Totally Obscure Records?

Posted November 2, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

The late lamented fRoots magazine used to have a regular feature known as Rocket Launcher in which the same list of questions would be fired off to a roots person – usually a musician. One of these questions was always: ‘Which totally obscure record do you most treasure and would like more people to know about?’

I often pondered what my answer to that might be. Some of my friends would say my favourite records are all obscure to them. After some thought (but not too much) I’m going to indulge myself and choose not just one but five albums that I still really like. Most, if not all, could be described as obscure in one way or another.

At the top of my list is an Okinawan album, Miwaku no Duet by Yuki Yamazato and Minoru Kinjo. In fact, I’ve been going on about this recording for a few years now and boring anyone who will listen about just how good it is. Certainly, the artists themselves are not unknown, on these islands anyway, and for my money Yuki Yamazato is still the best of all the many wonderful female singers from the Ryukyus.

I discovered Miwaku no Duet quite by chance on CD at Bisekatsu’s fine Campus Records shop and bought it not really knowing what to expect, but the first few tracks brought me close to tears (in a good way). The CD has very little information and no details of the original recording or release dates. Never mind, it’s a cracker.

Moving from Okinawa all the way to Scotland, the next choice is an album by Dick Gaughan. (Dick and I have something in common as we share the same date of birth – what an auspicious day that was!) He is best known for his 1980s album Handful of Earth, chosen by fRoots as album of the decade. I’m going for a lesser-known record of his made in the same decade – True and Bold.

Its full title is True and Bold: Songs of the Scottish Miners. Not exactly a title that promises lots of fun and laughter, but it’s a wonderful collection of songs about the mining community. There are some lovely melodies and delicate acoustic guitar playing along the way as Gaughan shows off his uncompromising support for the miners and their struggles.

Next, a Japanese album, Ullambana by Tadamaru Sakuragawa. This was originally released in 1991 and is the only album he made. Sakuragawa is from Osaka and he sang in the goshu ondo style at obon festivals. He is joined on this remarkable album by the band Spiritual Unity who frequently played as live backing musicians for Nenes. The original Nenes also appear, all too briefly, to sing the Indonesian song ‘Bengawan Solo’.

Apparently, Ullambana has since been re-released as a 2 CD set so it might not be quite so little known now as it was when I started dancing to it in my head.

Mike Heron will be known as an original member of The Incredible String Band. In 1971 he made a solo album that sank almost without trace until released on CD at the beginning of the 21st century – when it sank once again. It’s called Smiling Men with Bad Reputations and is Heron’s diversion into rock music.

It took me over 30 years to pluck up the courage to buy Heron’s album. In the end I succumbed when I saw it in a record shop in London on a visit back to the UK. What a surprise to find it’s actually pretty good. It’s all over the place, of course, with many guests and wild changes of style but I always liked Mike Heron. Despite the rock agenda, quite a bit of it sounds like the ISB without all the Robin Williamson noodling and meandering.

Back to the Ryukyu Islands for my last choice, Takao Nagama’s Umi Dunan. Nagama was a member of Shoukichi Kina’s Champloose back in the day and was married to his sister. (Kina’s sister Sachiko, that is, not his own sister – that would surely have been illegal). He then left and formed Ayame Band. He also found time to make this solo album with members of Champloose in 1982. It was recorded in mono and was only on tape until finally released on CD in 2006.

Umi Dunan sounds more like a bunch of demos but for me it captures the spirit of Okinawa and especially of Nagama’s island Yonaguni. Even the great Shoukichi Kina himself would surely be pleased to have made it. Or maybe not. It’s totally obscure anyway.

Shuri Castle

Posted November 1, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Uncategorized

Although the world has already reported on the tragic fire and destruction of Shuri Castle, or Shurijo, it seems right to at least mention it now in the Power of Okinawa. Yesterday we woke up in Okinawa to this terrible news and the fire which had started in the early hours of Thursday morning was still burning.

The overseas media has tended to headline it as the destruction of a ‘Japanese castle’ which seems a bit ironic as Shurijo’s bright colours and much of its architectural style owe a lot more to China than to Japan. Like many things here it is a mix of influences. Originally the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, it also became in modern times a symbol for Okinawa and its people as well as a great tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pages from today’s Okinawa Times

It’s hard for those outside the Ryukyu Islands to imagine just how important a symbol it has been in the lives of Okinawan people. Even the local football team, FC Ryukyu, take their colours from the bengara red pigment of the castle introduced from China. This proud display of Ryukyuan culture seems even more vital nowadays when the government in Japan treats Okinawa with such indifference.

Aftermath of the fire (Photo: Japan Times)

The castle was destroyed before by fire during the American invasion in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. No doubt it will eventually be rebuilt once more but for now it is just a very sad loss for all of Okinawa. Thankfully no-one was injured as a result of the fire.

IDER: Emotional Education

Posted October 23, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

IDER are Lily Somerville and Megan Markwick, two British women in their twenties who sing, write songs, and make some very fine sounds in the region of synth-pop. The pair met in Cornwall while at university and are now flatmates in London where they collaborate on songwriting and have just made their debut album Emotional Education.

This summer the new album from Shura was reviewed here and the IDER album was released around the same time. This is more than a loose connection as it was through Shura that IDER first came to our attention when she produced a song for them on a previous mini-album – there are also some musical similarities.

The eleven songs on the new album are full of rich melodies and a generally melancholic feel as the pair sing of the hopes, fears, and troubles of young people growing up in the 21st century. Far from this limiting the album’s appeal, the songs are ultimately cathartic, and the emotions surely universal.

Opening track ‘Mirror’ draws us in immediately with its fine tune and angsty mood while ‘You’ve Got Your Whole Life Ahead of You Baby’ is an irresistible earworm. It’s not all synths as there are hints of folk, roots, some unusual harmonies, and a live brass section on more than one song. The album’s title appears in the lyrics of the outstanding penultimate track ‘Saddest Generation’. It’s a fierce, honest, and ultimately wise song about mental health and more. It shows off best of all what they have achieved up to now.

IDER will soon be very busy touring live. Starting on 28th October they will play in Oslo, Norway, and then in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Berlin. The tour continues in November throughout Europe ending on the 26th in Edinburgh, Scotland. Full details on their website.

Emotional Education is out now on Glassnote Records.

www.glassnotemusic.com

www.weareider.com

The Revelers: At the End of the River

Posted October 8, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

To say that The Revelers are a Cajun band from Louisiana tells only part of the story. Their new album At the End of the River ~ Au bout de la rivière brings together a heady concoction of musical styles. In addition to the well-known Cajun sounds of their home territory they throw in some swamp pop, zydeco, and blues, and there’s also a sidestep into country music.

It might seem a bit all over the place at first but growing familiarity with the album has convinced this listener that the band knows exactly what it’s doing and at the very least the members are all excellent musicians. The songs are divided almost equally between English and French language vocals with six sung in French and five in English.

They come out firing on all cylinders with the opening track ‘Au bout de la rivière’ to create the perfect party mood. And just at the point when we think we know exactly where this song is going there is the unexpected addition of saxophone.

The blending of accordion, fiddle, and saxophone appears on many tracks and is used almost as a kind of substitute brass section. It makes you wish you could see the band perform live as their music is exhilarating and clearly very danceable. While accordionist and songwriter Blake Miller is at the forefront of much of what is best here, all six members contribute greatly in various ways.

It isn’t all played at a breakneck pace and one of the best tracks is ‘Bonsoir, petit monde’ a slower song with a French vocal and a superb blend of fiddle and saxophone. The two country songs are also surprisingly effective: ‘She’s a Woman’ and ‘You’re Not to Blame’ both feature prominent accordion and slide guitar and are written in a style not a million miles away from Willie Nelson.

The Revelers (Photo: Sandlin Gaither)

The moody, brooding and bluesy ‘I Wouldn’t Do That to You’ is another change of direction that works well. These sudden shifts in rhythm and style are not jarring at all and they provide a nice contrast on an album where there is a lot of upbeat music.

It’s easy to see why they are so popular in their home base of Lafayette where Cajun music has its heartland. In fact, the band are unofficial musical ambassadors for Lafayette where they run the annual Blackpot Festival involving the whole community in songs, music, dancing and food. This year’s festival will be held on the 25th and 26th October.

By their own admission, The Revelers are dedicated to the ‘holy trinity’ of Cajun culture: hot music, all-night dancing, and great food. With this album they have succeeded very well in making a new sound by synthesizing many different elements of music from Louisiana and beyond.

At the End of the River ~ Au bout de la rivière will be released by The Revelers on 8th November.

www.revelersband.com

Turning Japanese with Kina

Posted October 4, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

This week a friend reminded me of something I’d written in the first edition of The Power of Okinawa book. I ended the chapter about Shoukichi Kina with the words: “Kina may still have some more surprises to give us.” I had forgotten that, but it obviously wasn’t a particularly perceptive thing to say as the great Okinawan singer’s middle name (if Okinawan people had middle names) would surely be ‘impulsive’.

Kina, of course, surprised many of us by going on to become a politician and was even a member of the short-lived government in Japan before eventually being expelled from Minshuto, the Democratic Party of Japan. He subsequently stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for Governor of Okinawa.

But the biggest surprise of all must surely be his recent return to the recording studio with the release of a new single, ‘Fujiyama Japan’. The surprise is not that he has paid so little attention to new music over the past few years. No, the clue is in the song’s title. For this is a song in praise of Japan. In fact, it’s something of a homage to the Japanese spirit. Yes, Japanese spirit, not Okinawan.

Shoukichi Kina (Photo: Stephen Mansfield)

This is little short of a seismic shock. It would be on a par with veteran octogenarian singer Misako Oshiro suddenly announcing she is heavily into gangsta rap and is going on tour with Ice Cube. (She isn’t).

In the music video for ‘Fujiyama Japan’ we follow our man Kina as he wanders the city streets before communing with nature while Mount Fuji looms in the distance. The co-written song extols the virtues of all things Japanese and has lyrics by Ryo Shoji and enka-style music by Kina. The only hint of Okinawa is the sanshin that Kina carries to let us know where he’s from and then plays briefly (though we can’t hear it). The video ends with lots of musicians playing violins. It’s awful, and awfully unoriginal too.

Never mind, I thought, maybe the B side is something very different. (Are there still B sides?) A sparkling new Kina original perhaps and too groundbreakingly radical to be the main song. Anyone who follows Kina must surely know, however, that he is not going to miss the chance to include the millionth recording (this time the so-called Reiwa era version) of ‘Hana’ and, yes indeed, here it is again. Oh no!

At the beginning of his recording career Kina released the single ‘Tokyo Sanbika’ (included on his first album). This was a song mocking the lifestyle of the busy, self-important Tokyo man. All his life Kina has oozed Okinawan spirit, fought against the injustices meted out to these islands by Japan, and once said: “I don’t just hope for independence, I think it’s absolutely right that these islands should be independent again. I want to make a model society in the Ryukyu Islands which has freedom and happiness and will be an example for the rest of the world.”

So, has Kina had a change of heart? Is he being ironic? Is there some underlying message that we’ve missed? Is it an attempt to ingratiate himself with Japan so he can sing at the Olympic opening ceremony next year? Or has he gone crazy? Well, I would have to ask him (if I dare) but it seems most likely he is just following those impulses again. If nothing more it’s a return to music.

Some people might like ‘Fujiyama Japan’, of course, and I’m sure it will go down well with Shinzo Abe if he ever gets to hear it. For now, we should perhaps be grateful that there is someone like Shoukichi Kina in Okinawa to continually surprise us, even if some of those surprises are occasionally unwelcome.

You can watch the ‘Fujiyama Japan’ music video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XznrEcIBYJ0&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3gMw4Q1eaKTrWTepWIUnBfPsU8CWpar-_rO4MNB2NiwiWcRcjVGlbuHEQ

The Hackles: A Dobritch Did As A Dobritch Should

Posted September 24, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

This is the second album by Oregon-based American guitar and banjo duo The Hackles. The pair Kati Claborn and Luke Ydstie met in 2008 and have been making music together ever since. Their musical projects also include being members of the band Blind Pilot.

Now their own songs are given full reign again on this new album and their musical style is described in their own press release as ‘melodic, shimmering indie folk’. The ten tracks cover a range that comes close to both Appalachian-style folk roots and country inflected pop without ever going full tilt into either. This is no bad thing as they have their own way with words and music that is satisfyingly understated.

Claborn says that in these songs they want to “look at the big picture through individual lives” and to make sense of the present by looking to the past. The eccentric (some might say irritating) title of the album is therefore a reference to 20th century Bulgarian circus impresario Al Dobritch whose eventful life came to a sudden end in the USA when he jumped to his death on the Las Vegas Strip. It appears in the story song ‘The Show Goes On’.

The Hackles

At various points they flesh out some of the songs with the addition of strings, fiddle, piano, percussion and slide guitar but always it’s the song and the singing that remain at the core. The two share vocal duties and frequently sing harmony with Claborn taking the lead on the bulk of the songs. The country influenced ‘Dreamer’ is aptly titled as much of the album has a dreamy atmosphere with some tracks running naturally into each other.

At the centre of the album, and positioned back to back, are its two finest songs ‘Peaches’ and ‘The Empty Cups’. Like several of the others, ‘Peaches’ is a simple guitar and banjo-led composition with harmony vocals but above all it contains some lovely turns and musical developments. It ends too soon but is then followed by the equally simple and subtly subdued ‘The Empty Cups’.

For no discernible reason the singing and songs of both Linda Thompson and Mary Chapin Carpenter were conjured up at times in this listener’s mind but The Hackles are making music that is distinctly their own. This set of tranquil, idiosyncratic songs will do just fine.

A Dobritch Did As A Dobritch Should will be released by Jealous Butcher Records on 8th November.

www.jealousbutcher.com

Notes on Nenes

Posted September 20, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

A British friend of mine is a professor in the music department of a New Zealand university. We met up earlier this year during one of his occasional research trips to Okinawa. Inevitably the talk turned to music and to some of the artists from these islands. Among those discussed were Nenes, the four women who caused a sensation when they arrived on the Okinawan music scene some years ago.

I hadn’t listened to the earlier Nenes albums for quite a while, so our conversation prompted me to return to the work of these four remarkable women. It was immediately a bit of a surprise to realise that next year, in 2020, it will be a whopping 30 years since the formation of the original band.

How the time flies (and other platitudes). It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I had another of my Okinawan music revelations when I saw the original Nenes for the first time at a packed all-standing Banana Hall in Osaka. I had been to this venue many times, but it was a big crush that night and I even gave up an attempt to get to the bar for another beer (previously unheard of!) as it was more like a football crowd than a concert audience.

Nenes (l. to r.) Yasuko, Yukino, Misako, Namiko

Nenes were superb that evening and were so again on the subsequent occasions I saw them. Shortly after the release of their second album I met up with members Misako Koja and Yasuko Yoshida for an interview before another great concert in Osaka, this time at Club Quattro. And lest we forget, the other members of that sublime original line-up were Namiko Miyazato and Yukino Hiyane.

From 1990 until the end of the decade the four made some wonderful music, not just in live performance but with some excellent recordings. They released eight studio albums during that decade, including the Koza compilation and then a final live album Okinawa subtitled (rather morbidly) Memorial Nenes. The one change of personnel occurred when Misako Koja left to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Eriko Touma for the last two of these albums.

Two more compilations arrived in 2002 and then a double retrospective Golden Best in 2004 on Sony, so there is still plenty out there to interest anyone yet to discover their legacy. And I haven’t even mentioned Sadao China, the man who put them together, acted as mentor, produced their albums and wrote many of the songs. He also created the Okinawan language version of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’ that became one of their trademark songs in live shows.

It was thrilling to see Nenes at their peak especially when they played with backing musicians rather than pre-recorded tracks. They produced a hybrid sound combining Okinawan traditional songs, modern shimauta, and global pop with hints of Indonesia, Hawaii and Brazil. Usually the four sang in unison while each member occasionally took turns with the lead vocal.

They announced themselves on the cover of their third album Ashibi as an ‘International Uchina Pop Group’ but could sing straightforward Okinawan minyo too as they showed on their fifth album Narabi where the guests included Seijin Noborikawa and Tetsuhiro Daiku. It was a relatively stripped back Nenes after the glorious excess (and success) of its immediate predecessor Koza Dabasa recorded in Los Angeles with Ry Cooder, David Hidalgo and other American musicians.

Of course, the individual members were mostly established already as solo singers before Sadao China came along. Traditional Okinawan song remained their first love and Yasuko Yoshida once told me that, however big the sound was when they played on stage with the full backing band, it was always minyo she was listening to in her head.

They were not the first either, as Four Sisters (who, unlike Nenes, were real sisters) preceded them by many years. But while Four Sisters were committed to traditional Okinawan songs, Nenes pushed things into much more diverse territory. It’s a bit like Bob Dylan taking inspiration from Woody Guthrie but ultimately surpassing his idol to take his music in many new directions. At least Nenes didn’t get booed for going electric.

As ‘any fule kno’, Nenes didn’t finish after that live memorial show and album. New reincarnations continue to appear to this day as Frankenstein China still tinkers with different formations. Most recently they have become a trio. All the members of the ever-changing younger line-ups have been fine singers and Mayuko Higa – now a solo artist – is a favourite of mine. However, it’s better that I don’t go on about China’s inability to move with the times: just read my reviews of the last two or three albums to get the idea.

It was great to meet up with Henry (that’s my friend in New Zealand) and to talk again about music. While I’m just an enthusiast, he really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to musical theory and it’s always good to pick his brains. More importantly he reminded me of those halcyon days when Nenes ruled Okinawa.