Archive for the ‘Okinawan Albums’ category

The Sakishima Meeting: The Silence of Sakishima

March 28, 2017

The duo known as Sakishima Meeting are from now on to be officially known as The Sakishima Meeting (or TSM). If Nenes can become Nenez then why not, I suppose. Whatever the reason, this is their second album release and it comes almost four years after their full-length debut The Best. This time all 11 songs are original compositions by the pair of Ishigaki Island singer and sanshin player Yukito Ara and singer/guitarist Isamu Shimoji from Miyako Island.

The thing that strikes immediately is just how loud the CD has been recorded. Enough to have me reaching for the volume control to turn it down to a listenable level that won’t upset the neighbours. This is anything but the silence of Sakishima. The first four tracks are full on and for the most part this is Ara and Shimoji sharing vocal duties and adding a bass player and drummer to their sanshin and guitars (both acoustic and electric).

This is all well and good. They sound more like a real band than before but the recordings on the livelier ‘band’ songs sometimes seem just a little ragged and lacking any kind of interesting arrangement or setting. The one exception is the song ‘Yuningai’ and it works better than the others perhaps because it’s a better song to begin with. But it’s not all noisy and frantic and there are also songs such as ‘Shimakaji’ where Ara’s voice and sanshin shine on a slower piece, while ‘The World of EN’ towards the end of the album is perhaps its finest moment.

Isamu Shimoji (left) & Yukito Ara

Many of the songs are concerned with nature, peace and island life but nothing here surpasses the two outstanding songs on their debut album – ‘Sakishima no Tema’ and ‘Tome Dome’. On the other hand there is more originality and no need this time for covers of tired old Western standards. Best of all is simply that Ara and Shimoji are back in the recording studio as their union has been one of the brightest things to emerge from the Okinawan music scene over the past few years.

A good case can be put for their work as a duo being even better than their solo and band projects. Their contrasting voices and the interplay of sanshin and guitar is what really makes them special. In live performance this works to perfection and in addition there is always the fun interaction between Ara’s flamboyant stage personality and immensely gifted sanshin playing and Shimoji’s sympathetic and steadying influence. They haven’t always reproduced this in the studio where their quieter songs generally fare better than when they let rip with other musicians. There is plenty of time for them to tweak things further and find the right balance. For now, The Silence of Sakishima will do very nicely.

The Silence of Sakishima is released by Arize. The Sakishima Meeting will tour mainland Japan next month to promote the album. The tour begins in Osaka (17th April) and continues in Nagoya (18th), Yokohama (21st) and Tokyo (22nd).

Takashi Hirayasu: Yuu

December 1, 2016

Yuu, the new album by Okinawa’s Takashi Hirayasu, opens with an insistent repetitive rhythm and a female trio providing call and response behind Hirayasu’s voice. We could almost be in West Africa. But this is ‘Danju Kariyushi’ and like all the songs that follow it’s a traditional Okinawan composition.

Hirayasu’s first solo album for 18 years was recorded at his own studio in Tokyo where he has been based for quite a while. Long ago he was known as the electric guitarist in Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose before deciding to go it alone. In 1999 he achieved worldwide recognition for his groundbreaking album of Okinawan children’s songs ‘Warabi Uta’ famously recorded on Taketomi Island with American guitarist Bob Brozman. A second album by the pair was made in California the next year.


So after a long absence from recording we now have this new release of all traditional songs from the Ryukyu Islands. Most of the nine tracks are from Okinawa but there is also a recording of ‘Tubarama’ from Yaeyama and there’s a short instrumental interlude ‘Okinawan Slack Key Guitar No.1’. The mood is much quieter and gentler than we might have expected from the man once described by Brozman as “a master musician inside a 17 year old wild man”. This is no bad thing as the whole album hangs together better than his previous solo work.

Standout tracks are his versions of ‘Aha Bushi’, ‘Yacchar Guwah’, and especially ‘Keh Hittwuri Bushi’ a staple song for Okinawan singers but brought to life here with an exceptional sensitivity and an unhurried blend of voice, sanshin, guitar and backing vocals. Perversely, on ‘Tubarama’ he dispenses with the usual background vocal to create another idiosyncratic take on this very familiar song.

Hirayasu plays both sanshin and guitar throughout as well as bass, Ryukyu harp, and taiko and his only accomplice, apart from the female vocalists, is Gerhen Oshima who produced the album and also adds some sanshin and guitar. It isn’t perfect and the final ‘Ashibi Shonganeh Bushi’ with just vocal and sanshin seems a slight anti-climax but only because of the strength and quality of all that’s gone before.

So why does it work? It may be that Hirayasu’s experience (he can be called a veteran nowadays) or perhaps even his physical distance from Okinawa has aided him in finding a fresh perspective on these old songs and the results are not just subtly subversive but quite unlike any other musicians in this field. For once, this really could be called a unique album. It’s certainly one of the best this year.

Yuu is released by Coco-Musika Records.

A digest of the album can be listened to here:


Shoukichi Kina & Champloose: Blood Line 2016

November 10, 2016

Blood Line (aka Bloodline) was originally released in 1980 and was the second album but the first studio recording by Shoukichi Kina & Champloose. This new remastered version contains the original album plus two bonus tracks mixed by Makoto Kubota. The bonus tracks are a new mix of ‘Hana’ from the original analogue multi-track master and an instrumental version of the same song.

Blood Line is widely regarded as one of the most important albums in the history of Okinawan music. It was recorded in Hawaii and Tokyo with the members of Champloose joined by Ry Cooder, Makoto Kubota, Haruomi Hosono, Macky Ferry and others. The album is famous most of all for the first recording of ‘Hana’ (or to give it its complete title ‘Subete no Hito no Kokoro ni Hana o’). This was sung by Kina’s then wife Tomoko Kina with Ry Cooder on slide guitar and mandolin.


It’s surprising that such an influential album is only 28 minutes long though this is increased by ten minutes with the bonus tracks on the new release. It isn’t necessarily the best Kina album either and some of his later recordings have surpassed it while its live album predecessor has more intensity and rough immediacy. It has always been a favourite of Kina’s however – he even once thought about re-recording the whole album – and so he must be pleased to see it reaching a new audience with this re-release.

Listening to Blood Line today it’s clear that the album has worn very well and after 36 years still manages to sound fresh and inventive. The quality of the songs, mostly Kina originals, is very high and there isn’t really a weak moment on the album. Apart from the obvious and much recorded ‘Hana’ there are several songs such as ‘Akisamiyo’ and ‘I-Yah Hoy!’ which typify the life-affirming spirit of Kina’s work but there are also quieter moments such as ‘Nirai Kanai’ that ooze with island feeling and impress even more at this distance.

It is also a bit surprising to realise just how much of a combined effort it was. Although Kina’s charismatic presence pervades the album he takes the lead vocal duties on only a few songs and on one or two he doesn’t sing at all. But it’s a treat when he does as he is a great and much underrated singer with a voice very similar to his father, the late Shouei Kina. So it’s a welcome return for Blood Line and a chance to reassess this seminal album.

Blood Line 2016 is released by Anchor Records.


Kenji Yano: Sanshin Island Cafe

September 27, 2016

Kenji Yano from Osaka is an experienced musician, producer and arranger of Okinawan music whose many previous projects have included Surf Champlers and Sarabandge. He also has a hand in songs for commercials and so it’s likely that many in Okinawa will be familiar with something he’s done even if they aren’t always aware of it. Here he turns his attention to an album of instrumental versions of some of the best loved and most popular songs from around the Ryukyu Islands.


Alongside the traditional songs ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, ‘Asadoya Yunta’ and ‘Juku nu Haru’ are some well-known modern songs that can already lay claim to be classics such as ‘Bashofu’ (Tsuneo Fukuhara), ‘Shimauta’ (Kazufumi Miyazawa), ‘Chisana Koi no Uta’ (Mongol 800), ‘Umi no Koe’ (Masaru Shimabukuro), and Shoukichi Kina’s ‘Haisai Ojisan’ and ‘Hana’.

It all might seem a bit too close to the ubiquitous ‘healing island’ music collections which are released so regularly for tourists coming to Okinawa but Yano adds an extra touch of quality to everything he does and this is no exception. The sanshin and acoustic guitar arrangements successfully create a relaxed taste of Hawaii as well as Okinawa on many of the songs.

Sanshin Island Cafe will be released by Nippon Columbia on 12th October. The album was produced by Naha’s Takara Records.

Mayuko Higa: Minishi

September 24, 2016

Minishi is the newly released debut album by singer and sanshin player Mayuko Higa from the Yaeyama Islands. It was around twelve years ago that I first encountered her as a 14 year old when she sang ‘Tubarama’ on stage with Kanako Hatoma at the Hatoma family’s live venue Bashofu in Ishigaki city. Even at that young age it was obvious she was already a talented musician with a love for the old songs. The lively youngster was a regular visitor to Bashofu where she would play her sanshin at every opportunity.

Following in the footsteps of Kanako Hatoma she eventually moved to Okinawa at the behest of Sadao China and was for a time a member of one of his Nenes line-ups. Unfortunately, this was also the quartet who made arguably their worst ever album, Okurimono, in 2010. She subsequently left Nenes and is pursuing a solo career with this album which has been produced by Sadao China and is released by his record company.


Not surprisingly, China’s mark is stamped on the album and he contributes four of his original compositions while the other five tracks are traditional Yaeyama songs. He also plays sanshin on one track and koto on four others. Having the weight of Sadao China behind you can be a double-edged sword as it means that Higa will be immediately noticed in the world of traditional Okinawan song but may have less control over how she actually goes about making her recordings.

The Yaeyama songs are all played straightforwardly and with little in the way of accompaniment to Higa’s voice other than her own sanshin playing. They are strikingly simple and all very good. She has developed into a fine singer and knows exactly how to deliver a satisfying performance. She demonstrates this right from the opening ‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’ to the final ‘Kuroshima Bushi’. The four China songs, by contrast, use guitar and sometimes keyboards to fill out the sound. The title track ‘Minishi’ is the most successful of these.

There is a version of China’s ‘Yon no Michi’ (also the title track of Kanako Hatoma’s debut album 15 years ago) while his ‘Dokyumento’ (Document) is a song written especially for Higa and touches on incidents in her own life. It is probably intended to be the centrepiece of the album but although it’s the kind of song that may go down well with many Okinawan listeners it cannot avoid being just a little too maudlin and predictable.

The juxtaposition of traditional songs and originals is not altogether a smooth one and it left me wondering why the old songs are left as they are but the originals are given more ‘modern’ arrangements, mostly by guitarist Yoshiro Maehama. If it had been the other way around it might have been more imaginative, or at least surprising. And while China is an important singer and songwriter, the whole album might have benefited from a more innovative producer. That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Mayuko Higa’s singing or playing and she puts on an exemplary performance throughout. This is way better than her group work with Nenes and she fully justifies her solo status. She has already come a long way since I first saw that raw 14 year old and she promises to be even better in the future.

Minishi is released by Dig Records.

Misako Oshiro: Ryukyu No Kaze To Umi To Tsuki

September 21, 2016

Misako Oshiro’s new album is to celebrate ‘around 60 years’ of her career as a performer. Ryukyu No Kaze To Umi To Tsuki is a fairly spartan and straighforward ten track album of traditional songs from the Ryukyus recorded earlier this year and released by Oshiro herself in August (MSK-001).

She has been very active in recent times not just as a live performer but also with collaborative recording projects. There have been joint albums with Toru Yonaha (2009), Kanako Horiuchi (2011), Seijin Noborikawa and Ainu musician Oki (both 2012). Two years ago saw the release of a 33 track double album retrospective. So just when we might have expected her to rest on her laurels she has been back in the studio again.


The album contains no surprises and is a simple and solid addition to her long recording career. Oshiro sings and plays sanshin throughout and is joined by the experienced Seibun Tokuhara three times for duets. The most notable of these is ‘Iejima Monogatari’. On another song she is joined by Kozue Chinen.

Oshiro’s singing and playing are always to the fore with occasional slight embellishment by taiko and hayashi and by Tokuhara’s sanshin on the tracks where they get together. The album begins with a strong version of ‘Katami Bushi’ and also includes the well-known ‘Ranku Bushi’ and ‘Ishikubiri’.

Hajime Nakasone: Ten

August 2, 2016

Hajime Nakasone’s new album Ten is his first for four years. The singer and sanshin player from Okinawa made his earliest recordings when he was only 12 and still has such youthful looks that it’s hard to believe he’s already 28. Not so with his voice. Nakasone’s mentor for many years was the late Seijin Noborikawa and he still retains the remnants of a singing style modelled on Seigwa’s which makes him sound like a much older man.

On the new album his purpose was to choose and present some old songs in order to show the roots or essence of his music and alongside these he includes nine original songs that he has written or co-written. There are some accompanying musicians on a few of the recordings but mostly it’s kept very simple with just the vocals and sanshin as the main focus.


The aim to acknowledge his roots begins with the opening track ‘Tunbaru Nakuni~Yaka nu Hama’. Later on there is also another version of ‘Nakuni’, this time played as a duet with his grandfather Seikou Nakasone who also appeared on the previous album. This second version is one of four ‘special tracks’ at the end, making in all a lengthy 70 minute running time with 16 tracks.

One of the originals is ‘Kuishi Nmarijima’ sung here by Nakasone’s own pupil Hiroki Itokazu from Kudaka Island. When Nakasone sang it in 2015 it won the annual Miuta Taisho award for new songs. Another standout among the newer songs is ‘Ichihata nu Kui’ co-written by Nakasone and performed as a duet with young singer Narise Arakaki.

The four special or bonus tracks include a live recording of ‘Yomitan Uta Ashibi’. Perhaps the most intriguing song comes right at the end. This is ‘Kahakai Chijuya’ a Nakasone composition inspired by the story of immigrants from Okinawa who went to Hawaii in 1899. On this successful Hawaiian and Okinawan mix he plays the sanlele: a hybrid of sanshin and ukulele. Apart from this there are no big surprises just a solid album with a mix of old and new from an accomplished performer.

Ten is released by 2Fee Records.