Another year is almost over. I was asked to vote again in the 2016 Critics Poll by the UK’s fRoots magazine, and also in the annual music awards for another UK magazine Songlines. For the best album category fRoots voting is open to all albums released anywhere in the world over the past year and so I was able to slip in a couple of my Okinawan favourites, but the Songlines awards are only for albums that have been reviewed in the magazine. Sadly, that rules out music from Okinawa this year.
It hasn’t really been a great year for Okinawan releases but two of the best albums among the six choices I made for fRoots were the debut record Minishi by Yaeyama singer Mayuko Higa and Ten by Okinawa’s Hajime Nakasone. But in fact, my number one favourite roots album from Okinawa this year came just too late for inclusion and that was Takashi Hirayasu’s first solo album for 18 years, the subtly subversive set of traditional Okinawan songs, Yuu.
The roots albums from ‘out there’ that I liked best this year were the big and magnificent Upcetera by England’s Jim Moray – quite possibly his best yet – and the remarkable second album Nine Pin from Toronto-based Kaia Kater, a superb album of originals and North American traditional songs with an underlying theme of racial issues. Incredibly, it was recorded all in one day. Both these and the Okinawan albums above were reviewed on this blog as was the album Lodestar by Shirley Collins which was the overall winner in the fRoots best album category.
If Okinawa wasn’t exactly bursting with bright new albums there was plenty of music being made elsewhere that I listened to with great pleasure – in both roots and other genres. A real find for me late in the year was the album True Born Irishman by Dublin’s Daoiri Farrell who sings and plays bouzouki and is a unique talent obviously inspired by the likes of Irish masters Donal Lunny and Christy Moore.
The debut album Nothing’s Real by Shura was also one of the best things I listened to and was a glorious throwback to the synth-pop of the 80s but with a very new twist. Then there was This Unruly Mess I’ve Made the second album from Seattle hip-hoppers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: only a broken leg stopped me from attending their concert in Osaka. Meanwhile Basque singer Ruper Ordorika went to New York to make another fine album and I enjoyed New Yorker Paul Simon’s inventive return to form at the age of 75 with Stranger to Stranger.
Better still was Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker. Cohen’s death along with the untimely demise of other hugely popular and influential musicians such as David Bowie, Prince, and now George Michael has made it a rather sombre year to say the least and that’s without mentioning all the craziness of the political world and the ongoing colonial treatment of Okinawa by Japan and the USA. Don’t get me started on that one. Instead I will just mention one more thing that came to mind following this week’s news of the loss of George Michael at the age of 53.
On an evening in January 1985 I found myself sitting on the front row of a massive hall in Osaka. I was there to see the pop duo Wham! I had only just arrived in Japan and had somehow (through a Japanese friend with connections) obtained the best seat in the house. I wasn’t even really a fan of Wham! – I was more of a Bob Dylan man and saw him too in Osaka the next year. Okinawa and its music were still a few years in the future.
As George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley came on stage that night the entire audience rose to its feet as one to leave me standing head and shoulders above the excited crowd of mostly teenage girls. Even then I was the oldest for as far as I dared to look. I tried crouching down, as tall people tend to do, but that only made me more conspicuous especially to the musicians on stage. I can’t remember much of the music now but can confirm that it did not disappoint and left everyone feeling very happy including me.
The years since have, I hope, enabled me to open my ears more than ever to all the diverse and wonderful music that is being made in so many different places. Let’s hope 2017 is a good year for music in Okinawa and all around the world.