Rinsho Kadekaru was born at Nakahara in Goeku Village in the centre of Okinawa on July 4th 1920. He began playing sanshin at the age of seven, and by the time he was 15 started to participate in his village’s all night revelries known as mo-ashibi. These were outdoor parties that took place in open spaces on the outskirts of farming villages. Young people would sing, dance and drink, often until dawn, then do a full days hard labor in the fields, and party again the next night. The highest musical standards were maintained and Kadekaru soon gained a reputation for his sanshin playing and was often invited to perform at other village’s jamborees.
Successive authorities attempted to ban the mo-ashibi, these unruly gatherings were thought to be immoral, but they flourished until just before the second world war. In the pre-war years there are stories of parents encouraging their children to take part in the mo-ashibi every night, in the hope they would fail the medical for military conscription due to exhaustion.
After the war, and the US occupation, the mo-ashibi was outlawed for good. Kadekaru stayed on the islands of Saipan and Tinian returning to Okinawa in 1949. His reputation had not been forgotten and he became one of the pivotal figures in the post-war Okinawa folk boom. He recorded nearly 250 songs for local record labels, more than any other musician.
His reputation and prolific output earned him the title of “The Godfather of Shima Uta”. He continued to perform until his death in October 1999.
Tetsuhiro Daiku was born in 1949 on Ishigaki Island, the most populated of the Yaeyama islands. Situated 429km south-west of the main Okinawan island, these sub-tropical islands are the very last trickle of Japan. On a clear day it’s possible to make out the mountains of Taiwan, just over 100 km to the east.
Yaeyama shima uta (island songs) has fundamental differences to that of the main Okinawan island such as the scale and vocal technique. Yaeyama shima uta was just a vocal music sung outside while working in the fields. These working songs are called Yunta and Jiraba. The sanshin, the three stringed snake-skin lute, at the heart of Okinawan shima-uta, was only incorporated into Yaeyama shima uta about 100m years ago, as opposed to Okinawa where the sanshin can be traced back 600 years. Yaeyama shima uta has close connections with south east Asia, as opposed to China.
At the age of 19, Tetsuhiro Daiku moved to the main Okinawan island port city of Naha. He subsequently won several prizes for sanshin and fue (flute) playing as well as obtaining teaching licences. He has run three sanshin schools, and estimates to have taught over 1000 students.
Testsuhiro Daiku made several recordings from the 1970s mainly for local release in Okinawa. In 1991 his career took an unexpected twist after meeting Japanese saxophone player Kazutoki Umezu. The two collaborated with an ever-growing number of other musicians on a series of groundbreaking albums. His acclaimed Japanese debut CD Yunta and Jiraba was released in 1993 and featured Japanese jazz saxophonist Kazutoki Umezu. The follow up CD Uchina Jinta was released in 1994 and was praised for it’s enterprising mixture of Okinawan music and Japanese chindon (brass band street music). He has gone on to record several albums of pure traditional Yaeyama, music while at the same time keeping a foot in the more experimental world. Other albums have featured Indonesian gamelan, rock, and most recently avant-garde Japanese musicians on the Makoto Kubota produced Blue Yaima.
He is one of Okinawa’s most respected and travelled musicians having performed in Europe, America, South America and Africa.
Jiang Jian Hua, is a leading exponent of the Chinese two stringed fiddle, the erhu, who through technical genius and innovative interpretation, has helped to bring the erhu into the world domain. Her list of credits is impressive in stature and range. From performing with the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, to Ryuichi Sakamoto and “The Last Emperor”.
The fascinating story of Jiang Jian Hua began in Shanghai, born into a musical family in 1961. Her uncle, Tang Chujen Gui, was, and still is, a master player of erhu, and from a very young age, Jiang Jian Hua studied under her uncle. Her Mother was from a very large family, and Jiang Jian Hua was one of ten erhu players. Including other instruments the family ensemble of cousins performing together would often number fifteen.
During the Cultural Revolution in China between 1966 and 1976, western classical music disappeared from the scene completely. Jiang Jian believes that otherwise there would now be many more Chinese players of Western classical music. Renowned Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, although of Japanese parentage was born in Manchuria China, and just after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 visited China. When he performed a Brahms Symphony, the audience were moved to tears, and the concert was also an extremely emotional moment for Ozawa. His father had never managed to return to China before he died, and as a tribute to his father Ozawa placed a photograph of him on the conductor’s stand. At the age of 12 , Jiang Jian Hua, had entered the Central Conservatory of Music in China in Beijing . Ozawa also wanted to listen to Chinese classical music and one afternoon visited the Conservatory. Despite her age of just 14, Jiang Jian Hua was selected to play for Ozawa. She performed ‘Er Quan Ying Yue’, and Ozawa sat and cried through the performance. Not only was he touched by the music of his birthplace and the recent tragic history, but also the emotional sensitivity of her playing. That evening he returned to hear her play once again.
Jiang Jian Hua was singled out as a protégé of the erhu from a young age and partook in a special course at the Conservatory, that included piano and composition. The wife of Chairman Mao, Jiang Quing, was a patron of the Conservatory, and Jiang Jian was on each occasion chosen to perform for her on her bi-annual visits. Jiang Jian Hua remained at the Conservatory until she was 22 years old, turning from a student into a professor, virtually being a professional player throughout this time. At the age of 14 she joined the tour of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra to Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Jiang Jian played with a small ensemble of traditional musicians who supported the main Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble practiced for long hours, every day for eight months in preparation. They were told of the superiority of the Chinese nation, and that it was their responsibility to introduce the culture of China to the world. The ensemble received raptuous applause wherever they performed, although from this age Jiang Jian was impressed with western countries, and perhaps realised that China was not quite as wonderful as she had been told throughout her life.
Another turning point in her life occurred in November of 1978, when one of the world’s premier orchestras the Berlin Philharmonic, under Herbert Von Karajan, visited China for the first time. Jiang Jian Hua after the concert performed at a party for the members of the Orchestra. She played one of the most difficult classical pieces for violin , Pablo de Sarasate’s Gypsy piece ‘Zigeunerweisen’. At the end of the performance, the Berlin Philharmonic’s principle violinist was completely astonished by her technical dexterity and her new arrangement to suit the two stringed erhu. He invited Jiang Jian Hua to Berlin to learn the violin, and offered his support to lobby the Chinese authorities to issue her with a visa. However, despite his generosity , Jiang Jian Hua decided not to take the offer up, but to continue playing the erhu, the instrument she was born to play. At the airport on the way back to Berlin, Herbert Von Karajan, who too had been entranced by her performance took Jiang Jian’s face in his hands and expressed how he had been touched and had felt the passion in her playing. However, this was not to be the last the Berlin Philharmonic would hear of Jiang Jian Hua.
In 1988, the Berlin Philharmonic invited her to Berlin to play an erhu concerto with the full orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Herbert Von Karajan, was sick at the time, but was much looking forward to hearing this very special performance. Sadly it was not to be. On the same day as the concert Herbert Von Karajan died and the whole performance turned into a tribute for the conductor, who had taken the Berlin Philharmonic to the status as perhaps the world’s most revered orchestra.
The first time Jiang Jian Hua had played erhu together with a western orchestra was in 1978, and this also heralded a new era for the instrument, which hitherto had simply been played as a Chinese traditional instrument. She first performed an erhu concerto with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Festival in the US. It is believed that only Jiang Jian Hua possesses the technical ability and flexibility to play the erhu with a western orchestra.
She has subsequently toured America on five occasions, performing with the San Francisco Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1990 she played at the 100 year anniversary celebrations of the Carnegie Hall in New York with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. She had not played with them for 15 years, when as a young teenager she had toured overseas as a traditional instrumentalist. This time, she performed an erhu concerto and subsequently undertook a one month tour of the United States with the orchestra, across seventeen cities.
In addition, Jiang Jian Hua has played in Africa and throughout Asia, including her native China, her adopted country Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Erhu is a familiar instrument to the Chinese people living in these countries, and many have expressed their gratitude to Jiang Jian for bringing back their traditional music to them.
When Ryuichi Sakamoto composed the score for the 1987 Bernardo Bertolucci movie The ‘Last Emperor ‘he had no difficulty in choosing which soloist and instrument would best convey the atmosphere of the film. Jiang Jian Hua’s haunting improvisation passages were the soundtracks most memorable moments. The greatest tribute possible was paid when Sakamoto won an Oscar for the best movie soundtrack. The Oscar win became big news in China, and the name of Jiang Jian Hua was heralded as a heroine of Chinese music.
Jiang Jian Hua currently resides in Tokyo although she travels widely throughout the world. She performs with all the major Japanese orchestras, has been featured on numerous TV programmes and is a visiting Professor at several Universities. She has gone on to record several albums for Japanese record companies in a diverse range of styles.
Yoshiki Sakurai is as unassuming in person as he is on stage. He would be the last to tell you he is one of Japan’s most talented guitarists. He is used to being in the background, playing a variety of styles with different musicians. He stands expressionless as he lets fly with complicated riffs and rhythms, and like anyone who’s really good at something he makes it look easy. I’ve seen him play African guitar with Mandinka, avant-garde world mixtures with Strada and Cicala Mvta, Hawaiian guitar with Sandii and tango with Ryota Komatsu. He’s also played on several of my favorite Okinawan albums, including by Tetsuhiro Daiku and Tsuha Koutoku.
Sakurai is also leader of his own band, Lonesome Strings, a quartet of all stringed instrument players. The other three are similarly highly proficient musicians used to backing others up. Contrabass player Takayoshi Matsunga, who unexpectedly passed away in 2012 was best known as a former member of Japanese dub pioneers Mute Beat. He has been replaced by Manabu Chigasaki. Genichi Tamura who plays Hawaiian, pedal steel and National steel guitar has worked with Calypso/dub outfit Little Tempo, while Satoshi Hara has being playing banjo with Japan’s Tsugaru shamisen wonderkids, Yoshida Kyodai.
“We originally got together at the beginning of last year to record an album” said Sakurai in 2001, ”the basic idea being simply to record string instruments together.” He says he was influenced by “nobody in particular”, but when pressed his answers to his own favourite guitarists give some clue to their sound, John Fahey and Bill Frisell. Like much of Frisell’s music “New High Lonesome Sound” would make a great soundtrack with it’s atmospherics and change of moods. “I suppose the root of the music is American folk, but a lot of it just came together in the studio or at rehearsals” says Sakurai. Bluegrass, African, Hawaiian, blues and klezmer are just some of the elements swimming around in the mix.
Sakurai admitted to difficulty in adjusting to leading a band for the first time. “You have to worry about so many things. Yes, it’s difficult.” he says resignedly. Fortunately, he’s not talking about musical matters. That comes naturally.
The band have gone on to release several studio and live albums and regularly play in Tokyo, often with a guest vocalist, most notably Mari Nakamura, who they have also recorded two albums with.
Find Lonesome Strings CDs here
Yasuaki Shimizu is an internationally active composer, producer and saxophonist. Since the 1970s, Shimizu has been pushing the limits of the saxophone, and exploring new avenues in an unparalleled musical career. Whether as a solo performer, with his group “Saxophonettes” or as a composer for Film and Video soundtracks, he has consistently defied music barriers, and has earn’t the respect of musicians throughout the world.
He first came to prominence as a member of the rock band Mariah, during which time he also released acclaimed solo albums, such as IQ 179(1981) that featured Ryuichi Sakamoto and Kakashi (1982) which pushed the boundaries of avant jazz and experimental music.
From 1985 until 1989 he lived in Paris, immersing himself in the multi-cultural society. He subsequently recorded in Paris and London.He is also known for the extraordinary locations of his concerts and recording locations. These have ranged from concerts at mountainside temples, to a Tokyo underground car park. Recording locations have included a stone quarry, and a warehouse.
In 1996 he released the first volume of Cello Suites (1-3), the first ever recorded tenor saxophone interpretation of Bach’s Suites for unaccompanied cello.
These are regarded as the “Old Testament” of the cello repertoire. The recording received universal acclaim, and won a Japan Record Taisho award in 1997, the Japanese equivalent of a Grammy. He subsequently released Cello Suites 4,5,6 in 1999.
Shimizu’s recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites were championed by the late UK broadcaster Charlie Gillett, and received regular airings on his BBC World Service show.
In 2006 he formed Saxophonettes II, a quintet of three tenor and two baritone saxophones. and released the album Pentatonica. In 2010 he performed live Bach’s Goldberg Variations for five saxophones and four contrabasses. An album of new interpretations arranged by Shimizu will be released in Spring 2015.
His list of collaborators both studio and live include Ryuichi Sakamoto, Koji Ueno,Helen Merrill, Kazumi Watanabe, Towa Tei, Toshinori Kondo, Björk, Bill Laswell, Elvin Jones, Yosuke Yamashita, Van Dyke Parks, Manu Dibango, David Cunningham and Wasis Diop.
Quotes about Yasuaki Shimizu.
“He is a truly one and only performer, for power, spirit and pride. He has the ability to encompass any kind of music.” Haroumi Hosono.
“His sax playing is adult, but at the same time almost childish in it’s simplicity. There is no one else like Yasuaki Shimuzu.” Tei Towa
Seijin Noborikawa was born in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan on 18th November 1932 and moved to Okinawa as a child. A sanshin player from childhood he performed as a backing musician for the Matsuda Gekidan Theatre Group, where he perfected the traditional style and first met another Okinawan musical great, Rinsho Kadekaru, an association that would last a lifetime. Noborikawa later worked on an American base where he heard and digested the American hit songs of the day, an influence that crept into his own music.
Seigwa, as he was often called, was one of the founding members and later president of the Ryukyu Min’yo Kyokai, a traditional music society, and taught the sanshin to a 12 year old Sadao China. Nevertheless, he didn’t fit into the ‘traditional’ musician category easily. He didn’t usually dress in kimono, or only sing traditional repertoire but composed his own, anti-war and other protest songs, developed his own six string sanshin, the ‘rokushin’, and was known as the Okinawan ‘Jimi Hendrix’ for his fast sanshin playing.
In his younger years, he released relatively few albums. Some tapes and singles for Marafuku in the 1960s, an album for JVC in 1975, and then a comeback album in 1998, ‘Howling Wolf’. It was only after his starring role in the 1999 film Nabbie no Koi (Nabbie’s Love) that his fame spread to the rest of Japan. He later acted in the film Hotel Hibiscus (2002)
He was most productive on record in his 70s, releasing Spiritual Unity (2001) produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union, a duet album with Sadao China (2004), solo albums Suiko Jizai (2008) Fountain of Songs (2010)and a duet album with Misako Oshiro (2012)
Seijin Noborikawa died aged 80 on March 19th 2013 and is remembered as not only a great of Okinawan music, but also one of the great characters and personalities to come out of Okinawa.
If anyone could lay claim to being Japan’s greatest post-war contemporary musician, perhaps that would be Haruomi Hosono. Born in 1947 he has been at the forefront of developing and pioneering new styles of music for nearly 40 years, from folk and world to dance music via electronic, exotic and technopop.
Constantly way ahead of the times, Hosono has been Japan’s Bob Dylan and Brian Eno rolled into one, although that doesn’t really tell half the story. From the late 60s as bass player in Apryl Fool who arrived at the tail end of the Group Sounds movement, in the early 70s the seminal folk-rock group Happy End, one of the first groups to successfully put Japanese lyrics to western style folk music, through to early world music mixtures and exotica in the mid 70s, in 1978 he was one of the founders together with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi of the highly influential technopop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra. He went on to produce a number of artists, create soundtracks and music for video games and bring out a succession of eclectic releases from New Orleans r&b to ambient and lounge. The last ten years or so have been some of his most prolific to date with the formation of Sketch Show (with Yukihiro Takahashi), Human Audio Sponge (with Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto) HASYMO an amalgamation of the latter with YMO, the group Tokyo Shyness and latterly World Shyness. His place as a huge influence across the board has been cemented with two tribute albums featuring an array of musicians from both Japan and abroad and a tribute concert.
The Japanese may be well known for making the machines music is listened to, but little for making the music itself. In the west, some of the best known Japanese music is either the ancient traditional (taiko drums) or the hi-tech computer generated (Yellow Magic Orchestra) Micabox bring together these two diverse styles like nothing before, truly combining ancient and modern Japan. On Hinemosu kagura (music for the gods) minyo (local folk) and other Oriental sounds are mixed with the cutting edge electronics of Toshimi Mikami, together with help from his mentor, the legendary Haruomi Hosono (ex-YMO) and superb female vocalist Ayako Takato. This album was originally released in Japan by Daisyworld, the much respected label run by Haruomi Hosono.
Toshimi Mikami who has long been fascinated by the possibilities of electronic music, cites Haruomi Hosono among his main influences. He is not alone. Hosono who mixed and adds additional sounds to this CD has been a pioneering musician in Japan for several decades, at the forefront of creating Japanese rock music with the group Happy End, technopop with his group Yellow Magic Orchestra (along with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi) world music and electronic dance music. Still today Hosono is an inspiration for many of the new generation of innovative Japanese dance and experimental music creators.
When the term world music first came into wider usage in the mid 1980s, like other Japanese, Toshimi Mikami wondered what his own country had to offer. It took him a while to find it, but he discovered two types of homegrown music; kagura and minyo. Kagura “god music” is music and dance played at shrines, and is probably Japan’s most ancient surviving music. It has its roots in acts of magic in worship of the gods inhabiting the forest and sea. It has incorporated elements of noh and kabuki theatre, including the use of elaborate masks. Some of the instruments include the simple bamboo flute, the takebue an the large odaiko and smaller taiko drums.
Minyo meanwhile are local Japanese folk songs of which literally thousands exist, from the far north of Hokkaido to the deep south of Okinawa. Themes include fishermen pulling in nets, farmers planting crops, lullabies and weddings. Performers of minyo and other traditional styles belong mostly to quite conservative associations and updated versions are not always welcomed. It wasn’t until Mikami met female singer Ayako Takato in the Pan-Pacific Mongoloid Unit, a group run by Haruomi Hosono of which Mikami is also a member that Mikami had found a singer with the versatility to sing the tunes he had composed over a number of years. Thus Micabox was born. Hosono discovered Takato after she had sent him a recording of her extraordinary voice. She had classical training, had tried singing pop music, but it wasn’t until she joined the Pan-Pacific Mongoloid Unit and heard Mikami’s compositions that she found the music most suited to her voice. She too became fascinated with the worlds of kagura and minyo. Aside to performing together in the Pan-Pacific Mongoloid Unit, Toshimi Mikami is also a member’s latest group, Tokyo Shyness.
The album Hinemosu combines these ancient Japanese traditions and from other Asian countries especially China and Thailand with Mikami’s innovative electronic accompaniment. It sounds a bit like a snapshot of today’s Japan; where the grounds of an ancient, peaceful temple stands adjacent to the blazing neon of an advertising hoard. A curious mixture of the old and new, spiritual and hi-tech, serenity and chaos.
Takeharu Kunimoto started his music career playing flat mandolin in a bluegrass group, but when he was 19, switched to roukyoku and the shamisen. ‘Roukyoku at the beginning of the century was the popular music of the day, it wasn’t traditional music as such. The songs though hadn’t changed, so I thought I had better bring roukyoku up to date, and play music that is for now.” he says. Although his parents were roukyoku performers, he wanted to teach himself and learnt from listening to tapes. “I then bought a rhythm machine and got an idea to start playing shamisen with rock music, I wanted to break the old image of shamisen (this he demonstrates by playing me on his shamisen a version of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’! ). I first played at a venue for roukyoku, but young people wouldn’t come, and even the older people got fewer and fewer. I didn’t know what to do, so I tried playing in usual live houses, and thought if I mixed in rock music perhaps young people would come.’
In the mid 90s, Kunimoto’s voice and shamisen was championed in some quarters as ‘Japan’s world music’ and he went to France to record an album, with African musicians including Ray Lema and Brice Wassy, and a few years later recorded another album in New York. He had already forged connections in New York by taking part there in a John Zorn production called ‘Wakamono’. “I’ve always liked the comedy aspect of roukyoku, it’s not just singing but a performance, a bit like acting. In New York, people couldn’t understand what I said, but their reaction was somehow very natural, whereas a Japanese audience seems to have forgotten how to express their feelings naturally. There are certain call and response patterns that audiences in Japan are unsure about, so now I teach the responses. Everybody then feels they can join in, and that helps to bridge the gap between me and the audience.”
Kunimoto’s voice has been much in demand for television commercials, while his acting talents have earned him a part in the NHK period drama ‘Genroku Ryoran’. An effervescent and charismatic character, inevitably his shows are punctuated by his own unique brand of humor. Though mixing in rock and other music such as blues and boogie into his music, Kunimoto is still keen to perform the older roukyoku repertoire and has earned two awards from the National Theater of Japan. “Those songs have funny stories and news from the time, so I want young people to know about that too. I just don’t want them to have an image of roukyoku as an old classical tradition.”