In Koza, now known as Okinawa City, musical rivalries run deep. Ever since Shokichi Kina and Champloose (featured in FR. 94 ) had a hit in Japan with Haisai Ojisan in 1977, there’s been a long running dispute as to who was the first to combine local min’yo with rock or whether Japanese musicians hijacked Kina’s ideas or vice versa.
A fierce pride and a sense of ‘us and them’ is probably strongest in the Kina camp, and being a member of Champloose almost akin to belonging to a cult. As guitarist with Champloose, Takashi Hirayasu had a hand in arranging some of the band’s material, and was an important contributor to the classic album ‘Bloodline’ featuring Ry Cooder. For Hirayasu, leaving such a tight knit group after an association of 15 years, was as much a statement of belief as musical conflict.
“Even before Shokichi Kina, there was that mixture of rock and min’yo, and anyway, who was first or second doesn’t matter to me.” he says. “There’s the Kina ‘camp’, and Rinken (of Rinken Band) but instead of keeping to themselves, I think it’s best to play with non-Okinawans. Kina was always jealous of other musicians and didn’t want to play with anyone else. Of course I like Kina’s music but I want to play music with many different people. I like all kinds of rhythms, such as African, Caribbean and Southern rock, but Kina only liked Okinawan rhythm. ”
The opening of Kina’s nightclub ‘Chakra’ in Okinawa’s biggest city Naha was another factor in his decsion.”I think I played at Chakra for about two months, but it was always the same songs every night for tourists, it was terrible. Kina is like a businessman, he’s always busy, but you can’t write new songs like that.”
Hirayasu started his career in the 70s playing blues, r&b and rock at the bars and clubs surrounding the American military bases on Okinawa island. He discovered an interest in traditional Okinawan ‘shima-uta’ (island songs) in his early 20s, through Tsuneo Fukuhara the near legendary musician, producer and owner of Marafuku Records, the oldest and most respected label in Okinawa.
He took up the sanshin,the Okinawan three stringed snake skin banjo, alongside guitar and joining Champloose gave him the opportunity to fully expand his ideas for combining shima uta with rock. “I’ve known Kina since we were at high school, and then University so we kind of grew up together. I played with Champloose on and off for years. I did the Bloodline album first, and then was on a few other records. I left one time before but came back, and then left again about three years ago. After I went to India to relax, I just needed to get away from Okinawa at that time.”
After coming back he played solo in local clubs, before the chance to record his first album came about. Most of the songs on the album, ‘Kariyushi no Tsuki’ are Hirayasu originals, and in addition to vocals, he plays the Okinawan three stringed lute, the sanshin. “None of the backing musicians on the album are Okinawan, because they only understand either Okinawan or American rock rhythms. I went through several auditions but they were too heavy, I wanted a lighter rhythm section. Of course I’m Okinawan so the melodies are Okinawan and I sing in the Okinawan dialect. For me, this album is like the culmination of all my experiences and influences. From the Ventures when I was 16 to James Brown, Allman Brothers, Indian and African music. I had a very clear image in mind of the music before I went into the studio so it was very easy to record. ” The album was produced by Takashi Nakagawa and Hiroshi Kawamura of Japanese group Soul Flower Union, and included is a cover of the Soul Flower classic song, ‘Mangestu no Yube’. “Nakagawa and Kawamura really understood my music, so the whole recording just went very smoothly” he says.
Also featured on a couple of tracks is former Nenes vocalist Misako Koja. Champloose and Nenes members recording together would have been almost unthinkable before. ” I’ve always loved Misako Koja’s voice” enthuses Hirayasu, “she’s almost like a blues singer. Most Okinawan singers, such as Champloose have a high voice, but hers’ is deeper. It was a great honour to record with her.”
Did he have any fears about making the jump from backing musician to taking over the vocals as a solo artist. ‘No, I’ve always sung, so I had a lot of confidence. This might be my first solo album, but actually it doesn’t feel like that at all.” Does he worry about forever being cast with the ‘ex-Champloose guitarist’ tag. “No. I don’t mind being associated with Champloose at all, and people will probably forget anyway after a year or two. It’s also fine if people compare my music to Champloose, the music is quite different I think. ”
Originally published in fRoots magazine, 1998.