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1. TAKASHI HIRAYASU / YUU
It’s difficult for me not to be influenced by my personal affection for Takashi Hirayasu having worked with him for many years while I was in Japan and a little bit since too. Takashi has been talking to me about a ‘new album’ for ages and had some quite clear ideas as to what that album would be. This, is a bit different to what he had talked about, and I must admit to feeling slightly nervous when I first put it on. Fortunately though, if anything, it exceeded my expectations. It’s a lot more simple than the original ideas I heard about, but inventive enough to make it stand out as different from anything else from Okinawa. It has quite a variety of sounds from upbeat to slow to traditional. His personality exudes from every track and producer Gerhan Oshima has done a great job too.
2. OKI DUB AINU BAND / UTARHYTHM
Okay, another artist I know well, possibly clouding my judgement, but again this a genuinely great album. Perhaps not their absolute best, yet still full of great ideas; political, angry, pulsating, dynamic. Oki Dub Ainu Band seemed to have cemented their reputation in Japan in the last few years for their brilliant live shows as well as around the world.
3. RYUICHI SAKAMOTO / IKARI
I must admit to finding it difficult to keep up with all the new Ryuichi Sakamoto albums, re-releases, soundtracks etc. This is the best of the bunch, a soundtrack to a film that I would love to see. His trademark sound permeates most of it, and I can’t help but be entranced. Sakamoto has recently been nominated for a Grammy for The Revenant, but I probably prefer this.
4. U TIN / THE MUSIC OF BURMA, BURMESE GUITAR
Last year the same record company put out another album of Burmese guitar and another of Burmese piano. This year’s release is just as good, if not better. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information in the booklet or online so we are just left with a superb CD and an intriguing You Tube video. Burmese slide guitar, takes its place alongside Vietnamese, Indian, and other slide guitar traditions.
5. E-DO / YEOMINROK
When I lived in Japan there was probably more Korean music in the ‘world music’ sections of record stores than anywhere else in the world. Virtually everywhere else none. Since then the profile of Korean music has significantly increased, not just because of Gangnam Style but also the Korean government putting lots of money into supporting Korean artists performing at festivals and events around the world. One of my favourites is cheolhyeongeum (iron zither) player Yu Kyung Hwa and here she is with a band on what is an extraordinary album.
6. METAFIVE / META
Any band featuring Yukihiro Takashi (YMO), Keigo Oyamada (Cornelius) and Tei Towa could be described as a ‘supergroup’ but it’s the lesser known, Japanese/Swedish, sometimes UK resident Leo Imai who is possibly the most impressive. Tracks range from Takahashi singing electropop to more rock based stuff with Imai on vocal duties. And all the other members are pretty good too.
7. KENGO SAITO / JAPANISTAN
When musicians live in a different country and culture they often think more about their own roots and come up with a new take on it, often influenced by their new surroundings. Such is the case with Kengo Saito, playing the Afghan lute the rubab on an album of Japanese traditional and folk tunes. The Indian and Arabic backing adds to the mix.
8. ARAGEHONZI / NANATSUOTO
I first came across this band when they were featured on a compilation of new Japanese roots music artists. Minyo, folk, bon-odori dances are still part of the Japanese psyche and every now and then someone emerges to take these types of music in new directions. Aragehonzi fit in this category with some clever new arrangements presented in a fresh way.
9. KUNIHIRO IZUMI / MOGARIBUE
Anyone who plays for Shibasashirazu is likely to grab my attention. There are so many great, inventive musicians playing a kind of underground, experimental, improvised, jazz, roots, and frankly unclassifiable music in Japan. Izumi is one of them and this album was quite a big surprise. He also plays guitar, saxophone and some crazy toy instruments. An album of shakuhachi but not as we know it.
10. KAHORU NAKAMURA / YUSURA, PLAYING THE GAKUBIWA
This is one of those strange records that sounded familiar in some ways, but totally unfamiliar in others. Biwa is one of the main traditional instruments in Japan, but I hadn’t heard this style before. Turns out most of the tracks were ancient and long lost compositions which Nakamura has put her interpretation to. At the same time they sounded quite new in their repetitive style, like avant garde music played on a traditional instrument. Intriguing.
Another Top 10 that is also a radio show.
This show was inspired by the re-released, re-mastered version of Shoukichi Kina’s Bloodine in November 2016, that originally came out in 1980.
In no particular order the Top 10 are
One of the first albums of Okinawan music I had heard of but not actually listened to, back in the late 1980s when I had a record shop in London. Folk Roots editor (as it was called back then) Ian Anderson had selected it in his ‘playlist’ for the Stern’s Tradewinds newsletter. It was impossible to buy anywhere back then, but was quite sought after partly because it featured Ry Cooder. When I went to Japan in 1989, I managed to find the album and loved it. The famous track, Hana, is brilliant and probably the best track and still my favourite version with the incredible vocals of Tomoko Kina. But other tracks are fantastic too. It’s on the short side (30 odd minutes) but every minute is perfect. It was the first CD to be listed in the Far Side Music catalogue of 1991, and we sold quite a few. I spent New Year of 1990/91 with Kina in Okinawa for a Folk Roots article that appeared in the April 1991 edition.
2. NENES / IKAWU (1991) (OKINAWA/JAPAN)
When this album came out it caused quite a stir. ‘World Music’ as a term, had caught in Japan and this was one of the albums that Japanese thought of as their own ‘world music’. Featuring Sadao China on sanshin, the four women singers and a sound mainly crafted by Kazuya Sahara it captured the spirit of the time, combining superb songs and production. It might not be their best album, but definitely the most influential. Again I went to Okinawa to interview them for Folk Roots in 1993, for a cover feature. A select band of western musicians too caught the Okinawa music bug thanks mainly to Nenes. There have been various reincarnations of Nenes ever since, but they don’t even come close to the original quartet.
3. CUI JIAN / ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ON THE NEW LONG MARCH (1989) (CHINA)
Cui Jian demonstrated the power of music with this album. He’d already gained some notoriety when he appeared on TV in 1986 in his army greens at the Workers Stadium. Nothing to My Name from this album, became the anthem of the Tiananmen Square protests in the year it was released. He was a regular down at the protests and following the crackdown he was forced into hiding. But he was soon back, touring in China, taking on the government, wearing a symbolic red blindfold, and having his tour cancelled for it. Brave, defiant, bold, principled, daring, inspirational, and let’s not forget a brilliant musician. He came to Japan in the early 1990s where I met him and saw him perform. Even my piece on him for the Japan Times got censored when I talked about Tiananmen as a ‘massacre’. First time that had happened!
4. LABOUR EXCHANGE BAND / LET US SING MOUNTAIN SONGS (1999) (TAIWAN)
Political bands are as much as rarity in Taiwan as on mainland China. Singer / songwriter Lin Sheng Xiang took on the establishment when a dam was being built in his hometown in the mountains of Meinung, that would have had devastating consequences for the locals. He joined the anti-dam campaign, formed a band and got local villagers to join in. This is the resulting album. And the best news of all, the dam never got built. I went to Taiwan and interviewed him for an article you can read. A gentle, unimposing figure on the surface, but with a fire that burns deeply within him. A really clever blend of western music and mountain music, both of which he grew up with.
5. RHOMA IRAMA / BEGADANG (1973) (INDONESIA)
A massive, million selling hit album (or cassette as it was at the time) especially the title track, confirmed Rhoma Irama as the King of Dangdut. A compelling mix of Indonesian, Arabic, Latin and Indian film music, dangdut became the street music of Jakarta and a music popular throughout Indonesia where normally local styles triumphed over national ones. This track has been released and recorded in various styles and versions, but the orginal perhaps best demonstrates the power and charisma of Rhoma Irama.
6. SITI NURHALIZA / SANGGAR MUSTIKA (2002) (MALAYSIA)
Okay, so I’m sure this is nowhere near Siti Nurhaliza’s most popular album (it was her eighth) but it sums up what makes Siti a special singer. Enormously popular at home, she sings pop but occasionally knocks out an album of traditional or Irama Malaysia. It’s bit like Adele occasionally releasing an album of English folk songs, or Beyonce a Cajun album. It does more to popularise the tradition and keep it alive than any government, stuffy organisation could ever do. It pays tribute to Malaysia’s greatest singer P. Ramlee, with covers of a couple of his songs, while praise should be given to producers/musicians Pak Ngah and S.Atan for cleverly mixing the past and the present.
7. POMPUANG DUANGJAN / NAPUNG KUNAN (1990) (THAILAND)
It’s difficult to find an album by Pompuang Duangjan that isn’t a compilation and I can’t even be sure that this one isn’t. I bought it in Thailand before she tragically died in 1992 aged just 30. So, I think it is an original album that I also had on cassette before finding it on CD. Her death was massive news in Thailand with thousands attending her funeral, but news also filtered into Japan where I was living at the time. I knew her as the country’s most famous singer of Luk Thung, a kind of country or folk music, from the poor region of central Thailand. She added synthesisers, which while in retrospect don’t sound great, at the time brought the music up to date and to the masses more than ever before. Some of it is pure pop, while some songs are of classic Luk Thung that suited her voice perfectly. And what a voice, gliding, hovering, around the melody but not in some contrived way you might hear today. Hers was the classic rags to riches story, although apparently much of those riches were taken away by unscrupulous managers and hangers on, meaning she couldn’t even afford hospital treatment when she needed it.
8. BYUNGKI HWANG / CHIMYANG-MOO, KAYAGUM MASTERPIECES VOL. 1 (1978) (SOUTH KOREA)
In recent years, the South Korean government through various organisations, has been keen to promote Korean traditional and roots music to the world. Much of it is great, but naturally these artists have built on what has come before. Byungki Hwang is probably Korea’s best known traditional musician and since the 1960s has done much to popularise the music, especially the kayagum (a kind of zither), both within Korea and around the world. This was his first full album (although he had previously made other recordings) recorded in 1978. The opening track Forest was composed in 1962, and was the first ever piece of a genre that became known as changjak kukak- or newly composed Korean traditional music. Before Byungki Hwang such a concept didn’t exist. A truly groundbreaking album that sounds as fresh today as ever.
9. KOTO VORTEX / KOTO VORTEX 1 (1994) (JAPAN)
When it comes to Japanese traditional music there are more revered musicians than Koto Vortex. Shakuhachi players such as Goro Yamaguchi, Hozan Yamamoto or Minoru Muraoka. Koto players such as Michio Miyagi, Tadao Sawai or Kazue Sawai. All of these musicians were innovators as well as traditional masters. However, I still come back to this album by the four women koto quartet Koto Vortex for raising the bar at the time, and setting the benchmark for a new generation. Etsuko Takezawa, Michiyo Yagi, Miki Maruta and Yoko Nishi, were all young musicians studying under the Sawai school operated by Tadao and Kazue. I had a friend who was also part of the school and he excitedly played me this album by four of his fellow students. I thought it was extraordinary, a feeling that has not changed over time. Playing as duos, trios or as a quartet it took koto music in a new direction. Koto Vortex only lasted a few years, this album was self released with little fanfare and they only recorded one other album. All have gone to have successful solo careers and have continued to take koto music in new directions and inspire others who have taken on their mantle. Somehow though, the magic of the four of them at this place in time, mesmerising, spellbinding, hypnotic yet highly accessible has never been surpassed.
10. HARUOMI HOSONO / TROPICAL DANDY (1975) (JAPAN)
This is another album I picked up in the late 80s on my first visit to Japan. I was into all kinds of world music mixtures, and this fitted the bill; Latin, jazz, Caribbean, Chinese, Japanese, New Orleans, Hawaiian. What was it? Tropical? Exotica? It was therefore a surprise to find out it was recorded nearly 15 years before in 1975. Haruomi Hosono however has always been ahead of the game. Pioneering the folk scene in the early 70s and later electronic music with Yellow Magic Orchestra. Tropical Dandy is the middle of a trio of albums in this vain, the others being Hosono House in 1973 and Taian Yoko (Bon Voyage Co.) in 1976. His influence in Japanese music even today runs deep. Haruomi Hosono. One of a kind.