Yasukatsu Oshima

The crossing at Roppongi is one of Tokyo’s busiest and seediest places. Men in black suits and women in red mini-skirts hand out leaflets for the strip shows, hostess bars and night clubs. On one corner is the Almond coffee shop, famed as a location for any meeting with a dubious agenda. Opposite, tucked away on the eighth floor of a building is “Wonderful Tonight”, a small Eric Clapton tribute bar.

It was here, surrounded by Clapton memorabilia that Yasukatsu Oshima, the man being touted as the young bright hope for traditional Okinawan music, got his professional start in music. Soon after I arrived in Tokyo in 1993, a friend had coerced me down to Wonderful Tonight- this was, after all, during Clapton’s rather annoying “MTV Unplugged” phase. Still, I was going to hear Okinawan music, or sort of. Oshima played acoustic guitar as well as sanshin (the Okinawan lute) and was joined by another acoustic guitarist. Aside to Okinawan tunes, they played what the Japanese call “folk” songs (anything from the 70s that featured an acoustic guitar), and a few western covers, probably Layla or something. Oshima had an infectious appeal; a likeable demeanour, a good voice and some excellent original songs. The gig left a lasting impression that would draw me to him a few years later.

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Almost exactly eight years on, and we’re once again in a slightly dodgy bar, this time attached to a London hotel. Today is Yasukatsu Oshima’s last day of a UK tour and tonight his last gig in London at the Spitz. “Wonderful Tonight was my start in music” muses Oshima. “I hadn’t played live before and didn’t really know what I was doing. In fact, I didn’t know anything.” Nevertheless, his first album was just about to come out, and on a major record company at that. “That was just lucky” he says with an embarrassed laugh. “I’d never played live before I released a record and before I recorded I’d never written a song. I once played at a gig in Tokyo with some friends of mine from back home in a band called Begin. Someone from a record company saw me and offered me a deal, just like that. So I did it. I’d come to Tokyo when I was twenty but only to work as a ‘salary man’ in a computer company, not to play music.”

Even allowing for Oshima’s modesty and self depreciation there has to be more to it to it than this. There is, although he did somewhat stumble upon the choice of music for a living. He grew up immersed in traditional music and his typically laid back Okinawan attitude belies a studious and respectful approach to that tradition and other music too.

Yasukatsu Oshima is from Shiraho on Ishigaki island, the biggest of the Yaeyama chain, the westernmost of the Okinawan islands. “Ever since I can remember I heard the sound of the sanshin. My grandfather and father would play every night in our house and at festivals. They are my biggest influences. From them I got to know all the Okinawan songs. My grandfather made sanshins and he gave one to me when I was about 10 years old. He was a farmer and a carpenter, one of those people who can do anything. Even now the sanshin I use was made by him. I never played it much though. I did try and study once but soon gave it up. I didn’t know much about music, not even the Beatles. I never had any records, never listened to the radio and was more interested in playing around on my bicycle. I wanted to be a hairdresser actually, and would cut my friends hair in return for a cigarette.”

Shiraho is an anonymous sort of village by the sea. It has however gained international attention in recent years, for the unique species of blue coral found off it’s coast. The WWF (the wildlife one) has had a boat moored there, researching the coral and supporting the local campaign against building an airport that would destroy it. Seeing the blue coral for yourself has become one of the main tourist activities in Ishigaki.

Shiraho is becoming equally known as a unique breeding ground for musicians. One of Okinawa’s greatest musicians, Yukichi Yamazato is from here, as is another young artist Yukito Ara, who with his band Parsha Club were once labeled leaders of the “new wave of Okinawan music”, but never quite realised their early promise.

“My friends, such as Ara were all into music” says Oshima. “Ara lived near me, but was one year older. I was in the same class at school as the people in Begin, so I learnt to play guitar a bit and played together with them for fun.”

After leaving school Oshima went to Naha, the biggest city on the main island of Okinawa, where he studied computers. He then got a job in Tokyo. “I worked for two years in a company. My only friends from home who were living in Tokyo were Begin, which is why I played music as well. I got more interested in sanshin at this time and traditional music. I didn’t have a teacher though, I just taught myself from tapes or CDs. I also saw lots of good players and studied from watching. At first I just copied the greats like Rinsho Kadekaru or Seijin Noborikawa. Gradually I developed my own style. The trouble with having a teacher is that it’s possible you end up playing too much like your teacher.”

Japanese traditional music is usually taught within a strict code by certified teachers. Self expression is not usually encouraged. Is Okinawa different? “Yes I think it is” says Oshima. “It’s not strict or laid down. Everyone has their own style. Kadekaru and Noborikawa are really different to each other.”

It was also at this time that Oshima says he began to develop his style of singing. In contrast to the essentially Western style vocals of say Shokichi Kina or Takashi Hirayasu, Oshima’s voice seems to be heavily rooted in the min’yo (original folk) tradition. “I think my voice is quite different from the old singers though” says Oshima. “I’m as much influenced by Kiyoshiro Imawano (a legend from that 70s Japanese “folk” scene). I started off copying everyone and from there developed my own style.”

According to Oshima, the musician I saw at Wonderful Tonight, was still very much in a period of transition. “When I listen to that first album now it’s a bit embarrassing, I’m playing guitar which I don’t do now, my way of singing is totally different. It’s not bad though, I was young and it has a certain power to it.”

That first album was called “Nishi Kaji Hai Kaji”, and given a long winded English translation “After the North Wind Comes the Fall, the Summer Comes after the South Wind”. The album gained a select band of admirers in the UK. One of the standout tracks was one of those first songs that Oshima had ever written, together with his old friend Eisho Higa from Begin, ” Irayoi Tsuki Yo Hama”. This song was admired by the head of a world music label in London, who described it as “one of those ‘We Are Sailing’ type Okinawan ballads.” Any link between Rod Stewart and Okinawan min’yo had escaped me, but he was dead right.

In major record company terms the album bombed. Oshima was eventually dropped and finished his residency at Wonderful Tonight. For the next few years he mostly disappeared from the scene.

Four years later I played that album to another major record company, JVC Victor, when asked to recommend an Okinawan musician to record. They liked what they heard and for a few months I tried contacting him, but all leads lead nowhere. Finally I tracked him down to Osaka, to where he had moved a year before.

I wasn’t the only one searching for him. Coincidentally so too were Off Note, an independent label responsible for some of Japan and Okinawa’s most creative roots releases , including the albums by another Ishigaki musician, Tetsuhiro Daiku. They wanted him to sing with a Japanese brass band, Orquesta Bore. The resulting album, “Ima du Wakari’ with the English title, “Now O Now, I Need Must Part” was a departure for Oshima. He didn’t do much more than just sing and play sanshin, it being fair to say it was the band (some of whom have recorded with Cicala Mvta, Tetsuhiro Daiku and others) and their arrangements that made it an extraordinary album.

Apart from this project, Oshima had been keeping a low profile, playing on the odd occasions, mostly at small bars. When I was to next see him, in front of a dozen or so people in a Tokyo suburb, his music had changed quite considerably. Gone was the guitar, and the ‘folk’ elements with it. Instead he sat alone, playing sanshin, singing mostly traditional songs with a voice to match and telling stories and the history of each song.

Most Okinawan musicians I’d known had started off playing traditional songs by themselves, then later had played with others and expanded their horizons. Oshima had done the opposite. “Yes, that’s because it’s the hardest thing I think to play by yourself, and once you can do it, it’s very satisfying. Once I’ve built that base then I can start playing with others, and it will then sound the better for it. The traditional tunes are the most fantastic music there is. I learn how to write my own songs from knowing those traditional songs. ”

Oshima’s first album for JVC Victor was called Ari Nu Tou. He was joined by three musicians, including Yukito Ara. It was roughly divided between traditional Yaeyama tunes and ones penned by Oshima himself, the two pretty much indistinguishable. Was this somehow his goal, to make what might be called the “traditional” songs of the future? ” That’s my absolute goal, the purpose of what I’m doing. That would make me happier than anything. There are so many songs in Okinawa, but there are only a few songs that everyone knows. Only the best songs become regarded as part of the traditional repertoire.”

Oshima’s latest, “Wagashima nu Uta” or “Songs of My Islands” features just Ohshima’s sanshin and voice and purely Yaeyama traditional tunes. The great elders of Okinawan music such as Seijin Noborikawa or Syoei Kina (Shokichi’s father) are now in their 70s. Shokichi Kina, Sadao China, Teruya Rinken or Takashi Hiraysu are either past or approaching 50. Oshima is just about the only musician in his 30s to be playing traditional Okinawan music. Is he on some kind of crusade to keep the real tradition going?

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“Not really, I don’t have the power to do that but as I’ve studied from those people above me, I would like to pass on the tradition to those below. Years ago there was only traditional music and nothing else which is why it has survived. Nowadays, there’s so many types of music. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and there’s still lots of people who like traditional min’yo, so it will survive.” And does he envisage ever going back to Okinawa one day to teach, as for example Tetsuhiro Daiku does? “Never, I can’t do that. I think it’s great that people do teach, but I didn’t study formally, so I can’t teach formally. Anyway, I’m still studying.”

On returning to Japan, Oshima was to start work on a new album. Earlier in 200I he had performed in Tokyo with a group called Chorro Club, featuring guitar, mandolin, violin, accordion and percussion. It seemed a natural combination, with Oshima totally at ease, and his repertoire given fresh and inspired arrangements. “For me this is the best group to play with.” he says. “Instead of accordion I’ll include a friend from Begin on piano who I’m writing the new songs with. It’s not that I don’t want to play only sanshin, but just that I find playing guitar and sanshin too difficult, especially live. I need to concentrate on just the sanshin, and then have someone else play guitar.”

Oshima is equally happy to perform solo wherever and whenever he can. “Playing live is the most enjoyable thing for me. Whether it’s in Tokyo, Osaka or Okinawa. I want to play abroad again and come back to England. This is the second time I’ve been to England. The first time was the Japanorama tour, with about 12 artists. then I only played about three or four songs for about twenty minutes. This time there’s just two of us, so I can relax. Here people don’t know Okinawan music at all so it’s so interesting gauging their reactions. Now I wish I could only explain the background of the songs. I’d better learn some English as well.” If the apparent speed with which he mastered traditional Okinawan music is anything to go by, expect him to be fluent.

Originally published in fRoots magazine April 2002

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David Darling & The Wulu Bunun

Probably the most common cross-cultural collaboration has been where the East meets the West. From Ravi Shankar and George Harrison to Sam Mills and Paban das Baul, via Shakti most have involved musicians from the Indian sub-continent. Far Eastern fusions may have been fewer, but a disproportionately high volume of western releases of East Asian music is of the collaborative kind. But are they are any good?

Well, there have been some pretty horrendous albums of the New Age variety usually featuring a spacey westerner searching for spiritual enlightenment and a connection to Zen Buddhism. Even the revered Ry Cooder has come in for some criticism. One Okinawan musician has told me how they started off with the best intentions of playing together ‘live’ in the studio, but Cooder was unable to follow the music’s distinct rhythm. The Okinawan group even swapped to a simple western beat, but with Cooder still unable to keep up, they ended up sending him to a booth with headphones on to get on with whatever he liked for the rest of the session. They were not impressed.

American cello player David Darling is refreshingly candid when talking about his collaborative experience with the indigenous Bunun people of Taiwan. At his London hotel on the day of the London performance with the Wulu Bunun, he is immediately warm, approachable, frank and gentle. He lets on he is excited yet slightly apprehensive about the evening’s performance. It’s probably his caring attitude and sympathetic approach which has helped make the album Mudanin Kata one of the most successful such collaborations in recent years.

“When we started the project, I said that I don’t like interfering with indigenous music” he explains. “The only thing I said I can guarantee is that I will not do it in a pop way. I will do it in my typical cello way, where I layer my cello on top and if they approve of it in the beginning I’ll complete it, but if they don’t like it wholeheartedly that’s fine with me.” Fortunately the Bunun singers did like it and weren’t afraid to say if they didn’t. “As it turned out they were very strong about not wanting their music to be messed with. On a number of occasions they told me they didn’t like a particular arrangement, and asked me to try something different.”

David Darling is probably best known for his three albums for the esteemed German contemporary music label ECM, although his latest album Cello Blue recorded for the American label Valley Entertainment earned him a Grammy nomination. He certainly came to the project with an interesting musical pedigree and perspective.

“I’m an American from the mid-west and grew up in very musical times in the late 50s. I was very excited about music but I wasn’t thinking I would ever be a professional musician, I was mostly involved with education and I taught for many years in different situations.”

The turning point in his career was listening to and then later joining the Paul Winter Consort in 1970. “I heard them early in my college life. They had a cellist and they played everything from Bach and Brazilian music to arrangements of standard tunes and I was fascinated. I was an improviser all through school. I was always messing about with piano, bass, cello, or saxophone so I gave Paul Winter my name never expecting him to call me, but three years later he calls me! The truth is he couldn’t find anyone to play sub at this gig but then he offered me this job with his band so I quit my nice job at the college and we went on the road. The Paul Winter Consort was quite a revolutionary band in the States. Paul Winter, who is a sax player, was a visionary of sorts. He was actually the first American to go to Brazil and bring bossa nova back, in 1962 or 1963 although nobody knows that.”

Darling spent the next seven years on the road with the Paul Winter Consort, discovering a whole new world of music. ” He loved to bring ethnic musicians from other countries into the band. In the late 60s I was living in Connecticut, and at Wesleyan University they had one of the best ethnomusicology departments in the US. L Shankar and others came to play some shows and my ears started going ‘wow’ and the African influence was happening so my whole mind started opening up. At the same time, the Paul Winter Consort opened up a whole vocabulary that I loved very much, improvising on the cello and starting to mess around with electronics. I had the first ever four string electric cello and the first eight string cello.”

In 1977 he decided to leave the group and turn solo. “Early on in the Paul Winter band, there was a guitarist called Ralph Towner. He had left the band way before me and was recording for ECM. He asked me to play on his new record so I went to Oslo. I only played 24 bars but Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM, heard me and asked if I’d like to make a solo record and that was my lucky break. I can’t thank him enough and I’m still working with him. At that first recording session he said just go ahead and I started playing this funky pop. Manfred comes out of the control room and says no just take the bow and improvise. Ever since we’ve had a marvelous time creating unique sounds which some people have loved. ”

People to have loved his ECM work include film directors Wim Wenders, Michael Mann and Jean Luc Goddard, all of whom have used Darling’s music in their films. “Jean Luc Goddard and Manfred know each other well. They get together and Manfred plays him things that maybe he would like and Goddard picked some of my music and it’s been in almost all of his films in recent times. ”

The recording with the Bunun singers came about indirectly from his association with ECM. “I had been in a group called The Sea Group for about six or seven years, with three extraordinary Norwegian musicians, Terje Rypdal on guitar, Jon Christensen on drums and the great author and musician Ketil Bjornstad. It was Manfred that put me in that group. The Taiwanese like all of the Asians know music form all over the world. It’s always surprising when you go there to tour and people know the music whereas the people from where you live don’t know it.”

“When we were touring there the second time, a producer called Sean Fu from November Music which distributed ECM, told us about a tribe that sings the most beautiful a cappella music. He asked if on our a day off we would like to go to this remote place and hear these indigenous people sing. We all said okay and we got on this bus, and after a while we were wondering if we had done the right thing because the trip had started to get very dangerous. They live at the top of one of the mountain ranges at about 7000 feet, and when it rains a lot, the roads just give way. There were no guard rails, nothing, and finally we get to what in America we would call an Indian reservation.”

“There’s one dirt street in the middle and two on the side, with a modern cement building the government has built where the children go to school. There are all these shacks and they’re sitting there with their dogs in these open houses, really poor. The village is called Wulu, and the people are called Bunun, one of the tribes who once existed on the island called Formosa now called Taiwan, before the Chinese ever came there. They say that Wulu village is one of the last villages to have really held on to the traditional a cappella singing. Everybody else is sliding into the western way. The chief of this tribe has insisted they sing and keep the tradition. The real saviour of the music though is Jin-niang Hu a women who I think left, got married, came back and established a hotel. She’s a Bunun and goes up there everyday and teaches the children songs and insists they learn.”


The Bunun had prepared quite a reception for their visitors. “We got off the bus and heard these children singing. They let us into the school building and there they were with their tribal costumes on, which they had put on because us westerners were coming. We listened to the children and we all loved it. They sang so beautifully and they don’t sing like children in my society with a high soft voice, they sing straight out. That’s the style the adults sing too and the children imitate them. Then the adults sang, also dressed in their tribal outfits, just for us, and it was okay. It wasn’t like it was killing me, as the children did. Then suddenly all the men, about fifteen of them, got up and put their arms around each other and started stepping to the right in a circle. They started doing the song Pasibutbut. It was outside so it was very soft but after about ten seconds we all knew the pitch had started slipping up micro-tonally and we were looking at eachother thinking, ‘can you hear what they’re doing?’ and it just blew all of our minds. ”

Pasibutbut also blew the minds of ethnomusicologists after it was ‘discovered’ by a Japanese musicologist Takatomo Kurosawa who presented it to a UNESCO conference in Paris in 1952. “There was a feeling that there was no such thing in early indigenous music that tribes could do that. Then when the musicologists found this out, nobody could believe it because they’d already written the history that music started a certain way and developed pentatonically, but this was revolutionary that a tribe had this way of singing. You see if I make a sound and slide it up it’s called glissando, and that’s what the Bunun were doing. They’re doing it so slowly that you almost don’t realise they’re sliding the pitch and at the same time as one Bunun puts the pitch there by himself, two or three others join him and thicken it. Then another adds the third or a fifth of a triad then three or four people join. Then the first pitch has already slid up so it’s now kind of out of tune so they keep going from in tune to out of tune, all the time raising the pitch up from soft to louder and louder. Pretty soon they’re at this amazingly high range and one of them signals to everybody that they’re almost at the end of their range. He makes a call and they know they’re going to end. Its a piece of music that lasts about seven or eight minutes. The men have their heads looking up towards the sky and it’s their most sacred piece. It’s meant to imitate the sound of bees and waterfalls.”

After this inauguration with the Bunun, Darling had no inkling of doing a collaboration of some kind. “We didn’t know that day they had something up their sleeves, that they were going to ask one of us if we wanted to do a project with them. Shu-Fang, who produced the record and was also at November Music at the time, I think wanted Ketil Bjornstad to do it, but he didn’t want to. So I finally signed up and we started the project.”

Two years later David Darling returned to Wulu. “We at first thought I would play solo cello along with them on location. So we started and got a few takes, but every time we listened to it we never thought it could ever be anything that we could use. It just wasn’t making it. So we decided pretty soon that we would forget my solo cello with them and that we would make a studio recording. So I went back to my own studio and put down whatever I came up with. It was not an easy process. They start in one pitch and slide up, they’re not perfect singers so they might start in A and pretty soon they’re in B flat. Well how are you going to arrange that? It was a big challenge and it was a long time before we could settle on how it would be and what it would be. We went around and around with certain ideas and everybody was on board contributing. I would send them a CD, then Shu-Fang would take it to them and they would listen. We had lots of arguments even about how to use a studio. Shu-Fang didn’t want to use studio tricks but I said well, let’s use a few. At least let’s tune them so we can use the arrangement so it sounds okay. We didn’t do much, and hopefully it stayed organic, and I’m sure it did.”

The recording of the singers continued as planned in a valley situated outside the village. “These songs are the basis of their culture, working songs, celebration songs, hunting songs, and I guess thousands of years old. Whether you live in the lower valley or the mountain everybody knows these songs. Everything they do is organic to their culture. We had to record them early in the morning because it was too hot in the afternoon and they had to work in the fields. We started around 6am and we had chosen a special spot, part of their countryside so it was natural to what they do. They were asked to start with a celebration song but came back and said they can’t do it because they’re not drunk. So they sent one guy back on a motor scooter to get their rice wine and they all drank a little and were happy and then they could sing it.”

Adapting the music for a live performance presented a new set of problems. “We had three days to rehearse. I was very worried right to the last moment. A wonderful women from Taiwan called Elaine was the liaison. She would take my new arrangements of the tracks to the Bunun and she would email me, saying well you need to cue it differently because they don’t know when to come in, so I was writing like mad for a month and a half. I would try another arrangement to cue them. They don’t know what a cue is, what’s that to a group of indigenous people? They just sing and on the record the introductions are quite planned esthetically. You hear the birds and the rainforest and my harmonics on the cello and then you hear singing. On some of the pieces where they sing melodies they don’t know where to come in because I didn’t cue the melodies on the record. I just made the most beautiful, most organic piece of music I could. So I had to rethink that and take the melody and try a new introduction and get one of the violins to play the melody and say to them ‘when you hear that you come in next’, so we could play the arrangements.”

“Then there are interludes on the record when they stop singing and then they have to come back in. Well if you don’t cue them, how will they know? I was worried about the whole tour whether it’s as cool and organic and shining as the record. I’m very satisfied with the record and everybody that helped me had good ideas. But on this tour I’ve been asking my colleagues saying ‘I don’t feel good about this, how you do you feel?’ I’ve been concerned that when you start cueing it becomes like a vaudeville show. ”

In contrast to the record, on stage Darling does get to improvise his cello together with the singers. They have a number of songs which are very rhythmic, and for the album I made arrangements of two of them. One is like shouting, it’s part of a celebration and they really make a lot of noise and the women are dancing and I thought this sounds like blues to me. So I was playing a quasi-blues which I liked a lot. They were not sure but finally said okay and it did make it on the record. When it came to figuring out how we were going to do it live for this tour, they said we can’t do it live, you have to make a different beat. So I made a new arrangement with a different beat but it didn’t work at all. So finally we decided I would just play along with them and I do insinuate the three chord blues but it’s not full blown.”

For the concert tour, they were joined by the British string quintet Quietus. “They’re wonderful musicians and it turned out great. They contributed a lot, as they’re not just classical players but they improvise, so they’ve been pliable in helping with some of the curves we’ve had to do just to get through some pieces.”

David Darling however was keen to ensure the stars of the show were the twenty three Bunun singers. “We were smart enough to realize that this needs to be them, people need to hear them sing so we have a lot of a cappella pieces. We really worked out a sweet programme. They are all dressed in traditional costume and it starts with this spiritual twenty five minutes when we ask the audience not to applaud because it’s very sacred to them. They start with Macilumah with one of the Bunun men calling to the mountain, and that’s what they did when we did the recording, you heard it ringing into the rainforest and then there’s a chorus of people answering. We do Pis Lai and Pasibutbut and it really gets to you its so beautiful.”

The day we met was the last date of the UK tour which had taken Darling and the Bunun singers to five cities. Ever the concerned collaborator, Darling hoped they had enjoyed their experience. “They have been very nervous and have wanted to do well. In the rehearsals they would look at me as if to say ‘is it okay?’ It made me feel sad because they should just be singing and we westerners should be figuring how to make it easy. But if you’re going to play music with them and you’re using western notation of course it has to have some of our sensibilities otherwise it’s not a collaboration. These people are all elderly. There’s one young man who I remember three years ago was in the children’s choir but most are fifty or over. There are some grandmothers and grandfathers for sure. I hope they’ve been okay because it’s been strenuous. I don’t think they’ve ever been to Europe before, but they know about the world, they have televisions and have the sensibilities of the Asian pop culture. A few times when they were really feeling good they would spontaneously start singing songs they had heard over the radio.”

The London show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was well received by an enthusiastic if not packed audience working as a live experience in a different yet equally compelling way to the CD. It seems that many positives have emerged from the collaboration. “Recently they had the Golden Melody Awards in Taiwan, which are like their Grammies and their album was nominated for best crossover singing album in Taiwan. They didn’t win but that nomination means they are probably going to get some funds for their tribe and for their children.”

Darling points out the difference between his project and that other more famous ‘collaboration’ when Enigma unlawfully sampled two Amis singers, another aboriginal tribe, on their hit Return to Innocence. That track might have done a lot to raise awareness of Taiwanese aboriginal singing, but the voices were used as little more than decoration over western beats.

“These people would never have allowed that to happen. None of us did this for money. We did it because we wanted to make their music in the world have some significance so people can hear how beautiful it is. This is a very small tribe of people there’s only a couple of hundred of them. They are very proud and serious about their culture. They don’t want anybody to mess with it. It’s not slick it’s quite innocent. They wanted to sing purely and have some connection with the west. We’re all friends and we all like what we did for each other. The CD is very strong and I think successful in leaving them as an organic system supported by a westerner.”

David Darling & The Wulu Bunun

David Darling & The Wulu Bunun

Originally published in fRoots magazine in 2004

Buy the album by David Darling and the Wulu Bunun here

Labour Exchange Band

All around the world, musicians are standing up for their roots in the face of globalisation. While the likes of Manu Chao can bring their message to a ‘world’ stage, for the vast majority it’s about local issues and local music.

There can hardly be a better candidate for some eventual backlash against western cultural and economic imperialism obliterating local traditions than the island of Taiwan. As one of the economic powerhouses of the region (a so-called Tiger Economy) Taiwan is one of the world centres of mass production. The rush for prosperity has not come without environmental and human cost.

The origins of The Labour Exchange Band go back to an anti-dam movement that started in Meinung, a village in the mountainous region of Kaoshiung county in the south of the island. After gaining support of the county magistrate, a group of two hundred or so elderly farmers went north to the capital Taipei. Somewhat overwhelmed by the urban bustle they encountered, their leader Chung Hsiumei suggested they sing their own Meinung mountain songs on their march to the legislative Yuan. With spirits raised they put their case for how the dam in Meinung would threaten their lives, destroy their property and harm local ecology. Agriculture was already in decline, young people had to leave the area to get work elsewhere.

Lin Shenghsiang was one of those young people, when he heard of the protesters. He was a student in Taipei, playing with a rock group Guantze Music Pit. “I was born in Meinung from a peasant family.” explains Shenghsiang. “My mother was raising pigs to support the family and saved some money for me for my first Lakewood guitar many years ago. I decided to go back to my hometown from Taipei in 1998 when the anti-dam campaign was blooming in Meinung. When I met the members of the anti-dam campaign in 1999, I was asking myself what I could do for the campaign and for my hometown. The thing I could do was sing, play and write music. I decided to use music as the instrument for the campaign, and this became the concept for making the first album Let’s Sing Mountain Songs . After this, The Labour Exchange Band was formally established.”

Lin Sheng Xiang

Lin Sheng Xiang

Shenghsiang enlisted the help of two other members of Guantze Music Pit. “We are all from different backgrounds” he says . “Our percussionist A-da is a ‘Nakasi’ musician with 20 years experience playing at weddings and festivities since the age of eleven. Nakasi is a very special form of band and musical style which received profound Japanese influences linguistically as well as musically. It’s a very rustic and urban-rooty form of music, normally with a keyboard, which has replaced the accordion, and drums accompanying the singers. Then there’s Kuanyu, he is our bassist and the sound engineer of the group.”

The other two were brought in for the new incarnation. “Chung Yungfeng from Meinung is one of the original core members of the association of the anti-dam campaign. He is a poet who brings in critical views in his realistic style of writing. He has been recruited by various departments of the new government for his radical views. Jincai is from Singapore and the leading sourna (reed horn) player in the Kaohsiung City Chinese Orchestra. He has been living in Taiwan for 11 years. His musical education is more ‘hereditary’ than academic, although he later trained as a classical sourna player. All his family, down from his grandfather’s generation, have played at weddings and funerals in a traditional lineup with drums and sournas.”

I wondered how the band’s name had come about. “When we were nearly ready to release Let’s Sing Mountain Songs, about twenty of the core members and comrades of the campaign came to the Tobacco House where the recording was done, to try and find a name for the group. The countrymen of Meinung and the friends who supported the campaign donated money and goods that we needed for the recording project. The older generation from our hometown supported the idea of recording, even though using music to express the message of anti-dam building was new and strange to them. Some often came to the Tobacco House to bring us food, clean the studio, and some to sing backing vocals on the traditional mountain songs. The ‘labour exchange’ tradition of the peasant society in Meinung had transferred to the process of recording the album. We were reminded of the spirit of the ‘labour exchange’ and the philosophy of the mutual-assisting system, and liked to keep the spirit in our band. Therefore, we chose the name Labour Exchange Band. In Chinese, we called it Jiao Gong Yue Dui. Normally, a band in Chinese is ‘Yue Tuan’, but we followed the old fortune naming system in the village, and replaced Tuan (Group) to Dui (Team) because of the lucky strokes of the Chinese character. We like the old belief kept in the peasant’s life.”

The mountain people from Meinung, including Shenghsiang, are mostly Hakka Chinese, literally meaning ‘guest families’ who originally came to Taiwan from northern mainland China. They are a sizable minority group making up about 17% of Taiwan’s population. “According to history, we have migrated due to wars at various times. Hakka people have migrated to nearly every corner of the world, mainly different provinces of China, Taiwan, Central and South America and South East Asia. In Taiwan, Hakkas are known for their tough spirit due to the migration in their history. Most of the Hakkas inhabited the mountainous areas of Taiwan during the pioneering age. Some people assume this is the origin of mountain singing and songs.”

These were mostly working songs, sung in the fields and plantations. Sometimes these were made up spontaneously, the words reflecting what they saw and heard, often in male and female call and response style.

” I grew up in a Hakka village and my parents and my grandparents experienced the most radical changes in society. The Hakkas cherish their resourcefulness in the face of a hardship. It has almost become the nature of Hakka people. The nature of being a Hakka as a kind of spirit has supported two of our recording projects, especially when we were not supported at all by any big and financially exuberant record companies. Now we finally could achieve what we wanted to accomplish.”

However, going back to his roots was not a natural process for Shenghsiang. “Myself and Yongfeng were born and grew up in Meinung. We listened to mountain songs and Hakka ba yin (instrumental music) in our everyday life when they were played live and sung in weddings and funerals. However, they were more like background sounds for us. We couldn’t avoid western rock and roll, which had a greater influence on our daily life, as it did for everyone. When we discovered that the music from the west was carrying us away from our tradition and hometown, we decided to go back to our own roots and take this as the main line of our compositions. We are glad that we awoke from that, and could finally find our own way home. Therefore, we started later to use Hakka mountain songs and Hakka ba yin as the main structures of our compositions.”

Like many other musicians around the world, going through a similar catharsis of rediscovering their roots, they add a new dimension to a tradition. “We adopt different components of the traditional music from Hakka, but do not exclude other musical elements from other cultures. For us, cultures are growing with assimilations, and the process of assimilation requires various elements without restrictions. We are one of a very few groups who use Chinese instruments for compositions, and we are the only group who use traditional Chinese instruments as the main structure of our compositions. I have chosen moon guitar (yueqin) to accompany my singing, though I never trained as a moon guitar player. It took me some time to get used to the two-stringed instrument when I had been playing a six-string guitar. It took some energy to learn and get used to. I am not a good solo player, but I take it seriously. Our sourna player Jin Cai is a professional musician and innovator, the treasure of our band. He is the leading sourna player in the orchestra that he is playing for, and his solo improvised playing has added colour to our band.”

While the instrumentation is a mixture of Chinese and western instruments, the songs sometimes follow a western structure, especially their own compositions. “When I was a student, I listened to a lot of western rock, such as Pink Floyd and then later Sting and U2. Then my ears were seduced by the music of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Tom Waits and Van Morrison. To me, Van Morrison has remained in a kind of exalted position. Then I had the chance to be exposed to some Asian groups like Caravan from Thailand, and Soul Flower from Japan, as well as Cui Jian from Mainland China. On the second album Night March of Chrysanthemums, there is another influential figure, the Mainland Chinese novelist Mo Yen, whom I would like to dedicate this album to . I would say Van Morrison and Mo Yen are the two most influential figures for my compositions on the Night March of Chrysanthemums.”

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Night March of Chrysanthemums has an epic feel to it, following the real life story of Ah-Cheng, a farmer from Meinung. This time they tackle not just local, but global issues. “When we finished the first album, the anti-dam campaign was not yet into the phase it is now. We have achieved the goal at last, the new government agreed not to build a dam in Meinung. We thought even when the campaign had reached this stage of success, we would still like to discuss the problems in Meinung, in all the agricultural societies through our music. Therefore, we chose agriculture as the theme of our next album, which was actually linked to our daily life, our families, our friends and neighbours. For us, the making of the album was more like writing a novel. Ah-Cheng, as a hero of the novel, as well as a universal male role from a changing agricultural society reveals some universal issues discussed around the world.

“When we were making the album, it was a complicated process. I had to refer to Mo Yen’s novel as when he was writing his book, he was writing a film-novel. We were actually making an album with the concept of making a film. We ran through a lot of pictures in our minds. The members of our band got together to tell stories and listen to the shared experiences of the villagers or friends. We did field research and interviewed many peasants, and spent some time studying the chrysanthemums growing. For instance, the theme song of the album, when we call the roles of the chrysanthemums is like how we were called during our military service.

“It was important that we were aware of the ‘microphone’ passed to the farmers and labourers, who had never had this in their hands before, which might make them afraid to express themselves in a logical way due to lack of practice. So we learned the facts from them, and let our songs speak.”

Like other peasants and farmers approaching middle age, the matchmakers found it difficult to find a suitable partner for Ah-Cheng. Instead he went to southeast Asia to find a ‘foreign bride’.

“In ‘After A Long Period a Strange Place Becomes Home’, we asked the social workers who help the ‘foreign brides’ in our village to run workshops for us to understand their real situation better. The most satisfactory thing for us was the feedback from the peasants and the foreign brides. When we sent the finished album to the farmers who we interviewed, they all thought that the album did speak for them. The song we wrote for the foreign brides who married our village farmers has now become the theme song for the Chinese learning classes run for the foreign brides in the communities. The children of the foreign mothers could all follow their mothers and sing together. This kind of feedback is pushing us to carry on. ”

Indeed, the album’s message went right to the top. “Our President once quoted our concept of the Night March of Chrysanthemums in his speech on the policy of agricultural industry.”

Not many groups before them have combined music and politics. “In Taiwan, when most people think about democracy, it is in terms of the one vote that everyone has, but people very often forget about the right to participate in public debates and discussion of policies. What we are trying to do is to use music to express our comments on public policies, especially those which are not being debated and discussed in public. Our political views are more to the left in general. This rare standpoint straightaway makes us independent from usual political activities, since we hold different opinions from the mainstream right-wing point of view, and we are able to be independent with our own opinion. It is important that the band is using the microphone of music for expressing our comments to what we observe from our society.”

Does Shenghsiang still concern himself mostly with local politics, or is he increasingly thinking on a global level. “When we position ourselves on a ‘higher’ global level, we see clearly what we should do. We are living on the island of Taiwan, so we can more concretely be involved in the political and social movements here, but the global vision is a must for us to express our views and opinions. They are not being able to dissected into two independent levels.”

If their political activism is unusual in Taiwan, their music is equally unique. “We are categorized as Hakka folk sometimes, some other times as World Music, or occasionally, names like Agricultural Rock and Campaign Music are coined for our music, since there are no other bands working on a similar thing in Taiwan. Categorizing our music is not a big problem for us.”

However, they have achieved some mainstream acceptance. “This year we are nominated in the best pop group category in the largest local music award, the Golden Songs Award. We are nominated with a heavy metal rock group, and even with a pop idle group in the same category. It is actually very hard to compare our music with those groups. We do think that our music is for the people and to the people, so it is a kind of ‘popular’ music or ‘peoples’ music, depending on how you define popular music. If people think that we do not sing ‘popular’ songs, the songs for the people, we do not agree at all. Last year, we were nominated in categories under the non-mainstream music section, and were nominated with classical singers and musicians in the same category. A very interesting experience for us.

“As to Cui Jian from China and Lo Dayou from Taiwan, there’s no doubt they can be categorized as pop music, although they use a lot of elements of Chinese traditional instruments in their compositions. However, we carry in our songs straightforward political and social opinions, and people started wondering what we are doing, and how our music should be categorized.”

Lin Sheng-Xiang

Lin Sheng-Xiang

I wondered if there was any relationship between Hakka Chinese and the aborigines, who have recently helped revive interest in Taiwanese identity through their own music. “During the pioneering age of Hakkas on the island of Taiwan hundreds of years ago, we were rivals to aborigines (the first inhabitants on the island) and Hoklo people (originally from the Hokien Province of China, the earlier migrants from the mainland inhabiting Taiwan) for surviving on the then virgin island. However, there were cultural interactions among the Hakkas, the Hoklos, and the aborigines in our daily life. Culturally, we are not so detached to each other. For instance, we have a traditional mountain song called Half Mountain Song, which tells a love story of a Hakka man falling in love with an aboriginal girl. Our villagers are very fond of aboriginal music. It is not uncommon for Hakka people to invite aboriginal singers to perform at their weddings for the festive atmosphere. I think that the Hakkas, the aborigines and the Hoklo have been living together on the island for centuries, and they do influence each other in musical styles and their ways of life. However, it needs to be researched carefully.”

A lot of people would recognise the voices and melody of at least one aboriginal tune, but probably without realising it was Taiwanese at all. Enigma sampled two aboriginal Amis singers, Difang and Guo on their hit single, Return to Innocence. The duo were unaware they had been sampled until a friend heard the song on the radio. A Taiwanese lawyer filed a suit, the case eventually being settled out of court. “When listening to the voice of aboriginal singers and the melody that they are making, I do think that they are gifted, and the heritage has been passed down from their ancestors. However, I think that music is not only about it passing down the generations. Taking Difang as an example, he has a great and unique voice, but when his voice is exploited by the mainstream music industry, and he is not able to follow the direction he would like to and express himself through his voice, it is for me very sad. I think that music and cultures are changing within the context of time. Music does not refer only to the oral traditions passing down from the ancestors anymore.”

Contemporary aboriginal music released by the same record label as Labour Exchange Band (Trees Music & Art) is more to Shenghsiang’s taste. “I would like to talk about another aboriginal group, the Amis musicians, Huegu and Docdoc, who have recorded the Bura Bura Yan album. Huegu also appears on the Betel Nuts album (a pioneering compilation, also featuring music from Papua New Guinea). They are not merely singing the ancestors songs. They combine and mix Japanese musical influences, western rock and blues and any others that they have experienced in their life. I could feel the climate, the temperature, the breeze, and the landscape of the island revealed in their songs with the very special and natural way of mixing different cultural elements and self-taught instrument playing, which makes their music very unique. I do think that there should be more aboriginal musical groups like Huegu and Docdoc. Hu Defu is another legendary aboriginal singer I admire very much.”

Shenghsiang doesn’t find much to admire in the Taiwanese pop industry, which like most of east Asia is totally domineering and totally dominated by some of the worst pop idols imaginable. “In Taiwan the pop industry is feeding a lot of people who are producing sounds. When I look at people who only produce sounds for money, I feel sad for them, and become more understanding and tolerant. There are a few figures from the pop scene, whom I admire such as Lo Dayo. When I thought that he already had three good albums, I should not be so critical about his later works since by this time he was in the pop industry, in which the trap of earning money is set up for people who are living on commercial sounds.”

Labour Exchange Band CDs have so far only been released in Taiwan, although they have performed abroad. “We toured in Europe in 2001, playing at the Festival Respect in Prague, the Brugges Festival and Gele Zaal Festival in Belgium, and we had a concert at New Morning in Paris. We were invited to a festival in Macau and Hong Kong in the same year.”

Have they ever thought of playing with like minded musicians from other countries? “Personally I would like to sit on a live concert of Soul Flower (from Japan) very much. I like what they do. However, I do not think that music from different cultural structures can easily be placed together for a jam session.”

For now, The Labour Exchange Band are happy to build an independent future in Taiwan. “We would like to have a full-time administrator to help the band, so I can concentrate on writing and composing. On the one hand, we wish the band to be independent from the very commercial music industry; on the other, we cannot avoid the channels of distribution if we want more people to listen to our music. So far, we only think of enlarging the influence of our music in Taiwan.”

While not selling out to the music industry in Taiwan, they are happy to accept accolades at home or abroad if they come their way. “We do not concentrate on achieving fame, since we think that people will have to pay a lot and lose a lot for achieving it. For us to be famous or to be known could be a burden. It is more important for us to live and talk like everyone else. However, we also feel the contradictions and struggles sometimes when we are trying to spread our music to a wider group of listeners. In the very unhealthy musical environment of Taiwan, we are a pioneer band, with the urge to be heard by a larger audience as well.

“As for the idea of being a world famous band, we think that if the value of our music deserves it, then that it is fine. We will not struggle ourselves to be famous.”

With special thanks to Chung Shefong of Trees Music & Art.

Originally published in fRoots magazine July 2002

Find CDs by Labour Exchange Band and Lin Sheng Xiang here

Takashi Hirayasu – fRoots

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.

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“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.”

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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.

Go to the Shopping Page for Takashi Hirayasu

Soul Flower Union / Mononoke Summit

In Japan, the words music and politics don’t exactly sit well together. On the face of it, a group who seem to have bucked the system is Osaka’s Soul Flower Union, who have released a new best of album.

At least with songs such as “All Songs Go Forward to Freedom”, “Swing Guerrilla Declaration”, “The Right to Live in Peace” and tackling issues such as Palestine and East Timor, you would think so. But not necessarily so, according to the group’s Hideko Itami “Many say Soul Flower Union is political but we’re just singing about issues in our daily lives. We just want to have fun with everyone and play good music. Plus do you know of any US musician that speaks out about the unbelievable events that have been happening in the world? I can name one…Patti Smith….who else?”

Well, The Dixie Chicks, Bruce Springsteen and REM for starters but Itami has a point. She thinks a lack of any political comment or ideology is ingrained in the Japanese music business. “Those who developed the music scene based it on absolutely childish principles. Plus being political won’t make money.”

Soul Flower Union was formed in 1993 out of two groups, the glam rock influenced Mescaline Drive, featuring Hideko Itami and Newest Model, a punk band fronted by Takashi Nakagawa. Soul Flower Union’s music became a somewhat wacky blend of rock and psychedelic music, yet from their first album they included extraneous elements that would set them apart.

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They signed to Sony but for the last six years or so have recorded for an independent or their own label. Their latest album, the third of their “Ghost Hits” (this one 00-06) is the first to be culled entirely from independent tracks.

“Our music has become more open and free after we stopped working with the so-called big name record labels” explains Itami. “Soul Flower Union is based on various genres of music, from traditional to funk, jazz and punk. Through Soul Flower Union, this new “Soul Flower Music” has been produced that you can’t hear anywhere else in the world. Our audience has grown with us and supported us for all these years. We’ve always focused on progressing plus providing a good performance”.

And what are their most recent influences? “The members individually have been playing with various musicians from various genres and through these sessions have obtained more power which they bring back to Soul Flower Union. Our influences are not from just one particular genre but from various. Always fresh and live”.

The band’s acoustic version is called Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, formed in the wake of the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 when the group took to the streets of Kobe to play for the victims. The recent “Deracine Ching-Dong” is their first album for nine years and is their usual blend of Okinawan sanshin, the characteristic chindon drum (also the name of the music, a kind of early form of street advertising) plus accordion, clarinet (the wonderful Wataru Ohkuma) guitars, hayashi backing vocals and Takashi Nakagawa’s rasping vocals.

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Mononoke Summit plays mostly Japanese soshi enka (political street songs) dating back up to 100 years, but there’s a definite Okinawan leaning to this album, both in the songs and the addition of young sanshin player and singer Natsuki Nakamura.

I wondered if this was a result of Itami recently relocating to Okinawa. “Natsuki was born in Taisho, Osaka, an area where a lot of Okinawans live” says Itami. “Six years ago she returned to Okinawa to be Seijin Noborikawa’s pupil. She’s been a fan of Soul Flower Union since she lived in Osaka and sings and plays not only Okinawa traditional songs but collaborates with other music genres. Taking advantage of my migration to Okinawa, Natsuki and I are thinking of blowing a new wind in the minyoukai , the traditional Okinawa music world, full of many rules and customs. ”

For me though, the album’s highlights are two buraku (former outcast) songs their versions taken from a buraku community in Kyoto. “We were raised in the Kansai area. In this region, there were many Korean-Japanese. The buraku was a strong issue and many people from Okinawa and Amami migrated here before World War II. They were my neighbours and these two songs are from where I was raised. As a neighbour, the history of discrimination will always be a lifetime issue.”

A lifetime issue maybe, but sounds like politics to me.

Originally published in The Japan Times in October 2006

Go to the Shopping Page for Soul Flower Union

TAKASHI NAKAGAWA Interview in fRoots

The visits of Donal Lunny and band to Japan, have been as much memorable for his own wonderful band, as for some collaborations with Japanese musicians. In 1996, with his group that was originally assembled for the Japan concerts, he played with Kodo, the spectacular drummers group on Sado island. Last year, as well as Kodo again, the Donal Lunny Band was also joined by a few members of Japan’s hottest rock roots band, Soul Flower Union. ( the acoustic version of which, Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, were featured in Folk Roots No. 160.

While in Japan, Donal took his band into a Tokyo studio to record with Soul Flower’s leader, Takashi Nakagawa, a session I was fortunate enough to witness. These sessions would be used for Nakagawa’s solo project, later to be titled Soul-cialist Escape. However, as the tapes rolled on, so did the time, and they ended up recording only 3 of the 4 songs intended. Thus Nakagawa, and two other Union members went to Real World Studios in England where Lunny was making his new album, to record one more song, and mix all four.

Back in Tokyo, a jet-lagged Nakagawa (he had only just got back to Japan that morning) spoke of the trip, and the forthcoming album. “We recorded Mangetsu no Yube, and Donal was just great,he had a real feeling for the song.” enthused Nakagawa. Mangetsu no Yube is one of the best songs to emerge from Japan in the last 20 years or so. It was co-written with Hiroshi Yamaguchi of Heat Wave (who played live with Donal and band in Tokyo) for the victims of the Kobe earthquake. This tragedy also led to the formation of Mononoke Summit, as his until then electric band, were forced to go unplugged to perform in Kobe at that time. Mangetsu no Yube, and other songs manage to maintain a strong Japanese flavour, while at the same time containing Irish elements in an uncontrived way. The fruits of the Nakagawa /Lunny recordings have just been released in Japan, the full title: “Original Notion (sic) Picture Soundtrack: Soul-cialist Escape in Lost Homeland.”

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“I felt like I wanted to do something by myself, without Soul Flower, and go away from Japan and record with other musicians ” explained Nakagawa “I’ve always liked Irish music, but more like the Pogues or Van Morrison, not really traditional music. I didn’t even know who Donal Lunny was, but when I met him I got a good feeling, we seemed to like the same things.It was also great going to Real World studio. I never met Peter Gabriel, though I saw him playing table tennis quite often!”

Meanwhile, Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, have recently released their second CD “Levelers Ching Dong”. Like the first one, it’s a live recording released on their own label. Their usual record company, Sony had refused to release the first one, due to a controversial lyrical content. Was it the same with this one? “Probably, but I think they would also have objected to the music” said Nakagawa.
Most of the songs on Levelers Ching Dong date back 70 or 80 years. “They were mostly hits at the time, and some of them are still well known now.” said Nakagawa. He again raises controversial issues such as discrimination against Japan’s so-called ‘Untouchables’. “The song Kakumeika is one of Japan’s oldest revolutionary songs, people think that this kind of discrimination doesn’t exist anymore in Japan, but it still does.” Also included is Arirang one of Korea’s best known traditional songs. Nakagawa is particularly interested in Korean culture and last year undertook a trip to North Korea.”We went on the Peace Boat, from Nigata to Wonsan and then to Pyongyang. It was quite an experience, we weren’t really allowed to see ordinary life in the countryside, but we went to a department store and everyone was surprised at how we looked. The North Koreans were really nice people.The music also shares similarities, and people danced the same way as they did in Kobe.”

Nakagawa is almost alone in being essentially a rock musician, but also interested in Japanese old and traditional music. “Young people aren’t generally interested in traditional music, but gradually hopefully they will be. Everyone has that tradition inside them, just like they do in Okinawa or in Ireland. But tradition conveys the image of the emperor, also because America won the war, we all looked to America and thought how fantastic democracy was, and rejected our own tradition. The method for teaching traditional music is so boring, there’s no room for creativity. I don’t like the really decorated voices of traditional music, I just sing from the heart”. Nakagawa doesn’t want to follow any trends, and would like to compare himself in the future to Billy Bragg, Tom Waits or Lou Reed. He also wants to take Soul Flower Mononoke Summit to play concerts in Europe sometime, to introduce Japanese traditional music, and meet different people. “We went to Ireland as well, when we told people we played traditional music they were so interested, they just didn’t think of Japan as having any traditional music”.

Originally published in fRoots 1998

Makoto Kubota – Sketches of Myahk

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.

Harneys Sarahama

Harneys Sarahama

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. ”

Toyo Nagasaki

Toyo Nagasaki

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

Liu Fang- fRoots

On stage at London’s Mermaid Theatre, Chinese pipa player Liu Fang awakes from an apparent state of inner tranquility. On her Chinese lute, she has just hypnotized an invited audience of a few hundred, and millions of listeners around the world to the BBC World Service. Two tunes that ebbed between passages brimming with notes at break neck speed that flowed into serene sections of space and silence.

Dressed in a blue silk Chinese dress, she accepts the applause gracefully “Yes, there was just one musician”, says tonight’s compare Ian McKellen, alluding to those intricate passages. “One musician, but ten talented fingers”.

Liu_Fang

Liu Fang is here for a BBC World Service HIV/AIDS concert, to raise awareness to the continuing problems of HIV around the world. On the same bill are Oliver Mtukudzi and Rokia Traore, and various poets and actors.

Next day, Liu Fang is still a picture of calmness itself, while her very likeable, effervescent husband and manager Risheng is rushing around. He’s enthusing about the night before, equally looking forward to the day ahead, a live spot on Charlie Gillett’s BBC London radio programme, my own radio show on Resonance FM in London, and of course a chat for fRoots.

At Resonance Liu Fang plays two tunes in the studio. The first Red River has a melody, she explains, that derives from the Yi people of southern China. The second Dance of the Yi People was composed in the 1960s, and was the first tune she had played the night before at the Mermaid. Close up it’s even more of a dazzling experience. She rests her pear shaped lute on her thigh in an upright position. Her dexterity on the instrument is breathtaking, her fingers a blur over the strings. Each finger on her right hand is adorned with a fingernail pluck. Her eyes remained mostly closed, her face expressionless. In my headphones I can hear her breathing deeply.

I can’t but help wonder if she is in a conscious state of mind, or in some kind of trance. “I don’t know” she says, “I might look relaxed, but inside I’m concentrating very hard. I practice a lot which might be why it looks easy” It doesn’t look easy to me.

‘The pipa is a traditional Chinese instrument that has existed in China for more than 2000 years.” Liu explains. “It has four strings and thirty frets. There are two main techniques for playing it on the right hand. The first is tantiao just using two fingers. The other is called lunzi using five fingers.”

Early Persian and Arab paintings and sculptures depict an instrument bearing a close resemblance to the pipa. Images of musicians strumming a pipa like instrument and riding on camels can be found decorated on pottery, indicating that travelers from west Asia brought a similar instrument along the silk road to China during the Tang Dynasty, 618-907. Ever since it has occupied a central place in Chinese music, both as a solo or ensemble instrument.

Liu Fang was born in 1974 in Yunnan Province, southern China, into a musical family. “My mother is a traditional Chinese opera singer so I began to listen to traditional Chinese music before I was born! I first started playing the pipa when I was six years old.” She gave her first public performance when she was nine, and in 1985 played for the Queen. “Oh, that was a long time ago, when she visited south China. I played two solo pieces for her” she remembers. And did the Queen enjoy the pipa? “I don’t know, but we all had a picture taken together.”

When she was fifteen she went to Shanghai to study at the Conservatory of Music for four years. “That’s where I learnt the guzheng, the Chinese 21 stringed zither. The guzheng has been around in China for more than 3000 years.” She received many provincial and national prizes, but discovered in reality traditional music was not encouraged in China. She found herself performing after dinner or tea, for people more interested in talking than listening. Life as a traditional musician was certainly going be challenging.

Meanwhile, Dr Risheng Wang from a province in northern China, was a research scientist of meteorology in Germany when he heard a cassette of Liu Fang. He fell in love with her exquisite playing and started writing fan mail to her. The two met on one of Risheng’s trips back to China, and soon after were married.

Risheng found Canada’s immigration policy more welcoming than Germany’s and they settled in Montreal in 1996. They have subsequently found Canada’s support of the arts welcoming too. Risheng gave up his meteorological work, to concentrate full time on managing Liu’s career. With support from the Canada Council for the Arts and the tireless efforts of Risheng, Liu Fang has toured extensively in concert halls around the world (apart from the USA, of where talk about visas is not one of their favorite topics). She has further recorded CDs and collaborated with a variety of musicians from different nationalities and backgrounds.

While a virtuoso of traditional pipa, it’s Liu’s openness and sense for experimentalism that sets her apart from her peers. Her collaborators have included Syrian oud player and percussionist Farhan Sabbagh. The two recorded a remarkable CD, uniting two ancient stringed instruments from the same family, and toured Canada in 2000. The pipa has it’s relation in Vietnam too, the dan ty ba, although Liu Fang played with dan bau (monochord) player Pham Duc Thanh at concerts in Canada. Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) player Yoshio Kurahashi came to Montreal too, a collaboration she describes as one of her most rewarding.

One of the most outlandish was with violinist Malcolm Goldstein. “He’s a wonderful musician’ Liu enthuses, ‘an American about seventy years old now living in Montreal. What we do is very unusual, deep, and totally free.” The only track I hear is about as far from the refined musician sitting quietly in front of me as you can get. Liu strums and slaps her pipa in discordant tones while Goldstein screeches over the top.

In yet another string to her pipa, the western classical world has embraced Liu Fang. She has premiered new compositions by Canadian composers R.Murray Schafer and Melissa Hui, performed two concertos for pipa and orchestra with the Moravia Symphony Orchestra in Prague, played with various string quartets including the Paul Klee Quartet in Venice and the Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne in Montreal.

So successful is Liu Fang in the classical scene in Europe, she has yet had time to make inroads into the world music market. This is something she and Risheng are keen to rectify, their brief visit to London being a good start.

At BBC London, Charlie Gillett is suitably impressed as is his other guest for the evening, Robert Cray. The listeners are too judging from the feedback.

In 2001 Liu Fang was the only musician to receive the prestigious ‘Future Generation Millennium Prize’ awarded by Canada Council for the Arts to artists under thirty years of age. The words of the jury summed her up rather succinctly. “Liu Fang’s mastery of the pipa and the guzheng has established her international reputation as a highly talented young interpreter of traditional Chinese music. She aspires to combine her knowledge and practice of eastern traditions with western classical music, contemporary music and improvisation, thereby creating new musical forms, uniting different cultures and discovering new audiences.”

With talk of her coming back for concerts and a recording project next year, hopefully UK and European world music audiences will be given the chance to discover Liu Fang too.

Go to the Shopping Page for Liu Fang

Originally published in fRoots 2003