Okinawa Day 2019 in London

Posted June 11, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawa Overseas

For those in London next week the annual Okinawa Day is being held on Saturday 22nd June at Spitalfields Market. The nearest station is Liverpool Street. As before, it will be an all-day event from 10:00 until 18:00 and admission is free. This is a great chance to find out about and celebrate the unique culture of the Ryukyu Islands. There will be performances of Okinawan music as well as karate and Eisa dancing.

As a preview to Okinawa Day there will also be an Okinawan Music Concert by the guest musicians on the 21st. They will play songs from the Miyako, Yaeyama, and Amami islands. This has been organised by the London Okinawa Sanshinkai and will take place at SOAS University of London in the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre of their campus at Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square. Once again admission is free. Doors open at 19:00 and the performances will go on until 21:00.

https://sanshinkai.uk/okinawa-day

https://www.facebook.com/okinawadayinlondon

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019

Posted June 10, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 is the title of a significant new release of Okinawan music from Tokyo’s Respect label. It’s a double album comprising 30 tracks, two CDs, and two hours of songs from four featured artists. The singers are Hirokazu Matsuda, Seibun Tokuhara, Mika Uchizato, and Akane Murayoshi.

The title can be translated as ‘elegy for the lost sea’. This harks back to a 1975 double album of 27 songs under a similar title produced by Okinawan writer, critic and entrepreneur Rou Takenaka that showcased some important Okinawan singers. Takenaka was a prominent supporter of Okinawa and its music as well as a vociferous opponent of the islands’ reversion to Japanese rule.

In his essay included with the new release, producer Tsukasa Kohama writes of this as the inspiration for the new recordings and says he believes it’s the right time to release this album as it has never been so important to save Okinawa’s beautiful sea and nature from threats posed by America and Japan. He also writes of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists led by Shouei Kina, Rinsho Kadekaru and Shotoko Yamauchi.

The new album features some of the leaders of the ‘second generation’. Hirokazu Matsuda and Seibun Tokuhara, both in their 70s, have been important in carrying on the songs and both are stalwarts of the island music scene. The two women are much younger. Mika Uchizato is already well-known as one of the top female voices with several recordings to her name. Akane Murayoshi, now 30, has released a couple of albums. The second was the frankly awful Challenge in 2011 so it’s good to see her recovering from that and back at her best. Matsuda and Tokuhara are both from Okinawa’s main island while Uchizato hails from Minami Daito, and Murayoshi from Kume Island.

The songs will be well-known to those familiar with Okinawan music. Most are traditional and some, but not all, are directly connected with the sea. All convey the atmosphere of everyday life on these islands which has always been inextricably linked with nature and the sea. There are songs from around the Ryukyus rather than just Okinawa. One of the best is ‘Yonaguni Kouta’ sung here by the two women. Another is ‘Tenyou Bushi’ with a vocal by Matsuda. There are both fast and slow songs. Outstanding among the latter is ‘Hama Sodachi’ with vocal and sanshin by Murayoshi.

The title song, in full ‘Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 (Jintoyo-gwa)’, is a traditional tune to which producer Kohama has added some new verses. The song laments the dreadful changes in Okinawa – the unwanted presence of hotels and military bases; the disappearance of coral and fish; how beautiful Henoko used to be and how it is changing. And it concludes that when we get Okinawa back the people can smile again.

(L to R): Hirokazu Matsuda, Mika Uchizato, Akane Murayoshi, Seibun Tokuhara

The songs are all performed straightforwardly with sanshin accompaniment plus shima-daiko and hayashi. There is the occasional addition of Keiko Hamakawa’s Ryukyu koto, and Hiroyuki Kinjo’s fue. The four singers share the vocals and find several different combinations to play with on individual songs. It almost goes without saying that everything is sung and played with enormous skill and vitality. Most importantly the album just sounds very good indeed and the two hours passed by very quickly for this listener.

One small caveat is that in Okinawa it’s impossible, even now, to escape the hierarchical nature of the music world. It would have been nice to have Mika Uchizato and Akane Murayoshi take the lead on more than the six songs they are given. But at least they do have this much as it wouldn’t have been a complete surprise to see them appearing only as backing singers.

This is a timely and important release and serves as a reminder of the wealth of wonderful songs from these islands. Also, for the urgent need to protect the islands and their environment for future generations.

Ushinawareta Umi e no Banka 2019 will be released by Respect on 24th July.

An album release concert will be held in Naha at Sakurazaka Theatre (Hall A) on Saturday 7th September.

http://www.respect-record.co.jp

Kishi Bashi: Omoiyari

Posted June 3, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Omoiyari is the fourth album by singer, songwriter and musician Kishi Bashi who was born Kaoru Ishibashi to Japanese immigrants in America and currently lives in Athens, Georgia. His previous albums have featured both sweeping orchestral pop and more experimental loop arrangements blending the singer’s vocals and violin.

The new album finds him at his most accessible as well as his most melodic. At the same time this is an ambitious work in terms of theme. It resulted from his reflecting on history and on the state of things today. He says: “I was shocked when I saw white supremacy really starting to show its teeth again in America. My parents are immigrants, they came to the United States from Japan post-World War II. As a minority I felt very insecure for the first time in my adult life in this country. I think that was the real trigger for this project.”

Kishi Bashi’s songs were inspired specifically by the unjust forced internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and he visited former prison sites to listen to the stories of survivors. The ten songs feature his distinctive vocals and violin and they veer from the lighter pop sounds of opening track ‘Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear’ to the heavier almost classical opening of ‘Violin Tsunami’.

‘Marigolds’, ‘A Song for You’ and ‘Summer of ‘42’ are all outstanding but this is a timeless album with songs that are heartfelt and often irresistibly catchy. The closest he gets to American roots music is on the final track ‘Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea’ a fiddle and banjo-driven song that sounds as if it could have come from a 1920s jug band. It’s also one of the biggest successes.

Joining Kishi Bashi along the way are many other musicians and we find banjo, bass, cello, guitar, organ and flute all represented as well as a group of string players with violins and violas. Despite all the extra help it never becomes too cluttered and all hangs together with a lightness of touch produced by the singer.

It’s all too common, especially in Japan, for musicians taking on ‘serious’ political subjects to churn out earnest but ultimately dire songs while thrashing away on guitars. By contrast Kishi Bashi’s music is big and emotionally uplifting and his lyrics are full of themes of empathy, compassion, and understanding, hence the album title.

To return to Kishi Bashi for the last word: “Omoiyari is a Japanese word. It doesn’t necessarily translate as empathy, but it refers to the idea of creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them. I think the idea of omoiyari is the single biggest thing that can help us overcome aggression and conflict.”

Omoiyari is out now on Joyful Noise Recordings.

www.kishibashi.com/

Takashi Hirayasu: Kumu Ashibi~Cloud Wandering

Posted May 30, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Kumu Ashibi ~ Cloud Wandering is the new album by Okinawa’s Takashi Hirayasu who has been based in Tokyo for several years. Once guitarist with Shoukichi Kina’s band Champloose he has since pursued his own path for a long time. Along the way he made the classic Warabi Uta collaboration with American guitarist Bob Brozman and more recently there was an excellent solo album Yuu that hinted at African connections.

The new release finds him once more in an adventurous mood. The album was recorded in Taiwan and co-produced by Japanese guitarist Ken Ohtake who has played with Hirayasu before. Now based in Taiwan, Ohtake plays guitar throughout and co-writes some of the original songs. There are also traditional Okinawan songs given a new spin by Hirayasu who sings and plays sanshin here as well as sanba and Okinawan drums.

Hirayasu and Ohtake are joined by other musicians – both Japanese and Taiwanese – on most tracks. They include Chung Yufeng (Fade to Blue) who plays pipa on a Chinese version of the Yaeyama song ‘Tsuki nu Kaisha’ with new lyrics and a vocal by Wan Fang.

The first three tracks are all familiar songs from Okinawa – ‘Daisanaja’, ‘Umi no Chinbora’ and ‘Achamegwa’ – but these are given Hirayasu’s special treatment and after that the album goes off in all kinds of other musical directions to embrace rock, funk, reggae, and jazz, with a notable contribution from Min-yen Terry Hsieh on saxophones, but always with Hirayasu’s sanshin prominently in the mix.

On first listen this is very different from Hirayasu’s other work and has a much bigger sound, for example, than his previous release Yuu. Where that album seemed very carefully constructed this is a bit rougher around the edges and has a very immediate, almost improvised feeling as if these arrangements were all made in the studio and then recorded live. No doubt the Taiwanese connection has enabled a different process and the overall results are very satisfying.

Takashi Hirayasu continues his journey of musical exploration and his absence from Okinawa may have, oddly enough, helped his creative impulses and opened the doors to some interesting new developments. Despite the presence of many Western elements this is an Asian album first and foremost with a very strong Okinawan atmosphere. Most of all it is quite obviously an album in which Hirayasu expresses himself in his own way.

The album booklet comes with lyrics of all the songs in Japanese, Chinese and English and there are also some useful English notes.

Kumu Ashibi ~ Cloud Wandering is released in Taiwan by Foothills Folk. It can be bought online at https://kumuashibi.thebase.in/

Takashi Hirayasu will play a concert in Tokyo at Koenji Jirokichi on Friday 21st June starting at 19:30. Advance tickets 3,500 yen. Tel. 03-3339-2727.

Yuki Yamazato & Katsuko Yohen: Urisha Fukurasha

Posted May 23, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Okinawan Albums

Urisha Fukurasha is an album by veteran Okinawan singers Yuki Yamazato and Katsuko Yohen. Both women have been well-known separately for a long time but have also recorded together and a few years ago made a joint album Doushibi along with another singer Keiko Kinjo.

The new album is divided quite distinctly into sections with five songs first from Yamazato then five from Yohen and finally two songs on which they sing together. There are also two bonus tracks recorded live in 2009 at a concert in Koza.

Most of the album is best described as shimauta with songs by known composers and three of the tracks are newly written. One of these is the first song ‘Inagu Hichui’ with lyrics by Naohiko Uehara and music by Minoru Kinjo. It’s also one of the standout tracks with a great vocal from Yamazato. At the age of 82 she doesn’t seem to have lost any of her power and her five songs that begin the album are quite sublime.

The title track, sung by Yamazato, was written by Shuken Maekawa and is another new composition, while another Maekawa song ‘Umui Shongane’ is sung by Yohen. Two Sadao China songs are included. One of these, performed by Yohen, is ‘Katadayui’ and the other is ‘Nageki no Ume’ on which Yamazato shares vocals with Hajime Nakasone. There is also a duet by Yohen and young singer Hikaru on a song by Teihan China and Choki Fukuhara.

As well as the two main singers there are notable contributions from musicians Hajime Nakasone and Hikari. Nakasone plays sanshin throughout and adds some taiko too and he is credited as the album’s director. Hikari, just 20 this year, plays Ryukyu koto, sanshin and sanba. All four get together on the two traditional songs and they make a fine job of ‘Kehitori Bushi~Kaisare’. There are also contributions from Asami Ohama (kokyū) and Marino Oshiro (hayashi).

It might seem a bit disjointed to have an album divided into separate sections in this way but it’s not uncommon in Okinawa and listening to it all the way through is proof that it works well. There are no surprises in choices of song or execution. You won’t find any synthesisers, strings or rock arrangements here. This is just straightforward Okinawan music played by some of its best practitioners. All involved deserve much credit, but special praise goes to Yuki Yamazato who has been singing for more than 60 years and can surely lay claim to being Okinawa’s greatest female singer.

Urisha Fukurasha is released this week by Campus.

http://www.campus-r.com/

Hedy West: Untitled

Posted May 21, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Roots Music from Out There

Hedy West has been mentioned many times on this blog and here she is again. The American singer and banjo player from northern Georgia died prematurely in 2005. Largely forgotten at that time, her reputation as one of the very finest interpreters of traditional Appalachian folk songs has since undergone a huge reappraisal beginning with the release of the award-winning Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians in 2011.

Other re-releases followed and last year’s From Granmaw and Me kept the ball rolling. Now comes the rather lamely titled Untitled which is previously unreleased and was recorded in the late 1970s when she was living in Germany. There are contributions from Eloise and Tracy Schwarz (New Lost City Ramblers) but it’s mostly West singing and playing her familiar banjo and occasionally guitar.

West drew heavily on the repertoire of songs handed down by her family and her best work is found in the old songs and ballads that she knew so well. Unlike some of the more popular big city-based folk singers of her generation she really was closer to the lives she describes and that she sang about in a plain uncompromising style.

Untitled is more varied than her other albums. It contains some traditional ballads but also tracks by modern songwriters and a wider range of musical styles. There is also a song sung in German. This is ‘Der Graben’ (The Trench) a pacifist, anti-militarist song by Kurt Tucholsky who died in 1935. A strong social and political thread runs through the album. ‘Bush Whacker’ is another pacifist song from the Civil War collected in North Carolina. ‘On the Rim of the World’ is a 1960s composition by Malvina Reynolds (of ‘Little Boxes’ fame) that sympathises with people living on the street, while ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ is a well-known Depression era song containing the lines:

I know the police cause you trouble / They cause trouble everywhere / When you die and go to heaven / You’ll find no policeman there.

This leads nicely into ‘There’ll Be No Distinction’ a 1929 song from West Virginia described by West as “A happy rollicking country gospel hymn, a celebration of justice in at least the afterlife.”

This being folk song there’s the obligatory story of incestuous rape (but no murder) in ‘Queen Jane’ which also has the best banjo playing on the album. And then there’s the delightful ‘The Three Friends’ learned from Leslie Haworth of Cheshire, England who created the song by adapting a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. On the surface it’s a fairy tale with animals (and a sausage) but with a philosophical edge and is sung and played wonderfully by West with a great contribution from Tracy Schwarz on fiddle.

Untitled is short with the eleven tracks running to around 35 minutes but who cares when we’re able to listen once more to the inimitable Hedy West. The late singer and scholar A.L. Lloyd believed that of all the women singers of the 1960s American folk song revival she was “by far the best of the lot”. Years later the continued unearthing of these recordings just reinforces that view.

Untitled is out now on Fledg’ling Records.

http://www.fledglingrecords.co.uk

Joseba Sarrionandia – Gure Oroitzapenak

Posted April 25, 2019 by powerofokinawa
Categories: Basque Music

Joseba Sarrionandia is a special name in the Basque Country. The prolific poet writes in Euskara, the Basque language, and has achieved iconic status in his homeland despite being exiled from there for a long time.

In 1980 he was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for his alleged connections with the Basque separatist group ETA but subsequently, in 1985, he staged a sensational escape by hiding in the loudspeaker of the Basque singer Imanol who had come to the prison to give a concert. He has been a fugitive ever since fleeing to various countries and using different names and passports but has now been settled for many years in Cuba.

As mentioned before on this blog, there is a strong connection between singers and poets and between music and literature in the Basque lands. Many of Sarrionandia’s poems have been set to music and turned into songs by a variety of artists. In fact, there have been about 150 songs recorded with lyrics by the poet since another iconic Basque singer Ruper Ordorika began the trend in 1983.

Gure Oroitzapenak (Our Memories) is an ambitious project involving the collection of poems and music which has taken three years to complete. It is now available as a hardback book of 127 pages published by Elkar. The book comes with two CDs containing a total of 32 songs, each by a different singer or band, and well over two hours of music.

The songs on the CDs are by musicians from different genres and generations,  The recordings chosen include those by famous Basque names such as Mikel Laboa, Ruper Ordorika, Oskorri, and Imanol, as well as Iker Goenaga, Ken Zazpi, Fermin Muguruza, the triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider, and a fine track by Gontzal Mendibil. But there are also many new recordings especially created for this project by significant contemporary artists. Among these are songs by Mikel Urdangarin, Rafa Rueda, Zea Mays, and Libe.

The poems cover a wide range of topics but the recurring themes, not surprisingly, are prison and exile and the meaning of freedom. In addition to the lyrics of all the songs the book contains twelve poems by Sarrionandia that were the subject of a collective film by twelve different directors. The film was presented at the San Sebastian Film Festival last September. The book also has some illustrations and a detailed list of all the recordings of songs made with Sarrionandia’s lyrics from 1983 to the present.

The book is published entirely in the Basque language but it’s fitting here to conclude with two very brief examples to give a tiny flavour of Sarrionandia’s poetry in English translation. The poem ‘Errua’ (Blame) was recorded by the band Gose in 2014 and is included on CD2. It begins:

When we were children we witnessed the return of / persons destroyed by the old war, / prison and exile, who passed by in the rain / bearing all the blame of an entire people

Its repeating verse is:

Do not take from me the blame, my blame / nor this ancient blame of our people. / Because without blame I have nothing / It would be as if I had done nothing.

The poet explains that errua (blame) is: “A shackled word, in truth, but allow me to use it, as it is all that is left me. Our people have no rights, because they are culpable, according to those who deny them, for having fought for those rights.”

The opening song on CD2 is ‘Martin Larralde’ a moving live recording from 2008 sung by Ruper Ordorika. As it begins, Sarrionandia’s words evoke images of the lost homeland:

Green fields, whitewashed houses and red-tiled roofs, / a gendarmerie car / picks its way slowly through a flock of sheep. / Prayers in the church / and in the home, the age-old imprecations softly rising / like smoke in winter.

Joseba Sarrionandia’s legacy will be of great importance and Gure Oroitzapenak is a fitting tribute to his poetry in words and music.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus