Archive for the ‘Okinawan Albums’ category

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.

Yoko Ishikawa: Shami No Yorokobi

August 1, 2018

Last year Tokyo’s Respect label released the album Uchina Love Song which featured six different female singers. One of those was Yoko Ishikawa and she now has a debut solo album of her own Shami No Yorokobi. The title of the album comes from an original song from 1970 composed by Shizuko Oshiro. Ishikawa’s version is included here.

The well-known singer, sanshin player and teacher Shizuko Oshiro is from Yaeyama and she is also Ishikawa’s mentor. Her presence looms large on this album which Ishikawa dedicates to her and it contains several of Oshiro’s songs plus a selection of other compositions from the Ryukyu Islands, many of them traditional.

Ishikawa is from the small Okinawan island of Iheya but was brought up in Osaka where she learned to play sanshin as a high school student. There is a good balance of songs on this album, some very slow and others more exuberant and they come from throughout the Ryukyus. A standout track is ‘Chijuyagwa’. This traditional Okinawan song has been recorded often but Ishikawa takes it at a slightly slower pace than usual and her plaintive subdued reading makes it rather special. There is also a recording of the Amami song ‘Okinoerabu no Komoriuta’.

Nowadays albums can vary greatly in length and there are no rules. However, record companies in Japan seem to work under the assumption that more must always mean better. It’s therefore no surprise that this one runs to 64 minutes. No complaints about the quality but a little editing or trimming of the fifteen tracks might have produced a more focused result. But this is a fine debut from the seemingly endless supply of talented young musicians keeping Okinawan music alive and well.

Among the musicians accompanying Ishikawa are Setsuko Kikuyama (sanshin, sanba, hayashi) and Keiko Kinjo (shimadaiko). Ishikawa will play two concerts to promote the album. The first is in Naha, Okinawa at Sakurazaka Theatre (Hall B) on 29th September and she will be joined by the musicians from the recording. The other date is at Tokyo Minami Aoyama Mandala on 19th October where she will play with Keiko Kinjo.

Shami No Yorokobi will be released by Respect on 5th September.

Maltese Rock: Otobune

June 1, 2018

Otobune means ‘Ship of Sounds’ and is an accurate reference to the musical voyage that Okinawa based Maltese Rock have been on since their formation in 1997. The band – led by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Morito – describe what they play as punk, blues, Okinawan folk song and gypsy music (and a few other styles too) and they have created a bit of a cult following not least in the Sakaemachi market of Naha where Morito runs his own bar.

Their previous album three years ago led to an appearance in 2016 at a Womex showcase in Galicia, Spain and also to live shows in Poland and Taiwan. The new album is shorter (at 37 minutes) and is more straightforward and more tightly arranged than its predecessor. This generally works to its advantage as in the past the dominating presence of Morito has revelled a bit too much in showing off all the wildness.

This is not to say that Morito takes a back seat. The distinctive sound of the album is still that of his gravelly voice and six of the eight songs are his compositions. The exceptions are the first and last tracks.

Rinsho Kadekaru’s poignant ‘Jidai no Nagare’is transformed into the band’s own style for a fine opener. Closing the album is a new take on the familiar ‘What a Wonderful World’. It has been noted here before that Okinawans (and Japanese) have a disturbing habit of choosing the most hackneyed and obvious Western songs. (‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘’Danny Boy’ anyone?).  But Morito’s new Japanese lyrics and his inimitable vocal just about get away with this one.

Of the original songs two of the more conventional (if one can ever say that about Maltese Rock) are the most successful, and ‘Under the Bridge’ and ‘Melancholic Reimy’ are both very good additions to their canon. The five band members are joined by Yoko Tada who makes an important contribution on several tracks with saxophone, clarinet and flute. Yukito Ara also joins them to play sanshin on three songs.

Overall this is a very good release and while it doesn’t move in any significant new direction it will please fans of the band and will serve to further enhance their already high reputation.

Otobune is released today (1st June) on the Music from Okinawa label. Maltese Rock will play a joint concert with the band Hanggai from Mongolia at Sakurazaka Theatre (Hall A) Naha on 5th June at 19:00.

Kanako Horiuchi: Chimu Churasa ~Connect with People~

February 20, 2018

Hokkaido-born Kanako Horiuchi has been resident in Okinawa for seventeen years and in that time has become a regular live wire on the music scene. She became a pupil of the highly-regarded veteran singer Misako Oshiro and learned traditional singing and sanshin but her openness to all kinds of musical styles and genres has also led her to travel widely overseas and she has performed and recorded in many different ways.

There have been excursions into Jamaican ska, Senegalese music, a duet album with mentor Misako Oshiro, and late last year an album of electronica with Churashima Navigator. She seems to have a finger on the pulse of everything in Okinawa – it’s remarkable in some ways that she also found time to get married last year and has recently given birth to a child.

Now there’s another release and this time it’s a 2 CD set. The album Chimu Churasa ~Connect with People~ might seem a bit haphazard at first glance, though it won’t surprise anyone familiar with Horiuchi’s work. It’s a sprawling collection of nineteen tracks over two discs and it shows off many of Horiuchi’s duets and collaborations, mainly in studio recordings but also with some live tracks. Most but not all of this is new and there are examples of many different styles. The main focus however is on the roots music of Okinawa.

The first disc starts with a seven minute original instrumental ‘To Be Born’ before we get another version of ‘Amazing Grace’ a song somehow much beloved of Okinawan and Japanese singers but which perhaps is overdue for retirement – though this one contains the unusual addition of Akira Sakata on saxophone. The traditional ‘Kunjan Sabakui’ begins with backing vocals that sound vaguely South African but in fact her collaborators here are Okinawan salsa band Kachimba4.

The second disc begins with one of the very best tracks, a duet with Kume Island singer and sanshin player Junji Toubaru on ‘Kuinu Hana’. Elsewhere ‘Yaka Bushi’ is another fine duet with piano and sanshin while the familiar ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’ is experimental and unusual. ‘Hanaumui’ is another electronic adventure with Churashima Navigator, and ‘Danju Kariyushi’ finds Horiuchi joining forces with Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia. Singer and guitarist Morito Itoman from Maltese Rock appears on ‘Futami Jowa’, and there is another collaboration with Misako Oshiro.

It may be a mixed bag and not everything will please equally but this is how Horiuchi operates and this generous collection of songs and music shows just how impressive she is as an open-minded singer and musician. If there is any surprise it’s that her four original contributions are so good and they stand up very well alongside many classic Okinawan songs. In fact ‘Memories Melodies’, with its blend of sanshin and guitar, is a warm melodic composition that wouldn’t be out of place as a hit song.

Chimu Churasa ~Connect with People~ is released on 3rd March by Big Mouth Records.

tidanomiyuki: Now and Then

February 15, 2018

Now and Then is the second album from the Ishigaki Island singer-songwriter who goes under the name tidanomiyuki. After studying art and design for a year in the UK she moved to the main island of Okinawa in 2011. Her debut album was released in 2015 and she has subsequently appeared at festivals in South Korea and Mongolia.

All fourteen tracks on this album are original songs and two of them – ‘Understood’ and ‘Bottle’ – have lyrics entirely in English. She plays acoustic guitar throughout and sings in a gentle voice that may remind some listeners of Akiko Yano. But she has her own individual style and has evolved an appealing and distinctive way of singing and playing.

This all works best when she lets rip a little bit. There is some violin on a few tracks and Yoshio Hasegawa adds some nice warm textures with accordion, electric piano, flute and trumpet. The quirky ‘Mother tree’ is immediately catchy while ‘Loves’ featuring Okinawan singer-songwriter Fumitomo Yagi works very well. (Yagi’s own album Beyond is another worth seeking out).

Her deep south origins in Ishigaki Island also led her to play sanshin and learn traditional Yaeyama songs but on here she concentrates on her original songwriting. It’s a fine album in its own right and a good introduction to this likeable singer. And on a personal note, I met tidanomiyuki for the first time just last week in Naha and we were both surprised to discover we had a mutual connection – three months of her year in England were spent in my hometown of Norwich.

Now and Then is out now on tidanorecord.