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: