Oskorri – Xabi Solano – Mikel Urdangarin

Posted April 12, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Three different but equally important albums from the Basque Country recently arrived in Okinawa from Elkar record company. For more than four decades seminal band Oskorri have been vital exponents of traditional and modern Basque songs and music. Their work bears comparison with the likes of Fairport Convention in England and with Scotland’s Battlefield Band.

In November 2015 they finally decided to call it a day and now their last concert in Bilbao is preserved with the release of Hauxe Da Despedidia – which comes as a hardback book containing essays and many photos from all stages of the band’s history as well as a DVD of the concert and two additional CDs. The first CD is an edited version of the same concert while the second is a 20 track compilation with many rare live and studio recordings from the years 1971~2002.

Among the long list of Oskorri members and collaborators was famed trikitixa star Kepa Junkera and he also appears again on a new album by singer and trikitixa player Xabi Solano who first came to our attention several years ago with the band Etzakit and more recently as the leading member of Esne Beltza who have toured mainland Japan.

His new solo album Erenotzu (released under the name Xabi Solano Maizer) is a varied collection of 15 tracks with some traditional-sounding trikitixa as well as more modern mixes of styles – on ‘Nere mundu polit txiki hontan’ it comes close to the territory of The Pogues. The CD is released separately from the second volume of a new music book containing Solano’s compositions.

Mikel Urdangarin has been praised before on this blog as a great singer as well as a composer of songs. His previous release was a completely solo recording of a live tour. This time he has come up with a new studio album Margolaria recorded with a group of five hand-picked musicians. The most wonderful thing about Urdangarin is his emotional and heartrending vocals and there are some fine songs too among the ten tracks here. Best of all is ‘Itsasoan euria’ and the link below is to a video of its recording in the studio:


All albums are released by Elkar.


The Revival & Rusby

Posted April 8, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

This is a really old one from deep in the vaults. Kate Rusby has been established as one of England’s greatest female folk voices for more than two decades. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time when she wasn’t at the forefront of what is now a very healthy traditional music scene throughout the UK.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of her solo debut album Hourglass. Not long after it was released in Japan I met up with Kate while on a trip back to England and she talked to me about her music. Since then she has gone on to make many more albums and has also developed into a fine songwriter. Her latest release, the excellent Life in a Paper Boat, was reviewed on this blog last year. Sadly for us, however, a tour of Japan never materialized.

The Revival & Rusby

John Potter speaks to fast-rising English folk star Kate Rusby about her popularity both here and at home

English folk music. If this conjures up visions of beer-swilling middle-aged men earnestly singing old sea shanties in cosy folk clubs, think again. For in 1998 a new, vibrant – some say even ‘sexy’ – young folk scene exists. A true English folk revival. This year is the centenary of the English Folk Dance and Song Society and old hand Martin Carthy was awarded an MBE for his services to folk music. But it’s Carthy’s own daughter Eliza who turned heads most with a cracking double album Red Rice, a Mercury Music Award nomination.

Before that there was the wonderful album Hourglass by another young upstart, 24 year old Kate Rusby, whose breathtaking singing and sensitive arrangements on guitar and piano have created new interest in an old tradition like you never thought possible. And that’s just two out of many. English folk music is now able to take its place alongside the ongoing Celtic boom and world music. Young people have even been out morris dancing.

At the Bridgnorth Folk Festival in Shropshire, I tracked down Kate Rusby – for my money the best of all the young singers – with some questions for KTO. She had just appeared with The Poozies, the band she sings and plays guitar with while continuing a parallel career as solo artist, and had agreed to meet me later backstage “outside the ladies’ showers”.  Kate is a small, friendly Yorkshire lass with a great Barnsley accent. These are just some of the answers she gave me…

Why do you think there’s such a big revival of interest in folk music, especially among young people?

I’ve sat and thought about that a lot. The generation that were in the original revival have all grown up now, and now it’s our turn to go out and play. A lot of us have just grown up loving this music. I come from a musical family and I’ve learned most of my stuff from them really. I learnt it the oral way like they used to years and years ago. It’s strange it’s happened like that really. I just love this music. I think the young people now have learnt from the older ones and have had the extra years to, kind of, broaden it and make it a wider music. I’ve got a huge record collection and I listen to absolutely everything, not just folk music, which must influence what I do as well as the stuff that I’ve learnt from my parents.

Your album ‘Hourglass’ and the earlier one that you made with Kathryn Roberts are both released now in Japan complete with Japanese sleeve notes. How did that come about?

My parents and I run our own record company, Pure Records, and a Japanese company approached my parents and arranged it all through fax and E-mail and things like that. It’s also a great thing that it’s all in the family because we can pick and choose what we want to do. But I’ve never sat down and thought, how can I expand my career? It’s something that’s just happened. I could have signed with a big label but I just wanted to stay in folk music really and have the choice if I wanted to. Whereas if I’d done that I’d have been told what I had to do, what to wear, where to go and all that. It’s not really me. But I’d love to go to Japan in the future, as I’ve already travelled quite a bit, especially for the British Council.

How did the British Council thing come up?

That was three years ago when I still worked with Kathryn Roberts. We were taken to Malaysia by the British Council for concerts and we just had a brilliant time. Just loved it. They phoned up and said: “We’ve heard about you, we’ve got your CD and we’re looking for two female performers, do you want to come?” It’s really great because you get to see some really interesting countries. We were in Egypt with The Poozies about two years ago and that was just brilliant too, and we’re playing in Turkey soon.

And the next Kate Rusby album?

That will be out next Spring. I’m going in the studio in December to make it but before that there’s a single coming out.  The new album will be more traditional songs and some of my own like Hourglass was.  I had a really brilliant time before in the studio making that but I never had any idea at the time how popular it would be. All the musicians on it, like Ian Carr who plays all the guitars, were so amazing.  And John McCusker from Battlefield Band. I recorded my album in Battlefield Band’s studio in Scotland, so we’re all linked up.

With Kate at the time of our talk

Kate Rusby also finds time to do the occasional tour with John McCusker as well as her work both solo and with the The Poozies. She also performed this year in Denmark, Holland and Belgium as well as at the major Cambridge and Sidmouth festivals in England.  In fact she’s on the road most of the time and has to make a real effort to fit in her recording, some songwriting, and trips back to Barnsley. We’ve had plenty of representatives of the Irish boom in Japan recently, how about someone bringing Kate Rusby over here so we can sample close up the best of English folk. British Council are you out there?

(Kansai Time Out, No.262, December 1998)

Maider: Zuei

Posted April 4, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

This is the first solo album by Basque singer and musician Maider Zabalegi who was formerly one half of the triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider. They achieved great success in their homeland several years ago. The pair’s third and final album before they went their separate ways was released back in 2002. Maider has kept everyone waiting for a very long time but has now finally returned to the music scene with the release of this album, Zuei (To You), her first recording for 15 years.

The album contains nine songs and one instrumental all written or co-written by Maider. The triki-pop style that she helped to popularise by blending traditional Basque tunes played on accordion and tambourine with a rhythm section is only hinted at on the new album. For the most part this is straightforward pop with Maider surrounded by some excellent musicians on guitars, piano, keyboards, mandolin, banjo and drums. Her old friend and musical partner Alaitz Telletxea also reappears to make a special contribution on trikia (accordion) and backing vocals.

One thing that hasn’t changed at all is Maider’s voice which sounds exactly the same as ever and retains all of its distinctive sweetness. Her songwriting skills are also very much intact and this is an essentially uplifting and melodic collection of new songs. All lyrics are in Euskera, the Basque language, and it’s mostly themes of love and freedom that are explored in the words. This is nowhere better displayed than on ‘Hitz debekatuak’ (Forbidden Words) for which there is also a music video (see below).

It was back in 2000 that Alaitz eta Maider toured mainland Japan and I first met up with them in Osaka. They were both 24 years old at the time and their second album had just been released in Japan. The following year I met them again, this time on their home territory in northern Spain where I saw them perform in the Basque town of Arrasate. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since those days but it’s great to have Maider back again in the studio and she has made a very likeable album.

Zuei is released by Elkar.


Here’s a link to the music video for the song ‘Hitz debekatuak’:



Posted April 2, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Features Archive

This is my 2011 fRoots feature on Lucy. Since making her debut album she has gone on to release further recordings (reviewed on this blog) and is now well-established on the Okinawan music scene and overseas. Her performance of the song ‘Koi no Yoisura Bushi’ won the annual Miuta Taisho Grand Prix and was the title track of her mini-album in 2013.


Born in Peru, she’s returned to her ancestral Okinawan home for the music. John Potter gets a house concert.

Most of the interviews I’ve done have been on neutral ground, often at a concert venue, and very occasionally at the musician’s home. Well, today is a real exception. Okinawan-Peruvian singer and sanshin player Lucy has actually turned up at my house here on the south coast of Okinawa for our talk. She arrives with her fellow musician Nao who played on Lucy’s recent first album. Some months ago I discovered that Nao is a neighbour of mine and it was her suggestion for Lucy to come to my home. The two women arrive bearing a gift of apple pie. I note that Lucy is also carrying her sanshin and she is happy to serenade us later with some traditional songs from the Ryukyu Islands. When finalizing the arrangements for this meeting a couple of days ago, I hadn’t expected Lucy to be performing in my own living room!

Now known just as Lucy, she was born Lucy Nagamine in Lima, a third generation child of Okinawan immigrants to Peru: “I used to come to Okinawa with my grandmother when I was a child” she says. “When I grew up I came back to Okinawa in 1993 for an international karaoke competition which I won. Then I heard minyo (traditional folk songs) in Okinawa and it reminded me of my mother and grandmother, who are both dead now, and it made me think about doing minyo again and staying in Okinawa. I wanted to learn minyo properly.”

Lucy eventually moved to Okinawa and has stayed on this island ever since with occasional trips back to Peru. She now has a base in the island’s capital Naha; she has appeared on Okinawan television, and is also the resident singer at an Okinawan restaurant on the island. A meeting with well-known producer Kenji Yano (Surf Champlers, Sanshin Café Orchestra) led to the release of a debut album Ninufabushi which was arranged and mixed by Yano at his studio.

So why such a long wait for an album? “My cousin and her friend persuaded me to make a CD. They said I’d been doing minyo for 16 years so it was about time I made an album and so I was introduced to Kenji Yano by Nao.”

The album contains some beautifully sung, played and arranged versions of modern Okinawan songs such as Shoukichi Kina’s ‘Hana’ and Sadao China’s ‘Umukaji’, alongside traditional fare such as the Yaeyama classic ‘Tubarama’ and the much loved children’s song ‘Tinsagu Nu Hana’. Lucy’s sanshin is joined on many songs by guitar and ukulele, and she sings in Uchinaguchi (the Okinawan language) as well as in Japanese and Spanish.

“Originally I had studied Ryukyu classical music so this new project was very different and interesting for me. The first time I heard Yano’s arrangements for my album was at his studio and I thought they were very exciting. The idea to sing part of ‘Tinsagu Nu Hana’ in Spanish actually came from a friend. I translated it into Spanish from Uchinaguchi which was quite difficult to do, to find the right words. On my recent trip back to Peru I realised that first and second generation Okinawan-Peruvians were very impressed to hear that song in Spanish. It made me think that I want to sing some more minyo in Spanish if I can in the future.”

“I’m already thinking about the next album but haven’t done anything definite yet. I’d like to work with Kenji Yano again. Generally, I like to sing sad songs. My teacher Shizuko Oshiro often asked me to play the sanshin fast but, in fact, it’s the slow songs that I really like best.”

Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands are famed for their outstanding female singers and I wondered if Lucy doesn’t feel a bit daunted to be competing in a world populated by the likes of Misako Oshiro, Yuki Yamazato, Yoriko Ganeko, and Misako Koja. “I never feel any competition or anything like that from the great Okinawan female singers. This is important because in order to be a good minyo singer I need to listen and learn from them. Also, I’m friends with some of them such as Misako Koja and Yuki Yamazato, and they have all been very kind to me.

Throughout our meeting Lucy speaks very gently in Japanese and she frequently breaks into an endearing smile. But she has an underlying strength too, and not just as a minyo singer for she can also sing a wide variety of modern island songs and can sing in different languages. As we tuck into the apple pie she concludes: “My aim is to sing the minyo I learned in Okinawa in Spanish for people overseas in order for them to enjoy these songs in a new way. I want to be a singer beyond generations or borders.”

Lucy’s official blog (in Japanese) is at http://ameblo.jp/luces-okinawa

(fRoots Magazine Nos.328/329, Aug/Sept 2011)

The Sakishima Meeting: The Silence of Sakishima

Posted March 28, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

The duo known as Sakishima Meeting are from now on to be officially known as The Sakishima Meeting (or TSM). If Nenes can become Nenez then why not, I suppose. Whatever the reason, this is their second album release and it comes almost four years after their full-length debut The Best. This time all 11 songs are original compositions by the pair of Ishigaki Island singer and sanshin player Yukito Ara and singer/guitarist Isamu Shimoji from Miyako Island.

The thing that strikes immediately is just how loud the CD has been recorded. Enough to have me reaching for the volume control to turn it down to a listenable level that won’t upset the neighbours. This is anything but the silence of Sakishima. The first four tracks are full on and for the most part this is Ara and Shimoji sharing vocal duties and adding a bass player and drummer to their sanshin and guitars (both acoustic and electric).

This is all well and good. They sound more like a real band than before but the recordings on the livelier ‘band’ songs sometimes seem just a little ragged and lacking any kind of interesting arrangement or setting. The one exception is the song ‘Yuningai’ and it works better than the others perhaps because it’s a better song to begin with. But it’s not all noisy and frantic and there are also songs such as ‘Shimakaji’ where Ara’s voice and sanshin shine on a slower piece, while ‘The World of EN’ towards the end of the album is perhaps its finest moment.

Isamu Shimoji (left) & Yukito Ara

Many of the songs are concerned with nature, peace and island life but nothing here surpasses the two outstanding songs on their debut album – ‘Sakishima no Tema’ and ‘Tome Dome’. On the other hand there is more originality and no need this time for covers of tired old Western standards. Best of all is simply that Ara and Shimoji are back in the recording studio as their union has been one of the brightest things to emerge from the Okinawan music scene over the past few years.

A good case can be put for their work as a duo being even better than their solo and band projects. Their contrasting voices and the interplay of sanshin and guitar is what really makes them special. In live performance this works to perfection and in addition there is always the fun interaction between Ara’s flamboyant stage personality and immensely gifted sanshin playing and Shimoji’s sympathetic and steadying influence. They haven’t always reproduced this in the studio where their quieter songs generally fare better than when they let rip with other musicians. There is plenty of time for them to tweak things further and find the right balance. For now, The Silence of Sakishima will do very nicely.

The Silence of Sakishima is released by Arize. The Sakishima Meeting will tour mainland Japan next month to promote the album. The tour begins in Osaka (17th April) and continues in Nagoya (18th), Yokohama (21st) and Tokyo (22nd).


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)