Anna & Elizabeth: Hop High/Here in the Vineyard

Posted February 13, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Appalachian influenced musicians Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are great favourites of this blog and both of their albums were reviewed here previously. Hop High/Here in the Vineyard is their new release and it comes as a 7-inch vinyl single also available as a download. For these two traditional songs they are helped by producers Benjamin Laza Davis and Alec Spiegelman who are members of New York experimental pop band Cuddle Magic.

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On these songs the two young women stay true to their traditional roots but they also add something new by surrounding the songs with different musical elements. These involve the use of pump organ, woodwind, strings and electronics and there are banjo tunings inspired by Indonesian gamelan so that what begins as old-time music ends up moving towards the avant-garde. The unexpected results are very good indeed and it left this listener wanting more. It’s definitely a case of onwards and upwards for Anna & Elizabeth.

Hop High/Here in the Vineyard is released by Free Dirt Records.

www.annaandelizabeth.com

Mio Matsuda

Posted February 11, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

Here’s another addition to the Features Archive. Japanese singer Mio Matsuda is an interpreter of songs from many diverse places and musical traditions and has been especially active in Portugal, Cape Verde and Brazil. In 2014 she turned her attentions to her own roots in Japan with the production of an excellent CD and book Creole Japan. She was interviewed for this blog at that time but I first met Mio back in 2005 shortly after the release of her debut album. The article below was published the following year by UK magazine fRoots and another version also appeared in Kansai Time Out.

Mio Matsuda

A Japanese fado singer? Yes indeed, says John Potter

She has already travelled Europe, appeared on Portuguese TV, performed on the islands of Cape Verde, and recorded in Rio de Janeiro. Now she has a debut album on the Victor label showcasing her own brand of fado and other styles. But this exciting young singer isn’t from any of these places. Despite singing in apparently flawless Portuguese, 26 year old Mio Matsuda is from Japan, where she lives in Kyoto. Late last year I met her for the first time when she played to a warmly appreciative audience at a packed concert hall in Osaka. More recently I renewed our acquaintance by phone as she prepared to travel again from Japan to Portugal and Brazil for two months of music making which includes recording for a second album.

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Mio Matsuda bubbles with enthusiasm when speaking about her musical passion. In fluent English, with more than a hint of a Portuguese accent, she starts by explaining how the fado fascination came about: “I grew up in Akita in the north of Japan in a performing theatre commune. All the children lived and grew up together in the same place and we learned plays based on both Japanese and world folklore. My mother was an actress in the theatre and my father played viola in an orchestra. We were always moving about. When I was 18, at university, I met some Brazilian friends, and also began to learn Portuguese as well as English, Italian and Greek. Then I studied sociology in Vancouver so this helped my English too. As for music, everyone in Japan already knew about the Brazilians, but European music from Portugal was much less known especially at that time. One of my friends recommended me to listen to Amalia Rodrigues, so I bought a CD of hers.”

This was to be her Road to Damascus moment as Matsuda rapidly became hooked on the fado of Portugal. In 2001 she made her first trip to the country and returned in 2003 to stay for a year after winning a scholarship to study Portuguese. During her time there she took advantage of opportunities to visit the many casa do fado of Lisbon where the songs are performed. Soon she was up there performing as well and also singing in restaurants in old areas such as Alfama.

“I wanted to learn from the local people and I especially wanted to learn how they create the mood of fado. I was interested to be with them. They have a special way – like a ritual – of creating fado.” Being Japanese and singing fado might have created problems but her experiences were all positive. “I had no problems at all. They accepted me very well. They were interested in my singing, they loved me and they asked me to sing and even offered me dinner. In the beginning I didn’t understand what fado really was. All I had was a passion but I didn’t know how to express it. Language is very important but I didn’t speak Portuguese very well so I studied and gradually I could feel what the people were feeling. The last three months I was there they really accepted me. I also began to understand the meaning of saudade  (the spirit of yearning at the heart of fado).”

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“During my time in Lisbon I also made friends with people from Cape Verde.. I sang a song from their islands on Cape Verdean radio in Lisbon. After that a pianist wanted me to come and sing in Cape Verde so I went there for one month. I was surprised that when I went to the island of Santo Antao a restaurant owner there already knew me from the radio in Lisbon!” Having recently recorded a cover version (in Portuguese) of Kazufumi Miyazawa’s popular Okinawan-style song Shimauta, I wondered whether she thought there was any similarity between different island musics? “Yes, I think there is a special quality in island music. The idea of ‘fatalism’ is important to Cape Verdeans and I think this is also the case in Okinawa. Everything comes from the sea.”

This idea of the sea is pursued on her debut album Atlantica which is broadly based around the theme of the Atlantic Ocean. “I didn’t want my first album to be just a Japanese singer doing fado. I’m a traveller. So I wanted to make a CD which expressed the idea of travel and was not only fado but other kinds of music that I’d been involved with in Cape Verde and from Brazil too, all connected by the ocean. I wanted to mix things up and so I sometimes sing fado with all these different kinds of rhythms. I chose the songs partly because of their poetry but also the melodies. There are Brazilian musicians on the album and we made the recordings in Rio de Janeiro. Rogerio Souza, who co-produced with me and plays guitar on the album, helped me to understand other musical styles such as choro when I was planning the album.”

If the audience reaction in Osaka was anything to go by Japan may have produced a new world music star, but as almost everything was sung in Portuguese, except for the infectious Saiko which has Japanese lyrics written by her, I wondered how she felt about the different audiences? “It’s true there are different reactions from people in Japan and Portugal. The audiences in Portugal are very lively because they can understand the language. But I always explain the songs before singing them in Japan and the audiences have been very good here as well.”

“I am satisfied with Atlantica but the next one will be totally different. The stories and the songs and also the musicians may be different… I’m very positive about the future and I will do it little by little. I hope my songs can open people’s hearts.”

www.miomatsuda.com

(fRoots Magazine, May 2006, No.275)

Okinawan Elder – Shouei Kina

Posted February 6, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

‘Features Archive’ is a new category for some of the longer articles that were previously on the website for The Power of Okinawa book. The first of these is below. In 2003 I met Shouei Kina for an interview that was originally published in the UK magazine fRoots. This is the article that appeared in the magazine and I have added some different photos. I met Shouei Kina several times and he was always welcoming, friendly and modest – a lovely man and a truly great singer. The last time I saw him was in May 2009 when he was very ill in hospital but still managed to join his daughter Keiko and her group to play sanshin for the staff and patients. He died on 24th December 2009.

Okinawan Elder

Shouei Kina, Okinawan roots music icon, is still going strong at the young age of 83. John Potter meets Shoukichi’s dad.

He is father to 11 children, has 33 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. But it’s not for his great services to increasing the population of the Ryukyu Islands that Shouei Kina is famous. It’s for being one of the most important figures in the history of Okinawan music. He’s recorded over 500 tracks in his career, is a maker and teacher of the ubiquitous three-stringed sanshin, devised the method of writing music for the instrument, and singlehandedly introduced and popularized another instrument, the sanba, now an essential ingredient of Okinawan music. And the 83 year old is still singing and playing sanshin almost every night in Naha, Okinawa with his own Shouei Kina Minyo Group.

The subtropical Ryukyu Islands have their own unique culture and music which is far removed from that of mainland Japan. As many have already discovered, the islands’ laid -back lifestyle and its vibrant music is an intoxicating brew. Okinawans also have the longest life expectancy in the world and studies completed on why this is so usually focus on the relaxed lifestyle, as well as its renowned healthy food and sunny climate. In the Ryukyu Islands a special ‘kajimaya’ celebration is held on the attainment of your 97th birthday, so by these standards Shouei Kina is still an adolescent.

But if the name Kina sounds familiar it’s probably because of Shouei Kina’s even more famous son. The best known of all Okinawan musicians, Shoukichi Kina’s very name elicits both widespread adoration and controversy in almost equal measure. Together with his band Champloose, the charismatic Shoukichi Kina first attracted attention for his early embracing of reggae and rock, and latterly as a self-styled ‘musical activist’ with various projects to spread his message of borderless peace and love. In addition to Shouei’s most famous musical offspring, there is also son Masahiro who was Champloose bassist for several years, while daughters Keiko and Sachiko are still members of the band.

The Shouei Kina Minyo Group at the club Chakra in Naha, Okinawa

The Shouei Kina Minyo Group at the club Chakra in Naha, Okinawa

The high profile of Shoukichi Kina and the success of Champloose, as well as their occasional feuds with other Okinawan musicians, has obscured the fact that without Shouei Kina none of them would exist – not just literally but because the influence of their father on their own musical development has been enormous. Listen to any Shoukichi Kina album and then go back and listen to Shouei Kina and you might be forgiven for thinking it’s the same singer at different stages of his career. The phrasing and intonation is uncannily similar, and as well as the obvious similarity of their voices there’s the fact that large chunks of the children’s repertoire were learned from their father. But while Shoukichi has attracted most of the attention and has been happy to court the famous and influential, his father Shouei could hardly be more different.

Shouei’s reticence is somewhat unavoidable these days. Throat surgery has weakened his voice and his ears are not as sharp as they used to be. Nevertheless, for the past ten years the Shouei Kina Minyo Group has been performing twice nightly at his son’s club Chakra on Kokusai-dori, the main street and entertainment district of Naha, Okinawa’s capital. On my most recent visit to the club I decided to sit him down and pop a few questions about his eventful life.

A tiny man – he must be little more than 5 feet – he is quiet but friendly and with a natural modesty. Despite previous health problems, Shouei is still a sprightly character and takes it upon himself to jump up and fill my glass with draught beer whenever he feels it’s due for a top up. At one point he almost overbalances while stretching his small frame over the bar counter to get me another refill. His wife Chiyo is also his manager and like many Okinawan women she seems in complete control. “Let Chiyo tell you, she knows everything about me”, says Shouei. In the Okinawan native religion only women can become priests and they also perform the important tasks of fortune telling and giving advice. It’s certainly true that in the Kina clan the women are a driving force alongside their men. Chiyo loves to talk and with the tape running it’s several minutes before Shouei gets a word in, but eventually his story unfolds.

He was born in 1920 in Kitanakagusuku village in the middle of the main island. “When I was eleven I started to learn the sanshin and then I played children’s Eisa in the local village.” Eisa is the dancing and drumming usually performed at summer festivals in the Ryukyus. “I left school at 15 and began playing in the local village theatre group because I originally wanted to be an actor. But at that time people thought that being an actor meant you were lazy and everyone was against the idea of my becoming one. So then I moved alone to Osaka to work in an iron factory. But even while in Osaka I never stopped playing the sanshin. Then I came back to Okinawa to work. During the day you worked hard and then in the evening you did mo-ashibi.” (The all-night outdoor partying and revelry finally outlawed during the 2nd World War). “Everyone was singing and dancing, more like a disco today. In mo-ashibi some people put a hood over their face to disguise themselves and young people dressed up in various different ways. Some men were chasing after women and then fell down in the field and found they’d caught their own sister! It was fun to hide your own face to play. I think a lot of good singers and artists were produced in this area because we had such an environment.”

“Just after the war I played kankara sanshin (a makeshift sanshin made with tin cans) when I was a prisoner of war in the camp at Yaka, Okinawa. I’d been a member of the defence army, and I was captured by the Americans. I played both classical Okinawan music and minyo (folk song) with sanshin there for the other prisoners. After release from the camp I joined the police school and became a policeman. It was while working in Koza at this time that I met Chiyo.  She was living as a lodger with Shuei Kohama, and because of this Kohama became my mentor and I learned minyo from him. Chiyo and I got married in 1948.” This was in fact his second marriage – a first marriage when he was 21 had produced six children, and Chiyo was to bring up these children alongside five of her own.

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“My uncle had emigrated to Hawaii and then came back to Okinawa after the war. He showed me a photo of a percussion instrument, made of bamboo. So I made a smaller version of that. There was no information about how to use it so I started to make smaller versions and devised a unique way of playing it using all the fingers.” Thus began the castanet-like sanba, now an ever-present feature of modern Okinawan music.

After Shoukichi was born, he gave up his job as a policeman and became a carpenter. Chiyo looked after all the children while growing vegetables and doing a kind of fishing, just diving into the sea to catch food. Then when Shouei was 29 he started learning Ryukyuan classical music but soon after opted for the minyo world of folk song. Adds Chiyo: “He was learning Ryukyuan classical music but he changed to minyo because he couldn’t make money at that time. You need money to live and bring up eleven children. I was prepared to do any jobs to help him. The thing he wanted to do most was music. He lost his father when he was seven and then was with his mother who suffered from asthma. He stopped going to school and helped his mother work in the sugar cane field. Just before his mother died she asked me to let him do his music. Not only that but I knew that this was what he really wanted to do. I became more like his mother and was concerned about his sanshin playing so I wouldn’t let him do any hard labour. Instead I did it.”

He learned very quickly and began teaching others to play the sanshin. Shouei soon became the first minyo musician to sing on the radio, impressing all with his singing and fast sanshin technique. Even his mentor Shuei Kohama was surprised, and Kohama asked him to go on the same stage together to play the song ‘Achamegwa’. Numerous song contests and awards followed. Shouei’s modesty sometimes intervenes when he feels the story is becoming too grand:

Chiyo: “Shouei was the first one to form a Minyo Kenkyujo (Study Centre), with people like Chosho Maekawa and Shuei Kohama.”

Shouei: “No, that’s not right. Koutoku Tsuha started one before me.”

Chiyo: “Oh, Tsuha just had a small sign outside his house. Ours was bigger.”

In 1957 he helped found the Marufuku Records Minyo Kenkyukai. (Folk song study group). This included many of the later stars of minyo, such as Rinsho Kadekaru, Seijin Noborikawa, and Shuei Kohama. “Sadao China, at that time a junior high school student, used to come to the Minyo Kenkyukai to learn minyo from me. I had a lot of pupils such as Aiko Yohen, Yukiko Yamazato and Misako Oshiro, who all became important in Okinawan music. Many of my pupils are now playing in clubs and I still go to see them with Chiyo. I’m very pleased about that. They always treat us very well.”

This was a great time for minyo. His meeting with Marufuku Records founder Choki Fukuhara led to his first recordings the next year for them and to 1959’s big hit ‘Kayoibune’ (‘The Returning Ship’), which was written by Fukuhara and is still included in Shouei Kina Minyo Group performances. At that time every port played this song when a ship left to go to mainland Japan. This big hit led him to have a contract to play regularly at a club in Urasoe which usually had jazz and pop bands. This was quite a sensation and led to the spread of a lot of clubs including minyo, and eventually to today’s minyo ‘live houses’.

Shouei Kina with son Shoukichi

Shouei Kina with son Shoukichi

The next big project was with his pupil Kosei Takihara, to devise ‘kunkunshi’ –  the first musical notation of minyo for sanshin. The first volume of minyo using kunkunshi was published, eventually running to ten volumes and covering 579 songs. This spread minyo to more people and helped greatly in the development of the people’s art. Shortly after this time Shouei went to Columbia recording studios to record over 200 songs in a week along with Rinsho Kadekaru, Sadao China and others. The cream of Shouei’s recordings from this time, but still only the tip of the iceberg, were finally released on two CDs in 2001 on the Kina family’s own Mu Paradise label.

Problems with his voice in the mid 1970s forced him to temporarily gave up singing and he opened a sanshin shop, turning his attentions to the making of sanshins. There followed a successful operation for a throat tumour and then his voice miraculously became better. “I’d only expected to be able to play sanshin, so I was surprised that I could sing again too.” Further appearances with Champloose came and a cameo role on their album ‘Niraikanai Paradise’. When the club Chakra opened in December 1993, the Shouei Kina Minyo Group began residency there and have been playing solidly for the past decade. Shouei features strongly on his son’s last great return-to-the-roots album ‘Akainko’.

Health has been a concern and a heart problem has led to two operations, both successful. Even worse followed five years ago when tongue cancer was diagnosed, and doctors recommended removal of part of the tongue, an operation that could have literally left him speechless. But because of his passion for music and his family’s support he was on stage singing again a few months after the operation.

The list of achievements goes on. He was the first Okinawan roots musician to play with an orchestra, and the first to use a variety of new instruments on stage: violin, mandolin, woodblock, sanba, as well as sanshin were added to the mix in his minyo group. He even played electric guitar on stage at one time but Chiyo says: “He looked terrible so I told him he should stop!” Many of his songs were on the first jukeboxes which were introduced to Okinawa by the Americans after the war.  His family think he should be made a national treasure. “If I had an award like that I’d probably die very soon. My children are successful so I don’t want anything. This is enough. Every night playing at Chakra is the secret of why I’m fine. I enjoy singing with my children.”

With these words Shouei gets up to prepare for tonight’s first show. Earlier in the day he had been to the funeral of his mentor Shuei Kohama, who by unhappy coincidence had died suddenly a couple of days before our talk. His great contemporary Rinsho Kadekaru also passed on in recent times. Shouei Kina’s eyes fill with tears as he remembers, but he soon recovers and is off to the bar to bring another glass for his guest.

Many thanks to Shouei Kina and to all the Kina family for their help and hospitality. Thanks also to Midori Potter for assistance with translations.

(fRoots Magazine, June 2003, No.240)

The Power of Okinawa

Posted February 3, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

Some of you out there may have noticed that The Power of Okinawa website is no more. The site was set up to promote and sell the 2nd edition of The Power of Okinawa book which has now sold out online. However, the book is still available in bookstores in Okinawa and also in mainland Japan. It can also be bought through Paul Fisher’s Far Side Music website which is based in the UK.

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It is almost seven years since the new improved and expanded 2nd edition was published and it will soon be 16 years since the 1st edition came out. This blog was set up to complement the book with updates and reviews. I will continue to post here about things Okinawan as well as other musics from around the world….. and anything else that takes my fancy. Some of the longer pieces I’ve written for magazines such as fRoots and Songlines that were available to read on the website will eventually appear on this blog in a new Features Archive category.

Many thanks to all those who bought the book online.

John Potter

Fade to Blue

Posted January 30, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Fade to Blue is the name of a duo based in Taiwan and is also the title of their album. The project puts together two performers of musical traditions from different parts of the world and the album they have released is a live recording containing 14 tracks recorded on tour during 2015.

The members are pipa player Chung Yufeng who is from Taipei, and guitarist, singer and songwriter David Chen who was born in Ohio but has lived in Taiwan for many years since moving there to explore his familial roots. Their music mixes American folk and blues with traditional Chinese music but that’s only part of the story as they also touch on influences from other places as well as playing original songs and compositions.

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Those attending the Music Showcase at the Trans Asia Music Meeting in Okinawa earlier this month were able to see a live show by Fade to Blue who were one of two overseas acts invited to take part. They were very well received by the audience and the pair impressed everyone. These recordings are divided fairly equally between songs and instrumentals played on Chung’s pipa (a Chinese four-stringed instrument that gave rise to the related Japanese biwa) and Chen’s resonator and 12-string acoustic guitars.

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Among the songs are versions of Son House’s ‘Preachin’ Blues’ and Skip James’s ‘Devil Got My Woman’ while of special interest to listeners here will be Chen’s original ‘Okinawa Mama’. The instrumental pieces range from the traditional bluegrass and old-time ‘Blackberry Blossom’ to the Middle Eastern inspired ‘Siwa’ by Chung. The album ends with their title track ‘theme song’ inspired by Hawaiian slack key music.

This is a very enjoyable musical journey and the album is also very neatly packaged with explanatory notes on each track by David Chen and lyrics are included of all the songs in both English and Chinese. The result is not at all an academic exercise but instead exudes fun, adventure and great musicianship.

Fade to Blue is released by Trees Music & Art.

www.treesmusic.com

Laybricks: Take a Rest

Posted January 26, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Take a Rest is the debut EP from South Korean band Laybricks who are based in Seoul. In fact, the ‘band’ comprises just two members, singer/guitarist Kwangmin Seo and drummer Hyejin Yu. Their music draws more on contemporary British sounds than on their Korean roots and they claim to be inspired by alternative rock.

Since their formation in 2015 they have already played numerous live shows both in their home country and abroad. They were invited to the V-Rox Festival in Vladivostock last year and have also toured widely in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the UK playing several dates in front of massive festival crowds as well as small audiences at intimate venues.

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Most recently they came to Okinawa where they were invited by the ‘Music from Okinawa’ organisers to perform at the music showcase at the Trans Asia Music Meeting last week. The day before their show singer Kwangmin Seo gave a presentation at the meeting in which he spoke of their positive do-it-yourself attitude in going out and playing live and in arranging everything themselves for their tour of the UK.

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On the five tracks here, recorded in Seoul, Laybricks show off their versatility with a fine selection of original songs full of colourful, bright shiny melodies and catchy choruses. Even better was the live experience in Okinawa where they scored a big hit with the audience. In an adrenaline-fuelled set Kwangmin Seo’s vocals and guitar were matched all the way by the powerful drumming of Hyejin Yu who excelled with her immense energy and skill.

https://laybricks.bandcamp.com

Rayna Gellert: Workin’s Too Hard

Posted January 24, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Workin’s Too Hard is the follow-up to American singer and fiddler Rayna Gellert’s album Old Light: Songs from my Childhood and Other Gone Worlds, an extraordinary album of traditional and original songs that set the benchmark very high indeed. It was reviewed here on its release in 2013 as was her subsequent EP which was more grounded in her background as fiddler with old-time string band Uncle Earl and her roots in Appalachian mountain music.

The songs on this new album (two traditional and five originals) stand up very well beside the high quality of that debut solo album. It was obviously worth the wait as soon as we hear the warm and melancholy sound of Gellert’s voice. This is never better than on the magnificent ‘River Town’ a sad story of resignation that harks back to mainstream country music but is written and delivered with real poignancy rather than sentimentality.

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‘Grey Bird’ is another standout song and so is the lovely simple and subtle ‘Perry’ which unusually for Gellert includes piano backing. The two traditional songs are ‘Oh Lovin’ Babe’, also recorded fairly recently by Anna & Elizabeth on their second album, and an almost rockabilly version of ‘I’m Bound for the Promised Land’ which closes the album.

Although the North Carolina-based Gellert is renowned as an expert fiddler and also as a teacher of the instrument, the fiddle appears only a couple of times on these songs which are more based around guitars and a small sympathetic band of musicians helping to create just the right sound textures to show off the songs in their best light.

Rayna Gellert

Rayna Gellert

The one obvious note of slight dismay is that the running time is under half an hour, making it, in fact, shorter than the previous EP. But in these times, when releases come in all shapes, sizes and formats, it would be a bit churlish to complain too much, especially when what we do have is so superbly sung, written and played. Workin’s Too Hard is pure joy from start to finish even if it doesn’t match the length of that wonderful Old Light album. Let’s hope there is more on the way soon.

Workin’s Too Hard is released by StorySound Records. Rayna Gellert is currently on a tour of the UK and details of the dates are on her website.

www.raynagellert.com

www.storysoundrecords.com