Here are some photos taken today in glorious sunny December weather. The pictures are all from Yaese and Nanjo on the south-east coast of Okinawa.
Ship of the Ryukyu is a theatre company of singers and dancers from Okinawa. Last night I went to see their performance of Bottle Mail (Message in a Bottle) at Tenbusu Hall, Naha. The one hour show is written and directed by Megumi Tomita and has already been performed to great acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and in France at the Festival off d’Avignon.
The story depicts the small ancient kingdom of Ryukyu and how its people sent messages across the sea in bottles to make contact with the wider world and to tell people there about life on these islands. It’s no surprise that Bottle Mail was so well received in Europe as the entire show is full of warmth, energy and vitality.
Songs and dances are alternated with a video backdrop that tells the story with subtitles in Chinese and English. The performances, by just eight members of the collective, cover songs and dances from the Ryukyu court as well as the everyday lives of the people. Included are ‘Tanchame’ which is performed as a duet, ‘Kurushima Kuduchi’ from Yaeyama, and the cheerful work song ‘Inishiribushi’ plus the ever popular Eisa.
Bottle Mail can be enjoyed by anyone and by all ages. It was a great evening and managed to be both entertaining and informative at the same time. If you are in Okinawa and want to have your spirits lifted it’s still possible to see the show today (3rd December) or tomorrow (4th) when there are two afternoon shows at 13:00 and 16:00.
Yuu, the new album by Okinawa’s Takashi Hirayasu, opens with an insistent repetitive rhythm and a female trio providing call and response behind Hirayasu’s voice. We could almost be in West Africa. But this is ‘Danju Kariyushi’ and like all the songs that follow it’s a traditional Okinawan composition.
Hirayasu’s first solo album for 18 years was recorded at his own studio in Tokyo where he has been based for quite a while. Long ago he was known as the electric guitarist in Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose before deciding to go it alone. In 1999 he achieved worldwide recognition for his groundbreaking album of Okinawan children’s songs ‘Warabi Uta’ famously recorded on Taketomi Island with American guitarist Bob Brozman. A second album by the pair was made in California the next year.
So after a long absence from recording we now have this new release of all traditional songs from the Ryukyu Islands. Most of the nine tracks are from Okinawa but there is also a recording of ‘Tubarama’ from Yaeyama and there’s a short instrumental interlude ‘Okinawan Slack Key Guitar No.1’. The mood is much quieter and gentler than we might have expected from the man once described by Brozman as “a master musician inside a 17 year old wild man”. This is no bad thing as the whole album hangs together better than his previous solo work.
Standout tracks are his versions of ‘Aha Bushi’, ‘Yacchar Guwah’, and especially ‘Keh Hittwuri Bushi’ a staple song for Okinawan singers but brought to life here with an exceptional sensitivity and an unhurried blend of voice, sanshin, guitar and backing vocals. Perversely, on ‘Tubarama’ he dispenses with the usual background vocal to create another idiosyncratic take on this very familiar song.
Hirayasu plays both sanshin and guitar throughout as well as bass, Ryukyu harp, and taiko and his only accomplice, apart from the female vocalists, is Gerhen Oshima who produced the album and also adds some sanshin and guitar. It isn’t perfect and the final ‘Ashibi Shonganeh Bushi’ with just vocal and sanshin seems a slight anti-climax but only because of the strength and quality of all that’s gone before.
So why does it work? It may be that Hirayasu’s experience (he can be called a veteran nowadays) or perhaps even his physical distance from Okinawa has aided him in finding a fresh perspective on these old songs and the results are not just subtly subversive but quite unlike any other musicians in this field. For once, this really could be called a unique album. It’s certainly one of the best this year.
Yuu is released by Coco-Musika Records.
A digest of the album can be listened to here:
English folk singer Shirley Collins is back with a new recording Lodestar her first album for more than 30 years. The much loved and respected singer from Sussex was at the heart of the UK folk revival of the 1960s but was subsequently unable to record for many years because of an illness that affected her voice and made it impossible for her to sing.
During these years of silence her reputation only grew and she is nowadays constantly cited as a great influence by a younger generation of traditional singers who have rediscovered her early records. She also became a writer and lecturer and a winner of honours and awards but always with the stern idea that it’s the song and not the singer that is all important.
Now 81, she was persuaded out of her enforced retirement to make this new album of traditional songs accompanied by Oysterband member Ian Kearey. The youthfulness of her voice has understandably gone but not the ability to perform songs that she loves with a new and deeper gravitas. Kearey’s contribution is important too as he manages to arrange and embellish the songs superbly with acoustic guitar and the occasional addition of other instrumentation.
This is English folk song so the subject matter is death, murder and all manner of crimes and sad occurrences. It has been noted elsewhere that the body count grows rapidly as the album progresses – enough to make a gangster rapper seem tame by comparison. ‘Cruel Lincoln’ unfolds gently with the sound of birdsong in the background but it’s not long before “there was blood in the kitchen there was blood in the hall, there was blood in the parlour where the lady did fall”. It all ends with a burning and a hanging.
‘Washed Ashore’ and ‘Death and the Lady’ are outstanding but it isn’t all gloom as we are also given the lively ‘Old Johnny Buckle’ which helps to lift the spirits after all the darkness. Above all this is a listenable and accessible album which also repays close attention and is a wonderful return for Shirley Collins who demonstrates the enduring power of these old songs.
Lodestar is released by Domino.
Blood Line (aka Bloodline) was originally released in 1980 and was the second album but the first studio recording by Shoukichi Kina & Champloose. This new remastered version contains the original album plus two bonus tracks mixed by Makoto Kubota. The bonus tracks are a new mix of ‘Hana’ from the original analogue multi-track master and an instrumental version of the same song.
Blood Line is widely regarded as one of the most important albums in the history of Okinawan music. It was recorded in Hawaii and Tokyo with the members of Champloose joined by Ry Cooder, Makoto Kubota, Haruomi Hosono, Macky Ferry and others. The album is famous most of all for the first recording of ‘Hana’ (or to give it its complete title ‘Subete no Hito no Kokoro ni Hana o’). This was sung by Kina’s then wife Tomoko Kina with Ry Cooder on slide guitar and mandolin.
It’s surprising that such an influential album is only 28 minutes long though this is increased by ten minutes with the bonus tracks on the new release. It isn’t necessarily the best Kina album either and some of his later recordings have surpassed it while its live album predecessor has more intensity and rough immediacy. It has always been a favourite of Kina’s however – he even once thought about re-recording the whole album – and so he must be pleased to see it reaching a new audience with this re-release.
Listening to Blood Line today it’s clear that the album has worn very well and after 36 years still manages to sound fresh and inventive. The quality of the songs, mostly Kina originals, is very high and there isn’t really a weak moment on the album. Apart from the obvious and much recorded ‘Hana’ there are several songs such as ‘Akisamiyo’ and ‘I-Yah Hoy!’ which typify the life-affirming spirit of Kina’s work but there are also quieter moments such as ‘Nirai Kanai’ that ooze with island feeling and impress even more at this distance.
It is also a bit surprising to realise just how much of a combined effort it was. Although Kina’s charismatic presence pervades the album he takes the lead vocal duties on only a few songs and on one or two he doesn’t sing at all. But it’s a treat when he does as he is a great and much underrated singer with a voice very similar to his father, the late Shouei Kina. So it’s a welcome return for Blood Line and a chance to reassess this seminal album.
Blood Line 2016 is released by Anchor Records.
Satoru Shimoji is an important singer from the Miyako Islands where he has his own Lagoon recording studio and also hosts a live weekly radio show on RBC. He is also the founder of the annual Kuicha dance and music festival. Perhaps most importantly his recent albums Myahk (2012) and Myahk-U (2015) are two of the best releases to have come out of Okinawa for a very long time. Both were reviewed on this blog and I was keen to ask him about these recordings.
I managed to catch up with him last weekend when he appeared along with daughter Minami Shimoji at the Niraikanai Matsuri in Ginowan. He was happy to sit down with me and answer some questions not long after he had captivated the audience with his remarkable voice and songs. He is very active and ambitious for his music while at the same time being both extremely polite and friendly – even carrying my chair for me as we found a quieter place to talk with the sounds of the festival still going on in the background.
(JP) Your two most recent albums Myahk and Myahk-U are a great step forward and they instantly became favourites of mine. I wonder if this new improved style was planned or did it just evolve by itself?
(SS) Even when I was living in Tokyo a long time ago I had already been thinking about making the kind of music that is on Myahk and Myahk-U. But I couldn’t find any pianist in Miyako who could do what I wanted so I thought at first about maybe playing guitars and using computers. Then I found a pianist. My purpose with this music is to find something important which is always there and is close to me and then to revitalize it through this process. This was especially true with the first album Myahk and it felt like a new debut for me because of this attitude of mine. There are various different lights shining such as the light of sound, light of life, and definitely the light outside.
It’s unusual to make an Okinawan album with mainly piano and violin rather than sanshin as accompaniment. Was there any special reason for this?
My image of the music I make is always simple. I don’t want to have too many sounds but I want it to be wide and deep. I already talked about this with the producer Goh Hotoda and he understood my ideas before we got together to make it. He visited Miyako about 12 years ago when he was living in New York.
At first we went out together eating and drinking. I didn’t know he was such a great man at that time. When I was thinking about the Myahk album I phoned him and he asked me how the album was coming along and then we decided to work together on it. I told my musician friends in Tokyo and asked them if they knew Hotoda. When I checked the internet I realised how important he was and wondered if it was really OK for me to work with him but he was very good about it.
He asked what kind of sound I wanted and I said I wanted a piano-based album but also with drums and a little bit of sanshin. If you play sanshin too much then it’s like a very obvious Okinawan sound and I didn’t want to do that. Just a little sanshin is enough to make it Okinawan. After that Hotoda came to Miyako with all the equipment ready to record.
You also worked with Makoto Kubota on his Blue Asia project didn’t you?
Yes. Working with Makoto Kubota was interesting but I think that Hotoda understands me best. It’s nothing to do with money it’s just about feeling and understanding each other. I helped Hotoda’s wife Nokko when she made an album in New York. When the three of us were in Miyako we got together to talk about her album and I suggested that Nokko do some new children’s songs for adults.
You used to be a rock musician in Tokyo and then moved back to Miyako several years ago. This must have been quite a change?
It’s a long story but when I moved to Tokyo I was working at other jobs, it wasn’t just music. You have to pay for studios to make music so my band and I got together to start running our own studio. We hired a room in a building and practised by ourselves. Sometimes we rented it out to other musicians to get money and some of those musicians became popular later on. We also planned our own live gigs, promoted ourselves and did everything else, then later on we started a live music venue.
I went back to Miyako in order to find and express my own roots. But by roots it doesn’t mean you have to play just old Miyako songs. Other songs too that are not from Miyako have had a big impact on me. I try to mix these things to create a new sound of my own. Kazufumi Miyazawa came to this year’s Kuicha Festival in Miyako and we co-wrote a song. I wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music. I have some ideas of how to arrange it and I told him I’d like to include it on my next album. He has offered to help in any way.
You presented your music together with your daughter Minami at the WOMEX event in Cardiff, Wales a few years ago. How was that?
It was very interesting. Can I be honest? I felt when I was there that I was sure I could do it and that my music was good enough to be accepted by anyone. If I have the right musicians I can do it very well. At the same time I found something I need to improve. Both albums have a feeling of quietness and balladry but if I do more danceable songs to add to this I can make even better albums with a good balance and a more varied stage performance.
How about the next album and the future in general?
As for the new album, to me the most important thing is to express the atmosphere of Miyako. If you open the world atlas, Miyako is just a tiny point but even so you can send a light from there to the outside world. I think that’s the most important thing for me. Almost every time I perform, like today, there are shamans who come to see me and I talk to them and they say they can feel something special from my voice. They can feel the soul of the islands.
Heiko Junge returned to Okinawa from Norway as official photographer for Shoukichi Kina’s Niraikanai Matsuri which took place at the weekend in Ginowan. What follows is just a small selection of the many photos he took at the two day festival and also backstage.
Among the musicians featured in these pictures are Satoru Shimoji, Hidekatsu, Pascal Plantinga, and of course Shoukichi Kina & Champloose. Fortunately there was glorious weather on both days and the festival was a great success. Thanks to Heiko for the use of the photos.