Archive for the ‘Okinawan Albums’ category

Kenji Yano: Kalimba Plays Okinawan Songs

November 17, 2022

Kenji Yano is from Osaka but has long been resident in Okinawa where he has been active as both musician and producer. His name has already popped up a few times on this blog. He was a guitarist in 1980s band Rokuningumi and their very interesting mix of Asian styles was finally made available on CD a couple of years ago.

Yano has subsequently led various projects including Surf Champlers (known for their recording of the James Bond theme) and Sanshin Café Orchestra. His album Sanshin Island Café was reviewed here in 2016.

On this new solo album, he offers instrumental versions of 13 Okinawan songs played exclusively on the kalimba, an African instrument also known as mbira or thumb piano. Four different kalimbas are used for the recordings – two were made in Japan, one is from China, and the other from South Africa.

The songs chosen are all very well-known to those familiar with Okinawa and its music. Some of them are traditional while others are modern shimauta. They include ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, ‘Asadoya Yunta’ and ‘Akata Sundunchi’ as well as covers of Begin’s ‘Nada Sousou’, The Boom’s ‘Shimauta’, Shoukichi Kina’s ‘Hana’, and ‘Bashoufu’ the popular composition by Tsuneo Fukuhara who died just a few weeks ago.

The liveliest track is another Kina song, ‘Haisai Ojisan’, but in general this is a very laidback and relaxing listen – hence its subtitle: ‘Relax to the Magic of Okinawa’, also used for a previous Yano album on which he played sanshin versions of Okinawan classics.

I don’t care for the term ‘healing’ (as regular readers will know), and it is overused in promoting tourism and beach holidays around the Ryukyu islands. However, this would not be too far off the mark when describing the album. It will doubtless appeal to fans of the kalimba which is played here with great expertise but may also find a welcome place as background music in island cafes.

Kalimba Plays Okinawan Songs is released on CD by Qwotchee Records.


Toru Yonaha: Roots~Ryuraku Keisho

August 26, 2022

The full title of Toru Yonaha’s new album is Roots~Ryuraku Keisho Sono San~ Shima no Uta Shu and it’s the third in a series of Roots albums. Just to clarify (or perhaps add to the confusion) he also came up with an album of traditional songs entitled Roots in 2008.

This new release is produced by Yonaha who does everything here on his own. This means he sings all the songs as well as accompanying himself on sanshin, taiko, fue, and sanba on what is truly a solo outing. The two previous albums in this series have been more centred around Ryukyu classical songs but this is primarily a set of traditional folk songs or minyo with some of the music composed by Yonaha.

The Chatan born musician has been an important figure for some years on the Okinawan music scene. It’s now 21 years since his excellent debut Yozare Bushi which focused on some of the songs he learned growing up, and in the two decades since then he has proved himself a master of both traditional and classical Ryukyuan music. He has also recorded eisa and kachashii and made a duet album with the late Misako Oshiro.

His open-minded attitude has also seen him collaborate with numerous pop musicians and he helped promote the careers of others such as Chihiro Kamiya and Mika Uchizato. He dabbled in rock music too and during an interview I did with him for The Power of Okinawa book, he told me he enjoyed listening to the likes of Queen and Deep Purple and had got ideas from them when composing.

As expected, this is another solid album on which he sings and plays effortlessly – or so it seems – on a selection of songs that begin with the classical sounding ‘Haru no Ume’ which in fact has music composed by Yonaha. Unlike, for example, English folk music which is quite distinct from classical influences, Ryukyu classical songs and the people’s folk songs are frequently intertwined as is often the case here.

There are commonly known and frequently sung songs such as his versions of the outstanding ‘Chijuyagwa’, and the lively ‘Umi nu Chinbora’. (Yonaha guested on Misako Koja’s recording of the latter several years ago). He also gives us a version of the famed Miyako song ‘Irabu Togani’. There is a song from Ie-jima, and one or two tracks with lesser-known titles such as the fishing song ‘Itoman Otome’.

Despite all his experiments, diversions, and forays into other kinds of music, it’s the man and his sanshin that are at the heart of everything. On this album he is really at home doing what he loves with the folk songs of his islands. As he said years ago in our first meeting, he always wants to carry on with this because there are just so many great traditional songs. Long may it continue.

The album is out now and is released by J’s Records.

Seishin Taba: Shiawase Retto

July 29, 2022

Seishin Taba has been a fixture on the Okinawan music scene for a long time. While he may not command the high profile of some of his contemporaries, he has built quite a reputation for himself over the years. Now, the best of his recordings has been rounded up and made available on this newly released double album.

The album’s full title is Shiawase Retto – Taba Seishin Tokushu and it brings together 32 tracks over two CDs. All but one of these are taken from previous recordings that span the whole of Taba’s career. The exception is the newly recorded ‘Shirakumu Nagariti’ a song written by Bisekatsu and Kazutoshi Matsuda. It’s one of the best things on what is a comprehensive selection covering a lot of musical ground.

Taba recently surfaced to take part as a guest on Keiko Higa’s album Tenmikachi Donmikachi Hiyamikachi, reviewed here earlier this year. He also sang and played impressively when I saw him at the Higa album release concert in Koza. Just last week, he also appeared in concert as one of a trio of top traditional singers along with Sadao China and Tetsuhiro Daiku, so he is obviously enjoying something of a renaissance.

The selections on this (mainly) retrospective release include several duets with women singers, and there are two songs with the great Yuki Yamazato: one is the superb ‘Saipan Kazoeuta’. Other female singers include Naeko Seragaki and Misako Koja, while the last track of all is a recording of ‘Sah Sah Bushi’ with Keiko Kinjo. As well as the women, Shuken Maekawa joins on one song and is composer of one of the best tracks, ‘Nakankiyo’.

In 1975, Taba had a big hit in Okinawa with the song ‘Shima no Hito’ and this is also included. Another of many highlights is ‘Nakuna Shichan’ in which Taba’s typically undemonstrative and gentle vocal is evident. Despite the upbeat album title, which takes its name from the first song ‘Shiawase Retto’ (or ‘happy island chain’), several songs are sad reflections on the harsh conditions and history of the islands.

Most of the recordings are either popular shimauta or traditional minyo, but Taba is also known for his singing of kayokyoku-style compositions and there are three examples of this. For this listener, these are the weakest point of what is otherwise a very fine collection, as they take Taba far too close to Japanese enka – for my own liking anyway. Otherwise, this excellent collection is the perfect introduction to the musical world of Seishin Taba.

Shiawase Retto is out now on Campus Records.

Jusu: Sagaribana

July 6, 2022

The complete title of this debut album is Sagaribana ~Shima o Kuchizusamu Vol.1~ and it’s by an Okinawa-based trio named Jusu. The trio comprises Ishigaki singer Makico Miyara complemented by the guitar and arrangements of Shigeharu Sasago and the sanshin of Gerhen Oshima.

While this is a new project, the members come to it with an impressive pedigree. Shigeharu Sasago and Gerhen Oshima both have more than 30 years of experience as musicians in numerous different guises, while Makico Miyara is a solo singer whose credits include writing and singing the theme song for a movie soundtrack.

Oshima began as a member of ambient unit Tingara and is keen to explore the possibilities of the sanshin. Meanwhile Sasago is a much in demand guitarist who has worked with, among others, Misako Koja and Yasukatsu Oshima. Inspired by the music of Okinawa, they formed Jusu last year with Makico Miyara, and Sagaribana contains nine songs written or co-written by Sasago and Oshima.

Famed Okinawan artist Bokunen Naka was responsible for the cover art in his unmistakable style, but he is also the composer of the lyrics for two of the songs included here. Earlier this week he joined the trio to talk about his contribution as part of a pre-release event that I was invited to attend at Sound M’s live stage in Naha.

The core sound of these songs is created by the interplay of acoustic guitar and sanshin, but some tracks have guest musicians playing flute, piano, cello, bass, and percussion. There is no obvious standout track but the whole album flows together in a natural progression. This could have slipped all too easily into the dreaded easy listening, but the musicians and the songs are good enough to avoid this.  

The first three songs are all Gerhen Oshima compositions and the best of these is ‘Shima e’ which opens the album. Miyara begins the next track ‘Ichi mudui’ with a lengthy unaccompanied vocal. This is one of the songs with lyrics by Bokunen Naka. The other, ‘Kaji ya n kai kaji’, is one of the liveliest and most engaging on the album.

This is a joint effort with vital contributions from all three, but the star is Makico Miyara whose confident but nuanced vocal delivery is strongly evident throughout. Listening to her at the pre-release event made me also want to listen to her singing some of the traditional songs of her islands. I’m sure she would do them justice but for now we can be content with the original songs she sings so well with Jusu.

Sagaribana ~Shima o Kuchizusamu Vol.1~ will be released by Jusu Records on 10th July.  Jusu will have an album release concert in Naha at Sakurazaka Theatre Hall B on Sunday 2nd October at 15:00.

Uchina Jazz All Stars: Uchina Jazz Goes On

May 25, 2022

It’s not all shimauta in Okinawa. Many other musical genres and stylistic mixes are popular too and one of these is jazz which became widespread during the American occupation of these islands after the war. In fact, top American jazz musicians such as Count Basie and Louis Armstrong came to Okinawa to play on the military bases. Jazz became widely known and by the 1960s there were jazz clubs around the island as well as on the bases.

Uchina Jazz All Stars are a collection of jazz musicians from Okinawa, and this is the first Uchina Jazz release for 14 years. Some of the musicians gathered here were active in those early days of jazz on Okinawa, and among those who play on this album are 92-year-old tenor saxophonist Alan Kahipe and 86-year-old drummer Shoei Uehara.

The album offers 15 tracks and more than an hour of music plus a couple of songs, and the CD comes with a 28-page booklet. The recordings were all produced by Naha trombonist Eiki Maezato whose many credits and involvement with the music scene include playing for Diamantes.

The essence of the album is in its big band style, and this is given a workout on several instrumental performances of Okinawan traditional songs. There are also some originals and a couple of classic jazz standards. Maezato composed the title track which begins the album, and it appears again later in a different version.

The two vocals here are both by Takako Afuso. The first is on ‘Getto’, a song of peace with lyrics that reference the tragic events of the Battle of Okinawa in an impressively poetic and oblique way. The other Yafuso vocal is for the Okinawan song ‘Endo no Hana’

There is also a 17-piece big band version of ‘Hiyamikachi Bushi’; a recording of Misako Koja’s much loved ‘Warabi Gami’; a very different jazz arrangement of the Yaeyama traditional song ‘Densa Bushi’; and the American standard ‘My One and Only Love’ inspired by the John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman version.

This is a mixed bag of compositions and influences firmly rooted in the Ryukyus but with its heart in the American jazz first introduced to these islands following the Second World War. The release coincides with the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan. The reversion itself is no cause for celebration, but Uchina Jazz Goes On is confirmation that jazz is still alive in the Ryukyus.

Uchina Jazz Goes On will be released by Respect on 22nd June.

Kaka: Neon the time

May 7, 2022

The 2nd edition of The Power of Okinawa has an interview with hip-hop artist and producer Tatsumi Chibana. Our meeting for this was at the Chibana family home in Onna. Among the family members present that day was baby son Kaka. Now years later, Kaka (かか) is fast becoming a musician in his own right and Neon the time is an album of his original songs. It will be released later this month on his 14th birthday.

Not surprisingly, in such a musical family, he began learning piano and drums as a young child. Together with his two sisters, he formed KiKaChi王 and they released an album when he was eleven.

This new recording has seven tracks with Vocaloid synthesiser software used to some effect and songs telling stories of great imagination. There is a good deal of creativity at work on the melodies too. The production and programming are by Kaka, while the cover design is by sister Kiki.

Neon the time will be released digitally by Akagawara on 15th May and will be available in all the usual places for streaming and download.

Shunichi Irei: Nangoku Beat

April 28, 2022

Nangoku Beat (南国ビート) is the first album for ten years by singer, songwriter and sanshin player Shunichi Irei who is from Izena-jima off the north-west coast of Okinawa. Irei learned sanshin at high school and then went to Okinawa Kenritsu Geijutsu Daigaku (Okinawa Arts University) where he studied Ryukyuan classical music.

One of the songs here was originally a single for him in 2007. A mini-album followed the next year, and he also appeared at the Summer Sonic 09 festival in mainland Japan. More recently he has acted in films and television drama including the movie Zampa set in Okinawa.

With this release he has recorded a set of mostly original songs. There is also one co-written with Akira Ikuma as well as a cover of the J-Pop hit ‘Hanamizuki’. Alongside his own original songs there are two traditional tracks – the familiar ‘Asadoya Yunta’ and ‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’.

The overall sound is probably best described as Uchina Pop. Irei has a strong voice and his sanshin playing is prominent throughout. Also crucial is his accomplice DJ Sasa who created all the arrangements in addition to keyboards and programming. It’s already more than a decade since DJ Sasa collaborated with Kanako Horiuchi on their Ska Lovers project and some of the atmosphere of their two fine albums is reproduced here.

The title track (see video below) is a bright, poppy affair and this, like much of the album, celebrates island life and the nature of Okinawa. It’s followed by ‘Precious Days’ a song written by Irei in memory of his late grandfather. It’s a smooth pop ballad of the kind that might easily be the theme song to a TV drama series.

‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’ is the better of the two traditional tracks. It’s taken at a slow pace and with an appealing vocal sung by someone obviously at home with the classics. It’s such a great song too that Irei could hardly go wrong just by singing it straight and true. For this listener, it’s a highlight, while Irei’s own compositions will no doubt please those looking for the more pop side of Okinawan music.

A live release event is planned for 3rd May in Tokyo. There will also be a live release show in Okinawa at Naha’s Sakurazaka Central on Saturday 16th July at 19:00.

Nangoku Beat is out now and is distributed by OR.

the you – album, video, festival

March 17, 2022

A new album is released this week by Okinawan band the you. The album by now is the fourth release from the indie-pop band led by singer, guitarist, and composer Yuki Irei and is their first since Vein in 2017.

The band were formed in 2004 and their songs have been featured on two of the Music from Okinawa compilations produced to promote the wide spectrum of music being made on these islands.

by now is released on CD by Backwater Records. There is also a music video for 冬の汽笛 -winter whistle- one of the songs from the new album:

the you will perform in Koza at the Music Lane Festival Okinawa on Saturday 26th March.

Awich – Queendom video and album

March 7, 2022

Okinawan-born rapper, poet, and hip-hop artist Awich has been featured here a few times over the years. In fact, it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that ten years has already passed since I first wrote about her ‘Flow Manifesto’ bilingual spoken word project in Ginowan.

Now she has a stunning new video Queendom which is also the title track of her newly released album which is a hip-hop recording with a strong Okinawan connection. The album has 13 tracks and was released a few days ago by Universal Music. It’s available through iTunes and other streaming platforms.

Keiko Higa: Tenmikachi Donmikachi Hiyamikachi

February 14, 2022

This new album features an ensemble cast of musicians led by Keiko Higa who is best known in Okinawa as a member of long-standing vocal group Deigo Musume. As well as a singer and sanshin player Higa is a talented exponent of the taiko and her percussive skills on that instrument form the basis of these recordings.

Most of the tracks are traditional songs but there are also three originals. One is the title track written by another well-known singer and musician Shuken Maekawa who is prominently featured on the album as one of Higa’s guests. There is also a composition by Sadao China, and another co-written by Higa with Bisekatsu. 

Higa is originally from Yomitan and has been involved with music in Okinawa ever since joining her sisters in Deigo Musume as a four-year old. The group were put together by their father and began performing in 1962. (Sadly, in 1973 both of their parents were killed in a car accident involving a drunken driver from the US military). In the 1990s she formed her own taiko group named Shimadaiko and now runs another group Shubizu.

There is an hour of songs and music, but it’s the almost 14-minute penultimate track that is by far the longest and this is described as the ‘climax’ of the album. This is a kachashii medley of seven well-known pieces for which she is joined by the whole ensemble, and it concludes with the inevitable ‘Toshin Doi’.

The kachashii dance medley formula is so well-known in Okinawa and already so familiar that it holds a bit less interest for this listener than some of the other recordings here. No doubt the dynamic dance music works very well and comes to life even more in live performance. But it’s some of the other songs that really hold the attention.

The musicians – Keiko Higa and Shuken Maekawa are seated front centre.

Her moving vocal duet with kumiodori performer Seigi Tamagusuku on ‘Konjigwa’ is a highlight. It’s followed by the fine ‘Kuibanja’ on which she is joined by Keiko Kinjo on vocal and sanshin. There is an eisa version of Shuken Maekawa’s hit ‘Ashibina’ featuring Maekawa himself. Also of note are the Yaeyama song ‘Densa Bushi’ with Kota Ito, and the Miyako song ‘Nakadati nu Mikagama’ on which Higa duets with Tadayuki Matsubara.

The album ends with ‘Kodoyo Hibike’ a song written especially for the album by Sadao China. This offers a different note from all that’s gone before as it includes a rhythm track and sounds like something China might have composed for one of his Nenes line-ups. This time it’s a total success and is, in fact, one of the best things on the album.

Tenmikachi Donmikachi Hiyamikachi will be released by Respect on 30th March. The CD contains a 48-page booklet.