A Conversation with Kirk – Part 2

Posted January 25, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

Here’s the second part of my discussion with ethnomusicologist Kirk King. Many thanks to Kirk for engaging in this conversation with me and I hope to talk a lot more with him in the future – preferably  over a glass or two of Orion beer in Okinawa. 

JP: I can see that when I condemn enka for its predictability I am on dodgy ground as it is quite true that blues is the most predictable form of all and that doesn’t offend me in any way. I used to listen to a lot of blues especially when I was very young and just discovering lots of British and American music in the folk club I frequented every week in Norwich.

I would agree that although we both love Okinawan music it almost certainly means different things to us and we bring our own feelings and experiences to it. I am sometimes horrified when (usually Japanese) people say to me that they also love Okinawan music and then go on to say they love all that ‘healing’ stuff or their taste in the music begins and ends with Namie Amuro or Rimi Natsukawa.

Many years ago I listened to a radio programme in which some music ‘expert’ made the point that classical music is always superior to pop music. His reasoning was that we listen to a three minute pop song and like it for a few weeks but then we get fed up with hearing it because it is so repetitive and so simple. On the other hand, a classical symphony has such complexity and goes on for so long that we never get tired of it. I think at the time I perhaps believed what he said, although reluctantly as I’ve always preferred listening to pop music. It’s only now, many years later, that I realize he must have been talking a load of bollocks. In those comparatively early days of pop music, no-one knew that years later we would come back and listen to lots of those old songs again and like them all over again. It strikes me as the most appalling snobbery that anyone should claim such superiority for classical music based only on its complexity. The same opinions can still be heard today though much less frequently. Of course, the same is true of painting, art installations and no doubt other artistic spheres as well.

Lady Gaga: better than Beethoven?

To get more to the point, I think it is very difficult to compare one kind of music with another. I personally prefer Lady Gaga to Beethoven, by the way, if I had to choose (and notwithstanding her cringe-worthy Bowie medley). However, some judgements have to be made regarding value otherwise there is no point in my writing album reviews. I think that if it is possible to compare and judge then these comparisons have to be made within specific music genres so that we aren’t comparing chalk with cheese. Therefore, it might be possible to say that one artist in the same field is better than another, though even here we’re on very shaky ground. In the end, the only thing I’m fairly sure about is that I can say an album or song by the same artist is better than one of that artist’s other albums or songs. For example, Bob Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ or ‘Visions of Johanna’ (to name a couple of my favourite songs) are both superior to, say, his song ‘Trouble’ (on the album Shot of Love) which is just Dylan repeating that there’s a lot of trouble in the world for about four minutes to a plodding repetitive tune.

I might also be able to show that the original Nenes albums are all better than the latest album by the new Nenez. A lot may be down to my personal taste but I find it hard to believe that anyone who has listened to all of their albums could disagree.

So where does that leave me? Well, I agree that music serves a function, and I think that complexity is not important, or at least nowhere near as important as a lot of people have always believed. And matters of value can perhaps be made but only within very narrow boundaries.

I’ve just realized that I haven’t answered your fundamental question which was about the criteria we must have if we are to judge if one kind of music is better than another. I suppose I would have to say that it’s just not possible to say one kind of music is better than another, so it’s not possible to invent some criteria. That’s the point. My dislike of some kinds of music is simply my own personal taste (or prejudice) and I can’t say that one kind of music is inferior or better than another.

However, I do say that it may be possible to judge music in narrower ways within the same genre but have no special criteria for doing it other than my own instincts and the usual things such as whether it’s inventive or surprising or emotionally satisfying. But these things can’t be measured scientifically.

KK:  You made some very good points in your last emails, and I’d like to respond to some of them here. What I also dislike is when people say that Okinawan music all sounds the same. No doubt, their only experience with Okinawan music has been in some touristy izakaya on Kokusai-dori (Naha’s most popular entertainment street) where, indeed, a lot of the music sounds the same.

Incidentally, on my last trip to Okinawa I was a bit miffed at a performing duo (in such a touristy izakaya on Kokusai-dori) that sang ‘Haisai Ojisan’ (meaning ‘hey, old man’) replacing the lyrics with comedian Shimura Ken’s ‘hen-na ojisan’ (meaning ‘strange old man’) so as to pander to the largely mainland Japanese audience that seemed to delight in making fun of something because they could not understand it, as people often do. (Or, perhaps, I was in a bad mood and just being overly sensitive.) I’ve seen the ‘Hai-sai/hen-na’ switch done in other places, too, which caused me to think, ‘Oh Lord, not again!’ I happened to be wearing my Shoukichi Kina T-shirt, and the musicians afterward complimented me on it, saying how much they revere ‘Shoukichi-sensei.’ I suggested that if they indeed revered him, they should consider using the correct lyrics. (I suppose I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

The original Nenes: better than Lady Gaga?

Like you, it also strikes me the same way as snobbery to claim superiority for classical music based on its complexity. Yet, ALL OUR MUSIC INSTITUTES ARE STILL BASED ON THIS ASSUMPTION! When I was an undergrad in music, a fellow classmate commented that he didn’t believe jazz was good music. ‘Miles Davis taking a ten minute solo,’ he declared, ‘that’s not good musicianship’. Unbelievable.

I agree with you that it’s very difficult to compare one kind of music with another, and that matters of value can only be made within very narrow boundaries. It makes sense. But some people are trying to measure the differences. I’m not sure they are doing a good job at it, though.

You prefer Lady Gaga to Beethoven. That’s OK — we can still be friends.

Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose it would depend on the purpose for which I would have to make a choice. If I were taking a cruise in the car with a friend and I had to choose between only two CDs, Gaga and Beethoven, I would probably choose Gaga. If I were to stay at a secluded cabin in the woods for a month, and I were given the same choice, I would probably choose Beethoven. I suppose this goes back to the idea of what function the music serves. For the car ride, I might want something more upbeat. For a relaxing month at the cabin, I would have to choose Beethoven.

JP: I was especially interested to read about your visit to the izakaya where you put the musicians straight about getting Shoukichi Kina’s lyrics correct. I don’t think it was just your bad mood at the time because I’m sure I would have felt exactly the same. It really annoys me when people change ‘Haisai’ to ‘Henna’ just to amuse the Japanese tourists. I doubt whether I would have been as brave as you in pointing it out to the musicians though. But well done for saying it!

You are quite right, of course, about musical snobbery and I’m glad to have the support of a real live ethnomusicologist to back me up. On the same topic, I belong to a literature discussion group (in one of my other lives as a literary man) and a while ago the subject of children’s literature and in particular J.K.Rowling came up. Someone said that the Harry Potter books are not good literature and are only useful if they encourage children to go on and read much better novels as adults. The analogy was made that the only benefit in listening to the Spice Girls is if it eventually leads the listener to an appreciation of Debussy. I’m sure most people would still share that person’s view wouldn’t they? And they would be wrong wouldn’t they?

Spice Girls: not as good as Nenes or Lady Gaga but might lead to Debussy?

KK:  It seems to me that people who so freely grace us with their opinions about what is good and what is bad, right and wrong, etc., often fail to begin with the phrase, “In my opinion…” Because ultimately that is all it is: one person’s opinion. Worst case, people don’t even think their view is merely an opinion; they think it is objective truth. Maybe most people believe that adult literature is better than children’s literature, or that Debussy is better than The Spice Girls, but when it comes to aesthetic preference, there really is no way to establish that the majority opinion therefore represents the truth. Ironically, in the examples you gave me, I’m pretty sure that both Harry Potter and The Spice Girls would win in public opinion. But in answer to your question, I believe those people would be wrong to think that their opinion is fact, but that would not mean they are wrong to have an opinion.

I’m also pretty certain that anyone raised on The Spice Girls would not grow up to love Debussy — that doesn’t seem like a natural progression. Because Debussy is no longer ‘popular music’ as he was in his time, an appreciation of his music, and any classical music, is usually something that is fostered in someone through the study of that music (whether formally or simply in the sense of music appreciation). And where does it end? Could we say that appreciating Debussy would lead us to appreciate Mahler? Charlie Parker? One could argue that most forms of jazz music are more complex than any forms of classical music, but that might be getting too close to popular music for some people, especially because jazz led to rock and pop, and God forbid we go there!

Consider this: why is classical music still listened to today? Is it because it is truly great (the greatest?)  music? Or is it because it has been preserved and perpetuated by a certain group of people as a means to some end? What and whom does classical music represent?

Also, why is jazz music not included in the standard curricula of most music schools and conservatories? A lot of the early jazz greats (Ellington is a good example) went beyond what Mahler did harmonically in his music, picking up where he left off as it were, yet classical music is still thought to have ended with Mahler. In this case, the reason is likely due to institutionalized racism, I think. At least it was so at one time in history, and we have just continued in the same way until today.

Regarding criteria for measuring and comparing the value of different musics/musicians, I think you are talking about two very different things: measuring and comparing. I think it is a useful exercise to compare musics, and in a sense, that is what you are doing as a music critic, no? Even if you don’t explicitly compare one musician to another, you are still appraising a musician/music based on a set of values that you have acquired over years of music and life experience. However, I believe there is no way to ‘measure’ the value as such, at least not in any objective way. You could give a CD four stars, for example, but it’s still just four stars on the John Potter five star system, for example. Ultimately, I guess I am saying that your assessments as a critic are still ‘just’ your opinions, but they also happen to be opinions that are based on years of listening and comparing — and caring about — music. Therefore, your readers put some stock into what you write and say — rightly so.

This is how I see this. What do you think?

JP: I would agree that reviews (such as mine) are just one person’s opinion albeit based on experience and years of listening and comparing. I watch lots of movies and always go to the reviews, especially of the critics I trust most, because it’s interesting for me to find out what others think, but in the end it’s just an opinion however well-informed.

I’d just add that as far as the person is concerned who talked about the Spice Girls and Debussy, he was, I expect, deliberately choosing this example because he knows very well that it is very unlikely that a Spice Girls fan would ever go on to be a fan of Debussy or whatever other classical composer he cares to name. So he is basically saying that there is no point in listening to the Spice Girls. This brings me to another point regarding education in general, which is that I am one of those who believes that children and young people should follow their own interests and only ‘study’ what they really want to. It should not be seen as a preparation for some possible future life. Life is to be lived, especially when you are very young, and so it follows that liking music or anything else is something that should not be done with a future aim in mind. I know I’m still in the minority on this one – though a lot of people pay lip service to children’s rights and freedom of choice – and I won’t go on about it but I think it’s relevant to the Spice Girls vs Debussy argument as well as the things we’ve already said.

KK: I agree with your views on education 100%, and I see how it ties into the Spice Girls topic — interesting, I hadn’t thought of that before.

I’ve also enjoyed our discussion, and your deep thinking about music inspires new ways of thinking in me. So thanks for that!

I might also add that I think good reviewers, such as yourself, are helpful indeed to guide people to new music, especially when we have so many choices of music to spend our money on nowadays. I took your book with me the first time I went into Campus Records and bought a stack of CDs!


A Conversation with Kirk

Posted January 23, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

I sometimes wonder why it is that I was so immediately enraptured by Okinawan music as soon as I first listened to it almost 30 years ago. There is also the question of why I have a similar fascination with music from the Basque Country. This has led me to many other questions such as the aesthetic value of different kinds of music and how, or even if, they can be compared or judged.

Not being an ethnomusicologist – nor having any academic background in music – I did the obvious thing and got in touch with my Canadian friend Kirk King who lives in Nagano. As well as being an ethnomusicologist he is an aficionado of Okinawan music with a special interest in Rinsho Kadekaru. (My earlier talk with Kirk about his studies is still available to read in the Interviews category of this blog). My questions became an email conversation that went on for some time. Even the much edited version here is a good deal longer than usual posts on this blog so it will be published in two parts (so as not to exhaust readers!).

Here is the first part. The second will follow in a day or two. Kirk begins by addressing my initial question about our attraction to the music of Okinawa.

Kirk K: John, it was the same for me — in my case after hearing Kadekaru. I was literally in tears, I was so moved. Yet, of course I had no idea what he was singing, and I knew very little about Okinawa. Okinawan music definitely has some kind of power, doesn’t it? It led you to move to Okinawa and devote much of your time and attention to its music. It led me to pursue minyo as a field of research. Ultimately, it brought you and me together, too!

John P:  It’s interesting (and rather reassuring) that you felt the same way when first hearing Okinawan music, in your case Kadekaru. In my case it was Shoukichi Kina and only a bit later that I came to appreciate the more sparse traditional songs, though Kina’s music is also steeped in Okinawan roots of course.

Kirk King: ethnomusicologist with sanshin

KK: Regardless of the fact that your connection with Okinawa was very slight at the time, your attraction to its music might still have something to do with your location, your environment, and what this music represented for you. For me, for example, I had been researching a local music tradition in Nagano for some nine years, and it was the topic of my MA dissertation. Those nine years were somewhat of an emotional roller coaster, though, in that despite all the good that came with my research, I also faced enough discrimination and ‘othering’ that it led to somewhat of a personal identity crisis. I became bitter and resentful toward the tradition and some of the people involved. I was also very dissatisfied with my job at the time, and it caused me to resent Japanese society in general. I became depressed and bitter, and I focused on the negative aspects of Japanese society. Okinawan music represented something new and liberating for me. I felt somewhat of a kinship with Okinawa, which had also been discriminated against and treated horribly by Japan. (Of course, my problems aren’t comparable with those of the Okinawa/Japan relationship, but still, somehow the music spoke to me). So even though I and my location were far removed from Okinawa, it was, on the other hand, this very distance that drew me closer to Okinawa and its music. Does this make sense, and if so, might something like this have been true for you?

JP: Your answer makes complete sense to me but I’ll come to that in a bit. First I’d say that I had probably never even heard of Okinawa when I came to live in Kobe, Japan. I’m not sure. Anyway, the proximity to Okinawa once I was there obviously led to my discovery of its music. I listened to a couple of tapes of Kina’s music and that was the moment of revelation for me. If I had stayed in England I would almost certainly never have made this discovery.

Your nine year emotional roller coaster in Nagano is something I can understand. I didn’t have such negative experiences as you but when I think about it now there was often a sense of frustration when I lived in mainland Japan and when I first moved there it was much more unusual for a foreigner to be living and working there, even in a so-called ‘international’ city such as Kobe. When I eventually became full-time professor at Kogakkan University in Mie I was employed by a very traditional and conservative Shinto university whose fundamental ethos and values are very different from mine with my background in radical alternative education. This didn’t cause any obvious problems at the university but almost certainly increased my radical views and support for the underdog – such as Okinawa. I became very keen to explore more about the culture and history of Okinawa and its music and came to see Okinawa as a colonial outpost of Japan that has been treated shamefully by successive Japanese governments ever since the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom. So in a way something of your experience is also present in mine.

As for the revelation with Basque music, this came through listening to a track on a compilation CD. It was a triki-pop song by Maixa ta Ixia an all woman band who mixed traditional trikitixa (accordion and tambourine music) with guitar, bass and drums. This was very popular in the 1990s and in a way they were doing what Kina was doing with Okinawan music. I just came to identify with the Basques as I had with the Okinawans because, perhaps, they are also underdogs who have their own culture, music and language but no nation of their own. I think that it’s easy to see my interest in terms of supporting minorities but it still doesn’t explain why I liked the music so much in the first place.

Rinsho Kadekaru: the Okinawan godfather of song can reduce us to tears

KK: It seems that at least to some degree your appreciation of a certain culture’s music is heightened by your sympathy for their political/social/economic plight. I think this is a common phenomenon. Still, as you suggest, this reason doesn’t explain everything.

I’d like to ask: are there any clear similarities among the kinds of music you like? Difficult question, perhaps. For example, going back to what the music/musicians represent socially, it seems that you might prefer musicians that are somewhat more modest or understated. That is, the likes of Dylan and Kadekaru. Perhaps you are turned off by music with a lot of bravado or machismo, such as some forms of South American music or hip-hop music. What do you think?

JP: I can’t really see any particular similarities. It’s true that to some extent I prefer the understated, as you say, in that I like Dylan and Kadekaru. I also like many other Western songwriters who maybe fit that profile such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Elvis Costello. The similarity here would be that they are all expert at their craft and write very good lyrics. So it might seem that words are very important to me. But if I was asked what is most important to me in music I’d probably say strong melodies. I’m very happy to listen to songs sung in languages that I don’t understand as long as the singing and especially the tunes and melodies move me emotionally. Having great words too is just a very good bonus.

As for the bravado, machismo thing being a turn-off for me, that’s a very interesting point that I hadn’t thought about. However, once again I don’t fit easily into this theory either because while I’m not keen on South American music in general, I have no such problem with hip-hop. I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop, and might not like it so much if I did, but I do like Kendrick Lamar and I’m a huge fan of Macklemore whose album The Heist (with Ryan Lewis) was one of the best discoveries I’ve made in the past few years. I even bought an expensive ticket to go and see them in Osaka and was devastated when I couldn’t go in the end because I broke my leg! But Macklemore is not regarded highly in some hip-hop circles because, well, he’s white not black and also his music is as much to do with pop as it is hip-hop. For me, this makes it more appealing not less. So maybe I can only really like hip-hop when it’s served up in a pop format. Nothing wrong with that as I think pop music is far too easily dismissed as lightweight when it’s not.

KK: Also, are there any similarities in the elements of the music itself?  That is, elements such as modality, instrumentation (large groups versus small ensembles or solo instrument accompaniment), lyrical themes (the stories they tell), ‘relaxing’ versus ‘edgy’ music (for many years I had a hard time listening to ‘dark’ music such as that of Nick Cave, whom I now like very much).

JP: I can’t really say there are any clear similarities in the elements of the music that I like. I was brought up on the English folk club scene of the 1960s as I knew people who ran a folk club in my hometown Norwich and so I started going there regularly when I was seventeen. Before that I listened only to pop music but was then exposed to a lot of British and American folk and traditional music that I still like very much and so I suppose I am likely to be drawn to that kind of thing. But I also liked punk in the ‘70s and then synth-pop in the ‘80s.

KK: Perhaps I could also ask why you dislike enka? Can you point to any specific characteristics of the music that turn you off?

JP: I dislike enka first of all because it’s so formulaic. Every song seems to have the same beginning and to me the songs all reek of over-sentimentality and melodramatic emotion which I find hard to take seriously. The singers all dress up in formal outfits too which doesn’t help. I never listen properly to the words but the themes are nearly always male-centred and very conservative which is another reason not to like it. But then what do I know? When I mentioned enka to the Okinawan musician Mutsumi Aragaki, who I interviewed last year, she said she liked it a lot.

Tom Waits; dishevelled songwriter with gravelly voice and a way with words

KK: I think your comments on enka are very accurate. The thing is, I’ve always felt that enka was intended to be all the things you described it as: predictable, melodramatic, male-centred. I’ve always felt it is the ultimate karaoke music; as if karaoke were made expressly for enka. I think I just love the atmosphere of a dingy little Japanese snack bar with some salaryman getting in his fifteen (well, perhaps three and a half) minutes of fame — showing off his juuhachiban (in karaoke, one’s signature song). It’s like a moment when he can shed his stoic businessman outer layer and let his emotions pour out — with the help of some shochu, of course. There are also some really nice melodies in enka.

Predictability in music is an interesting topic. A friend who loves hard rock and metal once commented that she doesn’t like AC/DC because they are too predictable, that all of their songs sound the same. I suggested that this is precisely why they have been so successful — their fans always know what to expect. Perhaps throughout the ups and downs of this ever-changing world, it’s nice to have something that you know will never change. I’m not sure. But in fact, AC/DC is not so repetitive as she might think; it’s the variations they do within the standard formula (their formula) that make each new album they release interesting for fans: a bit different, but not too different. I think the blues is similar in this way: the twelve-bar blues pattern probably makes it the most formulaic of all music genres, but blues fans appreciate what a good blues musician can do within this pattern to create his/her own unique sound. This is what made Hendrix great, as Stevie Ray Vaughan once pointed out.

Enka, too, is a genre in which predictability and adherence to formulae are valued both in composition and performance. This is seen in the point-scoring system that accompanies many karaoke systems — the more idiomatic a singer performs, the more points received. Then again, some variation from the norm, in a stylistically appropriate way, is also valued.

I’d like to go back to two comments you made in your first email — two really juicy ones that I’ve been saving! You wrote: “Do you think musical taste is something that is individual to each person and formed by their environment, what they’re exposed to, or by some predisposition in the brain. Or, can it actually be said that some kinds of music are more likely to be popular than others because they really are better and not everyone has understood it yet?” 

In response to the first question, I think it is — and there have been some studies done on this — a combination of both nature and nurture, so to speak. I’m going to try to think of some sources in which I’ve read about this. I think though, that more than one’s nature, it has to do with environmental conditioning — but tracing that exactly would be very difficult. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot – why do I like what I like? I was once thinking, for example, why do I like blue and green? Then suddenly I had this memory of being five years old in my kindergarten class. At nap time, different coloured pillows were provided for the kids, and all the boys would run to grab one of the highly coveted blue pillows, of which there were only two. I suppose the fact that there were only two is what made them so desirable. I think in my whole kindergarten career I only managed to get the blue pillow once. (It was one of the happiest moments of my childhood.) I was not a very sporty young fella, so a little slow to get the blue pillow. I usually opted for the green pillow, which I thought was also quite nice. They were always the next to go, after the blue. Eventually I gave up on trying to get a blue pillow and went straight for the green — problem solved! Is this why I like blue and green? Who knows…

Your second question, if asked at a meeting of ethnomusicologists, might very well lead to a brawl. It’s a very contentious question in the field, and one that I find very interesting. The problem, though, has to do with relativism. I once led a discussion in a class of master-level classical music students, asking them to try to prove to me that Beethoven is better than Lady Gaga. They had a hard time doing this. Questions raised included: Well, what do we mean by ‘better?’ Is complexity better? Personally, I believe that music always serves a function. Nicki Minaj’s music speaks to my teenage niece, but classical and jazz music do nothing for her…yet. As you suggested, maybe she just has not yet come to ‘understand’ classical and jazz music. Then again, I could never understand Nicki Minaj the way she does, and can she ever understand jazz the way I do? John, you and I both love Okinawan music, but we likely understand it in different ways; that is, it means different things to each of us, strikes different chords within us (at least to some degree… there are obviously similarities, too). To sum up, if we believe that some kinds of music are better than others, then automatically we must introduce criteria by which to rate them. Where do we start with this? I think the problems that might arise are self-evident. That said, I would very much like to hear your opinion on this.

(Incidentally, I prefer Beethoven to Lady Gaga — especially after that cringe-worthy Bowie medley.)

Anjel Valdes

Posted January 16, 2018 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music, Features Archive

Last September I spent a week in the Basque Country of Spain and while there interviewed record producer Anjel Valdes for an article published in the current edition of UK magazine fRoots. Anjel spoke about many things and this feature only scratches the surface of his philosophy on music and life and his important work at Elkar Records. It’s also Anjel’s idea that Basque and Okinawan musicians will soon be able to meet and there are now plans for a Basque Ryukyu project to bring them together.

Anjel Valdes

Elkar Records have grown a massive catalogue of Basque music. John Potter meets their founder.

I’m in a wood at the foot of a mountain in the Basque Country with Anjel Valdes and he is looking for mushrooms. It’s a passion of his to walk in the silence of this spectacular scenery in Gipuzkoa province and a bonus if he can collect some big mushrooms along the way.

But this isn’t why we’re here. Valdes has been producer and coordinator at Elkar Records for 30 years. He has chosen to talk to me about it all in one of his favourite locations in the south of Euskal Herria (or Basque Country) which straddles part of northern Spain and south-west France. Elkar (it means ‘together’) has long been promoting Basque music, language and culture, and the purple and yellow logo on their shops is familiar throughout the region.

Valdes explains: “Elkar Records was founded in 1972. We began with literature and books and then started working on music and traditional songs, all in the Basque language, first with singers from the northern part of the Basque Country. Elkar began in Bayonne but then came to the south at the beginning of the 80s.” Their recording studio is based in Donostia-San Sebastian.

“We have a very important catalogue of music that now has more than 1,300 releases. Songs express the culture of the people, their dreams, and in our case the most important compositions speak about freedom and love and territory. And so if you put all of our tracks and recordings one after the other you can tell a very good story of our culture and our development.”

My own first encounter with Basque music was through this very magazine in the late ‘90s through the phenomenon of triki-pop. Traditional trikitixa (accordeon) and panderoa (tambourine) music had been given a new lease of life by the addition of pop rhythm sections and young bands such as Maixa ta Ixiar and Alaitz eta Maider were quick to attract listeners, including me. My first long distance contact with Anjel Valdes was at that time and he has been sending me review copies of albums ever since. Although trikitixa is still a vital ingredient of much of the music there are many other popular styles and new singers and musicians appear all the time.

But let’s go back to the beginning. “We can find our roots in traditional instruments and singers and we must speak about Oskorri, a very important band that finally disbanded two years ago. They did their last concert in Bilbao and we released a special album with a DVD. Mikel Laboa is also an important singer in our catalogue as is Benito Lertxundi and some others who began their careers in the 1960s and ‘70s. The passing of time has given them authority. Benito Lertxundi is now 76 years old and he continues recording and giving concerts. After him comes Ruper Ordorika who was from a new generation closer to a pop and rock style. Ruper is a very good songwriter who writes lyrics in a special way that connects with people. His last three albums are remarkable and very important for me. Mikel Urdangarin is another very special singer from a younger generation.”

Valdes is a philosophical man who thinks deeply about the wider issues and implications of what he does. “The most important thing is always the artist and the song. All of us need to be consoled and music offers us one essential way. If you have made 1,300 productions you will find some albums among them that are very, very important. So my work is to listen to the artist and to coordinate the ideas with my team.”

“I’ve learned that it’s better to continue than to win. You can win once or twice in your life but if the moment arrives when you have to disappear it is very sad. So sales are never the most important thing. The continuation of our work regardless of sales is what is most vital. It’s not possible to work in this job if you don’t like the music. People need freedom and we need love and freedom and we need dreams and this is the essence of the songs, of the poetry. I think that we must believe that someday the world will be changed, like we thought in the ‘60s.”

The Basque language, known as Euskara, seems to be unrelated to any other language and is possibly the oldest in Europe. There are around one million who understand and speak it while 400,000 use it as their first language. With a language not even spoken by all Basques does this present an obstacle to wider recognition? “There is great music everywhere” says Valdes, “in Cuba, in Okinawa, in Africa and so on. We are just a small territory in Europe and we aren’t expecting to achieve a lot of worldwide attention. For now, it’s just important that we try first to spread these songs and music among the Basque people.”

“I want to say strongly that songs are the last guardians of the culture – and even if people don’t understand the language they will recognise the songs.”


(fRoots Nos. 415/416, January/February 2018)



Churashima Navigator: Life is Treasure

Posted December 21, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Life is Treasure is the first album by Okinawa’s Churashima Navigator who were founded in 2011 by DJ Sinkichi and DJ Nu-Doh. Its five members include singer and sanshin player Kanako Horiuchi who is well known for her diverse musical adventures around the world that range from a duet album of traditional Okinawan songs with Misako Oshiro to an album recorded in West Africa with Senegalese kora player Falaye Sakho.

Churashima Navigator’s music mixes experimental beats and heavy bass influences from dub, techno, industrial and jazz and then applies this to some of the traditional songs of Okinawa to create a style they have named New Champloo. All the vocals and sanshin are by Horiuchi who seems to fit effortlessly into whatever project she takes on and her presence here is indispensable.

At least a couple of the eight tracks are extended workouts that probably take on more life in a live club setting but the album – at 56 minutes – is perfectly suited to home listening too and they find a good balance with some tracks segueing into others by way of sampling old Okinawan songs and speech. There is also an underlying political edge that is never more evident than on ‘Jidai no Nagare 2017’ a song still as vital as ever with its focus on Okinawa’s sad history of occupation and its uncertain future.

‘Hanaumui’ is a good opener and sets the tone for what follows while ‘Torisashimai’ has an unusual treatment that makes it sound more like music from another part of Asia. The band has already travelled overseas this year to Thailand and then to Mongolia for the Playtime Festival in July. What they are doing is another example of the variety to be found in Okinawa’s music scene and Life is Treasure is a solid statement. The album booklet contains lyrics of all the songs in English, Japanese and Uchinaguchi.

Life is Treasure is released by budryukyu.


Music from Okinawa 2018

Posted December 18, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Music from Okinawa 2018 is a new album that gathers together music from the many different styles and genres found on these islands. The album is released by the Music from Okinawa label that has been tirelessly promoting the music in recent years and has also been involved in presenting it at the annual WOMEX events in Europe. For this compilation there are 16 tracks from a wide variety of artists – many from Okinawa and all with strong connections to the Ryukyu Islands.

The ubiquitous Kachimba4 appear with another of their Cuban flavoured tracks as do other familiar names such as Maltese Rock and The Sakishima Meeting. The most famous name, however, is the one that opens the album – Nenez. The great days of the original line-up are long gone but thankfully the track selected for this release is not from their underwhelming latest album but is ‘Kunjan Sabakui’ one of their ‘covers’ from their 2015 album Reborn. They do a good job of recreating it and it makes a fine start to the album.

The Nenez track is followed by Churashima Navigator and the band make a success of blending traditional Okinawan sounds with dub and techno on ‘Haimurubushi’. Pianist and composer Naoko Hentona also experiments interestingly on her contribution ‘Kariyushi’ which draws on Ryukyu music traditions. And Makiko Miyara, originally from Ishigaki Island, comes up with one of the very best tracks with her version of the co-written Yasukatsu Oshima/Hitoshi Uechi song ‘Marijima Hanari’.

Moving away from traditional influenced songs to broaden the selection even further there is the cheery ‘Crane’ by Naha pop trio Home Party People; there is some jazz with Element of the Moment’s evocative ‘A Girl in Blue’; and the album ends with a track from Ishigaki rapper and producer Ritto & Olive Oil. But perhaps best of all is Chihiro Kamiya with the original song ‘Kanashigwa’ from her excellent album Utaui.

Unfortunately the notes on the artists and song lyrics in the booklet are in Japanese only. However, the Music from Okinawa label can be congratulated for producing what is overall a very good album that introduces many different facets of island music. Too often in the past this has not been the case and many of the numerous compilations out there on other labels are unimaginative selections recycling the same old music and musicians. This one is different.


Soinu-Tresnak Euskal Herri Musikan 1985-2010

Posted December 14, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Soinu-Tresnak Euskal Herri Musikan 1985-2010 is a 70 page hardback book with CD and DVD insert on the musical instruments of the Basque Country. In the 1980s the musician and ethnomusicologist Juan Mari Beltran spent a year travelling and researching traditional musical instruments used by the Basque people and he compiled an hour long film of his findings with footage of many of the musicians who made and played these instruments. As a follow-up 25 years later he made another film containing his reflections and images related to the study. Both films are presented on the DVD.

This is a valuable and extraordinary musical adventure and in no way a stuffy academic exercise. As well as the trikitixa (accordion) and panderoa (tambourine) – still thriving in contemporary Basque music – there are rare recordings of much lesser known instruments such as the sunprinua (bark trumpet). There is also fascinating footage of the txalaparta and how it provided the “audible heartbeat of the cider-making process in the San Sebastian area”.

In addition to the instrument playing there is some arm-flinging Basque dancing not unlike Okinawan katcharsee that reminds us of the interconnectedness of culture and traditions worldwide. This new release is available for the first time with subtitles in English and several other languages while the book has rare photos and background details and information on all of the instruments.


Element of the Moment: Okinawan Nights

Posted December 12, 2017 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Jazz is not the most obvious thing that comes to mind when we think about the music of Okinawa. But the Ryukyu Islands are nothing if not a melting pot of different musical genres and that includes many influences from overseas. The five members of Element of the Moment play saxophone, trombone, piano, bass and drums and have been performing regularly ever since they were formed in Okinawa in 2007.

Okinawan Nights is a live album containing eight original compositions recorded over two nights in February this year at Sound M’s in Naha. The band’s music is based on American jazz and funk with some Okinawan roots influences. On these recordings they produce a fine mix with the jazz element at the forefront.

This works best of all on two of their quieter and most melodic compositions ‘A Girl in Blue’ and ‘A Moon and Darkness’ but the whole recorded performance – at 63 minutes – offers  a very good introduction to the band and their music and shows that in Okinawa there are some very skilled musicians in many fields. All tracks were composed and arranged by drummer Akira Nakamura.

Okinawan Nights is released by Music from Okinawa.