Archive for the ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ category

Anniversary in a Pandemic 2

June 8, 2020

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 10th anniversary of the updated edition of The Power of Okinawa book. Since then I was reminded of another milestone when Dutch musician Pascal Plantinga got in touch to say he had been listening to Paul Fisher interviewing me on his Far Side Radio show. It came as a surprise to realise that it’s almost ten years since I spoke on Paul’s weekly one-hour programme through a telephone link to London from my (then) new home in Okinawa.

Pascal Plantinga at the Niraikanai Matsuri in Okinawa (Photo: Heiko Junge)

With the UK still under lockdown owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Far Side Radio has taken the opportunity to broadcast again a series of interviews with people connected with Asian music. As well as my own interview in which I recommended (and Paul played) songs by Toru Yonaha, Nenes, Yasukatsu Oshima, and Yuki Yamazato, they include talks with Pascal Plantinga, Isamu Shimoji and many others. There are currently 18 episodes available.

To access any of them go to:

Live music during a pandemic cannot be stopped completely and many musicians have taken to streaming shows from their homes through various social media platforms. Meanwhile new album releases have continued to trickle through – if not so much from Okinawa then from various other sources around the world. Even the venerable Bob Dylan, now in his eightieth year, has a new album on the way.

Here in Okinawa the most interesting new release for me has been Donan by Takao Nagama (although the very, very long-awaited solo album by Mutsumi Aragaki seems to be finally about to be unleashed). Generally though, too many Okinawan releases slip out almost unnoticed. Some of them can also be downright difficult to find, stream, download or otherwise access, especially overseas, in all the usual ways that the outside world seems to manage perfectly well.

Jake Blount: banjoist, fiddler, singer, LGBTQ activist

As a critic or reviewer, it is also frustrating sometimes having to act as a detective to find detailed information about new recordings from Okinawa when many overseas music publicists, such as Hearth Music in North America, provide excellent services with extensive media kits, information and photos to support their artists. Not surprisingly, this is reflected in the increased number of albums reviewed in the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category of this blog.

One of those artists featured here recently is Jake Blount whose album Spider Tales came out a few days ago and has been getting rave reviews right across the board. His album was reviewed here back in March. Blount, as an outspoken black, queer artist, has rapidly become even more important in these times when the Black Lives Matter movement has become so vital that it has eclipsed even coronavirus news following recent events in America and subsequent protests around the world.

But finally, back to the pandemic in Okinawa. Since my previous post in April when the first death had just been recorded, the number of deaths has risen to just seven, the total number of cases is 142, and there have been no newly reported cases of the virus for nearly six weeks. In mainland Japan the situation has naturally been worse.

Despite PM Abe’s government not imposing a lockdown and trying to play down the virus in its early days when Japan was still desperate for the Olympic Games to go ahead, the belated measures taken have been more successful than might have been expected.

Finance Minister Taro Aso: not known for subtlety

It is still too soon to be overly optimistic but if Japan has managed to cope relatively well, the reasons are something that may only become apparent when all this is over, if then. At present it seems to be down more to luck than judgement from a government that has always appeared distant from its people, bordering on arrogant (and worse as far as Okinawa is concerned).

Not helpful are the comments of Finance Minister Taro Aso, a man who always puts his foot in it. He has long rivalled even Donald Trump in his lack of subtlety. This time he condescendingly puts down Japan’s relatively low mortality rate to its superior culture. The Asahi Shimbun quotes him as boasting: “I often got phone calls from people in other countries asking, ‘Do you guys have your own special medicine or something? I told these people, ‘Between your country and our country, mindo (the level of people) is different.’ And that made them speechless and quiet. Every time.”

No wonder they were speechless. I think listening to Jake Blount is a great antidote to all of this in such times. Or to any of the many great Okinawan singers and musicians produced by these islands.

Anyway, stay safe, as everyone always says.

Anniversary in a Pandemic

April 17, 2020

Last month was the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Power of Okinawa in its second edition. This blog began around the same time, to accompany the book. Now, a decade later, the blog is still being updated. Along the way it has expanded to include a ‘Features Archive’ while ‘A Musical Journey’ was a memoir of sorts. ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ meanwhile is the place where I go off in other more personal directions like this.

All this pales into insignificance, of course, when the world is still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. In Okinawa, and Japan generally, there is a feeling that, while much of the rest of the world has been dealing with the pandemic and some governments have been quick to take action to prevent its spread, the Japanese government has taken it all too lightly.

PM Abe and his government are obviously more concerned about economics than with people’s lives. Despite the first cases of coronavirus appearing in Japan three months ago, the government has done its best to play down the threat and has been slow to act. It was not until yesterday that a nationwide state of emergency was finally declared after the sudden, and almost inevitable, sharp increase in cases throughout the country and particularly in Tokyo.

The Cornerstone of Peace at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park

Unlike many other countries which have lockdowns enforced by law, the state of emergency throughout Japan is still reliant on everyone obeying the government’s request to stay at home if possible. There is no legal force behind this and there are no penalties for non-compliance. Not surprisingly, many are reluctant to stop work as the government is not taking over responsibility for lost incomes. The state of emergency is scheduled to end on 6th May.

To encourage a stay at home mentality a video was recently released by the Prime Minister, featuring Shinzo Abe himself relaxing at home on a sofa with his dog. This was met with an equal measure of ridicule, hilarity, and anger, by many who think he is completely out of touch with the people and has done too little too late to combat the virus. (If only he could be swapped for New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern).

Here on Okinawa we may be geographically a long way from Japan, but we are by no means free of the virus. In fact, the number of cases has multiplied rapidly in recent days and the current count is 95 and sure to rise. This includes the first death recorded this week on the main island. Ishigaki Island also recorded its first two cases of the virus over the past week.

Yesterday at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park

Responses to the emergency in my area have been varied so far. Yesterday I went to Okinawa Peace Memorial Park and it was almost deserted with the Peace Museum currently closed for renovations. However, on my local beach this morning there were the usual number of swimmers and snorkelers. Further along the beach there were even some people doing hang-gliding.

Live music of course has taken a battering with small venues especially being hit hard. Popular singer and sanshin player Yukito Ara was scheduled to play a solo concert next week at one of Naha’s bigger venues Sakurazaka Theatre but this was finally cancelled today.

In my home at least the music goes on. New discoveries outside Okinawa include Canadians Pharis and Jason Romero whose latest album (due for release next month and reviewed on this blog) is a favourite. I’ve also discovered, belatedly, the many delights of Alicia Keys. And to cheer us all up surely, Estonia’s Trad.Attack! have a new album on the way and a review of that will eventually make its way to the blog.

Like many, I’ve also been glued to the TV watching films and dramas. I was addicted to the amazing Tiger King docuseries and was also (in the absence of FC Ryukyu games) able to get a football fix with the compelling Sunderland ‘Til I Die. Now I’m eagerly awaiting Ricky Gervais’ After Life 2, while watching new episodes of Japanese drama Ossan’s Love. There’s more…but this is more than enough.

Here’s hoping everyone keeps safe and stays home as much as possible, preferably while listening to some great music. One can never have too much Rinsho Kadekaru.

Goodbye Europe

February 6, 2020

A few days ago my hometown Norwich made news in the UK and worldwide for all the wrong reasons. Notices appeared in an apartment tower block advising residents to speak only English. The posters were entitled Happy Brexit Day. Stating “we finally have our great country back” they included the message: “If you do want to speak whatever is the mother tongue of the country you came from then we suggest you return to that place and return your flat to the council so they can let British people live here.”

The local council was quick to condemn these posters and to reassure residents that this was not the work of the council. The matter was reported to the police, who are treating it as a racist incident, but the damage has been done. Residents of the housing complex have since rallied together to protest in a show of support for each other and for multiculturalism.

An isolated incident, no doubt, but it feels like a good time not to be in Britain. It’s hardly a coincidence that this and similar explosions of bigotry and prejudice have risen to the surface just as the UK leaves the European Union. What is perhaps even more depressing than the decision to go it alone is the celebratory attitude of some Brexit supporters who talk about getting their country back and gaining ‘independence’ from Europe.

People in London celebrate leaving the EU last week. (Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

This is nostalgia for a ‘great’ past that never existed. Unless they want a return to the greatness of the British Empire with its shameful history of invasions, colonisation, theft, and repression. The Brits clearly don’t need independence as they already have it (though Scotland and Wales may need independence from the Brits, but that’s another matter).

By contrast, here on Okinawa there is a case to be argued in favour of the need for real independence or for ‘getting our islands back’ as the Brits might say. Human rights and democracy are constantly under threat from the Japanese government and, incredibly, large tracts of the main island are still controlled by the American military 75 years after they invaded to begin the Battle of Okinawa. A battle that claimed more than 240,000 lives.

Okinawa may need its independence, but no-one here wants a return to the ‘great’ days of the Ryukyu Kingdom either. The kingdom was responsible for the harsh treatment of its own people, not least on its outer islands of Miyako and Yaeyama. At the same time, it was a kingdom centred around trade in Southeast Asia rather than war and expansion, hence the famous dictate banning weapons during part of its rule.

Despite its unhappy history of being invaded and occupied, Okinawa is today rightly proud of its champloo culture. This is frequently celebrated and has evolved into a cultural mash-up affecting everything from food to music. The musician and activist Shoukichi Kina is a divisive character with – some would say – a lot of weird ideas, but his goal for a borderless world and his campaign to exchange all weapons for musical instruments sounds now like a breath of fresh air alongside much of what passes for political debate these days. A peaceful ideology of co-existence and acceptance of others is sorely needed now more than ever.

Back in the UK this week the Bishop of Norwich was calling for a return to the “great British values of tolerance and understanding” in view of the regrettable events at the city’s tower block. Well yes, but British politicians and religious leaders are too fond of mouthing this kind of thing, as if tolerance was somehow an inherently British virtue. It seems to be only the British who believe this. They should get out more.

It would also be making a tiny step in the right direction if those who rant against ‘imagration’ on social media could at least spell it correctly and not mangle their own language. Then perhaps they could go on to try and learn what tolerance really means and to understand how immigrants of all kinds make valuable contributions to many societies and enrich our global mix with their languages and cultures.

Roots Album Round-up 2019

December 23, 2019

It’s almost the end of another year and the time when I’d normally be thinking about choosing best albums for the fRoots critics poll. In fact, I would already have done it, some weeks ago. However, the magazine ceased publication this year, not long after celebrating its 40th anniversary, so instead I’ll tell you here about my favourite albums of 2019.

There were not so many new releases of Okinawan music to come my way this time but the obvious choice for most significant recording goes to Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019. This 30-track double album features the singing of veterans Hirokazu Matsuda and Seibun Tokuhara alongside Mika Uchizato and Akane Murayoshi.

As I wrote in my review (and to quote myself): “This is a timely and important release and serves as a reminder of the wealth of wonderful songs from these islands. Also, for the urgent need to protect the islands and their environment for future generations.” There is added poignancy now as Hirokazu Matsuda sadly died shortly after its release.

If I allow myself a runner-up in the ‘best’ Okinawan album category – and why not? – it would be From Myahk by Satoru Shimoji who continues to move and impress with his late flowering of atmospheric emotional songs from the islands of Miyako.

Among other notable Okinawan albums this year was Urisha Fukurashi by the evergreen Yuki Yamazato and Katsuko Yohen. The late Rinsho Kadekaru had an important release with his Maruteru Recordings from the 1960s, and there was a first release for Live! a double album by Seijin Noborikawa and Sadao China.

The always adventurous Takashi Hirayasu came up with Kumu Ashibi~Cloud Wandering recorded in Taiwan. And for something completely different, the young duo Harahells deserve praise for their Delicious Club which was such a lot of fun.

As ever, there were also lots of albums of ‘Roots Music from Out There’ – the music that reached me from other parts of the world. It was an especially rewarding year for the Appalachian music of North America and I was really spoilt for listening choices. Some more previously unreleased recordings came from the late Hedy West, but what was so refreshing was the number of younger singers and musicians with such a deep interest and love of this music.

In the end my favourite album from ‘out there’ has got to be Even the Sparrow the debut from Kansas City based singer and banjo player Kelly Hunt. What was so good about this is that she arrived seemingly fully formed and able to play and sing any style of American roots music with confidence. You might expect her to slip up or make a wrong turn along the way, but she never does and the whole album is devoid of unnecessary ornamentation.

A very worthy mention must also go to another debut album Rearrange My Heart by Buenos Aires based band Che Apalache. The scope of their musicianship is very wide, and they managed to fit bluegrass, Latin, and Japanese minyo onto an album with some strong political messages. The Nagano song 春の便り (The Coming of Spring) was given a world premiere on this blog and the album itself has recently been nominated for a Best Folk Album Grammy award.

All the albums mentioned above were reviewed on the Power of Okinawa blog this year so please look them up if you want further information or missed them first time around.

Happy listening to everyone in 2020!

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:

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:

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:

The fRoots website is at:

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.