Archive for the ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ category

A Question of Musical Upbringing

March 16, 2018

What follows is a shortened version of something I began writing last year about the music I grew up listening to a very, very long time ago.

A Question of Musical Upbringing

I always thought the first record I ever bought was ‘A Teenager in Love’ – the cover version by Marty Wilde. Or else it was ‘Whole Lotta Woman’ by Marvin Rainwater. I still remember buying both of them.

‘Whole Lotta Woman’ was released in 1958 and reached Number One on the UK chart. I never imagined I’d be looking it up decades later – or that I would ever listen to the song again. Having done so I realise it’s not to my taste at all now, which is a relief as I hope this shows I’ve developed a bit in my musical appreciation since I was a child. ‘A Teenager in Love’ stands the test of time only a little better and there were three different versions of it in the charts in May 1959. The song is full of longing and the lovelorn angst of the teenager (and pre-adolescent) and it suited the mood of an eleven year old boy very well.

But wait. Lonnie Donegan released his single ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’ before either of those so that clinches it. I definitely remember buying that one as well because the B side was called ‘Ham ‘N Eggs’ and it’s not something you can easily forget. At that tender age I imagined ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’ was an original penned by Lonnie himself but years later discovered it was a Texas gambling song popularised by Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920s.

The first time I bought an LP, as we called it, was a bit later when I acquired How Do You Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The title was a canny combination of the Liverpool singer’s first two hit singles: ‘How Do You Do It’ and ‘I Like It’. Ever since I started thinking about it (and I haven’t really thought about it at all until now) I regarded it as an album of its time containing those two early hit songs plus a lot of uninteresting filler tracks. In fact, a quick search reveals neither of those songs was even on the album, though Gerry’s third hit ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was. This is memory not history.

One thing I’m sure I’ve got right is being given a fearsome dressing down by my mother for buying that Gerry and the Pacemakers record. This was not because she preferred Freddie and the Dreamers but because she had already bought a copy to give to me for Christmas and had been keeping it a secret. It’s a telling off that I still recall and was delivered for my selfishness and impetuousness in not being able to wait and see if I was going to be given the LP as a present on Christmas Day. One of us had to go back to the record shop to ask for a refund.

Years later I saw Gerry with his group (possibly all different members) when they played a nightclub in Leicester in front of a fairly disinterested and certainly inebriated audience. How Do You Like It isn’t very good anyway. Definitely nowhere near as exciting as any of the albums by The Beatles. I now have just three Beatles albums – Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, and Abbey Road – and never need to play any of them or listen to any other Beatles songs as they are all so deeply ingrained in my consciousness. The Beatles made a huge impression and their brilliance and inventiveness seemed to come out of nowhere.

Willson’s was the shop where I did most of my early record buying. It was in the centre of the city where I grew up and very close to Norwich Castle. The ground floor was a general music store selling instruments and sheet music. The records were kept upstairs in a fairly small room. Two young female assistants worked behind the counter. They would play any record if you asked them. The only albums I clearly remember buying, though there must have been a few, were With the Beatles and, before that, The “Twang’s” the “Thang” the second album by American guitarist Duane Eddy.

Eddy played electric guitar instrumentals with a characteristic deep ‘twangy’ sound frequently accompanied by a wailing saxophone and vocal whoops and yells from his group The Rebels. His big hit (not on the album, so I bought the single) was the theme from the American high school film Because They’re Young which had an orchestra playing behind the twangy guitar. It was the best thing he ever did. I don’t think I saw the movie but have always liked high school films and it’s a taste that continues to this day.

My purchase of With the Beatles at Willson’s was not without its problems. This time it was the LP’s second side, as the first track, a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, got stuck after a few seconds and to my great dismay wouldn’t play properly. The next day I took the record back to the shop and before I could speak the assistant said: “Side two, track one?” A whole batch of them had the same defect and a replacement was immediately produced and popped into a paper bag.

Gene Vincent

There were other shops in the city where I used to listen to records and sometimes buy them. There was a department store just a few minutes walk from Willson’s where records were sold on the top floor. This was a much bigger space and contained a number of listening booths along the wall opposite the counter. In the early 1960s it would still have been much more common to buy singles than albums. I often went to this store with a friend on Saturday mornings and would ask the assistants to put on a single to listen to in one of the booths. This happened so often that I was once asked slightly menacingly if I was really intending to buy anything.

Most of the records we listened to were American pop songs. Often these were covered by British singers so there were at least two different versions of the same song to choose from. The record labels and their colours and sleeve designs stick in the mind. MGM had a yellow label, London was black with a stripy paper sleeve, Pye was purple. Then there was Top Rank with a picture of a man banging a gong and whose artists never seemed to make the charts. The guitarist Bert Weedon was one of those but I loyally bought all his records.

One of the singles I bought after sampling it was a song called ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and this was the cover by Welsh singer Ricky Valance. It was a controversial song at the time because of its subject matter which was thought to be in bad taste. The title quoted the last words of the song’s young hero who took part in a stock car race to impress his girlfriend but died from his injuries after being pulled from the twisted wreck of his crashed car. Doom-laden melodrama was dangerous but also a big seller.

My sister, ten years older, had her own record player which was an antique thing with a handle on the side to wind it up when the music slowed down. There was also a container for the needles that had to be constantly replaced as they wore out. In general I didn’t care a lot for her music collection which contained an unfeasibly large number of songs by ageing crooner Donald Peers who sounded far too straight and conventional for my burgeoning radical tastes. Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols were still some years in the future though.

Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing the Blues’ was another song that got frequent plays on my sister’s record player but she eventually made the local newspaper and had a moment of fame when Bill Haley came to England on tour and played a date in Norwich that she went to see. He was all the rage before Elvis Presley upstaged him with more daring rock ‘n’ roll but my sister’s photo got in the local paper as she had somehow been the first person to obtain his autograph.

My father had his own record collection and all of them were breakable 78s which sometimes fractured into several sharp pieces when he absent-mindedly sat on them. He liked sentimental songs and stirring marches. ‘Blaze Away’ was a particular favourite with its opening line that he often sang along to: “We’ll make a bonfire of our troubles and we’ll watch them blaze away”.

I was influenced by at least one of my sister’s records.  This was an album named The “Chirping” Crickets and it was a revelation as all the songs were good, right from the opening ‘Oh, Boy!’ to the end: even though (or perhaps because) all the tracks were short and it was all over in less than half an hour. It seemed long at the time. It was the first inkling I had of just how brilliantly exciting pop songs could be. And it was my discovery of Buddy Holly who may already have been dead by the time I listened to the Crickets album on the large radio gramophone in our family living room.

The other shining stars among a lot of tacky pop were the Everly Brothers and I first listened to them on regular Saturday night visits to the Firs Stadium where speedway meetings were held most weeks. Speedway was big then and reputed to be the most popular spectator sport in the UK after football. My parents and sister were all speedway fans though my father eventually stopped going as he claimed the races were no longer competitive and had become more like processions.

The Everly Brothers: the epitome of cool in 1960

Music was played loudly over the public address system. It also blared out between each of the heats that made up a speedway meeting and there seemed to be an unusually large number of American country-flavoured pop songs among those on the playlist. The Everly Brothers rivalled Buddy Holly in popularity and surpassed him in coolness and sophistication. As a result, I bought the first ever single released on the new Warner Brothers label. This was the duo’s song ‘Cathy’s Clown’ and it became a big hit in England in 1960. Despite this great musical revelation I don’t recall ever buying another record by them.

The package tour was another great British institution. These were concerts that toured the country showcasing a number of different artists on the same bill. In Norwich they usually took place at the Theatre Royal. Frequently, the headline act would be an American star who was touring the UK and the rest of the show would be made up with British pop acts, sometimes with a local group kicking things off. There was also an MC who came on stage to introduce each of the musicians.

The MC sometimes had a hard time of it. I was at one of these shows when an American MC came on between each act to tell jokes and fill in some time before he introduced the next artist – in this case Gene Pitney. The audience were eager to see Pitney and didn’t take kindly to any delay so some of them started hurling abuse at the MC. He was ready for it and barked back at one young woman: “Lady, you’ve got a kind face. The kind I’d like to run a truck over!”

Sometimes there was a double bill of two American stars. One of these was the visit to the city of Freddy Cannon and Gene Vincent. I was just twelve and Cannon was the one I was more interested in as he had had a couple of big successes with ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans’ and ‘Tallahassee Lassie’ which began with lines enough to make a modern listener shudder:

Well, she comes from Tallahassee / She got a hi-fi chassis  / Maybe looks a little sassy / But to me, she’s real classy

He was due to top the bill that night with Vincent ending the first half of the show. However, when we got to the theatre a notice outside announced that Freddy Cannon was ‘indisposed’ and so Gene Vincent would take over top billing. The rumour went round that Freddy was the worse for wear and was being plied with strong cups of black coffee and walked around the car park at the back of the theatre to try and sober him up. If so it didn’t work.

It’s strange now to think I was disappointed not to see Freddy Cannon because Gene Vincent has, over time, become the far more remembered, almost legendary performer for many British people. That night he came on stage looking moody and rebellious and with a severe limp – he nearly lost his balance and fell at one point. He may have been wearing a metal support on his leg which had been broken just a few weeks earlier in the car accident that killed Eddie Cochran. With a hint of defiance he sang what he said was his soon to be released single ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’. His record company had refused permission for him to perform it live before its release but Gene was having none of that.

Brenda Lee: Little Miss Dynamite

The other big American star I saw at the Theatre Royal was Brenda Lee or ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ as she was known, because she was only 145 centimetres short. After the show I waited outside the stage door to get her autograph, along with a handful of other fans. She kept us waiting for quite a while but eventually came outside and obliged. I thought she was great and both her singing and her behaviour seemed very mature at the time. She was still seventeen years old.

It was also the time of the instrumental guitar group and while America had The Ventures (amazingly still popular in Japan today) it was The Shadows who ruled England with hits such as ‘Apache’ that seemed to stay in the charts forever. Again, I saw them at the same theatre and was on the front row for this one. They seemed pretty wild to my young eyes and I squirmed in my seat when rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch looked directly down at me with a challenging mixture of contempt and disdain.

At school everyone had to play football whether they liked it or not. Most did and so it became a big part of our growing up. Going to see the local professional team was also a rite of passage but none of my family were interested in football and so it was a friend of my sister’s who initiated me by taking me to their stadium when I was around eight or nine years old.  It turned out she was also interested in music but with a more sophisticated taste than us and was a bit of a fan of Frank Sinatra.

Every summer our family went on holiday to North Wales where we would always stay for a week in the same bed and breakfast place in the town of Llangollen. Dad drove and it took him all day to get us there. We would start early in the morning and finally arrive at our destination in the late afternoon – sometimes early evening –depending on how often we got lost or made stops along the way. My father’s sight was poor in one eye and my mother sat next to him and acted as navigator with a special route map on her lap. My parents had never been abroad so Wales was the closest they came. Its appeal was the mountains that were so different from the flat land of Norfolk and all of us enjoyed visiting the ruins of numerous castles.

As a football fan I took the opportunity to take off on my own during these holidays and went to Wrexham to have a look at their ground and to Chester where I managed to watch a pre-season friendly. On one occasion we all took a trip to Liverpool where I went off to pay a visit to Anfield. As a fan of The Beatles it was obligatory to seek out the Cavern Club, though it was daytime and I only saw the outside of the building. By this time The Beatles were already famous and so I must have been a teenager. It may well have been in Liverpool that I bought The Beatles’ Twist and Shout EP.

Llangollen itself was famous for the annual International Eisteddfod. This was held for a week in a large field but also in various other venues around the town and was notable for its choir contests and performances, especially by the Bulgarians and the Welsh. I wasn’t particularly interested in the choirs and not at all in the classical music but the whole spectacle was quite thrilling not least because much of it was held outdoors in large marquees erected in the field. The sheer power of all the united singing voices was impressive, but at the end of the day I was still more excited by pop music.

If it was ‘A Teenager in Love’ that initiated me into the world of lovelorn youth and unrequited love it was another song around the same time that was really the soundtrack of summer. The American Jerry Keller recorded his own composition ‘Here Comes Summer’ in 1958 and the following year it made number one in the UK chart. It was the only hit he ever had and prefigures my own penchant for watching high school movies. The song’s narrator – presumably Jerry himself – can’t wait for the school holidays so he can spend more time with his girlfriend. Jerry sings of grabbing his girl and holding her tight, but he’s a gentleman too and doesn’t want to coerce her so he sings: “If she’s willing, we’ll go steady right away.” He anticipates swimming every day and moonlit walks in the park, and hopes the sun will “shine bright on my happy summer home”.

In Norwich the summer sun rarely shone as brightly as it did in Jerry Keller’s song. I was eleven when ‘Here Comes Summer’ became a hit so girls were still just something to dream about in some future life that seemed a long way off. Neither could I have imagined that several decades later I would be listening to the Japanese song ‘Natsu Tourai’ by Osaka band Soul Flower Union. This is a different song in almost every way and about as far from Keller’s adolescent simplicity as it’s possible to get – though both refer to moonlit evenings. I helped translate the lyrics into English for the band’s CD booklet. Its title means ‘Here Comes Summer’.

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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.

Home thoughts from abroad

June 6, 2017

I am a stranger to the ballot box. Not through choice but because I’m not entitled to vote in elections either in the UK or in Japan the country where I have permanent residency. And although I have no plans to take it up, it would also be nice to have the right to return with my family to live in my native country if we ever wanted to but under current British government laws this is apparently forbidden to us on economic grounds.

Over the past decade or so I haven’t much cared about never being able to take part in the democratic process, especially since the available options through the UK ballot box always seemed so unappealing and lacking in real diversity. However, for the first time in ages it appears that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party offers a glimmer of hope for a better and more inclusive society for everyone and not just for the few.

To my surprise I found myself actually being impressed with the answers of a political leader last week when I watched Corbyn on BBC TV’s Question Time. What was disappointing was the reaction of some, mostly older, members of the audience who expressed indignation that he prefers to talk with dangerous people he doesn’t like such as ‘terrorists’; he is very reluctant to use nuclear weapons; and is wholeheartedly in favour of multiculturalism.

It is encouraging that most of the younger people I’ve listened to have been more positive and open-minded about many issues and some of them are puzzled as to why their elders are so keen to have the nuclear option at all. Young people are often portrayed as naive or irresponsible but many of those I’ve heard have talked more sense than some of their seniors who are more concerned with retaliation and blowing everyone up than with reasoning and understanding.

In Okinawa, where people have suffered invasion and occupation, innumerable deaths and destruction, attitudes are different and it is usually the elderly who are the most vociferous in condemning all forms of violence. They must know from bitter experience that killing people doesn’t make things better and there are only losers in war. Despite this sad history – which continues to this day with American military bases forcibly imposed on Okinawa by Japan – Okinawan people have generally welcomed outsiders and taken pride in their mixed champloo culture. While most Okinawans happily embrace pacifism, the macho British see nothing incongruous about holding military parades at football matches and using any opportunity to celebrate the armed forces.

So I won’t be voting this week and am not optimistic about the outcome of the UK general election, given some of the attitudes I’ve seen among the British public and the reluctance of people to change their ways. Too many also would rather close borders and pull up the drawbridge. But stranger things have happened in the world, not least with the election of the terrible Trump, so I don’t expect, but cautiously hope for a Labour victory.

45 Years and counting

May 16, 2017

The excellent British film 45 Years is set in my home county of Norfolk and features scenes in the city of Norwich where I grew up. The title refers to plans for a 45th wedding anniversary party that are overshadowed in unexpected ways by events from the past. Watching it again in Okinawa last week I was reminded of another anniversary that in very different ways is also haunted by past events. For it was 45 years yesterday since these islands were returned to Japan from rule by America.

The Japan-based award-winning investigative journalist Jon Mitchell wrote an article for the Japan Times five years ago on the 40th anniversary of the reversion. The article ‘What awaits Okinawa 40 years after reversion?’ was recently retweeted by Mitchell and it makes depressing reading as everything he wrote then is just as relevant today while Japan continues to discriminate against Okinawa.

In the article he outlines how the invasion by Japan and abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom played out:

“Thereafter, Tokyo set about bringing the islands into the homogeneous embrace of the homeland. To do so, over the next decades it suppressed Okinawa’s culture, degraded its native languages as mere dialects of Japanese and disproportionately taxed the population — contributing to a famine in the 1920s that killed thousands and forced still more to seek survival as far afield as Hawaii, Peru and Brazil.”

Keep out: A fence topped with razor-wire separates the U.S. Iejima Auxiliary Airfield (right) from Japan.
(Photo: Jon Mitchell)

He continues: “Japanese disdain for Okinawa reached a climax in the final months of World War II, when the Imperial Army sacrificed it as a suteishi — a throwaway pawn — to bog down the Allies and make them think twice about invading the main islands….During the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, more than a quarter of the civilian population died — including many in military-enforced mass suicides, and those shot by Japanese soldiers as suspected spies for speaking Okinawan languages….Then in July 1945, the U.S. military declared Okinawa under its control — and since then it has never left.”

Given the ongoing situation regarding the disproportionate number of US bases still on Okinawa more than 70 years after the war ended, it might be surprising that there hasn’t been a more vociferous campaign for independence for Okinawa up to now, but until recently this has been virtually a taboo subject. However, representatives from Okinawa went to Scotland to observe and learn from the independence referendum held there and the topic is no longer something only debated by ‘extremists’.

As the article points out: “Four centuries of Japanese and American misrule have foisted an endless series of tragedies and misfortunes on these tiny islands, leaving them economically, environmentally and emotionally despoiled. In spite of this, Okinawan people have stood up to these injustices with compassion, resilience and nonviolence — three principles upon which any fledgling nation state could be proud to found its future.”

“Critics are quick to predict that an independent Okinawa would be a failure as a state. But it is difficult to see how a self-ruled Okinawa could make a bigger mess of things than the U.S. and Japan have done. And even if its initial steps were faltering, at least for once any failures would be its own.”

I agree with Mitchell that “the time is way overdue to allow Okinawa to decide its future for itself.”

Here is a link to the complete article at the Japan Times website:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2012/05/13/general/what-awaits-okinawa-40-years-after-reversion/

 

Goodbye 2016 – A Year in Music

December 29, 2016

Another year is almost over. I was asked to vote again in the 2016 Critics Poll by the UK’s fRoots magazine, and also in the annual music awards for another UK magazine Songlines. For the best album category fRoots voting is open to all albums released anywhere in the world over the past year and so I was able to slip in a couple of my Okinawan favourites, but the Songlines awards are only for albums that have been reviewed in the magazine. Sadly, that rules out music from Okinawa this year.

It hasn’t really been a great year for Okinawan releases but two of the best albums among the six choices I made for fRoots were the debut record Minishi by Yaeyama singer Mayuko Higa and Ten by Okinawa’s Hajime Nakasone. But in fact, my number one favourite roots album from Okinawa this year came just too late for inclusion and that was Takashi Hirayasu’s first solo album for 18 years, the subtly subversive set of traditional Okinawan songs, Yuu.

best2016

The roots albums from ‘out there’ that I liked best this year were the big and magnificent Upcetera by England’s Jim Moray – quite possibly his best yet – and the remarkable second album Nine Pin from Toronto-based Kaia Kater, a superb album of originals and North American traditional songs with an underlying theme of racial issues. Incredibly, it was recorded all in one day. Both these and the Okinawan albums above were reviewed on this blog as was the album Lodestar by Shirley Collins which was the overall winner in the fRoots best album category.

If Okinawa wasn’t exactly bursting with bright new albums there was plenty of music being made elsewhere that I listened to with great pleasure – in both roots and other genres. A real find for me late in the year was the album True Born Irishman by Dublin’s Daoiri Farrell who sings and plays bouzouki and is a unique talent obviously inspired by the likes of Irish masters Donal Lunny and Christy Moore.

kaia kater

The debut album Nothing’s Real by Shura was also one of the best things I listened to and was a glorious throwback to the synth-pop of the 80s but with a very new twist. Then there was This Unruly Mess I’ve Made the second album from Seattle hip-hoppers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: only a broken leg stopped me from attending their concert in Osaka. Meanwhile Basque singer Ruper Ordorika went to New York to make another fine album and I enjoyed New Yorker Paul Simon’s inventive return to form at the age of 75 with Stranger to Stranger.

Better still was Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker. Cohen’s death along with the untimely demise of other hugely popular and influential musicians such as David Bowie, Prince, and now George Michael has made it a rather sombre year to say the least and that’s without mentioning all the craziness of the political world and the ongoing colonial treatment of Okinawa by Japan and the USA. Don’t get me started on that one. Instead I will just mention one more thing that came to mind following this week’s news of the loss of George Michael at the age of 53.

On an evening in January 1985 I found myself sitting on the front row of a massive hall in Osaka. I was there to see the pop duo Wham! I had only just arrived in Japan and had somehow (through a Japanese friend with connections) obtained the best seat in the house. I wasn’t even really a fan of Wham! – I was more of a Bob Dylan man and saw him too in Osaka the next year. Okinawa and its music were still a few years in the future.

As George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley came on stage that night the entire audience rose to its feet as one to leave me standing head and shoulders above the excited crowd of mostly teenage girls. Even then I was the oldest for as far as I dared to look. I tried crouching down, as tall people tend to do, but that only made me more conspicuous especially to the musicians on stage. I can’t remember much of the music now but can confirm that it did not disappoint and left everyone feeling very happy including me.

The years since have, I hope, enabled me to open my ears more than ever to all the diverse and wonderful music that is being made in so many different places. Let’s hope 2017 is a good year for music in Okinawa and all around the world.