Small Island Big Song

Posted April 22, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Small Island Big Song is an 18 track album of songs recorded in the field on many different islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It was released at the end of last year and is the fruit of a project by Australian music producer and sound engineer Tim Cole and Taiwanese producer and project manager BaoBao Chen.

This mammoth undertaking involved the pair meeting and recording local musicians in diverse places over a period of three years. The resulting album contains traditional and original songs from Taiwan, Madagascar, Singapore, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Tahiti, Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Torres Strait Australia, and Aotearoa, New Zealand.

The idea evolved initially from Cole and Chen’s concern about climate change and they wanted to travel to some of the islands under threat and to investigate the continuing existence of indigenous seafaring cultures and their music. They followed some of the paths taken by ancient seafarers who left Taiwan to travel the oceans. The songs they recorded were then mixed in a cultural mash-up with the artists contributing to each other’s music. The producers explain:

“We invited them to share a song in their language played on the instruments of their people, a song they are proud to represent their homeland with and to sing it in nature, a place with meaning to them, and then in the spirit of celebration overdub something onto other songs shared by musicians such as themselves.”

Around 30 artists are featured in the songs and a total of a hundred musicians were involved. What is most striking is the immediacy of the songs and their accessibility. This has been achieved without the interference of outsiders who might well have dabbled too much in trying to make the songs palatable to a worldwide audience. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as the natural surroundings and music create a very authentic and vibrant sound.

With so many artists sharing their music it’s perhaps pointless to single out individual songs but a favourite is ‘Sacanoy’ which begins as a lullaby and then takes off in other directions while managing to somehow combine a Madagascan composition by Tarika Sammy and a vocal from Ado Kaliting Pacidal in Pangcah, Taiwan.

Some of the Madagascan and Hawaiian music might be more familiar and elsewhere there are hints of reggae and rap but for the most part this is music that will be new to many listeners. And all played on acoustic instruments. It sounds great and listening to these songs just confirms that the ocean doesn’t separate these people but instead unites them.

Small Island Big Song has already been nominated for awards including best album in the UK’s Songlines magazine Asia & Pacific category and some of the musicians have already toured together to give live performances around the world.

Producers Tim Cole (third from left) and BaoBao Chen (right) answer questions at the Okinawa International Movie Festival.

Last week a ‘visual album’ was given its world premiere when it was screened as part of the Okinawa International Movie Festival in Naha. The producers appeared at the screening to talk about their project and answer questions. One obvious omission is the music of the Ryukyu Islands. It seems the producers were not aware of the wealth of wonderful songs from these islands and there were also financial constraints. Perhaps that will be put right in a future project!

The Small Island Big Song website contains a huge amount of information concerning the artists, their songs, and the project in general. There are also many photos and videos.


Ruper Ordorika: Bakarka

Posted April 17, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

This latest album from Basque singer, guitarist and songwriter Ruper Ordorika was released at the end of last year and has already been acclaimed in his homeland and beyond. Last month Bakarka (Alone) won the annual Etxepare Award for Best Album in Basque at MIN, the Spanish Independent Music Awards.

As its title suggests, this is an album that finds the singer alone in the studio with just his guitar and voice, and the twelve tracks are a mix of new and older songs from his long career. All the music was composed by Ordorika but three songs have lyrics by novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga while two others have words by the iconic exiled Basque poet Joseba Sarrionandia.

The appearance of these names is no surprise as there is a strong tradition of literature running through many popular songs in the Basque Country and Ordorika’s connection with literary groups in the past has always been a feature of his own writing and performances. The album booklet contains both French and Spanish translations of the Basque lyrics but unfortunately there are none in English.

This hardly matters when listening to the results as he seems to have found a new lease of life in the past few years and Bakarka is no exception. With just a few brush strokes he seems able to paint an evocative musical picture that touches the emotions in all kinds of ways. The deep distinctive vocals are complemented throughout by subtle guitar work. This creates a warmth on songs such as ‘Mundua biltzen duen bihartzuna’ (Echoing the world) while ‘Fas fatum’ is built around a repetitive guitar figure that is quite hypnotic.

It’s a reflective set that exudes a quiet passion. The lyrics (translated to English) for Ordorika’s song ‘Edertasunaz mintzo’ begin like this:

We used to speak of beauty,
of the unattainable things,
hidden in those bars
at dusk.
But time flies,
and beauty goes away with it.
We did what we could,
leaving life till later.

The singer goes on to speak of freedom and of life and their cost as time passes. There are many pleasures in listening to this other side of one of the Basque Country’s most important singers who is just as much at home on his own as he is with an electric guitar and a band. His last three albums have all been of the highest quality and this is right up there with them.

Bakarka is released by Elkar.

Guy Sigsworth: STET

Posted April 10, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

STET is the new album by UK producer, composer and musician Guy Sigsworth. In fact, it’s his first solo album and he is better known for his contributions to the work of other artists. The list is a very long one and includes a wide variety of musicians from Talvin Singh to Imogen Heap and from Bjork to Madonna. He came to Okinawa in 2015 and gave a concert with Norway’s Kate Havnevik and has maintained a long interest in Okinawan music.

This new 16 track album contains a mix of songs and instrumentals. All the music is composed by Sigsworth who plays celesta, clavichord, piano, triangles, ring modulator and synthesiser. There are also some co-written songs including three with Anil Sebastian, who also sings, and one with Okinawa’s Mika Uchizato.

What does it all sound like? Well, STET is viewed by Guy Sigsworth as a modern ‘classical’ album with underlying Ryukyuan influences. On the one hand it is probably best listened to in its entirety as a complete album as the tracks evolve to create a distinctly atmospheric musical journey but there are also some standout songs that hold their own with the very best in pop music.

The album begins with ‘Sing’ a track that builds gradually with the introduction of a vocal and a melody that stops, starts and turns unexpectedly in the manner of the band Dirty Projectors. It’s followed by the best pure pop track on the album ‘Barely Breaking Even’ with a vocal by Anil Sebastian. He sings again on ‘Lydian’ a song that could have escaped from Bjork’s Vespertine.

There are hints of and excursions into pop, jazz, classical, electronica and experimental music but nothing gets too cluttered or unfocused and the production (naturally by Sigsworth) is beautifully clear and precise. And just when the instrumental tracks seem in danger of becoming a little too ambient we are presented with ‘Night Song’ a piano-led composition with a wonderfully sad and haunting melody that sounds as if it should be on a movie soundtrack.

The Okinawan influence is signalled by ‘Nirai Kanai’ and comes fully into its own on the two final tracks. These are the instrumental ‘Mono No Aware’ and the song ‘Shurayo’ with lyrics in Uchinaguchi by Mika Uchizato but sung here by British singer and long-term Sigsworth collaborator Imogen Heap.

‘Mono No Aware’ plays with light and shade, and the jazzy discord is juxtaposed with rich melody and a very Okinawan feel. Better still – and probably the outstanding track on the album – is its final song ‘Shurayo’. It could all have gone perilously badly but Imogen Heap does a great job with the Okinawan vocal while the stirring addition of cello and violin to Sigsworth’s superb melody fittingly ends the album on a high note. (‘Shurayo’ and another song co-written with Uchizato is planned for separate release as an EP with Mika’s original vocals).

Because of its breadth and ambition this could have been a risky undertaking but STET overcomes the potential pitfalls with style.

STET will be released by Mercury KX on 7th June.


The Singer and the Song

Posted March 28, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote a while ago for a magazine. In the end it wasn’t published so you can read it here instead.

The Singer and the Song

I don’t sing but I’m a good listener. There’s nothing I like better than listening to a good song sung by a great singer. In fact, I like singing so much that I’m reluctant to listen to music that doesn’t have a vocal. Which means I sometimes skip the instrumental tracks on albums and much of the vast pantheon of European classical music leaves me cold. But Kate Rusby can sing any old song and I’m all ears.

There are exceptions to this general rule. When Liam O’Flynn’s uillean pipes kick in on a Planxty song, for example, I go all weak at the knees. Even so it’s usually the song that is still the most important thing and the uillean pipes just sneak into my consciousness a bit later to weave their spell.

I said I don’t sing but there have been exceptions to that rule too. As a child growing up in England, I had to sing hymns in school assemblies but surrounded by numerous other children, many of whom were lip-syncing as I usually was. My only public appearance as a solo singer came years later after I had moved to Japan, home of karaoke. On many more than seven drunken nights I ploughed through karaoke versions of ‘My Way’ and ‘Yesterday’ like everyone else did at the time, but my crowning moment on stage came at the wedding party of a Japanese friend.

At weddings in Japan – and indeed almost any formal celebratory occasion – it’s customary for each guest to perform a party piece. Word had got around that I was a bit of a Bob Dylan fan and so I was requested (a few days in advance) to sing a Dylan song at the wedding. After days of practicing at home – and fortified by a few glasses of lemonade on the day itself – I managed a half-decent rendition of ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ accompanying myself on guitar. The song was chosen mainly because of its simple enough chord structure which made it relatively easy to play while I concentrated fiercely on trying to remember the words and sing them in tune.

As for the lyrics it wouldn’t have made any difference if I’d made up new ones on the spot (as Bob himself has been known to do) or thrown in a few choice obscenities since none of the wedding guests had any understanding of English and were simply pleased to see the foreigner singing a song and doing his bit.

Barnsley’s nightingale Kate Rusby

That was the last time I sang in front of an audience but I well remember comments from the gathered guests along the lines of how good it was to hear a native English speaker singing and, even, how much better it is to hear a Westerner singing as they have the natural rhythm, phrasing and timing that is elusive to most Japanese vocalists.

This myth of the supremacy of Western singers – and specifically those who sing in the English language – was all pervasive in my early experience in Japan and I’ll come back to that in a bit, but first…

What I’ve also noticed among listeners of all countries – well, my UK and Japanese friends anyway – is that most people don’t really like music. Or not that much. I used to ask my students at the Japanese university where I was employed what they liked to do best. One of the most common responses was ‘listen to music’. Further probing failed to find anything but the vaguest interest in music, whether listening, singing, playing, going to concerts, buying music or any of the things that real music aficionados are supposed to do. Saying you liked music was simply the easy option that wouldn’t draw unwanted attention or mark you out as weird or strange. A safe hobby not like bungee-jumping or collecting antique bottle tops.

My academic colleagues were no different. The opinion most often aired was that so-and-so (insert famous pop vocalist here, but frequently Celine Dion) can be easily enjoyed because she/he has ‘a great voice’. I had never thought about ‘great voices’ when I first became excited by songs and singing. Surely anyone who makes a record or stands up on a stage (except me at a wedding party) must already have a pretty good voice or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Tom Waits: not a ‘pure’ voice but a great singer (Photo: Kenny Mathieson)

What they really mean is that it’s not too disturbing and makes a pleasant sound. Well yes, I adore Kate Rusby and her ‘pure’ singing but I also love Tom Waits who always sounds like he’s been out drinking and smoking way past his bedtime. Tom has a great voice, and so has Bob Dylan, of course. It’s not to do with whether you can hit the right notes and sound nice, it’s all in the phrasing, the blend of words and music, the ability to evoke an emotional response, to disturb and upset if necessary.

And it doesn’t matter what words you are singing, to get back to the point I was about to make earlier about language. A few years ago, many of my friends, family and acquaintances in the UK would have been mortified at the thought of having to listen to a song (or heaven forbid, an entire album) sung in a language other than English. Unless it’s opera, of course, and then it mustn’t be sung in English. They imagined that understanding the words was the most important thing. They deluded themselves. Even the lyrics of their favourite British and American pop songs were frequently misheard or buried under a wall of noise. They just felt more comfortable if they were at least mishearing in English. Thankfully, many of those attitudes are now changing but it’s still sometimes a struggle to convince them to really open their minds and ears to the wealth of great songs and singing all over the world.

The Japanese are a bit different as they are used to listening to songs sung in other languages they don’t understand and especially to English. In fact, they sometimes prefer to listen to English whether understanding it or not. They are also eager to insert often meaningless English phrases and words into their own songs.

Here on Okinawa, the iconic roots singer Shoukichi Kina still believes that he needs to have his Okinawan songs changed into English if they are to reach bigger overseas audiences. Not just translated, but he needs to sing them in English too. This, even though he doesn’t speak English and has never sung in anything other than Okinawan or Japanese. I have tried telling him the beauty of the original singing would be lost but he just gives me a funny look. Fortunately, the chances of this really happening are about as likely as my singing at another wedding.

I’m not likely to overcome my reluctance to sing but I will certainly never stop listening to others who do and who thrill and excite me with their wonderful voices – and it won’t matter if they are singing in Basque, Okinawan or Swahili.

Michael Chapman: True North

Posted March 6, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

A couple of years ago Yorkshire-born English singer-songwriter-guitarist Michael Chapman made the album 50 (reviewed here) to celebrate half a century as a professional musician. With 50 he achieved a late career high and some attention from a new younger audience. It was a fine album of new and reworked old songs recorded for the first time in America with a small band of musicians including producer Steve Gunn.

Chapman first gained a formidable reputation as an innovative guitarist on the UK folk club scene though he was never a typical folkie and was more influenced by American jazz, blues and roots music. Along with Richard Thompson he has a guitar style that is instantly recognisable and all his own. He is also a gruff-voiced singer with a gift for creating poignant songs about love, loss, regret, and life on the road.

50 seemed a fitting end to a long career but Chapman obviously had other ideas and he isn’t finished yet. At 78 he is back now with a new album recorded this time in rural West Wales but with Steve Gunn returning as producer and guitarist. Also on board are Bridget St. John (vocals), Sarah Smout (cello) and B.J. Cole (pedal steel).

True North follows a similar formula with recordings of new songs plus a few older ones and there are also a couple of guitar instrumentals. The album is more atmospheric and minimalist and is generally not as loud or intense as its predecessor. The addition of some lovely colours from cello and pedal steel really brings out the best in allowing the songs to breathe and in complementing Chapman’s vocals and guitar.

No-one coming cold to this album would be entranced by the vocals on first listen but this is Michael Chapman and his admirers know exactly what to expect and rightly wouldn’t want it any other way. His laconic phrasing is exactly what’s needed and then there is always that gorgeous deep acoustic guitar sound which gets under the skin whether on the instrumentals or on the melodic and melancholy songs

Not surprisingly Chapman’s concerns here are most often focused on memory and regret and there is an elegiac and reflective note as he comes to terms with it all. Titles such as ‘It’s Too Late’, ‘After All This Time’ and ‘Youth is Wasted on the Young’ tell their own tale. On ‘Vanity and Pride’ he sings: “if only time were on my side” but this and another song ‘Hell to Pay’ are in fact re-imaginings of songs from his 1997 album Dreaming Out Loud.

Despite the sombre tone this is never a depressing album, rather it’s an uplifting one as Chapman really gets into his inimitable stride. The longest track ‘Truck Song’ is the centrepiece of the album and in its lyrics and languid rolling guitar phrases it encapsulates everything that is great about the man and his music. Its images evoke a Giorgio de Chirico painting of lengthening shadows and the distant sound of a train. True North is his strongest work for a couple of decades and stands up there with the very best of his many recordings.

True North is out now on Paradise of Bachelors.

Okinawa’s Message of Protest

Posted March 1, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

Last Sunday’s referendum asked the people of Okinawa to vote on the issue of the new military base at Henoko. This issue has already dragged on for several years accompanied by numerous anti-base rallies, protests and demonstrations by Okinawans who have suffered the forced occupation of large parts of their main island by the American military for more than 70 years.

It becomes tedious to reiterate the details of the Okinawans’ burden and all the crimes, incidents, and accidents caused by the American occupation, not to mention the ongoing environmental destruction and degradation which is bound to get worse with the construction of the new base. The American military is not in Okinawa to protect the people but to pursue their own government’s interests and agenda as they always have.

The referendum result on the front page of the Okinawa Times

It therefore came as no surprise when the referendum found 71% voting against the construction at Henoko. It should also be no surprise that this overwhelmingly clear rejection of the base by voters in the Ryukyu Islands will be ignored by Japan’s government. They have already said as much. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not a fan of the democratic process unless it is advantageous to him. His government cares even less about the people of Okinawa who have always been discriminated against and treated as second-rate people by Japan.

I’m a great movie fan and recently watched the remarkable Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman which was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this week. (It didn’t win – that honour went to the admirable but much softer and more audience-friendly Green Book). BlacKkKlansman ends with some footage of Donald Trump and his disgraceful speech in 2017 in which he becomes an apologist for racism. All this in response to the riots unfolding at the time in Charlottesville, Virginia at a white supremacist rally.

Abe is, of course, a great friend and supporter of Trump and watching BlacKkKlansman I couldn’t help but be reminded of the parallels with the treatment of Okinawans over the years and their struggles to be accepted as equals in Japan. African-Americans faced, and still face, appalling violence and discrimination while many thousands of Okinawan lives were sacrificed by Japan in the Battle of Okinawa. Now the islanders’ peaceful pleas are met with cold indifference from Tokyo. And sometimes violence too against the peaceful daily protesters at Henoko who have even been reviled with the derogatory term dojin (savages).

Full marks to those who continue to protest in Okinawa and to those who organised the referendum. They might have been forgiven for tiring of their efforts in the face of such astonishing neglect from mainland Japan. Some form of independence from Japan has not been mooted yet, except by a few, but nothing changes while Okinawa is under Japanese rule.

FC Ryukyu in J2

Posted February 25, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Life

FC Ryukyu made history yesterday with their opening match of the new season when they became the first team from Okinawa to play in J2 the second highest tier of J.League football. What’s more they won the game 3-1 in the rain against a strong Avispa Fukuoka team. It was an exciting match with Ryukyu sticking to their all-out attacking philosophy despite having lost their manager and many of the players from the J3 championship squad of last season.

Ryukyu are now led by new manager Yasuhiro Higuchi. Two of their goals yesterday came from debut striker Koji Suzuki while the other was scored by midfielder Yu Tomidokoro. It may be a long hard season for Ryukyu but they have made a great start with this unexpected win.