Anniversary in a Pandemic

Posted April 17, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

Last month was the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Power of Okinawa in its second edition. This blog began around the same time, to accompany the book. Now, a decade later, the blog is still being updated. Along the way it has expanded to include a ‘Features Archive’ while ‘A Musical Journey’ was a memoir of sorts. ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ meanwhile is the place where I go off in other more personal directions like this.

All this pales into insignificance, of course, when the world is still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. In Okinawa, and Japan generally, there is a feeling that, while much of the rest of the world has been dealing with the pandemic and some governments have been quick to take action to prevent its spread, the Japanese government has taken it all too lightly.

PM Abe and his government are obviously more concerned about economics than with people’s lives. Despite the first cases of coronavirus appearing in Japan three months ago, the government has done its best to play down the threat and has been slow to act. It was not until yesterday that a nationwide state of emergency was finally declared after the sudden, and almost inevitable, sharp increase in cases throughout the country and particularly in Tokyo.

The Cornerstone of Peace at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park

Unlike many other countries which have lockdowns enforced by law, the state of emergency throughout Japan is still reliant on everyone obeying the government’s request to stay at home if possible. There is no legal force behind this and there are no penalties for non-compliance. Not surprisingly, many are reluctant to stop work as the government is not taking over responsibility for lost incomes. The state of emergency is scheduled to end on 6th May.

To encourage a stay at home mentality a video was recently released by the Prime Minister, featuring Shinzo Abe himself relaxing at home on a sofa with his dog. This was met with an equal measure of ridicule, hilarity, and anger, by many who think he is completely out of touch with the people and has done too little too late to combat the virus. (If only he could be swapped for New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern).

Here on Okinawa we may be geographically a long way from Japan, but we are by no means free of the virus. In fact, the number of cases has multiplied rapidly in recent days and the current count is 95 and sure to rise. This includes the first death recorded this week on the main island. Ishigaki Island also recorded its first two cases of the virus over the past week.

Yesterday at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park

Responses to the emergency in my area have been varied so far. Yesterday I went to Okinawa Peace Memorial Park and it was almost deserted with the Peace Museum currently closed for renovations. However, on my local beach this morning there were the usual number of swimmers and snorkelers. Further along the beach there were even some people doing hang-gliding.

Live music of course has taken a battering with small venues especially being hit hard. Popular singer and sanshin player Yukito Ara was scheduled to play a solo concert next week at one of Naha’s bigger venues Sakurazaka Theatre but this was finally cancelled today.

In my home at least the music goes on. New discoveries outside Okinawa include Canadians Pharis and Jason Romero whose latest album (due for release next month and reviewed on this blog) is a favourite. I’ve also discovered, belatedly, the many delights of Alicia Keys. And to cheer us all up surely, Estonia’s Trad.Attack! have a new album on the way and a review of that will eventually make its way to the blog.

Like many, I’ve also been glued to the TV watching films and dramas. I was addicted to the amazing Tiger King docuseries and was also (in the absence of FC Ryukyu games) able to get a football fix with the compelling Sunderland ‘Til I Die. Now I’m eagerly awaiting Ricky Gervais’ After Life 2, while watching new episodes of Japanese drama Ossan’s Love. There’s more…but this is more than enough.

Here’s hoping everyone keeps safe and stays home as much as possible, preferably while listening to some great music. One can never have too much Rinsho Kadekaru.

Bob Andy RIP

Posted March 28, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

Jamaican singer and songwriter Bob Andy has died at the age of 75 after a short illness. His death was reported on 27th March 2020. Andy will be best known to many around the world for his recordings with Marcia Griffiths and especially for their hit singles ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ and ‘Pied Piper’ which were released under the name Bob & Marcia.

However, Bob Andy was an enormously important figure in Jamaican music in his own right. His early solo album Songbook remains a classic and he wrote numerous songs that were recorded by many other stars of reggae. Among his best-known compositions were ‘Too Experienced’ and the socially concerned ‘You Don’t Know’ and ‘Fire Burning’.

Bob Andy, Osaka 1994. (Photo: John Potter)

He never visited Okinawa but in the 1990s he did come to Japan and I was able to meet and interview him for a magazine article when he appeared at a reggae festival in Osaka. I was immediately struck by his keen intelligence and broad musical knowledge, and we talked for quite a long time.

It must have been quickly apparent to him that I was no expert on Jamaican music but he was patient, gracious and helpful, and had some fascinating stories to tell of his life in music. Some years after our meeting he was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government for services to music. He will be greatly missed.

My interview with him is archived on the Power of Okinawa:

The UK’s Guardian newspaper website has an obituary with a live video of ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ from 1970.

Pharis and Jason Romero: Bet on Love

Posted March 23, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Bet on Love is the fifth record from Canadian duo Pharis and Jason Romero. The husband and wife team have built a strong following, not just in their homeland but overseas too where they have already toured the UK and were featured in fRoots magazine. Their previous album Sweet Old Religion received numerous accolades and won the Juno Award in Canada for best traditional roots album.

They come with a rising reputation and Bet on Love doesn’t disappoint. In a way, it’s almost a relief that there are no big surprises and no great departures here from what they’ve done before. This is simply a straightforward life-affirming bunch of ten original songs (and one instrumental) firmly rooted in the best bluegrass and old-time music traditions.

One of the most attractive features is the superb singing. Lead vocals are mostly by Pharis with just a couple from Jason, but the pair blend their voices so effectively on everything that their harmonies form the backbone of many songs. To this is added the duo’s banjo and guitar with a bit of help from a couple of musicians on bass and mandolin.

‘We All Fall’ is a perfect example of words and music combining in a seamless way on a Pharis-led song with a country flavour. Title track ‘Bet on Love’ is full of drama and a slow-building gentle power. And ‘Kind Girl’ is sublime with lovely singing and melodic shifts and some flowing guitar and mandolin interplay – and it all ends with a sparse banjo coda. It’s the album’s standout track.

Pharis and Jason Romero (Photo: Laureen Carruthers)

As well as being active touring musicians, the Romeros operate a business making handcrafted banjos at their workshop in the woods in the tiny town of Horsefly, British Columbia. In fact, the album was recorded in their own banjo shop with the help of producer Marc Jenkins. In line with their traditional approach everything was played on acoustic instruments and recorded live.

This is bound to engage anyone with the slightest interest in North American roots music. The focus in their songs is on hope and community and the relationships between place, people, and time. When not on the road, the couple appear to be living the kind of natural existence in the wilds that is reflected so well in their songs.

The deceptively simple and timeless quality of Pharis and Jason’s music seems more essential now than ever in these troubled times.

Bet on Love will be out on 15th May and is self-released.

Jake Blount: Spider Tales

Posted March 6, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Spider Tales is the new album by Jake Blount, an American singer, fiddler and banjo player based in Providence, Rhode Island. It contains an equal number of songs and instrumentals, and one of the guests on many tracks is fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves who is at the forefront of bright young musicians in Appalachian music.

The title of the album refers to the trickster spider ‘Anansi’ found in the Akan people’s folklore of West Africa. The stories from this mythology celebrate unseating the oppressor and on several of these tracks Blount draws on the coded pain and anger in the songs to give voice to those who were shunned from America’s musical canon.

“There’s a long history of expressions of pain in the African-American tradition,” Blount says. “Often those things couldn’t be stated outright. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person back then you could die from it, but the anger and the desire for justice are still there. They’re just hidden. The songs deal with intense emotion but couch it in a love song or in religious imagery so that it wasn’t something you could be called out about.”

Accordingly, the recordings here focus on tunes and songs found by Blount during his research into the black and indigenous roots of Appalachian music. There are stark raw songs, modal keys, and confounding melodic structures. It’s all played on fiddle and banjo with the occasional addition of other instruments. Some of the pieces, such as ‘English Chicken’ have unusual melodies and a deliberately discordant tone.

Jake Blount

‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ may be thought of as an Irish song (recorded by The Dubliners and numerous others). But the instrumental version here is different, much older, and was learned from recordings by brothers Osey and Ernest Helton who were a 1920s Cherokee banjo-fiddle duo. It’s played with such a joyous rhythm and swing that it makes you wonder nevertheless if Donal Lunny didn’t have a hand in it somewhere.

The most familiar track is surely the old Leadbelly song ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. Others have more obscure origins and the final song ‘Mad Mama’s Blues’, originally by South Carolina-born blues singer Josie Miles, has an arrangement that wouldn’t feel out of place on Dylan’s Love and Theft or one of his later albums.

Blount relates easily to songs that are focused on retribution and loss, from his own experience as a queer activist starting in high school. On Spider Tales, he has gathered a small band of mostly queer artists, including himself, to showcase these fourteen tracks. It’s by no means a dry research project but is instead an album of music to be listened to, engaged with, danced to, rather in the manner of those similar interpreters of old-time music, Carolina Chocolate Drops. It also demonstrates along the way how ideas of Appalachian roots music are changing as many of its hidden or forgotten origins are rediscovered by new generations.

Spider Tales will be released by Free Dirt Records on 29th May.

Willis Drummond: Zugzwang

Posted February 25, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Zugzwang is the new release from Basque band Willis Drummond. It’s the sixth album from the trio who have been in Okinawa for live shows this past week including a date at the Sakurazaka Asylum 2020 festival in Naha.

Electric guitar-based rock has always had a big following in the Basque Country (it’s not all trikitixa and literary songwriters) and Willis Drummond are one of the leaders of this movement. Unlike many of the musicians who are from the Spanish side, the three members – Felix Buff, Jurgi Ekiza, and Xan Bidegain – are all French Basques based in Bayonne.

On this album they sing in the Basque language on a collection of ten original songs. Their speedy and melodic hard rock is showcased throughout, but they also find time and space to vary things with a bit of light and shade. The outstanding ‘Lehentasuna’ (The Priority) is a good introduction to what they do and, like most of their work, has a strong undercurrent of social and political comment.

Although the electric guitar, bass, and drums format is used relentlessly and will most of all satisfy fans of hard and heavy rock, there is also some acoustic guitar, and they are joined by lap steel guitar, trombone, and organ on ‘Bigarren aukera’ (Second Chance).

Willis Drummond on stage at Sakurazaka Asylum, Naha. (Photo: John Potter)

Fortunately, the lyrics of all these songs are translated into French, Spanish, and English in the CD booklet. The title track directly references Catalunya and France and contains the lines (in English translation):

“If we play, we lose. Even if we don’t play, we’re playing. Zugzwang. We are worn out. Forced into a bad move. And when change is offered…when change is initiated…you, authorities, disqualify us.” It goes on: “Real change is the kind that comes with unpredictable consequences. We don’t want to play your game no more.”

Willis Drummond’s set went down very well last Saturday at Sakurazaka Asylum. The band quickly showed an affinity with Okinawa with a message of support for the struggle against the Henoko base and mentioned their own fight for rights within Spain and France. Following their two dates in Okinawa they travel to Australia this week to play in Sydney (27th) and Adelaide (28th). Full details and more on their website below.

Zugzwang is released by Tabula Rasa Records and Like Literally.

Sakurazaka Asylum 2020

Posted February 13, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

The annual Sakurazaka Asylum festival comes to Okinawa next week in conjunction with the Trans Asia Music Meeting. Advertised as a ‘Music & Art Weekend’, numerous music showcases will take place at venues in and around Naha’s Sakurazaka Theatre on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd February.

As before, the Asylum brings together a wide variety of musicians from Okinawa, Asia and further afield with the focus mainly on indie rather than roots music. For those wanting a taste of Okinawan roots as well there is another appearance from Sakishima Meeting pair Yukito Ara & Isamu Shimoji.

Among the overseas artists are Basque electric guitar-based rock band Willis Drummond. The trio sing in the Basque language and have just released their 6th studio album. They will be performing on Saturday (17:00) at Sakurazaka Theatre, Hall A. Before that they are touring mainland Japan and will also play in Koza, Okinawa on the 21st.  Their tour then continues in Australia, Tahiti, and Spain.

Basque band Willis Drummond

Isamu Shimoji & Yukito Ara of Sakishima Meeting

It should also be worth seeing Fanel the project by Toulouse-born French singer Bera who mixes Asian and European music with electronics. Her album Human was reviewed here last year. Fanel will play shows on both days. Another overseas musician delving into pop and electronica is the singer Pyra from Thailand, and on Sunday there will no doubt be a big audience for Japan’s Minyo Crusaders with their strikingly original updates of traditional Japanese songs.

Mention must also be made of Okinawa’s Harahells. The drums and guitar duo played last year at a tiny venue down the street, but their increasing popularity means they will be at the main theatre this time, at Hall B on Saturday at 18:45. Their set (like many others) will be just 40 minutes but promises to be one of the most fun if last year’s is anything to go by.

These are just some of my own picks but there are many other musicians to discover and full details of all the artists are on the website below, together with times and venues. Advance tickets are 7,000 yen for both days and 4,000 for a one-day pass. Tickets for the Trans Asia Music Meeting networking event are sold separately.

Goodbye Europe

Posted February 6, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

A few days ago my hometown Norwich made news in the UK and worldwide for all the wrong reasons. Notices appeared in an apartment tower block advising residents to speak only English. The posters were entitled Happy Brexit Day. Stating “we finally have our great country back” they included the message: “If you do want to speak whatever is the mother tongue of the country you came from then we suggest you return to that place and return your flat to the council so they can let British people live here.”

The local council was quick to condemn these posters and to reassure residents that this was not the work of the council. The matter was reported to the police, who are treating it as a racist incident, but the damage has been done. Residents of the housing complex have since rallied together to protest in a show of support for each other and for multiculturalism.

An isolated incident, no doubt, but it feels like a good time not to be in Britain. It’s hardly a coincidence that this and similar explosions of bigotry and prejudice have risen to the surface just as the UK leaves the European Union. What is perhaps even more depressing than the decision to go it alone is the celebratory attitude of some Brexit supporters who talk about getting their country back and gaining ‘independence’ from Europe.

People in London celebrate leaving the EU last week. (Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

This is nostalgia for a ‘great’ past that never existed. Unless they want a return to the greatness of the British Empire with its shameful history of invasions, colonisation, theft, and repression. The Brits clearly don’t need independence as they already have it (though Scotland and Wales may need independence from the Brits, but that’s another matter).

By contrast, here on Okinawa there is a case to be argued in favour of the need for real independence or for ‘getting our islands back’ as the Brits might say. Human rights and democracy are constantly under threat from the Japanese government and, incredibly, large tracts of the main island are still controlled by the American military 75 years after they invaded to begin the Battle of Okinawa. A battle that claimed more than 240,000 lives.

Okinawa may need its independence, but no-one here wants a return to the ‘great’ days of the Ryukyu Kingdom either. The kingdom was responsible for the harsh treatment of its own people, not least on its outer islands of Miyako and Yaeyama. At the same time, it was a kingdom centred around trade in Southeast Asia rather than war and expansion, hence the famous dictate banning weapons during part of its rule.

Despite its unhappy history of being invaded and occupied, Okinawa is today rightly proud of its champloo culture. This is frequently celebrated and has evolved into a cultural mash-up affecting everything from food to music. The musician and activist Shoukichi Kina is a divisive character with – some would say – a lot of weird ideas, but his goal for a borderless world and his campaign to exchange all weapons for musical instruments sounds now like a breath of fresh air alongside much of what passes for political debate these days. A peaceful ideology of co-existence and acceptance of others is sorely needed now more than ever.

Back in the UK this week the Bishop of Norwich was calling for a return to the “great British values of tolerance and understanding” in view of the regrettable events at the city’s tower block. Well yes, but British politicians and religious leaders are too fond of mouthing this kind of thing, as if tolerance was somehow an inherently British virtue. It seems to be only the British who believe this. They should get out more.

It would also be making a tiny step in the right direction if those who rant against ‘imagration’ on social media could at least spell it correctly and not mangle their own language. Then perhaps they could go on to try and learn what tolerance really means and to understand how immigrants of all kinds make valuable contributions to many societies and enrich our global mix with their languages and cultures.

Mikel Urdangarin: Hotza da NY is Cold

Posted January 17, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Basque singer Mikel Urdangarin is already known in Okinawa after spending several weeks here in 2018 giving concerts and collaborating with Okinawan musicians. His stay on the island was also documented in the film Margolaria which focused on his career of more than two decades as an important singer-songwriter in his homeland and elsewhere.

Hotza da NY is Cold came out last month and is a live recording of a concert he performed in the Basque Country. It’s very different because the bulk of the songs are his interpretations of compositions by Leonard Cohen. The album is released on vinyl in a limited edition with the ten Cohen songs on the record and the entire concert on CD.

I was very pleased to be asked by Mikel to write something for the record sleeve and so instead of reviewing it here can do no better than reprint below what I wrote:

“When Mikel Urdangarin came to Okinawa last year for solo concerts and immersion in the local music there was another unexpected discovery. This was our mutual love for the songs of Leonard Cohen. I had no idea that Mikel also had such a strong affinity with Cohen’s work. Initially, I had some misgivings about what seemed like another tribute to the great Canadian singer, songwriter and poet, as there have already been so many. And this by an artist who is not a native English speaker and normally sings in the Basque language. However, as soon as the music plays and Mikel sings, any fears are quickly dispelled.

The ten Cohen compositions here are a mixture of familiar favourites and some newer ones. Surprisingly perhaps, it’s the relatively recent songs such as ‘Come Healing’ and ‘Show Me the Place’ that are most rewarding for this listener. Meanwhile, the European atmosphere always present in Cohen’s writing is gloriously pervasive on ‘Take This Waltz’. There are classics too and none more so than the much covered ‘Hallelujah’ which even Cohen began to think should be given a rest. It might have been a step too far but the song suits Mikel’s emotive vocal style like a glove. It’s another highlight among many.

So, what we have is a double win – a set of great songs from Leonard Cohen, master songwriter of our times, sung by a great Basque singer, Mikel Urdangarin.”

The record also comes with a print of its cover painting by Alain Urrutia and with notes by Basque novelist and poet Harkaitz Cano.

Hotza da NY is Cold is released by Zart.

An interview with tidanomiyuki

Posted January 14, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Interviews

Singer tidanomiyuki was born on the southern Yaeyama island of Ishigaki. After a move to Tokyo as a university student, she began playing music at local cafes and bars. Then in 2009 she spent a year in the UK, first in Norwich and then in London studying art and design. After her return to the Ryukyus she moved to Okinawa in 2011.

She plays guitar, piano and sanshin, and learned Yaeyama minyo from renowned musician Kousei Miyara. A debut album five years ago led to an invitation to perform at Zandari Festa in Seoul. In 2017 she appeared at the Playtime Festival in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. A second album of original songs Now and Then was released the following year (and was reviewed here).

Since that time, she has been busy not just with music but with a major addition to her family as she recently became a mother with the birth of a baby daughter. She is married to Yuki Irei of Okinawan indie-pop band, the you. An outstanding guitarist, Irei also accompanies her on electric guitar when she plays with a band.

What follows are some of my questions about her music, together with the answers she gave to me in English.

Why did you decide to be a singer? Is it something you always wanted to do?

I’ve liked singing alone ever since I was a child. In fact, I started making up songs when I was a junior high school student. I borrowed my brother’s guitar at that time and what I learned was that the guitar is a good tool for me to make a song easily and so I started writing many songs of my own. The first time I sang my songs with a band in front of people was at university. I probably began to think then that I wanted to be a singer through these experiences.

You learned minyo and sanshin in Ishigaki. Have you ever thought about singing and playing traditional Yaeyama songs again?

Well, I started to learn Yaeyama minyo when I came back to Okinawa from Tokyo and I like to sing Yaeyama minyo as my hobby now. Of course, I’ve known some Yaeyama minyo since I was a child, but I had never learnt properly before. When I started to learn Yaeyama minyo from Miyara Kousei- sensei, I learnt that Yaeyama minyo has a sensibility and sophistication and I was attracted to that.

Do you have a process in writing songs, and do you have special themes or feelings that you want to express?

Mostly whenever I make a song, I begin with an image in my mind and I spontaneously play the guitar and then the melodies and words come to me at the same time.

I think that the foundation of my songwriting is in the memories I have of the time I spent with my family in Ishigaki island. I always think of my island, my hometown, and I am thinking that I want to go back to my home one day.

When you are not playing music or writing songs, what kind of music do you listen to?

I like many kinds of music, especially jazz, funk, acoustic, rock and pop. Among my favourite singers that I listen to are Priscilla Ahn and Simon & Garfunkel.

You have played both solo and with a band. Which do you prefer?

I’m happy to play both solo and with a band. When I play solo it’s a small world, but the listener might find it easier to catch my words and melody. It might be like a size of a canvas. If you have a sheet of paper and draw a flower, it might be only a flower and there is nothing in the background. So, when I play with a band I am on a bigger canvas, and I can draw a river and a butterfly and the blue sky along with the flower.

You have written some songs in (very good) English. How was that?

Thank you very much. To be honest, I don’t have much confidence in writing in English but when I make a song sometimes it’s the English words that just come to me first.

Can you say something about your plans as a singer and musician in Okinawa?

I think it is a good situation for musicians to play in Okinawa because there are many places to be able to play in public. I had a baby last year, so I am thinking that I want to start making songs and playing music again this year, in 2020. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of new songs will come to me since I had a baby.

Pascal Plantinga: Blind on Bikini

Posted January 6, 2020 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Dutch pop artist Pascal Plantinga is known as an electro-songwriter who couples experimentation with a singular way of musical storytelling. No stranger to Okinawa, in 2014 he collaborated with Shoukichi Kina to produce the startlingly different Washinnayo recordings. He subsequently performed solo at Kina’s Niraikanai Matsuri, and more recently created the score for the Japanese music documentary Tsugaru no Kamari.

Blind on Bikini is Plantinga’s latest album and contains 13 relatively short new songs. As well as vocals he plays bass and Vox organ and is joined at various times by trombones, sousaphone, trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, saxophones, clarinets and piccolo. There isn’t a guitar in sight but there’s a significant contribution from long-standing working partner, German electronic music pioneer Pyrolator.

The songs hang together to create a loosely thematic whole that is referred to as ‘Pascal’s musical heartbreak memoir’. On the opening title track the upfront but deadpan vocal echoes Leonard Cohen but at other times it couldn’t be more different as the singing changes with distorted angsty electronica to take on different guises. Musically we are sometimes close to Bjork’s horn territory with an effective use of light and shade, loudness and silence.

On the song ‘Blind on Bikini’ Plantinga sings: “When blind in love be blind in Bikini” and the vaguely Pacific island backdrop resurfaces here and there. The lyrics – and there are quite a lot of them – are reprinted in the CD booklet and repay close attention as the focus is mainly on them and on the soundscape rather than on melody.

‘Jesus Christ Superfuck’ is the closest we get to a pop song and is also one of the album’s standout tracks while it all ends with another highlight ‘Snowed in at Kokusai Dori’, its gently tuneful beginning then exploding with the sound of fireworks as the singer vows: “I’d never board a plane for love again”. This is a fascinating set of songs and almost certainly Plantinga’s best work to date.

Blind on Bikini will be released tomorrow (7th January 2020) by Ata Tak and Suezan Studio.