Archive for the ‘Okinawan Albums’ category

Takao Nagama: Donan

May 15, 2020

Takao Nagama’s previous album was recently reviewed here. Now comes Donan, another new release from the founder of Ayame Band. Its title is the original Okinawan name for Yonaguni Island where the singer was born. The songs are mainly original compositions by Nagama and they celebrate life, love, and nature on the small and isolated south-western Ryukyu island.

As often the case with Okinawan releases, nothing is that straightforward. Many of the tracks are newly recorded versions of songs from an early cassette tape made before the birth of Ayame Band. The original tape was named Umi Dunan. Now officially recognised as Nagama’s first album, most of the songs were released on CD under the same title in 2006. (It was chosen last year as one of my favourite ‘totally obscure records’).

A tad confusing also is that in the past some recordings have been credited to Ayame Band and some to Nagama. This one goes under the name: Takao Nagama -Ayame-. It’s safest just to assume that he and the band are one and the same. The release of Donan makes it their 12th album. It is also being promoted as Nagama’s 50th anniversary as a musician, since he first appeared on stage as a 14-year old.

As with last year’s release there is that familiar Ayame Band vibe running through the 16 tracks with Nagama’s strong vocals and sanshin backed by hayashi, keyboards, bass, and drums in a style known most often nowadays as shimauta or island pop. It should not be forgotten that Nagama was at the forefront of the genre and this sound created a sensation when it first appeared. Under his leadership it still sounds great today.

From the lively opening song ‘Donan Shima’ through to the final track ‘Fugarasa’ this is another exciting and frequently moving set of songs. (‘Fugarasa’, incidentally, was also recorded by Shoukichi Kina and Champloose. Kina gave it new lyrics and retitled it ‘Maitreya’). Among many outstanding songs are ‘Yaeyama Meguri’ (given a reggae rhythm), ‘Shonkane~Elegy’, ‘Shimachurasa’ and the superb ‘Yonaguni Kouta’.

Once again, the CD booklet (in Japanese) contains some unnecessary information while omitting more relevant details. And so, we are given Nagama’s date of birth and profile but not the sources of all the songs, nor details of the musicians. Never mind. This is a very welcome release and will surely lift the spirits of anyone who listens.

Donan is produced by Takao Nagama. The album is out now and is self-released.

Takao Nagama: Niraikanai Kara No Uta

May 2, 2020

Ayame Band were founded in the 1980s by singer and sanshin player Takao Nagama, a native of the southern Ryukyu island of Yonaguni. Prior to that, Nagama was a member of Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose. In fact, he rejoined the Champloose line-up briefly and was playing sanshin with them the very first time I saw Kina’s band perform live.

In 2004, Ayame Band released a Best Album compilation and it seemed they had called it a day. However, two years later they were back with another release, and last year’s Niraikanai Kara No Uta (despite going under the name of their leader) is in effect Ayame Band’s 11th album. The cover announces it as their 35th anniversary. Yes, it can be confusing… Subtitled ‘Ayame World’ this latest album contains brand new recordings of both new and old songs.

This is a big album in many ways. There are 16 tracks and a running time of 68 minutes. Many of the songs are performed with the musicians really going all out for it in that bright, shiny, lively way reminiscent of other Okinawan shimauta bands such as Rinken Band, Parsha Club, and of course Champloose. But Nagama has a strong, clear voice and his singing is never swamped by the music.

He is also a superb sanshin player, having learned the instrument from the late great Shouei Kina. Now based in mainland Japan (the album was recorded in Yokohama) he began his own Ayame-kai branch of the Kina performance style several years ago. Nagama (along with Yukito Ara) is now surely the finest exponent of the sanshin in this genre.

A common theme of these recordings is the celebration of Ryukyu island nature and lifestyle – the song ‘Urizun’ is typical – and there is also a sprinkling of love songs. There are some fine versions of songs associated with Shoukichi Kina including his ‘Agarizachi’ which refers specifically to Yonaguni. The selections are not confined to these islands either. Also here is the Tottori minyo ‘Kaigara Bushi’ which has some remarkable sanshin playing.

Like too many Okinawan roots releases, however, there is a lack of relevant information in the accompanying booklet. Although it’s clear to the listener that Nagama is joined by hayashi, sanba, whistles, keyboards, bass and drums, there are no musicians named except for the backing vocalists. Likewise, few of the songs are credited with their origins.

None of this should detract from the fact that this is a joyful, heartfelt album. There is plenty of tacky overproduced shimauta out there and it would be very lazy to categorise this in the same way. For Nagama is an old hand who knows exactly how to elicit the best from the songs of his islands. And so, from the opening song ‘Furusato’ to the wonderful closing track ‘Pai Patiroma (Niraikanai)’ he takes us on a thrilling and emotional ride.

Niraikanai Kara No Uta is produced by Takao Nagama and is self-released.

Satoru Shimoji: From Myahk

December 17, 2019

It’s been quite a while since Miyako singer Satoru Shimoji’s last album, but now we have a new collection of songs, From Myahk. In fact, the album was released earlier this year but has only just reached my ears, so this is rather a late and overdue review.

The new release is in a similar vein to its predecessors, Myahk (2012) and Myahk-U (2015). Together they form a trilogy that presents traditional songs from Miyako given new arrangements, and original compositions by Shimoji. As before, the music is centred around piano and guitars. There are some big productions, as well as songs with just piano or guitar, and a final track with Shimoji’s lone vocal accompanied only by background sounds of the ocean.

This time all eleven tracks are either written or co-written by the singer, and as before he co-produces with Goh Hotoda. The strongest impression is Shimoji’s ability to evoke emotion and atmosphere. Everything oozes Miyako and that’s only the music. In a previous interview with him (on this blog) he summed it up in his own words: “For me the most important thing is to express the atmosphere of Miyako. If you open the world atlas, Miyako is just a tiny dot but even so you can send a light from there to the outside world.”

The lyrics are mostly in Japanese with some Miyako words, while the themes are almost exclusively concerned with Miyako life and the singer’s love for his islands. All of this is served up with Shimoji’s inimitable voice and expressively emotional singing. His daughter Minami plays sanshin on four of the tracks.

Titles such as ‘Boku no Shima’ and ‘Otori Song’ place us straight away in this world while the lovely song ‘Kaze no Ayagu’ is up there with some of his very best work. There’s also a song co-written with Kazufumi Miyazawa who joins as featured vocalist. It’s not the best thing here but the high-profile Miyazawa is obviously an admirer of Shimoji and he also writes the essay included in the CD booklet.

It’s slightly more varied than before regarding the pace of the individual tracks and there’s the inclusion of one song from earlier days. This is ‘Tida no Uta’, a fine song from the album Ryugu no Shima: The Peaceful Island (2000) that is given a reworking here. From Myahk is a very fine album that stands alongside the two previous ones. If you liked them then you’ll need this.

From Myahk is released by Lagoon Music.

Rinsho Kadekaru: Maruteru Recordings

September 18, 2019

It’s already five years since the appearance of the last batch of Rinsho Kadekaru recordings. Now here comes another album of recordings from the studio collected and released for the first time on CD. Maruteru Recordings is also subtitled in Japanese as Shimauta Ogonjidai no Kadekaru Rinsho.

Many previous dips into the vaults have focused on Kadekaru’s work in the 1970s but this one goes back a bit further and the songs here were recorded in the 1960s when the singer was in his forties. Despite this he still sounds the same as always. Not so Misako Oshiro who sounds very young indeed. She joins him on five songs.

The album offers a generous slice of Kadekaru who, it almost goes without saying, does not disappoint in the least. It shows again why 20 years after his death he is still revered as arguably the finest interpreter of Okinawan traditional songs and is the singer and sanshin player most looked up to as an example of the very best of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists.

The recordings were made before he was taken up by journalist and music promoter Rou Takenaka and introduced to mainland Japan where he became very well-known. Until then it had been other singers, especially Shouei Kina, who were more popular back home in Okinawa.

On these tracks he is on his own with his sanshin for most of the time though occasionally accompanied by taiko. As well as the five songs with Misako Oshiro, he is joined by Keiko Higa for ‘Mue Guwa Bushi’ and by Setsuko Uezu on ‘Magukuru nu Hana’. There are 18 tracks and a total of 75 minutes playing time. The CD booklet has extensive notes in Japanese and lyrics of all the songs. The cover shows a photo of Kadekaru unwisely puffing on a cigarette alongside Rinsuke Teruya whose family owned and ran the Maruteru record company.

This is another important piece of Okinawan music history and yet another addition to the continually growing catalogue of Rinsho Kadekaru recordings.

Maruteru Recordings is released by Disc Akabana / Terurin Records.

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019

June 10, 2019

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 is the title of a significant new release of Okinawan music from Tokyo’s Respect label. It’s a double album comprising 30 tracks, two CDs, and two hours of songs from four featured artists. The singers are Hirokazu Matsuda, Seibun Tokuhara, Mika Uchizato, and Akane Murayoshi.

The title can be translated as ‘elegy for the lost sea’. This harks back to a 1975 double album of 27 songs under a similar title produced by Okinawan writer, critic and entrepreneur Rou Takenaka that showcased some important Okinawan singers. Takenaka was a prominent supporter of Okinawa and its music as well as a vociferous opponent of the islands’ reversion to Japanese rule.

In his essay included with the new release, producer Tsukasa Kohama writes of this as the inspiration for the new recordings and says he believes it’s the right time to release this album as it has never been so important to save Okinawa’s beautiful sea and nature from threats posed by America and Japan. He also writes of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists led by Shouei Kina, Rinsho Kadekaru and Shotoko Yamauchi.

The new album features some of the leaders of the ‘second generation’. Hirokazu Matsuda and Seibun Tokuhara, both in their 70s, have been important in carrying on the songs and both are stalwarts of the island music scene. The two women are much younger. Mika Uchizato is already well-known as one of the top female voices with several recordings to her name. Akane Murayoshi, now 30, has released a couple of albums. The second was the frankly awful Challenge in 2011 so it’s good to see her recovering from that and back at her best. Matsuda and Tokuhara are both from Okinawa’s main island while Uchizato hails from Minami Daito, and Murayoshi from Kume Island.

The songs will be well-known to those familiar with Okinawan music. Most are traditional and some, but not all, are directly connected with the sea. All convey the atmosphere of everyday life on these islands which has always been inextricably linked with nature and the sea. There are songs from around the Ryukyus rather than just Okinawa. One of the best is ‘Yonaguni Kouta’ sung here by the two women. Another is ‘Tenyou Bushi’ with a vocal by Matsuda. There are both fast and slow songs. Outstanding among the latter is ‘Hama Sodachi’ with vocal and sanshin by Murayoshi.

The title song, in full ‘Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 (Jintoyo-gwa)’, is a traditional tune to which producer Kohama has added some new verses. The song laments the dreadful changes in Okinawa – the unwanted presence of hotels and military bases; the disappearance of coral and fish; how beautiful Henoko used to be and how it is changing. And it concludes that when we get Okinawa back the people can smile again.

(L to R): Hirokazu Matsuda, Mika Uchizato, Akane Murayoshi, Seibun Tokuhara

The songs are all performed straightforwardly with sanshin accompaniment plus shima-daiko and hayashi. There is the occasional addition of Keiko Hamakawa’s Ryukyu koto, and Hiroyuki Kinjo’s fue. The four singers share the vocals and find several different combinations to play with on individual songs. It almost goes without saying that everything is sung and played with enormous skill and vitality. Most importantly the album just sounds very good indeed and the two hours passed by very quickly for this listener.

One small caveat is that in Okinawa it’s impossible, even now, to escape the hierarchical nature of the music world. It would have been nice to have Mika Uchizato and Akane Murayoshi take the lead on more than the six songs they are given. But at least they do have this much as it wouldn’t have been a complete surprise to see them appearing only as backing singers.

This is a timely and important release and serves as a reminder of the wealth of wonderful songs from these islands. Also, for the urgent need to protect the islands and their environment for future generations.

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 will be released by Respect on 24th July.

An album release concert will be held in Naha at Sakurazaka Theatre (Hall A) on Saturday 7th September.

Takashi Hirayasu: Kumu Ashibi~Cloud Wandering

May 30, 2019

Kumu Ashibi ~ Cloud Wandering is the new album by Okinawa’s Takashi Hirayasu who has been based in Tokyo for several years. Once guitarist with Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose he has since pursued his own path for a long time. Along the way he made the classic Warabi Uta collaboration with American guitarist Bob Brozman and more recently there was an excellent solo album Yuu that hinted at African connections.

The new release finds him once more in an adventurous mood. The album was recorded in Taiwan and co-produced by Japanese guitarist Ken Ohtake who has played with Hirayasu before. Now based in Taiwan, Ohtake plays guitar throughout and co-writes some of the original songs. There are also traditional Okinawan songs given a new spin by Hirayasu who sings and plays sanshin here as well as sanba and Okinawan drums.

Hirayasu and Ohtake are joined by other musicians – both Japanese and Taiwanese – on most tracks. They include Chung Yufeng (Fade to Blue) who plays pipa on a Chinese version of the Yaeyama song ‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’ with new lyrics and a vocal by Wan Fang.

The first three tracks are all familiar songs from Okinawa – ‘Daisanaja’, ‘Umi no Chinbora’ and ‘Achamegwa’ – but these are given Hirayasu’s special treatment and after that the album goes off in all kinds of other musical directions to embrace rock, funk, reggae, and jazz, with a notable contribution from Min-yen Terry Hsieh on saxophones, but always with Hirayasu’s sanshin prominently in the mix.

On first listen this is very different from Hirayasu’s other work and has a much bigger sound, for example, than his previous release Yuu. Where that album seemed very carefully constructed this is a bit rougher around the edges and has a very immediate, almost improvised feeling as if these arrangements were all made in the studio and then recorded live. No doubt the Taiwanese connection has enabled a different process and the overall results are very satisfying.

Takashi Hirayasu continues his journey of musical exploration and his absence from Okinawa may have, oddly enough, helped his creative impulses and opened the doors to some interesting new developments. Despite the presence of many Western elements this is an Asian album first and foremost with a very strong Okinawan atmosphere. Most of all it is quite obviously an album in which Hirayasu expresses himself in his own way.

The album booklet comes with lyrics of all the songs in Japanese, Chinese and English and there are also some useful English notes.

Kumu Ashibi ~ Cloud Wandering is released in Taiwan by Foothills Folk. It can be bought online at

Takashi Hirayasu will play a concert in Tokyo at Koenji Jirokichi on Friday 21st June starting at 19:30. Advance tickets 3,500 yen. Tel. 03-3339-2727.

Yuki Yamazato & Katsuko Yohen: Urisha Fukurasha

May 23, 2019

Urisha Fukurasha is an album by veteran Okinawan singers Yuki Yamazato and Katsuko Yohen. Both women have been well-known separately for a long time but have also recorded together and a few years ago made a joint album Doushibi along with another singer Keiko Kinjo.

The new album is divided quite distinctly into sections with five songs first from Yamazato then five from Yohen and finally two songs on which they sing together. There are also two bonus tracks recorded live in 2009 at a concert in Koza.

Most of the album is best described as shimauta with songs by known composers and three of the tracks are newly written. One of these is the first song ‘Inagu Hichui’ with lyrics by Naohiko Uehara and music by Minoru Kinjo. It’s also one of the standout tracks with a great vocal from Yamazato. At the age of 82 she doesn’t seem to have lost any of her power and her five songs that begin the album are quite sublime.

The title track, sung by Yamazato, was written by Shuken Maekawa and is another new composition, while another Maekawa song ‘Umui Shongane’ is sung by Yohen. Two Sadao China songs are included. One of these, performed by Yohen, is ‘Katadayui’ and the other is ‘Nageki no Ume’ on which Yamazato shares vocals with Hajime Nakasone. There is also a duet by Yohen and young singer Hikaru on a song by Teihan China and Choki Fukuhara.

As well as the two main singers there are notable contributions from musicians Hajime Nakasone and Hikari. Nakasone plays sanshin throughout and adds some taiko too and he is credited as the album’s director. Hikari, just 20 this year, plays Ryukyu koto, sanshin and sanba. All four get together on the two traditional songs and they make a fine job of ‘Kehitori Bushi~Kaisare’. There are also contributions from Asami Ohama (kokyū) and Marino Oshiro (hayashi).

It might seem a bit disjointed to have an album divided into separate sections in this way but it’s not uncommon in Okinawa and listening to it all the way through is proof that it works well. There are no surprises in choices of song or execution. You won’t find any synthesisers, strings or rock arrangements here. This is just straightforward Okinawan music played by some of its best practitioners. All involved deserve much credit, but special praise goes to Yuki Yamazato who has been singing for more than 60 years and can surely lay claim to being Okinawa’s greatest female singer.

Urisha Fukurasha is released this week by Campus.

HARAHELLS: Delicious Club

February 13, 2019

HARAHELLS (yes, all in capitals) are two young women from Okinawa. Delicious Club is their second mini-album release. At nine songs and 38 minutes it’s longer than some classic albums such as Shoukichi Kina’s Bloodline or even Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline but they insist it’s a mini-album. The duo comprises Ramen Maru (drums, vocals) and Nomisugi Mukumi (guitar, vocals).

In their notes for the album they say that their songs are about the food they like, the vegetables they hate, and daily episodes in their lives. This sums up very well what they are all about. They also maintain: “truth is, we are good at eating more than making music. Lately, we drink and eat everything happily, so we got chubby.” Well, I met the pair last week and later watched their live show at Sakurazaka Asylum. I don’t know how much they can eat but their music is a breath of fresh air and they are not chubby.

In fact, HARAHELLS have been around in different line-ups for a while now and were once a trio. The only original member is Ramen Maru and she composes all the songs. Their sound is very stripped back, at times almost to punk basics, with drums and guitar the only accompaniment to most of their songs. It is tempting to employ the overused word ‘quirky’ about what they do but it goes further than that and they can be hilariously funny while making some serious points.

Much of the impact relies on their deadpan lyrical cleverness and wordplay and as it’s all in Japanese it may have limited appeal overseas. Nevertheless, their show can be appreciated on more than one level and they deserve (and will probably get) a much wider audience. They have already played at a music festival in South Korea and the tiny venue where I saw them was packed with admiring fans.

The title track ‘Delicious Club’ is an ode to ramen and is almost irritatingly catchy. The video for this song is well worth checking out on their website. As well as several other songs in praise of food there are some sharp tongue-in -cheek observations of everyday life. In particular ‘Onna-bancho Saki-senpai’ in which they sing of their fear of an older bullying schoolgirl.

London-based Japanese duo Frank Chickens achieved some popularity in the 1980s and in some ways HARAHELLS are reminiscent of them. But HARAHELLS are a more innocent and straightforward duo who are adding some Okinawan flavours and new tastes to the musical dishes they serve.

Delicious Club is out now on the Music from Okinawa label. A release party will be held at Output, Naha on Saturday 2nd March at 18:30. Advance tickets 1,500 yen, or 2,000 yen at the door.

Seijin Noborikawa & Sadao China: Live!

January 23, 2019

In 2001 legendary Okinawan singer Seijin Noborikawa – the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the sanshin’ – was enjoying renewed popularity following his starring role in the movie Nabbie no Koi. On 5th September that year he got together with his former pupil Sadao China to play a joint concert at the live house CAY in Tokyo. The whole concert was recorded but for some reason was never made available in any form until now when it appears on this new 2 CD album.

Noborikawa – usually known by his nickname Seigwa – made a studio album with China three years after this. A live double album of a later Seigwa solo concert at the same venue was also released in 2011. He died in 2013.

The recording quality on the new release is excellent. Live! is subtitled ~Yuntaku to Uta Asobi~ and so we are forewarned this is going to include unedited talk and chat between the two singers in between songs. In Japan and Okinawa (as I’ve mentioned before) audiences not only don’t mind listening to rambling anecdotes but actively encourage it. It therefore comes as no great surprise to find the inclusion of Seigwa and China’s chats taking up around 50 minutes of the total running time of 125 minutes.

A mitigating factor is that Seigwa was generally considered to be an irreverent and amusing character and his jokey playful comments are preserved here as they were heard by the appreciative audience. The recording should be listened to in its entirety at least once in order to obtain the same live experience at home. However, if it gets tiring to hear so much talk repeated on subsequent listens the chatty bits (labelled ‘MC’ here) are all on separate tracks and can be edited out.

As for the music, it’s not surprisingly an exemplary performance from both singers and could hardly have been bettered. On the first (and longer) CD China begins on his own with four songs including ‘Nakuni’ and ‘Shirukumu Bushi’ before inviting Seigwa on stage. Seigwa then tackles some of the big traditional songs. Among them are Okinawa’s ‘Nakuni’, Yaeyama’s ‘Tubarama’, and Miyako’s ‘Togani’ before the pair get together again for ‘Yachaguwa~Yanbarutimatu’.

By the second CD Seigwa is in full swing as he veers off into several playful diversions – one of them an idiosyncratic sanshin instrumental of ‘Kimigayo’. Towards the end Seigwa presents what he calls ‘Minyo Fushi Watari’ which is an almost eight minutes run through of 22 traditional Okinawan songs. For that and the final song ‘Achameguwa’ he is joined by Takashi Hirayasu on sanba and by two members of Osaka band Soul Flower Union, Takashi Nakagawa and Hideko Itami.

The two encores are also two of the best. First is Sadao China’s moving solo version of ‘Jintoyo Waltz’ a song co-written by his father Teihan China and Rinsuke Teruya. Then finally comes Seigwa’s own song ‘Midori no Okinawa’ which he fittingly sings with Takashi Nakagawa who had recorded the song with him.

This is a masterclass by Seijin Noborikawa and Sadao China and it’s an important and unexpected release. It must have been a fun evening if you were lucky enough to be there but it can now be re-lived by anyone interested in two of the Okinawan music greats.

Live! is released today (23rd January) by Respect.

Nenez: Mapai

September 28, 2018

Mapai is the latest album from Nenez. Some time ago they changed the spelling of their name from Nenes to Nenez. The group members have often changed too and so it’s a bit odd this time to see them appear on the cover of the new release as a trio rather than the more familiar quartet. The three women are Misuzu Okiyama, Nagisa Uehara and Rie Motomura.

As usual, the album is produced by their mentor Sadao China who also writes some of the songs. A large cast of musicians is brought in to help, especially with the songwriting and arrangements and they include Kazufumi Miyazawa, Shingo Maekawa (Kariyushi 58), Masaru Shimabukuro (Begin), Yasuko Yoshida and Satoshi Kadekaru while members of Nenez also contribute some original songs.

To begin with the positives, there are a couple of songs here that stand out as worthy recordings. The second track ‘Shinburi Manburi’ is an original by Shingo Maekawa and it’s a fine lively song in the shimauta mode that Nenez and all their earlier incarnations would surely be pleased with. The other high point comes midway through the album with the simple straightforward performance of Yoshinori Shinkawa’s classic ‘Ume no Kaori’.

Unfortunately, the stark simplicity of ‘Ume no Kaori’ is not evident anywhere else on an album which contains far too many tired-sounding songs, over-familiar tunes and unimaginative arrangements. The rot sets in right from the beginning with ‘Fai Fai’ and its tediously old-fashioned treatment. China’s co-written ‘Miyarabi Utagokoro’ is just as bad and another co-written China song ‘Jinsei Hanbun Sake Hanbun’ has a hackneyed tune and a dinosaur guitar band arrangement.

It gets worse. ‘Kanpai’ is not the rousing celebration of drinking we might have expected but instead begins in a vaguely Hawaiian style before a surprisingly dull and dreary descent into boredom. ‘Anata no Koe’ is no better with another plodding arrangement by Satoshi Kadekaru. The worst perhaps is saved for last with Sadao China’s ‘Harmony’ which is an utterly predictable and sentimental song about Okinawa that we seem to have heard a million times before.

The perfectly acceptable bonus track ‘Harikyamaku’ tagged on at the end is not quite enough to make us forget what an ultimately unexciting album we’ve just listened to. There can be no complaints about the three Nenez women who sing beautifully throughout and are obviously very talented. But there are too many re-treads here and the women are never really allowed to shine as they might: a case maybe of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Mapai ends up more like a parody of the old Nenes. It’s no better or worse than its predecessor Dikka but it still chips away at the great legacy of the original band.

Mapai is released by King Records.