Archive for the ‘Okinawan Albums’ category

Tadayuki Matsubara: Churaumi, Churashima

May 10, 2021

This new album by singer and sanshin player Tadayuki Matsubara (released under the full title Churaumi, Churashima ~ Ayagu, Miyako no Uta ~) is, as its name suggests, a celebration of the traditional songs of the Miyako islands.

The music of Miyako has a unique quality that distinguishes it from that of Okinawa to the north and Yaeyama to the south. The islands are especially known for their love songs and sad melodies as well as for dances and celebrations connected with island life and work in the fields and at sea.

The most well-known exponent of these songs is, of course, the iconic singer Genji Kuniyoshi who sadly died last week at the age of 90, and it seems Tadayuki Matsubara is set to follow in his footsteps. Matsubara was, in fact, born in Urasoe, Okinawa in 1992, and his grandparents and mother are natives of Miyako. He learned singing and sanshin as a pupil of Genji Kuniyoshi from the age of eight until twenty and was also able to join him to perform on stage.

Through this experience, he says, he learned about the heart of Miyako songs. Finally, at the age of 27 he decided to devote himself seriously to traditional songs and music as he wants as many people as possible to listen to these island songs. Now we have this debut album as evidence of that aim.

Most of the familiar and much loved Miyako songs are here as well as some lesser-known ones. There are versions of the classic ‘Togani Ayagu’, ‘Irabu Togani’, and ‘Nariyama Ayagu’ as well as livelier songs such as ‘Nima nu Shu’ and the spirited ‘Pyarumizu nu Kuicha~Yonamumi nu Anigama’ with shimadaiko and female backing vocals so typical of this music (see video below). There is also a duet with Yoshiko Kuniyoshi (Genji’s wife) on the Miyako love song ‘Shin Kanushagamayo’ which has lyrics by Genji Kuniyoshi.

Churaumi, Churashima (Beautiful Sea, Beautiful Islands) was produced by Tsukasa Kohama who also chose the song selections with Matsubara. There are 16 tracks and a running time of 68 minutes. Miyako songs are frequently played with stark and spare sanshin accompaniment. Matsubara captures the mood perfectly on an album that would surely have made his great mentor proud.

Churaumi, Churashima ~ Ayagu, Miyako no Uta ~ will be released by Respect on 23rd June.

Natsuki Nakamura: Agaritida

March 23, 2021

It’s been a long time coming but Agaritida is the first solo release from Okinawa’s Natsuki Nakamura who has been well-known on the island music scene for some time.

Nakamura learned traditional singing and sanshin with the Noborikawa-ryu but is equally at home with contemporary styles. She has been a vocalist with techno units Ryukyudisko and Ryukyu Underground, and in 2007 joined Soul Flower Mononoke Summit for their Henoko Peace Festa to campaign against the proposed new US base – a protest that continues to this day.

Agaritida has seven tracks and for these she is joined by a handful of musicians. For the opener ‘Oka no Ipponmatsu’ her vocal and sanshin is accompanied by acoustic guitar played by Naoto from the rock band Orange Range. Elsewhere there is some saxophone, flute, and piano, while Kanako Hatoma provides shimadaiko on a couple of tracks.

Everything is sung, played, and recorded competently and straightforwardly. While there can be no complaints about Nakamura’s performance, it’s nevertheless a bit surprising that – given her interest in contemporary music – she didn’t take a few more risks. The powerful traditional song ‘Kunjan Sabakui’, for example, calls out for a stronger, more adventurous approach but the version here is a bit lacklustre.

On ‘Naritai Bushi’ she duets with what sounds like an elderly man but is in fact the ubiquitous Hajime Nakasone sounding more than ever as if he’s doing an impersonation of Seijin Noborikawa. The pair duet again on ‘Koina Yunta~Asadoya Yunta’ unusually combining the two songs. The final track ‘Mikazuki’ has a nice blend of sanshin, sax, and piano and is the kind of song that Chihiro Kamiya does so well.

It’s good to know that Natsuki Nakamura is recording and playing again as she is someone it’s always a pleasure to see and hear and she performs with all the ease you would expect. It’s just a shame that it all sounds a tiny bit routine when compared to some of the exciting recordings by great Okinawan singers of the past and present. 

Agaritida is released on CD by Natsukiya Records and is out now.

Takashi Hirayasu & Bob Brozman: Mo Ashibi Magic

February 25, 2021

It’s been a long time coming but Mo Ashibi Magic – subtitled Live in Tokyo 1999 – is the first live release by Okinawan singer Takashi Hirayasu and virtuoso American guitarist Bob Brozman. The recording was made on 15th September 1999 at Tokyo Aoyama Restaurant Bar CAY, just a couple of months after the pair’s Warabi Uta album came out to worldwide acclaim.

In fact, Warabi Uta (retitled Jin Jin/Firefly overseas) became a roots best seller and introduced many new listeners to Okinawan music. It was made on tiny Taketomi Island and was a project of startling simplicity and originality on which Hirayasu’s vocals and sanshin collided gloriously with Brozman’s guitar on a set of Okinawan children’s songs.

A second album recorded in California was released the following year. I also managed to sit down with Bob Brozman in Osaka during that year and recorded a lengthy interview with him for The Power of Okinawa book. My last contact with him was almost a decade later and then came the shocking news of his suicide in 2013 at the age of 59.

The person responsible for all those early recordings was producer Kenichi Takahashi of Tokyo’s Respect Records. Many years later, and with the world in turmoil through the pandemic, Takahashi began to reflect on the past and think about the live show recorded in Tokyo but left in the vaults. After obtaining permission from all those involved, he decided to finally release the live show as a double album.

And what a joy it is to listen to the pair again after all this time. The recordings have been mixed and mastered to a high standard and the sound captures all the immediacy of the occasion. They are joined by Yuki Yamauchi (guitar and ukulele) for many of the songs. These include superb performances of ‘Chon Chon Kijimuna’ (see video below), ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, ‘Akatasundunchi’, ‘Jin Jin’ and others from that original groundbreaking album.   

Alongside all the Okinawan songs is their take on Soul Flower Union’s moving ‘Mangetsu no Yube’ written for survivors of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe. Hirayasu sings it here in an Uchinaguchi version with the great Okinawan singer Misako Koja joining for hayashi. The concert ends fittingly with the evocative instrumental ‘Taketomi Sunset’.

Takashi Hirayasu has been around a long time and continues to make interesting music that always pushes the boundaries, but the collaboration with Brozman is surely his finest work. For anyone familiar with their original albums this will be an unexpected and essential bonus. It also serves as a wonderful reminder of one of the most successful collaborations in any musical genre.

The total running time for the 2 CDs is around 87 minutes. The booklet will include extensive notes and photos.

Mo Ashibi Magic ~ Live in Tokyo 1999 ~ will be released by Respect on 21st April.

Tink Tink: Yuiyasa!

January 13, 2021

Yuiyasa! is an album by four young women going under the name Tink Tink. This will ring a bell with followers of Rinken Band as it’s the project of Rinken Teruya who produced this album and obviously had a big hand in cultivating their sound. A previous duo version of Tink Tink made the album Sya back in 2002, and this quartet have taken over the name.

The songs all bear the unmistakable stamp of Rinken Band with their mix of bright and lively shimauta seasoned with the occasional slower ballad. The themes are mostly the familiar ones of island life and celebrations of nature in the Ryukyus.

What makes this a bit different is that all songs are composed by the four members of the group themselves – Natsuki Hanashiro, Nana Yakabi, Seira Ganaha, and Sayaka Fukumura – and all lyrics are in the Okinawan language of Uchinaguchi. Three of the singers are from Okinawa while Natsuki is from Miyako.

The title track which opens the album is a joint effort with lyrics by Seira Ganaha and music by Rinken Teruya. After that, each of the four members take turns with lead vocals on songs composed individually, with three by each of the women. Rinken Teruya assisted with the Uchinaguchi words, and the CD booklet contains both original lyrics and Japanese translations.

Nana Yakabi’s ‘Shima nu Migumi’ sets an early high note and the general level is maintained throughout. ‘Kutushin! Surisasa’ is a lively workout in eisa style, while ‘Tunaka’ has a vocal by Seira Ganaha that sounds uncannily like Tomoko Uehara who is obviously her mentor. Best of all is Sayaka Fukumura’s slower ‘Umi nu Kwamuiuta’ with its irresistibly sad melody. 

Almost all the music is played on sanshin, guitar, and cheren (the hybrid sanshin-guitar instrument). Not credited in the notes but clearly present in a supporting role are other musicians on bass, drums, and electronics.

It would be easy enough to dismiss this as lightweight shimauta aimed at tourists. An obvious comparison can be made with Sadao China’s promotion of new line-ups of Nenes (or Nenez as they are now styled). What makes this more interesting is the emphasis on Uchinaguchi by these young musicians and their enthusiasm for songwriting. They are also fine performers and Yuiyasa! is a joyous album that never descends into some of the plodding pop of recent Nenez offerings.

Yuiyasa! is out now and is released by Rinken Records.

Rokuningumi 1984-1988

November 16, 2020

This is a collection of newly released recordings made in Okinawa some years ago by the band Rokuningumi. The CD contains nine tracks of 1985 studio recordings followed by seven live songs from the following year. The band’s leader and drummer Kojun wrote all the songs. The other band members were Miyuki (vocals), Kenji Yano (guitar), Hiroki Kinjo (bass) and Satomi Tamaki (keyboards).

What makes this significant is that the band took part in the NHK Young Music Festival of 1985 and were winners of the competition. However, plans for the release of a debut album to be produced by Bill Laswell never materialised and for whatever mysterious reasons Rokuningumi subsequently disappeared without trace…until now.   

Their music has been described as blending rock and fusion with the melodies and rhythms of Okinawa, China, and Southeast Asia. In that respect they have some affinity with the likes of Rinken Band and Shang Shang Typhoon. (In fact, bassist Kinjo was once a member of Rinken Band). There are also similarities with both Shoukichi Kina and Sadao China who were experimenting with new kinds of Okinawan music several years before this.

Guitarist Kenji Yano, originally from Osaka, has gone on to create several new music projects including Surf Champlers and Sanshin Café Orchestra. He continues to be active in Okinawa as a record producer as well as a musician.

These recordings are fascinating to listen to again and in general still have the power to engage. The studio recordings were originally produced as high-quality demos. Mastering for this release was done by that well-known curator of many things Okinawan, Makoto Kubota.

Rokuningumi 1984-1988 is released by Disc Union.

Here is a video of the band at the NHK Young Music Festival in 1985:

Narise Arakaki: Shinayakani…Shimauta

November 10, 2020

Shinayakani…Shimauta is the debut album by Okinawan singer, Narise Arakaki, who is from Yaese in the south of the main island. Arakaki began singing and playing sanshin when she was just seven years old and went on to gather several awards. She was also a winner of the annual ‘Ashimiji Bushi’ song contest.

In fact, she first came to my attention with her wonderful recording of the song ‘Ashimiji Bushi’ which was included on the Okinawan Shimauta CD compilation presented at WOMEX 2016 in Galicia, Spain. That year she also recorded a duet with Hajime Nakasone on his song ‘Ichihata nu Kui’. New recordings of both these songs are included on the album along with ten other tracks.

There is a cast of nine supporting musicians on the album as well as some lively percussion from the Yaese-cho Aragusuku Seinenkai on ‘Ashimiji Bushi’. The increasingly ubiquitous Hajime Nakasone reprises his duet with her and there are two other duets with male singers: she is joined by Masahiro Kuniyoshi for the traditional ‘Nakuni-Kaisare’ and sings with Takayuki Oshiro on ‘Kabira Bushi’. 

It must have been a busy recording studio but the album itself is never overdone. Quite the opposite. Most of the performances are kept simple and straightforward with Arakaki’s clear voice and sanshin always a strong presence. As the title suggests, the selections are mostly shimauta by various composers. Three songs have music by Tsuneo Fukuhara. The plaintive ‘Yaachii’ is one of them and is especially moving, but Arakaki interprets everything with great skill.

Her solo recording debut is already a bit overdue as she has been singing, playing, and performing Okinawan songs for most of her life. Managing to sound fresh while drawing on the living traditions of the islands’ music, she can be rightly proud of this album.

Shinayakani…Shimauta is released by Miri Records and is out now.

Okinawa Yuumoasongu Ketteiban

October 16, 2020

Three years ago, Tokyo’s Respect label released Uchina Love Song an album featuring six different women singers. The project was overseen by famed minyo teacher Setsuko Kikuyama. Five of those singers now return for this new project which focuses on humorous Okinawan songs. They are joined by three male singers and by Kikuyama herself who also produced.

Okinawa Yuumoasongu Ketteiban is a double album with 24 tracks and a total running time of 95 minutes. The idea originated last year but the recording was delayed owing to the coronavirus outbreak. The new release manages to embrace the pandemic in a timely way as these songs are intended to raise the spirits in troubled times.


Most of the selections are minyo and shimauta that were especially popular in the years following the devastation of war on these islands. They became known through radio and live shows and took their place as popular songs of the Okinawan people. These new recordings revive the songs and sometimes change or add new lyrics and verses to update them for our current times.

So, on CD2 of this set we find the title ‘Social Distance Kouta’. This is sung by Kanako Horiuchi but with words by none other than Respect’s own Kenichi Takahashi. And the ‘bonus track’ closing CD1 is ‘Corona Bushi’. This is the Yaeyama tune ‘Densa Bushi’ but with lyrics by the Okinawa Tomo no Kai from Ohio, USA.

The singers share the songs between them and around half the tracks are duets or collaborations. Hajime Nakasone kicks us off with his version of ‘Sukikanna’ and this is immediately followed by the excellent Yoko Ishikawa with ‘Uturuyamun ya miibusamun’ a song by the late Rinsuke Teruya. Among many other fine tracks, a personal favourite is ‘Daisanajiya’ sung here very effectively by Shinichi Shinjo and Kanako Horiuchi.

The unique sense of humour and ability of Okinawans to find something to make them smile in the most difficult circumstances is fully on display here. But this isn’t a comedy show. The album is packed with fine songs, and the vocals, sanshin, and general musicianship are exemplary throughout. It’s another important release from Respect.

The nine singers featured on the songs are Setsuko Kikuyama, Hironobu Nohara, Shinichi Shinjo, Hajime Nakasone, Kanako Horiuchi, Megumi Arakaki, Kaori Yamashiro, Yoko Ishikawa, and Lucy Nagamine. The 68-page CD booklet contains lots of information in Japanese with profiles of the musicians, photos, and song lyrics.

Okinawa Yuumoasongu Ketteiban will be released by Respect on 25th November.

Here is a video of the studio recording of ‘Corona Bushi’ with lead vocal by Hajime Nakasone:

Okinawa Americana: Tachi

September 9, 2020

It’s already three years since Okinawa Americana’s Merry and David Ralston unleashed their own special concoction of American blues and Okinawan traditional music on us with the release of their self-titled debut album. Now they are back again with a second album Tachi (which means ‘two’ in Okinawan).

As a straightforward duo, their live performances have impressed by blending two different musical cultures and with the interplay of voices, sanshin, and guitar. Their first recording went for a bigger sound with the addition of a rock rhythm section and Tachi goes even further in that direction. In fact, the new album comes out with all guns blazing on the opener ‘Blues Come Knocking’ and continues in similar vein throughout.

This might be bad news for those who have been thrilled by their stripped back acoustic style. Instead we should perhaps be grateful that there are these two complementary versions of Okinawa Americana. The evidence here shows that the bigger, louder version, with the pair joined by other musicians, is getting better all the time.

One of the keys to the success of Tachi is the choice of compositions. As before, there’s a roughly equal mix of American blues and Okinawan songs, with the non-Okinawan ones co-written by David Ralston. Frequently, the two styles of music come together in the same song and coalesce around the increasingly familiar but hugely effective idea of the two singers alternating English and Okinawan/Japanese vocals and tunes.

This time they also branch out on their own with two songs featuring just one of the singers. David’s is ‘Find Something New’ a big emotional ballad with strings that still retains Asian elements, while Merry is let loose on the beguiling ‘Anchurasa’ on which she plays ukulele.

The album shines most on some of the Okinawan songs. The Miyako dance tune ‘Kuicha’ (with a backing vocal by Kanako Hatoma) drives along with renewed purpose. ‘Kudaka/Nail It’ combines Merry’s strong singing with a new part in English, and ‘Iwai Bushi’ follows the same pattern.

‘That’s the Blues’ reverses the process with David taking the lead and Merry joining in. Best of all is ‘Chimuganasa’, a popular shimauta most associated with Aiko Yohen. It comes to life here in a new arrangement with slide guitar and some Latin American touches that are the kind of thing that Nenes used to do so well.

Ultimately, this is a record that surpasses its predecessor. The singing and playing fit together even better than before, and it sounds as if it was a lot of fun to make. It rocks, not least because Merry and David Ralston have an obvious respect for each other’s music and culture and are able to create such exciting results.

Tachi was recorded in Nashville, Los Angeles, and Okinawa. It was produced by Okinawa Americana and Rich Mahan. The album is out now and is self-released.

Yuu Yonaha: Kaze no Fuku Shima

August 24, 2020

The full title of this album is Kaze no Fuku Shima ~ Dunan, Yonaguni no Uta (The Windswept Island ~ Songs of Yonaguni) and it’s the debut release of singer and sanshin player Yuu Yonaha.

Now 34, Yonaha grew up on the island of Yonaguni but came to Okinawa for high school and studied Ryukyu classical music at university. Deciding he wanted to be freer with music, he returned to his island in 2011 and is a regular performer at festivals.

The 21-track album was recorded on Okinawa and contains a large selection of songs with 73 minutes playing time. Normally this might be thought a bit too generous but to hear so many traditional songs from the far flung Yonaguni Island is a rare thing and immediately makes this a significant release in terms of presenting and preserving the island’s musical culture.

Yonaha sings confidently and accompanies himself on sanshin. He is joined on some tracks by his wife Keiko Yonaha who sings and plays shimadaiko. His sister Izumi Ota also sings and plays koto. On some tracks the two women take over the vocals, both separately and together. Meanwhile Kazuaki Yamaguchi adds some fue here and there.

Yuu Yonaha

A common theme throughout many of these songs is the exploitation and harsh treatment in former times suffered by the people of Yonaguni and the southern Yaeyama islands, but there is always the common desire to try and have fun with music. Yonaguni songs were frequently performed with voice only and about a third of the tracks on this album are sung unaccompanied.

It all begins with ‘Dunan Tubarama’ sung by Yonaha and wife Keiko and finally ends with the sparsely atmospheric ‘Miranu Uta’. Highlights in between include the well-known ‘Mayaguwa Bushi’ and ‘Yonaguni Kouta’ as well as the lively ‘Dirabudi Bushi’. Not all the songs originate from Yonaguni, and the dynamic ‘Rokucho Bushi’ is from Amami.

This isn’t just an exercise for historical preservation – far from it – but an authentic reimagining of many vital songs of the people of Yonaguni. Yuu Yonaha and his small band of musicians have made a fine album that will be essential listening for anyone interested in those deep south traditions.

Kaze no Fuku Shima ~ Dunan, Yonaguni no Uta will be released on 23rd September by Respect.

Mutsumi Aragaki: Another World of Okinawan Music

July 16, 2020

The debut album from Okinawa’s Mutsumi Aragaki has been a long time coming. Another World of Okinawan Music was first reported to be in the pipeline three years ago and now after many twists and turns it has finally arrived. It’s also released in a package containing not just the CD album but also a companion DVD.

Many will be familiar with her numerous collaborations, for example with Basque singer Mikel Urdangarin who visited Okinawa a couple of years ago. But Aragaki has already built a reputation as a singer and sanshin player in her own right, not only around these islands but much further afield through explorations of her traditional Okinawan roots combined with avant-garde interpretations.

Another World of Okinawan Music is basically a continuous performance best listened to from beginning to end rather than skipped around. The tracks follow on naturally from each other, many containing traditional songs and music, often with new or additional words by Aragaki. There are also sections with loops and electronics joining and sometimes replacing vocals and sanshin.

It’s hard to pick out individual tracks on a recording such as this but two are outstanding for this listener. They are ‘Naakunii-Hantabaru’ and ‘Chijuyaa’. The former is especially well-known in Okinawa and is given a new arrangement here. At nine minutes, ‘Chijuyaa’ is the longest track and is credited as a Ryukyu traditional dance song arranged with added lyrics by Aragaki.

On these two especially, but also elsewhere, the singing and sanshin playing appear in ways not frequently heard in Okinawan music. In particular, she manages to use the sanshin not just as simple accompaniment to the words but as an instrument that can take the lead and express different emotions. All of this is achieved together with sanba, electronics, loops, effects, and soundscapes, while on the DVD the same music blends with videos, photos, paintings, natural sounds, and old Okinawan film footage.

This was obviously a labour of love and the packaging is nothing like the familiar ‘cheap and cheerful’ offerings with minimal information we’ve come to expect in Okinawa. By contrast the CD+DVD (also available as a download) comes with a 20-page booklet with details in Japanese and English. Song lyrics are also printed in the original Okinawan language as well as Japanese and English.

In fact, if there’s a caveat to all this, it’s that there is so much information about the artist, including six short appreciative notes (yes, hands up, I wrote one of them) and such a detailed history of her activities that it tends to read like a job application – she doesn’t really need it, the music speaks for itself. On the album I could also have done without the spoken intro and outro.

So, this is an album that will not suit everyone as it requires close attention to reap its rewards. It should, however, be essential listening for anyone interested in what is going on now in Okinawan music and in the exciting new directions in which Mutsumi Aragaki is taking it. She is indeed a trailblazer who can’t be compared to anyone else. The title of this album could hardly be more apt.

Another World of Okinawan Music is released by NIINUHAI Recordings and is available now:

Here is the video trailer: