this came through listening to a track on a compilation CD. It was a triki-pop song by Maixa ta Ixia an all woman band who mixed traditional trikitixa (accordion and tambourine music) with guitar, bass and drums. This was very popular in the 1990s and in a way they were doing what Kina was doing with Okinawan music. I just came to identify with the Basques as I had with the Okinawans because, perhaps, they are also underdogs who have their own culture, music and language but no nation of their own. I think that it’s easy to see my interest in terms of supporting minorities but it still doesn’t explain why I liked the music so much in the first place.

Rinsho Kadekaru: the Okinawan godfather of song can reduce us to tears

KK: It seems that at least to some degree your appreciation of a certain culture’s music is heightened by your sympathy for their political/social/economic plight. I think this is a common phenomenon. Still, as you suggest, this reason doesn’t explain everything.

I’d like to ask: are there any clear similarities among the kinds of music you like? Difficult question, perhaps. For example, going back to what the music/musicians represent socially, it seems that you might prefer musicians that are somewhat more modest or understated. That is, the likes of Dylan and Kadekaru. Perhaps you are turned off by music with a lot of bravado or machismo, such as some forms of South American music or hip-hop music. What do you think?

JP: I can’t really see any particular similarities. It’s true that to some extent I prefer the understated, as you say, in that I like Dylan and Kadekaru. I also like many other Western songwriters who maybe fit that profile such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Elvis Costello. The similarity here would be that they are all expert at their craft and write very good lyrics. So it might seem that words are very important to me. But if I was asked what is most important to me in music I’d probably say strong melodies. I’m very happy to listen to songs sung in languages that I don’t understand as long as the singing and especially the tunes and melodies move me emotionally. Having great words too is just a very good bonus.

As for the bravado, machismo thing being a turn-off for me, that’s a very interesting point that I hadn’t thought about. However, once again I don’t fit easily into this theory either because while I’m not keen on South American music in general, I have no such problem with hip-hop. I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop, and might not like it so much if I did, but I do like Kendrick Lamar and I’m a huge fan of Macklemore whose album The Heist (with Ryan Lewis) was one of the best discoveries I’ve made in the past few years. I even bought an expensive ticket to go and see them in Osaka and was devastated when I couldn’t go in the end because I broke my leg! But Macklemore is not regarded highly in some hip-hop circles because, well, he’s white not black and also his music is as much to do with pop as it is hip-hop. For me, this makes it more appealing not less. So maybe I can only really like hip-hop when it’s served up in a pop format. Nothing wrong with that as I think pop music is far too easily dismissed as lightweight when it’s not.

KK: Also, are there any similarities in the elements of the music itself?  That is, elements such as modality, instrumentation (large groups versus small ensembles or solo instrument accompaniment), lyrical themes (the stories they tell), ‘relaxing’ versus ‘edgy’ music (for many years I had a hard time listening to ‘dark’ music such as that of Nick Cave, whom I now like very much).

JP: I can’t really say there are any clear similarities in the elements of the music that I like. I was brought up on the English folk club scene of the 1960s as I knew people who ran a folk club in my hometown Norwich and so I started going there regularly when I was seventeen. Before that I listened only to pop music but was then exposed to a lot of British and American folk and traditional music that I still like very much and so I suppose I am likely to be drawn to that kind of thing. But I also liked punk in the ‘70s and then synth-pop in the ‘80s.

KK: Perhaps I could also ask why you dislike enka? Can you point to any specific characteristics of the music that turn you off?

JP: I dislike enka first of all because it’s so formulaic. Every song seems to have the same beginning and to me the songs all reek of over-sentimentality and melodramatic emotion which I find hard to take seriously. The singers all dress up in formal outfits too which doesn’t help. I never listen properly to the words but the themes are nearly always male-centred and very conservative which is another reason not to like it. But then what do I know? When I mentioned enka to the Okinawan musician Mutsumi Aragaki, who I interviewed last year, she said she liked it a lot.

Tom Waits; dishevelled songwriter with gravelly voice and a way with words

KK: I think your comments on enka are very accurate. The thing is, I’ve always felt that enka was intended to be all the things you described it as: predictable, melodramatic, male-centred. I’ve always felt it is the ultimate karaoke music; as if karaoke were made expressly for enka. I think I just love the atmosphere of a dingy little Japanese snack bar with some salaryman getting in his fifteen (well, perhaps three and a half) minutes of fame — showing off his juuhachiban (in karaoke, one’s signature song). It’s like a moment when he can shed his stoic businessman outer layer and let his emotions pour out — with the help of some shochu, of course. There are also some really nice melodies in enka.

Predictability in music is an interesting topic. A friend who loves hard rock and metal once commented that she doesn’t like AC/DC because they are too predictable, that all of their songs sound the same. I suggested that this is precisely why they have been so successful — their fans always know what to expect. Perhaps throughout the ups and downs of this ever-changing world, it’s nice to have something that you know will never change. I’m not sure. But in fact, AC/DC is not so repetitive as she might think; it’s the variations they do within the standard formula (their formula) that make each new album they release interesting for fans: a bit different, but not too different. I think the blues is similar in this way: the twelve-bar blues pattern probably makes it the most formulaic of all music genres, but blues fans appreciate what a good blues musician can do within this pattern to create his/her own unique sound. This is what made Hendrix great, as Stevie Ray Vaughan once pointed out.

Enka, too, is a genre in which predictability and adherence to formulae are valued both in composition and performance. This is seen in the point-scoring system that accompanies many karaoke systems — the more idiomatic a singer performs, the more points received. Then again, some variation from the norm, in a stylistically appropriate way, is also valued.

I’d like to go back to two comments you made in your first email — two really juicy ones that I’ve been saving! You wrote: “Do you think musical taste is something that is individual to each person and formed by their environment, what they’re exposed to, or by some predisposition in the brain. Or, can it actually be said that some kinds of music are more likely to be popular than others because they really are better and not everyone has understood it yet?” 

In response to the first question, I think it is — and there have been some studies done on this — a combination of both nature and nurture, so to speak. I’m going to try to think of some sources in which I’ve read about this. I think though, that more than one’s nature, it has to do with environmental conditioning — but tracing that exactly would be very difficult. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot – why do I like what I like? I was once thinking, for example, why do I like blue and green? Then suddenly I had this memory of being five years old in my kindergarten class. At nap time, different coloured pillows were provided for the kids, and all the boys would run to grab one of the highly coveted blue pillows, of which there were only two. I suppose the fact that there were only two is what made them so desirable. I think in my whole kindergarten career I only managed to get the blue pillow once. (It was one of the happiest moments of my childhood.) I was not a very sporty young fella, so a little slow to get the blue pillow. I usually opted for the green pillow, which I thought was also quite nice. They were always the next to go, after the blue. Eventually I gave up on trying to get a blue pillow and went straight for the green — problem solved! Is this why I like blue and green? Who knows…

Your second question, if asked at a meeting of ethnomusicologists, might very well lead to a brawl. It’s a very contentious question in the field, and one that I find very interesting. The problem, though, has to do with relativism. I once led a discussion in a class of master-level classical music students, asking them to try to prove to me that Beethoven is better than Lady Gaga. They had a hard time doing this. Questions raised included: Well, what do we mean by ‘better?’ Is complexity better? Personally, I believe that music always serves a function. Nicki Minaj’s music speaks to my teenage niece, but classical and jazz music do nothing for her…yet. As you suggested, maybe she just has not yet come to ‘understand’ classical and jazz music. Then again, I could never understand Nicki Minaj the way she does, and can she ever understand jazz the way I do? John, you and I both love Okinawan music, but we likely understand it in different ways; that is, it means different things to each of us, strikes different chords within us (at least to some degree… there are obviously similarities, too). To sum up, if we believe that some kinds of music are better than others, then automatically we must introduce criteria by which to rate them. Where do we start with this? I think the problems that might arise are self-evident. That said, I would very much like to hear your opinion on this.

(Incidentally, I prefer Beethoven to Lady Gaga — especially after that cringe-worthy Bowie medley.)

No Trouble for Bob Dylan

November 14, 2017

This month saw the release of Trouble No More the latest in the long-running saga of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. This one is Vol.13 and it covers the years 1979 to 1981. Not being either a big pal of Bob or his record company meant there was no chance of a review copy (does anyone get one?) so naturally I had to buy this one.

Not having a research allowance either since university retirement means I opted for the cheaper 2 CD edition rather than the elaborate 8 disc plus DVD version that Columbia have also put on sale. I’ve never been a completist so this doesn’t bother me and I’m happy to see the more modest 30 track double album of live recordings take its place on the shelf alongside all the previous Bootleg Series albums that I have (which is all of them). Tell Tale Signs (Vol.8) is a particular favourite.

Trouble No More focuses on that period of Dylan’s career when he was widely thought of as a Born Again Christian but the essays and notes with this release as well as the reviews I’ve read generally prefer to call it his gospel period. It doesn’t sound so extreme.

I lived through those times as a Dylan fan and attended two of the six nights of concerts he gave at Earls Court in London during the summer of 1981. I was there with my friend Derek who is vastly more knowledgeable about Dylan than I am. Well, I’ve only been to Dylan concerts about a dozen times but real Bobcats like my friend would be ashamed to have only seen the Nobel Prize winner on such a paltry number of occasions.

Along with most other Dylan fans I was disappointed at our man’s sudden religious epiphany and the fact that his albums Slow Train Coming and Saved contained only his new Christian material. One friend (not Derek) vowed never to buy another album of his. The subsequent Shot of Love was also heavily religious (though its worst song was, in fact, the secular ‘Trouble’ a protest dirge that’s just a list of complaints). These weren’t even very good albums. Not by Bob’s high standards anyway.

By the time I saw the Earls Court shows in June 1981 he had started to include again some of his better known and more popular non-Christian songs so there was a mixture of the religious and secular in the shows I saw. (Yes, I know many of the songs on John Wesley Harding and other earlier albums are as ‘religious’ as anything here but that’s a discussion for another time).

What’s evident from these live recordings and has been noted in many reviews (this isn’t a review) is that many of the songs and all of the performances were brilliant and infused with a real passion. Dylan at his best is a great singer and he’s at the top of his game backed by some superb singers and a band that really knows how to play this stuff. The rare ‘Caribbean Wind’, only ever played once on stage (in San Francisco), is fantastic and the gospel songs stand up very well. Furthermore, the recording of ‘Slow Train’ that opens Disc 2 is from one of the Earls Court concerts and it still sounds riveting.

I have no religion. For me the chance of there being a God who looks over us and cares about the universe is about as likely as the existence of Santa Claus. I’m sure my friends felt the same way all those years ago which is the main reason why they were so reluctant to accept the normally free-thinking freewheeling Dylan falling for it. But as already pointed out in another piece I read, no-one gets upset about a gospel song if it’s sung by Ray Charles. Why not Bob Dylan then? These songs prove there’s no need to follow the ideology but we can still be excited and invigorated by someone else’s joy. These are simply great performances.