Four years ago, when he was last featured in these pages, Makoto Kubota of Blue Asia, had looked at a photo of his geisha grandmother, and lamented the fact he hadn’t, in recent years, found any good Japanese music to work with.
Well, that’s all changed with the latest Blue Asia album, Sketches Of Myahk, Blue Asia being Kubota’s project with Malaysian producers Mac Chew and Jenny Chin and fellow Japanese Yoichi Ikeda.
“I never thought there is such a deep rich folklore in my own country. It was a big surprise’ he says. After recording trips that have included Vietnam, Thailand, Morocco and Bali, his latest destination of choice is Miyako and other nearby islands, part of Okinawa prefecture in the deep south of Japan.
“I went there about two and a half years ago and I thought, wow, this place has a different vibe and culture, and eventually I noticed they speak a different language. Like Portugal to Spain, Okinawa is to Miyako and naturally the music is different too.”
“This traditional type of music in Miyako is my type of music. It’s serious folkloric, being sung by real fishermen and farmers, not professionals. There’s no musical education, no authority, no committee, no school, not even music score. They inherited the music by ear and by mouth. They never used to have the shamisen either, it was just handclaps, stamping the ground and voices. Real folklore. It’s vanishing quickly now though”
One of his discoveries was a group of grandmothers, some in their eighties, who he nicknamed Harneys Sarahama. They feature on a couple of the stand out tracks on the album.
Kubota believes he got there just in time. “This was a now or never project. If I hadn’t recorded this it could have disappeared. I met ten to fifteen old ladies who could sing. They had roles in local rituals, but most of them were hesitant. I kept asking and eventually I got lucky. They know this is a wonderful thing to carry the tradition. ”
While the oldest performers were in the eighties, the youngest was just ten, singer and sanshin player from Irabu island, Yuta Fukushima. “I found him on You Tube” explains Kubota. “I went to Irabu and asked at a little shop, showed them my computer, and the guy there said he could be the grandchild of Hojo Fukushima, a folk music maestro. He called straightaway and spoke to his grandmother who said her grandchild was living on the main island of Miyako. I got the number, called and spoke to him and his mother. He was 100% ready. They picked me up at my hotel, took me to their home and we started recording. That was the quickest demo I have ever made.”
I wondered what it was that made the music of Miyako so special. “Miyako was left alone for a long long time, for ten centuries or more, and the people, music and culture developed in its own way” explains Kubota. “They don’t sing for tourists, they sing for themselves, to encourage themselves, because they had a harsh, heavy taxation for hundreds of years. They have a lot of reasons to sing the blues, just like black people did in the new continent.”
“In Miyako they have more spiritual songs than working songs, praying to the gods. These songs are called kamiuta. All the words written in this kamiuta form are very close to ancient Japanese of sixteen or seventeen centuries ago. It seems they have something we lost, and when they start singing those old songs, some five or ten centuries old, you feel an ancient wind coming to you. ”
The only recognized musician was Satoru Shimoji, who has released several albums over the years. “He’s now about 50 years old” says Kubota, “he moved to Tokyo when he was young playing rock music, but then went back to Miyako and started reviving the old songs. He’s a great musician and good singer. We might make a new album together.”
Apart from these ‘field’ recordings, other tracks feature long deleted and obscure recordings from the 70s that Kubota came across, to which he, and to a lesser extent his Blue Asia pals, have added guitar, bass, beats and keyboards. At times it does feel more like a solo Makoto Kubota album than a Blue Asia album. “Yes, I think that’s true, although I still wanted it to be a Blue Asia album, but we’ve decided not to make another ‘Hotel’ album”; their previous albums all being prefixed by the word ‘Hotel’ before Vietnam, Bangkok, Morocco etc..
Back in the 70s Kubota was one of the first people to spread the word on the Okinawan music of Shokichi Kina. In 1980 he worked with Ry Cooder on Kina’s classic album Bloodline that featured the beautiful voice of Kina’s then wife, Tomoko. Apparently Kubota has been in touch with Cooder, suggesting they make a new album with Tomoko. That will be something worth waiting for. In the meantime though, there might well be another Blue Asia Miyako island album. Despite, he says, spending too much of his time and money travelling to Miyako (‘nine times in two and half years-crazy’) Kubota is keen to continue working there.
“In Miyako the people are very straightforward. They tell you the story that they know. There are no gimmicks, there’s no cheating and they’re very spontaneous. You feel they are proud and have nothing to hide. When you hear it, this Miyako music sung by 80 year olds, it goes straight to your soul.”
Go to the Shopping Page for Makoto Kubota and his Miyako island CDs and Sketches of Myahk DVD
Originally published in fRoots magazine in April 2010. Sketches of Myahk, a film documenting the story, was subsequently released on DVD and shown at selected cinemas