Shimauta King – Sadao China

Posted March 27, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

In 2010 I did a lengthy interview with Sadao China at his home in Okinawa. Below is the feature that came out of it which was published in the UK by fRoots. Less than two years later China announced his retirement from singing because of problems with his voice but has since recovered and is performing once again.

Shimauta King

Sanshin player, singer and producer Sadao China has a special place in modern Okinawan music. John Potter enjoys his hospitality.

It’s a sizzling hot Wednesday afternoon in August on the subtropical Ryukyu island of Okinawa and at last I’ve caught up with singer, sanshin player, songwriter and producer Sadao China. In fact, I’m sitting in the living room of his home, a spacious house in Kitanakagusuku only a stone’s throw from the radiant blue Pacific Ocean.

Probably best known overseas as producer of the four-woman group Nenes, China himself is something of a legend in the Ryukyu Islands as a performer and last year won a national record award in Japan for his 6 CD box set Shimauta Hyakkei, a magnum opus comprising 101 traditional songs. I’ve been trying to arrange this meeting for a couple of months but China’s son Sadanori, who runs his father’s Dig Promotions music company, was under strict instructions not to make any appointments while Sadao was busy producing a new album for the latest line-up of his protégées Nenes. Well, the album is finished now and Sadao China has suggested we meet at his home. We’ve come across each other a few times before but always on neutral ground so I feel privileged to be invited into the family home. The entrance and several rooms are decorated with framed photos and posters, not just of China’s achievements but also of his own father, the late minyo (traditional song) singer Teihan China.

Sadao China’s wife keeps us well refreshed with coffee and then the island’s popular jasmine tea while her husband relaxes into the sofa next to the open windows where we try to get a cooling breeze. China is certainly a busy man. He runs his own music club or ‘live house’, known as Shimauta, on the main entertainment street Kokusai-dori in the island’s capital Naha, and he has produced a number of albums for other artists on his Dig label. He has also helped organize the annual Ryukyu Festivals held in Osaka and other venues around Japan. This has meant that his own recording has not been as prolific as it might have been. It picked up a bit over the past decade with the release of a duet album with Seijin Noborikawa and then a solo album Utamai in 2005. Nevertheless it was a great surprise when he suddenly came up with the Shimauta Hyakkei 6 CD box set at the end of last year. At first I thought it must be a collection of older recordings or re-releases, but not so, these are all brand new recordings.

China explains: “This plan had been going on for quite a long time and we had many discussions about it. Manabu Oshiro, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus, had been saying that he wanted me to do a big compilation album. The idea began about ten years ago but then there were some difficulties. For example, one of the directors of King Records, who released the album, became ill and there were various other problems. But Oshiro strongly wanted to have my songs recorded for posterity. I was a little unsure at first because I feel that I’m still a singer and my career is still going on so I haven’t finished yet! Anyway, I did this project in the end to show my thanks and appreciation to everyone such as the great older artists who inspired me, including those who are dead, and also to say thanks to other singers and friends. It’s because of them I’m still singing and doing this work.”

With such a large project it must have been difficult to choose the songs to be recorded. The songs are grouped by theme and so there are songs of celebration, songs of play and didacticism, immigration and travel, songs from plays and drama, songs about the islands, and finally two CDs of love songs. A single album was also released, entitled Utadamashi, which includes selections from the major work.

“In making the choices, I just recorded the songs I wanted to sing one after the after. Manabu Oshiro then sorted out the songs into each of the themes. I didn’t think about which song was from which particular island, it was more like doing a live performance in the studio. Almost all of the songs were recorded in one take. There were only two songs which took longer. I just sang and played the sanshin and the whole thing (apart from mixing) was finished in only four days. After that it took a week to do the overdubbing and other things.”

Although the album is mainly a solo project featuring just China’s voice and sanshin there is also some use of other accompaniment and he is also joined on some songs by a roll call of famous female island singers: Misako Oshiro, Yoriko Ganeko, Katsuko Yohen, Keiko Kinjo, Yasuko Yoshida, and Kanako Hatoma. I wondered how this was organized. China replies: “I carefully chose which song is better for which singer and thought about the whole thing a lot beforehand. For example, I can’t sing a duet on my own so I thought a lot about who to sing those songs with. I also thought about the key of the singers’ voices and which songs were more suitable for each singer. There are 101 songs altogether. I’ve never counted but possibly I know about three or four times the amount of songs on these CDs. That’s just minyo (traditional) or shimauta (island songs). If you add classical Ryukyu music then I must know about another 300 songs.”

The prestigious Nihon Record Taisho Kikaku Sho was awarded in late 2009. Getting a national award then must have been, well, very rewarding? “I was very surprised to get the award. It was a revolutionary thing even to be nominated for an award in Japan as an Okinawan musician. And then I actually won the award so I was very pleased. Also, I think this will encourage young musicians in Okinawa. I won a national arts award some time ago but I don’t rate it so highly because it’s just an academic thing, but a record award is a people’s thing. The record company recommended me to the committee without telling me. When we were recording and having a drink we sometimes made jokes about how this should be getting a record award, but I never thought it would really happen.”

China was not born in Okinawa but spent his first few years in Osaka in the Kansai area of mainland Japan where a large number of exiled Okinawans still live. His father Teihan China was one of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists along with the likes of Shouei Kina, Koutoku Tsuha and Rinsho Kadekaru. The young Sadao made his debut as a singer at the age of 12 and recordings of him at that age still exist. His high pitched vocals are in complete contrast to the deep resonance of his singing voice today at the age of 65. China, who seems to be a keen smoker, lights a cigarette and then reveals something I hadn’t known at all – he didn’t even want to be involved in Okinawan music in those early days.

“I began to sing when I was about five or six years old. I learned hardly any songs from my father. He used to teach classical Ryukyu music and I just used to listen. I hated music at that time, especially Ryukyu music. I didn’t even want people to recognize me as an Uchinanchu (Okinawan person). I was living in Kansai then and there was so much discrimination against Uchinanchu in Japan. It was the time of the Korean War and it was a very rough period for everyone and especially for minorities like us. My father used to say there will be a time in the future when Okinawan music is going to be written down and so there’s no need to grab someone like me to force them to learn, because they can learn in the future.”

When did he change his thinking about music? “I seriously thought about doing music after I was 20 years old. I had already been playing music before that, but very reluctantly, and when I became a pupil of Seijin Noborikawa at the age of 12 I really didn’t want to do it. I never thought it was fun to record when I was very young. I started playing Western classical music when I was about 16 on classical guitar. I did it because it was a good way to make myself popular with the girls. The sanshin wasn’t fashionable and girls wouldn’t fancy you if you played one because they had a bad image about it. Then one day I just played some Ryukyu minyo on my classical guitar and I felt that it sounded quite good. From that time I began to get more interested in Ryukyu music and I began to think that maybe we should be proud and show this music to people in the outside world.”

“That happened after I had moved to Okinawa from Osaka. I was discriminated against by Okinawans who said I spoke more like a Japanese but that was nothing compared to the discrimination I had suffered in Osaka. The difference was that Okinawans wanted you to be part of them in the end. They were just testing me and I had fights with several of them, but in the end they wanted me to be a part of the community. In Osaka they didn’t want me to be one of them at all. This also made me start to learn Okinawan dialect very hard. My parents spoke Okinawan but I only understood a little, rather like young Okinawans nowadays. People spoke Uchinaguchi (Okinawan) in daily life and they only spoke Japanese at school because they were forced to.”

In the 1970s China made his breakthrough Akabana album, but this was revolutionary in itself because it contained Okinawan-sounding songs written by China, some with traditional melodies and an overlay of rock and reggae. “People in Okinawa reacted with outrage and said these songs are rubbish because I already had the reputation of being a talented young minyo singer and was a great hope for the future of traditional song. They thought I was leaving the minyo world because of this album. This was about four or five years after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan and many young people wanted to leave for Tokyo or the mainland. They had the idea that things in Japan were better. I felt worried about this. So it had a big meaning for me to release this in Tokyo in order to protest and show Okinawan people their own music in a modern way and make them proud of it. That album was satisfying because I had a lot of feedback from people who said it made them happy as well. After that I just carried on with my music career on a small scale. But through these activities I met quite a few Japanese musicians who were interested in Okinawan music, such as Ryudo Uzaki, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Tokiko Kato. As you know, Okinawan music then became more recognized in Japan.”

So does he see himself primarily as a performer or a producer? “I learned so much from old singers of the past that this is why I am still a minyo singer today. I think I have a duty to hand down these songs to future generations. On the other hand, I’m also producing young people because I want to do so many other things apart from singing minyo. I produce Nenes, Kanako Hatoma, and The Fere, and I have to say that this is a good way to do things because they can sing on my behalf. I’m well over 60 now and if you think about me as someone with important responsibilities in the minyo world then it’s difficult for me to sing and perform like they do. Also, I really enjoy producing Nenes because when I write songs for them I really like writing in a subjective way and then producing the results objectively. But I never tell Nenes that you must sing in a certain way. So possibly being a producer is more fun.”

The original Nenes

The new Nenes are much changed from the four women led by Misako Koja who rocked the world of Okinawan music back in the early 90s. Quite apart from the completely new personnel, it has to be said that up to now these young women sound much less vital and charismatic than their famous forerunners. China’s productions also seem not to have developed much and follow the same formula. I approach the subject with caution when I ask how things went with the new album: “The recording is over but we have to do the mixing. Nenes are young and they like many different kinds of music such as rock, jazz, pop, and shimauta, so my aim is to make an album they will be satisfied with. So there will be different kinds of arrangements with elements of rock and Dixieland jazz. There are 13 jazz musicians involved on some of the album. We also use Okinawan instruments but in a very poppy way. The songs are all original except for two.”

“There’s no pressure whatsoever in producing the present Nenes, but the first Nenes were much more difficult. The original Nenes were four very strong characters and there was more pressure on me. I thought after the great first Nenes finished that I should change their name. But then I realized the original meaning of Nenes itself is a project to bring up new singers and so I thought maybe I shouldn’t change the name.”

“I think many young musicians in Okinawa have good sense and originality so the future will settle quite brightly and there will be a stable future for Okinawan music in general. The only thing I worry about is there are quite a few musicians who instead of sticking to shimauta, become professional and want to do too many original songs. Some even say they aren’t going to sing minyo or shimauta for a while. I think this is wrong. They probably think if they don’t do original songs they can’t be popular. I want them to learn more minyo because they are singing with a sanshin. If you are singing with a sanshin then you should study more music for sanshin. However, there are many good middle-aged singers and sanshin players who know about minyo. This is the reason why I think the future is good.”

While China has giant stature on the Okinawan minyo scene I feel that he, like many other Okinawan musicians, is welcoming to outside influences but is not so good at going outside the islands in search of new music and ideas. China is a great enthusiast of the excellent Okinawan singer Yasukatsu Oshima but is typically less enthralled with his recent successful collaboration with American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer, who has also recorded China’s own work: “Oshima has a great attitude and his singing is wonderful. He actually bought my Shimauta Hyakkei box set and told me that because of it his repertoire is going to be much bigger. He always wants to know about the old musicians. I understand that Geoffrey Keezer is a great musician too but I couldn’t really understand that album they made. Why couldn’t they do it a bit more simply?”

I hesitate to say that if China himself had been as ambitious and adventurous with his own recent productions he might have achieved better results. Instead I turn the subject to the topic of world music in general and wonder whether China would include his own minyo and shimauta under this broad umbrella.

“I never thought about world music. It’s fine if people think Okinawan music is world music…or not. I don’t mind at all. Once you put music into the public eye it’s going to go on its own and it’s no longer in your hands. In that sense, anybody can call music anything they like. I know when Nenes became popular in the early 1990s everyone was talking about world music. Before that, when I produced Akabana my music was called ‘island music’. It’s up to the listener. I don’t really try hard to find out a lot about other kinds of music. I listen to music depending on how I feel. Every day is different. Sometimes I listen to rock music, and sometimes to chanson.”

On these islands – though always friendly and welcoming to outsiders – traditional musicians are often unaware of what is going on in the world of roots music worldwide. China is even mystified by Oshima and Keezer’s jazz experiments, and I get the impression he wouldn’t know a Portuguese fado from a Congolese rumba. But get him back onto the solid ground of Okinawan minyo and nobody has more knowledge and understanding. There can also be little doubt that at the present time China is the greatest living male singer of Okinawan songs. He is still at the peak of his powers and has now surpassed even his mentor Seijin Noborikawa as a live performer. I tell him so and he thanks me without embarrassment. He signs my copy of Shimauta Hyakkei and says he wishes he could understand English better so that he could read this article in fRoots. And he adds a request. “Please let me play in England!”

Many thanks to Sadao China and his family, and to Midori Potter for help with translations.

(fRoots Magazine No.328, October 2010)

Postcard from Okinawa

Posted March 19, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

Here’s another one for the archive. In 2008 I wrote an article on Okinawa for the UK world music magazine Songlines. It focuses on two singers from different generations – Chihiro Kamiya and Yuki Yamazato. Both singers are still going strong. In fact, Kamiya went on to make her best album to date, Utaui, a few years later and also performed at the Trans Asia Music Meeting showcase last year. The photo of Yuki Yamazato I’ve included was not from the original feature but is a later one I took of her in 2011.

Postcard from Okinawa

Despite a large American presence, Okinawa’s traditions survive through its music, as John Potter discovers

Chihiro Kamiya is singing tonight at Mod’s in the seaside town of Chatan, Okinawa. She comes from the tiny island of Tsuken off the Okinawan coast. Now 25, she has been singing since the age of three, and her father runs a minshuku (guest house) on their island. Her uncle and cousin are both singers too, not unusual in these islands where – unlike mainland Japan – the music is still very much a living thing.

Chihiro Kamiya

The American presence on Okinawa is evident everywhere but especially so in Chatan. Around 20% of the subtropical island is occupied by American military bases. Chatan, in the west, is a mix of old Okinawan buildings, a large flea market, and a shopping centre called ‘American Village’, all overlooked by a large ferris wheel. Mod’s is a small live music venue up a flight of steps in the midst of all the shops. Young Okinawan musicians play here regularly in front of small, enthusiastic audiences of around 100 people and tonight it is Chihiro Kamiya’s turn. The audience is exclusively Okinawan or Japanese (except for me) and a mixture of all ages.

Kamiya sings beautifully and plays the sanshin, the ubiquitous three stringed banjo-like instrument ever present in Okinawan music. But she’s a modern girl too and she introduces a small group of male musicians to accompany her on guitar, keyboards and percussion. This works best of all on ‘Tinjara’ the title song of her second and most recent album. If the songs are not exactly traditionally Okinawan they are definitely tinged with island spirit and make superior pop to rank with the best that mainland Japan has to offer.

But I’m in a hurry because it’s already ten o’clock as her performance ends and the night is just beginning on the island. A short drive north-east from Chatan brings us to the inland city known as Koza to the locals (officially Okinawa City), a shabby run down place which is the second city of Okinawa. Here there are many minyo (folk song) ‘live houses’ where the music doesn’t get under way until late and goes on for most of the night. My destination is slightly different though.

Yuki Yamazato

Yuki Yamazato is one of the top living Okinawan women singers. At her small bar Doushibi (which means ‘friends’), she serves drinks and snacks to regulars and is helped by another well-known singer of the old songs, Katsuko Yohen. Both women have recorded a number of albums, and recently made a joint CD – also entitled Doushibi – with another female singer, Keiko Kinjo. Yuki Yamazato, the eldest, is still a remarkably youthful looking 70-year-old. While Yamazato and Yohen serve the drinks, customers can sing their own versions of the island songs to a karaoke machine, but this is stopped when one or other of the women is asked to perform. Then out comes the familiar sanshin and the most exquisite songs are played just inches in front of our faces.

Yamazato, who owns the bar with Yohen, used to have a more usual minyo place but found it was no fun having to perform on stage every night. Doushibi is an excellent compromise as she sings only when she feels like it, and takes requests from the small clientele of true Okinawan music enthusiasts. As a foreigner I’m lucky to have found the place at all.

I request the song ‘Umi No Chinbora’ which she sings standing behind the bar with her sanshin. (A customer objects at first to my request as not being a good enough song for such a great singer as Yamazato!). Katsuko Yohen then treats the handful of customers to ‘Himeyuri No Uta’, a song which tells of the Battle of Okinawa and the island’s terrible wartime past. Later, Yamazato offers me her sanshin to play, but I’m rather overawed by the whole occasion and instead we all end up doing the katcharsee, Okinawa’s arm-flinging dance of celebration.

(Songlines Magazine No. 51, April/May 2008)

Henoko

Posted March 13, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

This latest addition to the archive was originally published nine years ago and the sad fact is that it’s even more relevant today than it was then. The proposed US military base at Henoko remains contentious but matters have become even worse now for the Okinawan people who are at best ignored by America and treated as an inferior colonial outpost by Japan.

Despite Okinawa’s refusal to accept the new base, and fierce opposition, demonstrations and protests by local people, the Japanese government has recently allowed offshore construction work to begin at Henoko with the dumping of a large number of concrete blocks into the ocean.

Henoko

Musicians in Okinawa are leading a protest movement against a US military base. John Potter reports.

Okinawa is rightly known as an island of music, songs and dance, but also has unwanted notoriety as an outpost for the US military. Last year musicians got together to protest US plans to close the Futenma airbase on the island’s city of Ginowan and relocate it to a new site further north in the small town of Henoko. Apart from the noise and danger to residents, this will inevitably damage the environment in and around this area of great natural beauty.

A combined DVD and CD package Live at Henoko Beach in Okinawa has just been released by Japanese roots-rock band Soul Flower Union and their alter ego, the acoustic Mononoke Summit. The Peace Music Festa of February 2007 was not the first of its kind but was the largest to date, attracting musicians from near and far, and among its organisers was Soul Flower’s Hideko Itami who now lives on the island in Ginowan. Further events are planned in the future, not just in Okinawa but as far afield as Tokyo.

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit at Henoko

Among those who gathered for the Henoko Peace Music Festa were Henoko’s own Misako Oshiro, now in her 70s and possibly the greatest living singer of Okinawan minyo (folk song), plus another veteran singer and sanshin player, Masao Teruya. Also present was the flamboyant Yukito Ara, from the Yaeyama island of Ishigaki further south, one of the greatest exponents of the island’s ubiquitous three-stringed sanshin. But it was not only the traditional Okinawan musicians who took to the stage. In both mainland Japan and Okinawa there is a strong following for hip-hop and reggae and among those appearing were the island’s own duo U-Dou & Platy. Their blend of these styles has made them enormously popular and their most recent album Buss Up combines hip-hop and reggae with a very Okinawan sensibility. Their song ‘Uchinanchu in Tokyo’ defines Okinawans as foreigners within Japan and is sung in the local language, while ‘Haisai Ojisan’ updates Shoukichi Kina’s classic song with humour and contemporary references. Duty Free Shopp from Okinawa were another hip-hop act of substance, while from mainland Japan there was Nanjaman, a politically-charged rapper from Osaka.

In WW2 an estimated 240,000 people were killed during the Battle of Okinawa. Despite reversion to Japan in 1972, the American occupation of the once independent Ryukyu Islands continues to this day, with the full support of the Japanese government. Approximately 20% of the main island of Okinawa is still occupied by US military bases, and about 75% of the American forces stationed in Japan are based here. This occupation has been characterised by appropriation of the islanders’ land and environmental problems, as well as military accidents and a long list of crimes committed by the American forces against Okinawan people, including theft, rape and murder. The islands, meanwhile, have been promoted by Japan’s government as a tourist destination or tropical paradise resort for the Japanese. This in turn has led to its own problems as a large number of building works projects have not helped the islands’ environment, while coral reefs and wildlife, such as the dugong which resides off the coast of Henoko, have been endangered.

The US base issue continues to be extremely topical after two alleged rapes this year by American servicemen on the island – in the first of these the victim was a 14-year-old Okinawan girl. This was a chilling reminder of the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl which took place in 1995 and led to massive anti-base protests throughout the island.

Soul Flower’s Hideko Itami

Hideko Itami’s husband is well-known to readers of these pages as the Irish musician and producer Donal Lunny. He has discovered at first hand the problems of living on an island fortress and in addition to taking part in last year’s Peace Festa, where his bouzouki joined forces with Japanese saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu, he recently wrote a letter to the Commander of the US Forces on Okinawa calling on them to abandon plans to build the new base at Henoko, and demanding the closure of all other military facilities and the return of the land to its rightful owners.

In part of the letter, reproduced in the Soul Flower DVD he writes: “I have found the people of Okinawa to be civilised, honourable and kind – even though I am often assumed to be American – and I believe that it is this very tolerance and good nature that has accommodated the intransigent attitude of the US authorities for so long – despite the fact that most Okinawans undoubtedly abhor the fact that their country is being used to train American soldiers for active service (which usually involves killing people) in other countries. The numerous protest demonstrations by Okinawans have achieved no change whatsoever.”

Lunny’s collaboration with Kazutoki Umezu has led to their combining with a third member, Hiromi Kondo of the trio Amana, on a four track mini-album entitled Dreaming Dugongs of Henoko which is being released on Hideko Itami’s label Zo-San. Some proceeds from the CD will go towards the campaign to fight the proposed base at Henoko.

While Okinawa is still stuck between the governments of Japan and the USA there is nevertheless optimism that this beautiful island will one day be returned to its own people.

Soul Flower website (in Japanese): www.breast.co.jp/soulflower/

Live at Henoko Beach in Okinawa is also available at www.farsidemusic.com

(fRoots Magazine No.300, June 2008)

Uchina World Music

Posted March 11, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Live in Okinawa

On Friday next week (17th) an Uchina World Music evening is being held at Sound M’s in Naha. This will feature live music from singers and sanshin players Mutsumi Aragaki and Kanako Horiuchi as well as Mina from London who is a singer, composer, sanshin player and violinist.

Mutsumi Aragaki, Kanako Horiuchi & Mina

Aragaki and Horiuchi were included on CD compilations presented at WOMEX and both took part in the ‘Music from Okinawa’ showcase this year at the Trans Asia Music Meeting. Horiuchi has travelled the world to promote the music of Okinawa and she made the acclaimed album Hana Umui in Senegal in 2015. Meanwhile London-based Mina took part in Sven Kacirek’s Songs From Okinawa project and appears on the subsequent album released in Germany.

Things get under way at Sound M’s at 20:00 on Friday and the entrance fee is 2,000 yen plus a drinks charge. (Phone: 090-1067-8055).

Jamaican Punch – Bob Andy

Posted March 6, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

Here’s a much older one for the archive. Bob Andy was first known to me as part of the Bob & Marcia duo who had a big hit in the UK with the Nina Simone song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. What I hadn’t realised was just how important Bob was as one of the great songwriters in Jamaican music. We talked backstage before his show at a reggae festival in Osaka in 1994 and he impressed enormously with his intelligent and thoughtful answers to my occasionally naïve questions.

Jamaica conferred its Order of Distinction on him in 2006 for his contribution to the development of reggae music and in 2011 the Jamaican musical community honoured him with a tribute concert.

Jamaican Punch

 Jamaica’s ambassador of reggae music, Bob Andy, took ‘time out’ before a recent show in Osaka to talk to John Potter

Ask anyone over a certain age if they remember the song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ and their eyes should sparkle. They may also recall that this 1970 international hit was recorded by Bob and Marcia. Now known by their full names – Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths – they are two of the most important early stars of Jamaican music. Marcia was to find fame as a member of Bob Marley’s female trio, the I Threes and later as a solo artist. The other half of the duo, Bob Andy, after producing one of the early classics from the legendary Studio One with his album Songbook, then worked briefly with rock steady group the Paragons and since then as both solo artist and songwriter. Now based in Florida, where he also operates his own record company, he headlined the 10th Anniversary Reggae Japansplash tour earlier this year.

Bob Andy backstage at the time of our meeting in Osaka

Bob Andy backstage at the time of our meeting in Osaka

What started your interest in music?

I was always interested in all kinds of music. Growing up in Jamaica and getting exposed to early radio was a thrill. In those days we were able to tune in to short wave radio and we could listen to Cuba and Haiti and get different musical influences. I had an idea that I would be doing something in the field of entertainment when I was about 13 years old and I found out that I had some kind of musical talent when I sang in the church choir for a while.

You partnered Marcia Griffiths in the early days of reggae music. What was this period like?

I met Marcia at Studio One. We were sweethearts for ten years but we never actually married. Our joining into a musical duo was purely convenient. It was most surprising when it paid such handsome results. The interaction and dynamics that prevailed in the mid-60s at Studio One were very exciting. They were such intense, talented, forceful, aggressive people coming together. It was a very competitive but also cooperative spirit – more often than not another singer or singers would enjoy your project and extend themselves to be a part of it. They might offer you an alternative phrase to make your song better, and help you with some harmony. So I have to say the sixties, my early adolescent years, were some of the richest, having shared companionship with the Marleys, the Toshs, the Heptones. And when we started we never imagined how this thing would permeate the planet and we didn’t have a clue that we were creating history. I can say that today I’m a very proud person having gone about doing what I love – with a lot of struggle – and getting the kind of appreciation and recognition that we have is making it all worthwhile.

To what extent do you see yourself as a representative of Jamaican culture?

Even if you go out into the world thinking that you’re just going to be an artist, because of the demands that are placed on you by the media, your fans, promoters, government officials… you find yourself playing a much wider role than being just a singer or entertainer. In our case, the kind of music we have – the ethnicity and African associations – requires much more energy than just being a singer. So I’d say it is expected of us to be truly representative of the culture.

Reggae has a surprisingly large following in Japan. Why is this?

Well, it surprises me too and as this is my third trip here I’ve had time to think about it quite often. It’s the vast contrast. It’s almost as if the generation that has responded to Jamaican music is looking for some kind of new culture or art. Accomplished as they are in today’s world, in all aspects of technology and industry, the Japanese people seem to have retained the common touch. And as much as they are being bombarded with Western influences and goods, they are still pretty much firm in their own culture. Having that firm culture they have then become interested in a culture like ours which does not have the First World or great exposure… ours is a moving culture so to speak. Japanese culture has paid off in industry and technology, ours has paid off in the arts. Anyway, they love coffee and we have the best coffee. So that starts the relationship!

 What do you think of some of the newer bands that play a kind of reggae, such as UB40?

One could hardly call UB40 a new band. I’d say they have become the acceptable face of reggae music – for obvious purposes and reasons. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t represent reggae music very well. You are speaking to someone at the moment who has a different outlook. I don’t call myself a reggae singer. Because I was singing before there was ska. I went through the ska, the rock steady, and the reggae phases and now I’m surviving the dancehall stage. So I would call myself an exponent of Jamaican music, because reggae is just one facet of Jamaican music – the one that Bob Marley internationalized so successfully. Of course UB40 are very good, but I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘proper reggae’… or proper pop. One comes across a good melody, a good hook line, music to go with it. People who love it respond by buying. I’m here to tell you that this is what matters and so I say, let UB40 live for ever! I’d rather have UB40 playing our music than hear what some DJs and rap stars do to it.

Bob & Marcia reunited (Photo: BBC)

Bob & Marcia reunited (Photo: BBC Music / (c) Spinello)

You have your own record label now.

Yes, I’ve had my own label, I-Anka, for ten years. I’m based in Florida now and the records are distributed in Japan through Alpha Enterprises. My work wasn’t being picked up by any of the major labels and I want to make records. I couldn’t just sit and wait so I moved myself. Being a small company it seems to be working out. But it’s a lot of hard work, trying to be both the artist and the businessman.

Do you have any plans for the immediate future?

Well, I have a new album coming out, which I call Spectrum. The new album moves away from music that people have associated me with and has ventured into new areas. Living in America I have exposed myself to ‘adult contemporary’. When it was called ‘middle of the road’ I always wanted to have a look inside those doors, and now I’m giving myself that opportunity. My whole attitude towards writing has changed. What people call reggae music is a music that requires a certain kind of attitude. The kind of voice I have requires a little different kind of measure to get the full effects. I wanted rather more sophisticated arrangements because I seem to have been stuck in a particular idiom all my artistic life. I’m bursting at the seams with excitement to see how the critics will respond to my work. Anyway, it’s already made. If they like or dislike it, it’s my work and I’m still growing. I’m not denying myself the privilege of trying something new just in order to hang on to a small set of devotees. I’m taking a risk with audiences.

(Kansai Time Out, No.208, June 1994)

Footnote: Spectrum, the new album that Bob Andy mentions in the interview, did not in fact materialize. Instead he released the album Hanging Tough (1997, Heavy Beat Records) which was produced by Willie Lindo.

Geoffrey Keezer

Posted February 26, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

It’s already ten years since American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer got together with Yasukatsu Oshima to make an album that is a strong contender for the best ever collaboration involving an Okinawan musician. I am very pleased to have been the go-between who put them together. The album Yasukatsu Oshima with Geoffrey Keezer came out in April 2007 and this article for fRoots is my interview shortly afterwards with Geoffrey Keezer.

Geoffrey Keezer

 The American jazz pianist recently made a great CD with Okinawa’s Yasukatsu Oshima. John Potter tells how.

“So maybe we’re both old souls” says American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer about his recent partnership with famed Ryukyu Islands singer Yasukatsu Oshima. The pair recorded in New York last year together with a handful of jazz musicians and their album – Yasukatsu Oshima With Geoffrey Keezer – has just been released by Victor in Japan. It may not be the first time an Okinawan sanshin has joined forces with a piano but there hasn’t been anything quite like this before, where a traditional Ryukyu musician has been plucked from his own setting and dropped into a New York studio with previously unfamiliar musicians.

Thankfully, the results are all we could have hoped for and Keezer’s sensitivity, understanding and sheer love of the islands’ music quickly dispel any misgivings. After the first few tentative tracks it comes to life with a remarkable version of the traditional ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’, probably the highlight and centrepiece of the album. In fact, it’s on the more adventurous tracks that the CD succeeds most, leaving us to wonder if future experiments might be on the way. The selections on the album are also nicely balanced with four songs each from the Okinawa and Yaeyama islands plus two new Oshima compositions.

oshimakeezer

Yasukatsu Oshima is already well-known to Okinawan music aficionados of these pages, but Geoffrey Keezer is from a very different musical world. Born into a musical family in Wisconsin in 1970, he studied piano from the age of three and joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at eighteen. Since those early days he has played with virtually all the living legends of jazz and appeared on countless recordings, both as leader and accompanist. His two releases in 2003, Falling Up and Sublime: Honoring The Music Of Hank Jones, were both collaborative efforts. Sublime is an ambitious set of piano duets with Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Benny Green and Mulgrew Miller. Falling Up features several pieces with the Hawaiian slack key guitarist, Keola Beamer. The 2005 live album Wildcrafted, captured his trio in concert at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. Here we have the first official sighting of Okinawan music, with the inclusion of an instrumental cover of Sadao China’s song ‘Koikugari Bushi’.

So how did a jazz musician with such a pedigree become enthralled by Okinawan music? Keezer: “I first heard the music of the Ryukyu Islands in the early 1990s, while I was performing with a jazz group in Fukuoka, Japan. My hotel room had a cable radio system with 400 channels, and one day as I was browsing the ‘traditional Japanese music’ channels I came across the ‘Okinawa’ program. I was immediately struck by how different this music sounded from anything else I’d ever heard, yet there was something eerily familiar about it. It felt very old, like I’d known these melodies all along, as though some part of me was already deeply connected to them – like I recognized this music from a recent past life. From that day onward I sought out and listened to as much Okinawan music as I could find – Nenes, Rinsho Kadekaru, Rinken Band, Shoukichi Kina, and countless archival recordings of music from all over the Ryukyus.”

This is where I come in, for Keezer got hold of my book The Power of Okinawa and because of it – I’m happy to report – discovered Yasukatsu Oshima, subsequently buying four of his CDs at once. Realising that here was the musician he wanted to work with, Keezer contacted me out of the blue one day, and I was pleased to act as the go-between to link him up with Oshima, realising that here was someone with a similar passion to my own for Okinawan music. The two musicians met in Osaka in 2005 when Keezer was playing concerts in Japan. They immediately hit it off and soon rented a little dance studio with an upright piano in Osaka where they practised for the first time and the idea for an album began to take shape.

8-ps-1

The Okinawan traditional music world is rather hierarchical, so I wondered if it’s like that at all in the jazz world?: “There is a little bit of that hierarchy in the jazz world, to the extent that any intelligent jazz musician realizes he/she stands on the shoulders of those that came before us, and therefore we show respect to our elder statesmen. Many of the older jazz musicians that are still around lived through some very difficult times in America, with segregation and so on. They paid a lot of those ‘dues’ so the younger generation doesn’t have to. Jazz is now a respected idiom and we play concert halls as well as the smaller clubs. Oshima has a similar spirit to a jazz musician, in that he never plays a song the exact same way twice. It was fun and challenging to play with him at first because I had transcribed the demo MD he sent me, made nicely notated piano parts and all, and when we started recording it was like, “Whoa…that’s totally different already!” I relied on my ears playing with him, the same way I do when I accompany another jazz musician.

How difficult was it to go from being a fan of Okinawan music to actually arranging and playing Okinawan songs?  “There were no real mishaps. Oshima was so easy to work with. The only problem is my Japanese language skills are so bad right now. I used to live in Yokohama and my Nihongo was rockin’ then. Now, I can barely remember how to ask where the bathroom is. As for the selections, Oshima chose all of the songs initially, but at the end of the session he asked me if there was anything else I’d like to do, so we added ‘Sukikanna’.”

“I’m really thrilled with this record. I can’t wait to make another one. I hope the next one can be with a full string section.” Let’s hope their partnership is just beginning.

www.geoffreykeezer.com

(fRoots Magazine Nos.290/291, August/September 2007)

Bouzoukinawa! – Donal Lunny

Posted February 20, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

The latest addition to the Features Archive is an interview I did with Donal Lunny for fRoots magazine in 2006. Donal had moved to Okinawa and his reflections on island life and on his music were immensely interesting. The talk we had at that time had to be edited quite a bit to fit into what was already a lengthy feature. It hardly needs mentioning that Donal is an Irish music legend. As a member of the band Planxty he helped revolutionise Irish traditional music and went on to do more groundbreaking work with The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, and Mozaik. And I haven’t even mentioned his long list of credits as a producer of other musicians. Sadly for me, he didn’t stay in Okinawa and eventually returned to Ireland where he continues to be active with numerous projects. In March/April 2017 he will tour mainland Japan to play ‘Songs and Tunes from Ireland’ as part of a duo with Andy Irvine.

Bouzoukinawa!

Donal Lunny has taken up residence in subtropical Okinawa with his Japanese wife Hideko Itami of Soul Flower Union. John Potter gets to sit in their kitchen…

My idea of a great time is listening to Okinawan music. But listening to the very best traditional Irish music runs it a close second. Soon I may be able to do both at the same time. As a long time fan of Okinawan music, living in Japan, I’ve frequently toyed with the idea of moving to the Ryukyu Islands. After all, this is where the real music is in Japan. But for various reasons, too tedious to relate, I’m still waiting to take the plunge and my own move is temporarily on hold. Irish music legend Donal Lunny has no such qualms and has seized the initiative by relocating there recently, and already has plans to work with Okinawan musicians. I met up with Donal and his wife, musician Hideko Itami, when we found ourselves near neighbours in the Ginowan area of Okinawa during the summer.

In Donal’s kitchen in Ginowan, over a glass of the island’s awamori liquor, he answers my query of just what he’s doing on a subtropical island a long way from home: My wife had been to Okinawa years ago, and has always had a great love for its music and people. More recently, she and Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union sang and played on Seijin Noborikawa’s Spiritual Unity CD, and it renewed her interest in Okinawa. Late last year, we decided to go and check it out. And then we decided to move there. It took another trip to sort out accommodation and so on, and we finally arrived early last May. My hope is to find a niche in the Okinawan music scene, and to perform, produce, and record here. At the moment my work is still in Ireland and Europe, so I travel to Dublin every few months, which keeps me in touch with the scene there. I’ve managed to do some work on music files which have been sent to me.  I can see interesting possibilities for collaborations between Okinawan and Irish musicians, so I’m going to start a project which hopefully will culminate in a CD of songs and instrumentals, and possibly some concerts of Irish and Okinawan artists. The sooner I get working in a studio with Okinawan musicians, the better.”

donal_2005_04

I wondered what kind of problems he might have experienced as a foreigner in Okinawa, with such a different culture and climate from Europe as well as a language and dialect which even the Japanese are sometimes puzzled by. “My Japanese is still only a jumble of words and phrases, some of which are actually useful” he says. “I can’t converse yet, and I understand only about 20% of what’s being said around me. So I’m experiencing the same difficulty in Okinawa as I had in Japan. But I’m working on it.  Fortunately I like hot weather, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t last a week in Okinawa’s summer. The weather here is pretty extreme, particularly the rainy season and the typhoon season.”

The reason for Donal’s being in Japan in the first place is another musical mix as his wife Hideko (or “Hidebow” as he calls her) is a founder member and guitarist (and now bouzouki player) with Japanese band Soul Flower Union and their acoustic offshoot Soul Flower Mononoke Summit. The Lunnys also have a young daughter, Sora. The introduction of the bouzouki into Soul Flower’s music smacks of Donal’s influence, so I asked Hideko to elaborate on her meetings with Irish music. “Before I met Donal my knowledge of Irish music was only The Pogues and Van Morrison”, she says. “Of course I didn’t know anything about Donal. Since I met him I’ve been to Dublin a few times and every time I’ve been there he has introduced me to many musicians. I didn’t realise until then that he was so famous. At first, I thought that he just had a lot of friends! The biggest reason for this misunderstanding was probably because I didn’t understand English enough. About a year after my first visit I went back to Dublin again and Donal was organising a benefit concert there. Elvis Costello played and he told me that Donal helped to produce his album Spike. It was a big surprise for me because only then did I begin to realise how important Donal is.”

Before coming to Okinawa, Donal had already spent quite a bit of time in mainland Japan with Hideko. Moving to these islands must have been another big change, as the Ryukyus were formerly an independent kingdom with their own quite separate culture, which still largely remains. “Okinawa has a distinctive air of ease and freedom about it. I’m still identifying the elements which give it its unique character, but what is obvious is the friendly spirit of the Okinawan people. There are basic traits which seem to be shared by Okinawa and Japan, but Okinawa has what I can only describe as an island culture. Ireland has something similar, and it has to do with the size of the island, and its relationship with the rest of the world. Both islands have parallels in their histories: attempts by more powerful nations to subsume their identities and cultures, and partial occupation by foreign powers – I can’t help noticing how Okinawans manage to flow their lives around the presence of 25,000 American military personnel, in occupation since WW2 – which is not to say that people don’t mind; 85% of the population want a military-free Okinawa. But both islands have retained their cultural personalities.”

Getting back to Okinawan music, I know that when I first heard it I was completely hooked but that hasn’t always been the case for many Western listeners. Asian music in general has fared less well in gaining acceptance and popularity as world music in the mainstream. Like me, Donal was introduced to Okinawan music by his Japanese wife.  “After that I soon became aware of how many of my friends in Japan also love it. I immediately related to it at heart level. The spare and elegant accompaniment of the sanshin has an even pace, and the singing floats alongside and often trails slightly behind, which gives great depth and feeling to deceptively simple melodies. To me, the steadiness of the sanshin adds elements of strength and constancy, and offsets the emotional ebb and flow of the singing.”

Donal & Hideko

Donal & Hideko

So who in particular has impressed Donal? “The first live concert I went to in Okinawa featured Yasukatsu Oshima and Kanako Hatoma. It was a sublime experience. Both of them have in their singing that quality of ecstasy which is to be found in the singing of all the great Okinawan artists. I spoke to Oshima-san afterwards. He expressed an interest in my bodhrán playing, so I’m hoping to get the opportunity to play with him soon. On stage with them was Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone, playing shimadaiko, or island drum – two drums, one big and deep, and the other lighter. His playing was beautiful; the rhythms shifted continuously, but never broke the groove. It sounded like a complex and inscrutable discipline, but I get the impression there are actually no rules; it might be different every time he plays. He also provided hayashi, which means cheering along, or giving encouraging support, in the form of short sung interjections. This is also an intrinsic part of the Japanese tradition, but Okinawan hayashi is mostly sung in syncopation between the main beats, and this gives it a lightness it wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Many years back I finally realised that I couldn’t use the kitchen sink with Irish music without obliterating the very boundaries that define its personality. It’s the same with Okinawan music. Its singularity depends as much on what’s left out as on what’s played. Some modes exclude certain notes from the scale, and this has a clear effect on the flavour of the music. I’m still discovering things, and the more I hear, the more I like it.”

There have already been some musical connections made between Ireland and Okinawa. The Chieftains performed with Okinawan singer Yoriko Ganeko when they visited the island a few years ago, and I introduced Donal to Ganeko on a visit we made to her minyo ‘live house’. In the opposite direction, Yasukatsu Oshima has been to Ireland to perform and his latest album features a track with Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Dermot Byrne of the Irish band Altan. Altan have toured Japan many times and also played with Soul Flower. Yasukatsu Oshima thinks that the Irish have a strong musical culture which is similar to Okinawa, but that in Ireland it’s mainly based on tunes whereas in Okinawa it’s based around songs. Donal has some sympathy with this view.

“I think it’s a fair comment, given what you will encounter if you drop in on the average Irish pub trad session. You’ll hear scores of reels and jigs, and maybe a handful of songs. I have to say, this is a reflection on the fact that the atmosphere of the average Irish pub session is too turbulent for all but the most robust songs. It’s unfortunate that traditional music is so closely linked to the culture of the pub. Several musicians playing together can enjoy themselves regardless of the hubbub of happy, relaxed people and the ching of the cash register in the background (I’m not being cynical – I’ll cheerfully join a session under these circumstances, and play till we’re thrown out). And if there are singers in the house, they will be called on for a song, and if the moment’s right, you’ll hear a pin drop while the song is being sung. And there’ll be real appreciation from the audience. But the feeling that occurs to me now as I think about it, is that for each song, the evening is holding its breath; that things jolt back into action again when the song is finished. On with the session! Not to say that there aren’t brilliant singer’s sessions to be found if one seeks them out. Ireland has many wonderful singers. They’re just not as mainstream as some others.”

twin_2001_12_02

“I don’t know how many Irish tunes there are; probably tens of thousands. But as it happens, the last album I produced was of the late Frank Harte (it was our sixth album together – he died within a week of completing the singing). Over the years, he collected no less than 24,000 Irish songs! He had 80 songs relating to Napoleon alone, some of them tender, some of them mountainous epics which only a redoubtable singer like Frank could render. This is a massive legacy, which must measure up well to the great heritage of instrumental music which Ireland has.”

The omnipresent instrument in Okinawan music is, of course, the three stringed sanshin, and since arriving on the island Hideko Itami has already started taking regular sanshin lessons. Will Donal soon be following suit?I’ve had a few goes at the sanshin, and even though it relates closely to the bouzouki, it’s not a straightforward proposition. I went to a lesson with Hidebow, and her teacher handed me a sanshin, whereupon I started trying to play it left-handed, which was not to the teacher’s liking! But I’ll have one within a few weeks, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of getting music out of it.”

And producing? Will living away from Europe affect opportunities to produce other people’s albums there? “I’m sure that being away so much will mean that people will naturally move on to alternatives. But I think (hope!) there’s still plenty for me to do on that side of the world. And I can work on computer files here. Also, I think there are several of my musical friends and associates who’d enjoy a bit of recording in Okinawa.”

Andy Irvine & Donal Lunny who will play seven dates in Japan starting in March

Andy Irvine & Donal Lunny play seven dates in Japan in March/April 2017

In Japan he has already lent a hand to the forthcoming Soul Flower Mononoke Summit album, which will be their third album of chindon-inspired music after a hiatus of eight years. When they started rehearsing for their new album, there was nobody to supply chords to the arrangements, so I sat in with the bouzouki. It was a stopgap measure, and even though I also played on the studio recordings, a lot of it will probably be redundant, as the regular musicians’ parts were overdubbed later. I think it’s a really good album, with a strong selection of songs.”

I asked Donal’s wife how living in Okinawa, while the rest of her band is in mainland Japan, will affect things. “I think that living in Okinawa, my job now is to create and send things from this island. I cannot do Soul Flower activities the same as before, but the positive side is that because I live in Okinawa and I’m a mother now I can do many other things. One of these things is this new Mononoke Summit album, and some musicians I met since moving here to Okinawa have joined the recording and they made it a livelier album.”

Donal meanwhile has been busy with Mozaik, along with former Planxty mate Andy Irvine, and Mozaik members Bruce Molsky, Nikola Parov and Rens van der Zalm. They toured Europe recently and now have plans to make a studio album.Mozaik is recording the next CD in Budapest, in November, and we have some interesting material prepared for it. Hopefully it’ll be available by the New Year. The next big tour we have lined up is in Australia next March. We’d all like to play together more often, but the logistics of getting together are complicated, given how scattered we all are. I think it’ll be easier to organise tours next year if we get this CD right.”

 I cannot leave Donal without asking the question which has been on my mind ever since I listened to that spellbinding reunion of Planxty during 2004. Will the boys from Planxty ever get together again? “I honestly don’t know whether Planxty will sally forth again. The best way to put it is, because we’ve managed to leave the future open, the occasion of another reunion will be all the sweeter if and when it happens!”

Many thanks to Donal Lunny and Hideko Itami for their generous time and help with this feature.

(fRoots Magazine, April 2006, No.274)