Archive for the ‘Okinawan Albums’ category

Harararude ~Yonaguni no Warabe Uta~

September 29, 2021

The new album Harararude contains a rare collection of Yonaguni children’s songs performed by three singers from that island – Izumi Ota, Keiko Yonaha, and Yuu Yonaha.

The original idea came from producer Kenichi Takahashi. Last year his record company Respect released an album of songs from Yonaguni by Yuu Yonaha. That album – Kaze no Fuku Shima – was reviewed here. Takahashi found himself moved by the children’s songs of Yonaguni and especially by their words. Discovering there were many more songs like this he decided to ask Yonaha to record them along with his sister Izumi Ota and wife Keiko. This album is the result.

What distinguishes these songs lyrically from those in Japan is that the words of the Yonaguni songs frequently describe the tough situation faced by families on the island, who were often at the mercy of harsh taxation and the outside elements. By contrast, Japanese children’s songs have less significant words and are more connected to the idea of play.

There are 24 children’s songs here and it all begins with the most familiar, the title track ‘Harararude’. (It was also the title of an An-chang Project album several years ago). ‘Nagayama’ is another well-known song while ‘Nichi nu Sanaiti’ describes the difficult lives of Yonaguni people: the children of the song pray that it won’t rain because their parents are working outside. Some songs are more carefree and ‘Kazoe Uta’ is one in which the names of fish are sung and counted.

It’s very unusual for these songs to be gathered like this and introduced on one album. Izumi Ota did extensive research to find the correct versions of the songs and the three singers combine to sing them. Most of the vocals are unaccompanied in the way they would have been sung originally and each track is very short.

Following the 24 children’s songs there are six lengthier bonus tracks – in fact these bonus tracks add up to more than half of the album’s 51 minutes. Here we find performances of other songs such as ‘Densa Bushi’ and ‘Tubarama’ sung in their Yonaguni variants. For these bonus tracks the three singers are joined by Toru Yonaha and Kazuaki Yamaguchi on fue and vocals.

A 44-page booklet accompanies the CD, containing photos and Japanese translations of the songs as well as the original lyrics. Top marks once again to all involved for revitalising these island songs from Yonaguni.

Harararude ~Yonaguni no Warabe Uta~ will be released by Respect Records on 3rd November.

Chihiro Kamiya: Utayui

August 10, 2021

In 2003 I interviewed Chihiro Kamiya for an article on young women singers. ‘Young Okinawa’ was published the following year in the UK’s fRoots magazine. (You can still read it in the ‘Features Archive’ here). Since then, a lot has happened. The singer from tiny Tsuken Island, off Okinawa’s east coast, went on to make a couple of albums in the pop and rock field. Then in 2012 she came up with Utaui, her best work yet, in which she found her own style mixing both old and new.

All then became silent as far as recording was concerned and she became busy with a new life as a mother bringing up a young family of her own. Now, after a nine-year hiatus, she has been back in the studio and the result is the similarly titled album Utayui which is another mix of original and traditional songs.

The new album begins quietly with piano on ‘Hanagasa Bushi’ a traditional Okinawan song. As soon as Kamiya starts to sing it’s apparent that she is back on top form and the arrangement gradually adds her sanshin in a lovely opener. It’s followed by ‘Anmaakutu’ a song she wrote in the familiar shimauta style. This mix continues, and the songs are sung sometimes in Uchinaguchi, sometimes in Japanese, and occasionally in a hybrid of the two languages.

There are two tracks that go under the name ‘medley’ – something both Japanese and Okinawans are fond of, but that often ring the alarm bells for me. However, all fears are blown away on listening. The ‘Warabi Uta Medley’ of four children’s songs recalls the classic Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman collaboration but this is just as good in its own way. (We also get to hear Kamiya playing a bit of Ryukyu kalimba). Later, there’s an eight minute ‘Eisa Medley’ but this too is so well conceived and executed that it slots in perfectly with the rest of the album.

‘Shirakumu Bushi’ and ‘Nakuni~Hantabaru’ are two very familiar traditional tracks given the Kamiya treatment and for these she is joined by her father Yukihiro and brother Yukitaka to make it a real family affair. Of the other original compositions, ‘Human Song’ is a waltz that comes close to emulating the excellent ‘Coral Song’ from the previous album, while ‘Awatiina’ has a fast tempo and an arrangement not unlike Nenes at their best.

Even the most accomplished Okinawan singers and musicians sometimes make substandard recordings, either because the songs are watered down in attempting to appeal to a wider audience or the albums are simply churned out without enough thought or regard for quality control. So, it comes as a real delight to discover a new album such as this which has a carefully considered balance of old and new, and of tone and variation. And all recorded with thoughtful arrangements and obvious care by Kamiya who produced and directed.

Above all, it is Chihiro Kamiya’s superb singing and phrasing that stands out and ultimately makes Utayui an album of such quality. Now in her late 30s, she is surely one of the greatest singers to come from these islands.

Utayui is released tomorrow (11th August) by Sinpil Records.

Naomi Goeku: Ashita o Shinjite

July 19, 2021

Ashita o Shinjite is a new release by Chatan born singer and sanshin player Naomi Goeku who makes a long overdue album debut in her 70th year. Goeku has a teaching qualification from the Okinawa Minyo Kyokai and is a songwriter as well as an experienced performer who has been singing at various ‘live houses’ and izakaya on Okinawa.

The concept underpinning the album is an optimistic one to celebrate life on these islands and to offer some positive feelings in a time of pandemic. Goeku composed or co-wrote several of the songs while producer Yoshimi Arakaki also lends a hand with songwriting and joins Goeku on sanshin.

A small group of musicians accompany Goeku on some of the tracks with keyboards, sanshin, bass, and guitars. The arrangements of all the songs are by Tatsumi Chibana who is well-known for his promotion of other Okinawan artists as well as for his own hip-hop work with the Duty Free Shopp collective. He plays guitar here on one track.

What we have is a mixed bag of original shimauta starting with ‘Imi nu Hana’, a song composed by Goeku in a typical style found around the islands and ever-present wherever shimauta is played.

The tracks tend to be shared equally between faster and slower moods. ‘Churajima Uchina’ is another typical shimauta (even the title is generically Okinawan) but is none the worse for that and is one of the best tracks in a largely unexceptional but very likeable set. Later, there is ‘Ashibi Shinkanucha’ a bright and shiny piece reminiscent of something that might have been done by Ayame Band.

Two of the songs sung by Goeku were nominated for the Miuta Taisho, an annual awards contest sponsored by Radio Okinawa for more than three decades to find the best new shimauta compositions. Both songs are included in new recordings here. They are ‘Kui nu Umuibana’ (nominated in 2008), and ‘Hana nu Ashibina’ (2012).

The only mild disappointment is the inclusion of ‘Moichido’ midway through the album. It sounds more like a lame Japanese singer-songwriter offering and seems a bit out of place, and frankly unnecessary, among all the Okinawan melodies.   

The album ends on a high note with the song ‘Ashita e’. With its anthemic chorus it manages to leave us suitably uplifted and in a positive mindset.

Ashite o Shinjite will be released this week, on 21st July, by Office Arakachi.

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: