Archive for the ‘Okinawan Albums’ category

Okinawa Americana

July 18, 2017

The new album Okinawa Americana by the duo of the same name (Merry & David Ralston) does just what it says in the title. It puts together the music of Okinawa and America to make a champloo mix. Merry is an Okinawan singer and sanshin player while David Ralston is an American singer with blues and rock influences who is also a remarkable slide guitar player. He has been resident in Okinawa for many years. With this set of ten songs the two of them seem to have found their true purpose.

The pair recorded the album in various locations including Nashville, Tennessee, and Los Angeles and they are also joined by some experienced American musicians. Previous Okinawa-America collaborations, such as Hirayasu & Brozman and Oshima & Keezer, have concentrated on the Okinawan songs. This is different in that it’s focused as much on Americana as on Okinawa and many songs feature a combination of English vocals from Ralston and Okinawan singing from Merry.

This works best of all on the traditional ‘Aha Bushi’ a normally austere song which is given a makeover here that totally works. The sanshin and slide guitar play off each other to great effect and the disparate blend of Merry’s Okinawan singing and Ralston’s bluesy-gospel vocal is a treat. ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’ is another success that drives along in the fast lane while ‘Nan Kuru Naisa’ has an English vocal about life in Okinawa and sounds like a distant relative of Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’.

‘Red Wine and Mensore’ is standard country rock until Merry cuts in with a lovely counterpoint vocal to show that she is the duo’s secret weapon and her skill and effervescence lifts many of these songs. ‘Mimura Odori’ has shared vocals and a strong combination of sanshin and electric slide guitar. Meanwhile Ralston’s ‘Okinawa Is My Home’ has echoes of Ry Cooder’s ‘Going Back to Okinawa’ in its celebration of all things Okinawan. But it’s a song with more insight than Cooder’s because Ralston really knows what he’s singing about and isn’t just passing through as a musical tourist.

So we have an album that combines originals with old Okinawan songs; English and Okinawan vocals; sanshin and slide guitar. There’s also a decent version of the popular but too much recorded ‘Amazing Grace’ (renamed here ‘Mumukafu’) and a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. It’s a mixed bag but one that works nearly all the time. Most of all this is a fresh-sounding album in which all involved are obviously having a lot of fun.

Okinawa Americana will be released by Mad Music Intl on 6th August.

Uchina Love Song

June 29, 2017

Uchina Love Song is a new compilation of songs from the Ryukyu Islands sung by six different women singers. The album contains 18 tracks and the songs are shared equally between the singers so they have three tracks each. The singers are Lucy Nagamine, Yoko Ishikawa, Kaori Yamashiro, Kanako Horiuchi, Megumi Aragaki, and Mina.

It has been said many times that there are so many Okinawan compilation albums that it needs something rather special or different to justify the release of yet another one. Well, Uchina Love Song is certainly different as it focuses on both Ryukyu minyo and classical love songs all concerned with women’s feelings towards men. (Despite this, all of the songs seem to have been written by men). Generally, the stories told in the songs have unhappy endings and this makes for an unusual theme and atmosphere throughout.

The responsibility for choosing the 18 songs was with Setsuko Kikuyama, a famed teacher of minyo and she gave guidance on singing and sanshin playing as well as appearing on the album along with a few other musicians in supporting roles. The songs are performed uniformly well but among those that stand out is a version of Teihan China’s ‘Kataumui’ by Lucy Nagamine – a song much associated with Misako Oshiro. Megumi Aragaki takes on the standard ‘Shirakumu Bushi’, Kanako Horiuchi sings Choki Fukuhara’s ‘Yotakara Bushi’, and Mina performs ‘Musume Jintoyo’ a song written by Fukuhara’s son Tsuneo and a big hit for Yoriko Ganeko in 1978.

What is interesting about the artists who appear on the album is that only one of them – Megumi Aragaki – was born and raised in Okinawa. Of the others, Lucy is well-known for her upbringing in Peru, and Horiuchi moved to Okinawa from Hokkaido in order to study Okinawan singing and sanshin. Yamashiro was born in Osaka but came back to live in Okinawa, while Yoko Ishikawa is from the Okinawan island of Iyeha-jima but was brought up in Osaka. Mina is Swiss-Japanese and lives in London.

Kanako Horiuchi and Lucy Nagamine may be the best known of these singers and not surprisingly their contributions are outstanding but everyone deserves credit for a new compilation with a slightly different focus and purpose. The release comes with a second CD containing a nine minute recording of ‘Nakuni~Kaisare’ featuring all of the singers. The CD booklet contains Japanese translations and explanations of the songs by the writer Tsukasa Kohama.

Uchina Love Song will be released on 2nd August by Respect.

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.