Abdul Tee-Jay, Palm Wine A Go-Go


Abdul Tee-Jay has been wanting to make this album for many years. He grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, listening to the lilting sounds of palm wine guitar. Until now however, he’s never had the chance to record those songs that inspired him to become a musician in the first place. Perhaps it was a good thing he had to wait. ‘Palm Wine a Go-Go’ is a combination of not just those formative years, but other experiences and influences since. Now, those palm wine songs come stamped with Abdul’s own creativity and originality.

Palm wine is the fermented sap juice of the oil palm. A much needed cheap alcoholic drink in a country ravaged by social, economic and political problems. Not surprisingly, when the palm tree is being tapped, and when people drink, they like to sing what became known as palm wine music or locally, maringa. Centered around a single performer on guitar, a couple of listeners add the accompaniment playing on bottles, cigarette tins or palm wine calabashes, struck with a nail or knife blade. The breezy, verse and chorus style sounds somewhat similar to Trinidadian Calypso, and could partly originate with the Caribbean slave immigrants that gave Freetown its name. The two styles might even share a common root in the sailors of Liberia, many of whom were accomplished guitarists plying the West African coast opening up trade and spreading the guitar as they went.

In Abdul’s day the port of Freetown was still a hive of activity. Ghanaians and Congolese, as before armed with guitars, would arrive and mingle with sailors from around the world. The bars were alive with music. Abdul first picked up a guitar when he was nine, the problem being it only had two strings! Abdul persevered, got some new strings and worked out tunings for himself. He picked up tips from the old guys, listened to records and studied music theory out of books. While his friends were into the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, Abdul liked the unique style of palm wine legend SE Rogie, the local street music, ‘milo jazz’, highlife music from Nigeria and Ghana, Bembeya Jazz from Guinea, and Congolese soukous.


Abdul comes from an academic family, and a career in music was not exactly what they had in mind for him. Nevertheless, from the age of 15 he was sitting in with local bands. The studious side caught up with him, and in 1974 he moved to West Virginia, America to study economics and accounting. He soon started playing music again, and got himself a better guitar. He played jazz funk and even lived and played with the hillbilly musicians of the Appalachian mountains for a while, with whom he found he shared many musical similarities.

In 1979 he moved to London to work in banking, but the urge to play music had never left him. He met some musicians, and at first played reggae, before forming a band, ‘African Connection’ with Ghanaians and other Sierra Leonians. In 1982 he formed ‘African Culture’, the original concept being to play a pan-African music, mixing up influences from just about the entire continent.

People in London would ask Abdul where they could buy Sierra Leonian music, but he never had a good answer. He listened to a tape of traditional street milo jazz, played entirely on drums, and realized that unlike in other African countries, nobody had thought to put those old folk songs to guitar. He decided to write songs based on the old melodies, and develop them into his own style. In 1988, he changed his group’s name to ‘Rakoto’, (the name of an area in Freetown, famous for it’s market, bars and music) with the mission to evolve a modern Sierra Leonian music. At the height of the initial ‘World Music’ boom, Rakoto achieved considerable success with their first album ‘Kanka Kuru’. Abdul Tee-Jay and Rakoto toured the world, playing to packed houses, as they continue to do today. The following ‘Fire Dombolo’ in 1992 is considered by many a classic of modern African dance music, a standard matched by 1997’s ‘E’Go Lef Pan You’.

‘Palm Wine a Go-Go’ is his first full album since then (a retrospective best of Rakoto was released in 2002). During the winter of 2002/3 his songs brought sunshine to a gray winter and a studio in north London. Like palm wine itself, these songs have long been fermenting in the mind of Abdul, maturing, developing, and now very definitely, ready for public consumption.

Paul Fisher


Palm Wine is a creamy resin tapped from a palm tree by local people throughout West Africa called ‘palm wine tappers’. A calabash gourd is attached at the top of the tree underneath the branches, with a bamboo channel to guide the resin into the gourd. After a few days the palm wine tapper will return and climb the tree to fetch the now full gourd. Because of the fermentation, the palm wine will become alcoholic and is usually drunk at once. Sometimes it is preserved in the gourd for transportation for sale. In terms of alcohol content it is very mild, but gets stronger the more it ferments. Local people will gather and celebrate the tapping with music and song; hence the name palm wine music.

I’ve always wanted to record a non-electric (acoustic) and pure palm wine music, with all the trapping that go with it, even from an early age. With the help of the good people around me, I now present to you, ‘Palm Wine A Go-Go’. Enjoy!

Abdul Tee-Jay.


1. CEE-O LEY-LEY(DAMU ASE-TOKPA) [Kru, Krio & Tenme]
title, (alternative title) [language(s)]
This song is one of the earliest songs to become a palm wine standard in Liberia and Freetown (Sierra Leone). It was first recorded by the “Kru Boys Band” of Freetown. The Kru people hail from Liberia with a very large settlement and great musical heritage in Sierra Leone. The Krios of Sierra Leone and the Krus with the Fanté people of Ghana (both fishermen) are credited with the origin of palm wine guitar music and responsible for introducing the guitar (in it’s Western form) along the West African coast up to the Congo. The pennywhistle, the bottle and the kongoma (bass thumb piano) are regular features in this style of mid-tempo palm wine music as made popular by King Janesco of Sierra Leone. The original song is in a mixture of the Kroo and Bassa languages. Over the years the lyrics have been transformed at the mercy of the musician(s) and everyone, including the palm wine drinker.

“Cee-o Ley Ley, Cee-o Ley Ley, E Lek You Comot Lotto en Mawa You Too Wowor For Mek a Want You oh”.

(yes, you can enjoy and lament about me, but you are too ugly for me to fancy you!).

This is my own version of this wonderfully melodious palm wine standard. Palm wine at it’s best.

2. YOU NOR WAN GIMMIE [Krio & Temne]
A faster style of palm wine guitar playing with emphasis on the first beat of bar one and all four beats of the second bar. It is hard hitting and similar to a variant of an old Sierra Leonean style called ‘Fire Man’ ‘Fire Engine’ or ‘One Way’ with harmonica accompaniment. Also, the ‘nasal’ style of singing is very popular among the Kru musicians.

“Oh ya, Baby, Comot Dey (ya), You Nor Wan Gimmie, You Nor Wan Gimmie Pan You Sweetness, You Meke Mara, Bo Do You Comot Nor Me Hos-oh Baby a Tire Wit you”
(oh please baby, go away. You just tease me and refuse to give me your sweetness. So please get out of my house, I’m tired of you.)

“Tor Konneh Mor pa, or Yayma-yeh Me, Tor Konneh or Lom or t’dayr”

(she can go if she don’t want me, she can go, another one will come to me)

3. A MILLEH TETEH (OH YANDO) [Temne and Llimba]

This song has a two part meaning,

“A Milleh Teteh- Oh Ka me Lotah Ya- Monneh, Oh-yando Oh Ya-yo, A Milleh Teteh – Oh”
(too much envy is not good, it’s just an unnecessary burden on the envier)

” Kereh not Deh Ideh Thay-Thay Ka-a-yay-me, K’lolu-oh”
(I was just sitting down patiently and quietly and I got a little bit of reward for my worries).

With my reward I called out to the palm wine tapper (Lamina Poyo);
“Poyo-poyo Bra Lamina Poyo”
(Lamina, the palm wine tapper, bring me some palm wine.)

Now let’s celebrate “Mampama Timo-yapo Salineh, ka-timo”
(Let’s drink and celebrate with this sweet and delicious palm wine)

The opening rhythms and melodies are typical ‘Taransis’ beats.

4. A NOR NEM YOU [Krio]

Sierra Leone Maringa at it’s best.
“Nar Me Go Nar wan Village, A Reach Dey nar Night. A Meet One Young Lady, e Dress Leke City Gal. As A Wan for Talk to Ram-oh, E Turn im Back Dey Go, Nar-ing A Call Am, A Say “Hey-You”, E Say ‘A Nor-Name You, oh, You Narn wan Yeye Man, A-nor Name You, Bo Call Me By My Name’. How a Go Call You by You Name Wey A Nor Sabi You Wan Day”.

(upon arriving in a village at night, I met a young lady, dressed like a city girl. As I was about to talk to her, she turned her back on me and went on her way. I then shouted to her, ‘Hey You!’, she said ‘my name is not You. You is a one -eyed person (Sierra Leone slang), so please call me by my name’. ‘ How can I call you by your name when I’ve never met you before.’)

5. WÉLÉ KPÉKU [Krio and Slang]

Kpeku is a version of ‘Peku’, a popular and old ‘Krio’ first name in Sierra Leone. To make it more musical I added the other name ‘wéle’. Wélé Kpéku to me sounds like someone having a hard time. I wrote this song for my people in Sierra Leone, who have gone through some very difficult periods recently.

‘Wélé Wata Nor Dey Fordon Nar Wan Man Hos Ya. If we Patient Ya. We Tem Go Cam Nar Sa Lone. If you Ask Me Ya, We Tem Go Cam Nar Sa Lone. Broda (Sista) Do You Patient Mama Sidon Patient Oh We People Patient so-Tay Den Take Trouble (Wahala) Can Put Nar Sa Lone ay Aye Mama, Na God Don Put We Day, Wata Way Na For We-ya. E Nor Go run Pass We Oh Saful- Saful We Go Caytch De Monkey, We Tem Go Can Nar Sa Lone Saful Saful We Go Geh We Diamond..….Keleh Keleh We Go Geh We Sa Lone Back. De Wata Wey Nar For You Ya, E Nor Go Run-Pass you-Oh .

(Rain (prosperity) does not fall down only upon one person’s house. I know that with patience our time will come in Sierra Leone. Brother (Sister) please be patient; sit down and be patient. Our people were patient for so long and some others came and besiege our Sierra Leone with trouble and suffering. Believe in God, the water (river) that is yours will never flow or run beyond your reach. Softly – softly we will catch the mischievous and evil monkey (thieves) Slowly-slowly we will get out diamond and our country back. The river flows past you, but it’s always there for you the rightful owner.)


I first recorded this collection of popular Jorlay songs in 1982. It was my first ever professional solo acoustic recording. With no formal distribution, nevertheless about 4,000 copies of the E.P. and cassette were sold in the UK and Sierra Leone. ‘Jorlay’ is mainly a boys percussion ensemble with various mask acrobatic dancers (tumblers). Jorlay groups are formed throughout Freetown, with other variations called ‘En Soro’ formed in other parts of Sierra Leone. Most of the Freetown ‘Jorlay’ percussionists, along with “Gumbay” groups usually provide backing music for palm wine guitarists such as Ebenezer Calendar, Ebu, Famous Scrubs, Sammy Kamura, Chris Omotayo-During and The Kru Boys Band, to name a few. As a musical member of the popular Freetown ‘East End Jorlay’, most of the songs are my own compositions. Palm wine meets Jorlay (Jolly). Mmmm.
*The rhythm guitar is with altered tuning.


The chord progression here is one used mainly by the old masters such as Sammy Kamara, Ebu and Papa Sam. The subject matter as usual is women.
“A Buy You Shimmy, A Buy You Peti-Coat, A Buy You Draws, A Buy You Eberyting. Den A Tell You Say Baby! Cam Go Nar Me Room, Lay-Don Nar Me Sofa, Mek A Ask For Me Labour. Den She Halla Why? Why? Jorlay BoyDey Mona-Me!”
(I bought you a chemise, I bought you a peticoat, I bought you knickers, I bought you everything. Then I said to you baby! ‘let’s go to my room, lie down on my sofa for me to get rewarded for my labour. Then she hullah (shouted) ‘why? why?’ Jorlay boy is troubling me!)
Enjoy the rest, it’s just a raw but harmless music by a palm wine drinker; naturally.


Like all popular natural products palm wine is known by different names throughout the West African coast. In Sierra Leone alone it’s called by several different names; ‘Mampana’, ‘Poyo’, ‘Timotei’ and ‘From God to Man’ are some examples. ‘Mampana Timotei’ (sweet and delicious palm wine) is the affectionate name given to it by the Limba tribe in Sierra Leone. They and the Loko tribe are the undisputed champions of palm wine tappers.
“Mampama Timo Ya Po Salineh Kati-ay” is always sung to celebrate in the joyful and merry atmosphere during palm wine drinking sessions. The chord sequence and rhythm is a standard known to all popular palm wine guitarists in Sierra Leone and made popular by E. Calender and SE Rogie.
* Inverted 3rds and ‘tipsy’ finger pull offs are used. (see ‘You Go Pay Me’ notes)

9. YOU GO PAY ME [Krio]

‘You Go Pay Me’ (you will pay me) is a composition that for me is one of the ways forward in my progressive and modern music style. One guitar part uses mainly octaves for the melodies, whilst the other part uses ‘inverted thirds’: double note diatonic scale with the third the lowest note eg, C Major;
E/C, F/D, G/E, A/F, B/G, C/A, D/B, E/C
Notice the chord sequences always progressing lower because of the sad nature of the song and accompanied by what I call “palm wine guitar slaps” on the body of the guitar; very rhythmical.

“Nar Waitin Mek U Do Me So, Me Paddy, Nar Waitin a Do U? A’yay A Bo Nar Waitin Mek U Do Me So? A Do For Me Paddy Lilly Favour, Wey Don Turn Big-big Trouble En Wahala Nor nar me Hed Oh. Wen De Tem Cam U Go Pay Me Nar Dis Worl, En Nex Worl U Go Pay Me. Toron-ton ton toron-ton-toron- to Mamie Ay”

(why did you do this to me my friend (seaman) what did I do to you, why, what have I done to you to deserve it? I did my friend a little favour that has now become a big trouble and big burden upon my head. When the time comes you will pay me back, in this world (existence) or next world (after life), you will surely pay me back. I swear (toron-ton) by my mother (and ancestors) we shall meet. )

10. SEE ME NO MORE (WAKA-WAKA BABY) [Krio & Yoruba]

This style of palm wine guitar playing is very popular in Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is sometimes called ‘Rekpeteh’- repetition of a one bar chordal and rhythmic riff that entrances the listener. A similar style in Cameroon and Eastern Nigeria is called ‘Ashiko’, with heavy percussion. Again, I’m saying to my sweetheart not to see me anymore.

See me no more, moto cam, you go go; taxi pass, you go go; bicycle pass you go go, poda-poda pass you go go, see me no more baby-ay. Baby sour-ley (x3) baby ashawo. O-yeah Mama, O-yeah, corner- corner baby, waka waka. Me go tell you Mama, a go tell you papa, (all your relatives)
(see me no more, a motor car passes by, you will go; a taxi, a bicycle, public transport passes by; you will go; see me no more. Baby you are too bad. A palm wine drinker maybe, but I know my limits.

11. ODA [krio and featuring kongoma language]

For me, one of the most fascinating and simple instruments of Sierra Leone is the kongoma. Kongoma is a bass thumb piano (I prefer calling it a bass marimba) with three or four prongs. The body is a rectangular wooden box with a round or square hole on top for resonance. On the top end is a bridge slot for the prongs which are hacksaw blades (sometimes bamboo blades). They are tuned in a chordal triad (adding an octave for the 4th pronged version) and plucked with the first and second and/or third fingers of the right hand and the left hand fingers hitting the side of the box. The song is one of the palm wine singer’s usual subject matter; his wife, ‘Oda’.

“Oda, oda yeah, yeah, yeah, na broko sebeh . ‘Pan all the big-mut (mut-mut) nar bonga u cook.Oda yeah yeah yeah na broko sebeh.”

(oda, oda yes, yes, yes, this is bad medicine. Upon all the mouthing off (about your good cooking) it’s fish bones that you cook for me. Oda, oda yes, yes, yes, this is bad medicine. )

“If U want me, U for sabi cook, if U sabi cook a go want you. But U nor for cook for me so, wit gboto-gbata, oda-yeah, yeah, yehi yeah-ay na broko sebeh”

(if you want me you must know how to cook. If you know how to cook, I will want. But please don’t cook for me with rubbish and trash; oda yes, yes, yes it’s bad medicine)

My stomach? You know the parable / saying…

12. PAPA SAM (DIE MAN MARINGA) – [Instrumental]

Instrumental song by one of the all time greats in Sierra Leonean palm wine guitar, the late Papa Sam. Like I explained before the track starts, it’s a tribute to all dead people. The slow tempo denotes respect for our ancestors.

Die Man Maringa (dead people’s meringue)
Oh, watch out for the ghost(s).

13. POLO-LO (MAMBÉNA) [krio and slang]

‘Mambéna” is a very popular Freetown carnival masquerade. During the festive seasons (Christmas, New Year, Easter, end of Ramadam and Pilgrimage (Hadj), the atmosphere in Sierra Leone is beyond words to describe. ‘Polo-lo, polo-lo’ and ‘koyo-koya-koyong’ are just two examples of several Freetown ‘colloquial nonsense’ that are sang during festivities. To call them nonsense is missing the point, because they’re carefully composed and arranged to fit certain melodies and rhythms created by popular instruments.

Mambena kusheh (welcome Mambéna)

The double note scale is diatonic with the root on the bass and the third an octave higher eg. F Major: F/A; G/Bb; A/C, Bb/D, C/E, D/F, E/G, F/A

14. WHO STOLE MY CHICKEN ?[English and Krio]

With palm wine music, you either take the lyrics seriously or have a good laugh with them. Imagine, after a hard day’s work I went home to find one of my chickens missing. Who am I going to ask? The whole world? Armed with my guitar I headed for the market place, drank a lot of palm wine and started singing about my loss. Putting one’s loss and tribulations into a song might get results, instead of ridicule. Anyway, I might have lost a chicken , but I did get a very good song out of the whole saga, and the chicken did come back at the end of the song; ‘koko-ri-o-ko-o!’ Get it?

Dedicated to:

The lates S.E. Rogie (Sierra Leone), Ebeneza Calender (Sierra Leone), Sammy Kamara (Sierra Leone) and Ebua Lotin (Cameroon).
Mwendo (Congo), Koo Nimo (Ghana), A.K. Yeboa (Ghana) and my very dear late friend, Salifu Balla (Sierra Leone). All of them, great “palm wine guitar masters”.

“I will make sure your music lives” – Abdul Tee-Jay

Buy Abdul Tee-Jay, Palm Wine A Go-Go here


Miyazawa – Tokyo Story


When we first met in 1993, Kazufumi Miyazawa was introduced to me as ‘a famous Japanese pop star’. I hadn’t met that many pop stars before but he didn’t exactly comply to the usual stereotypes. Okay, so he was wearing sunglasses, but so was I. After all, we were in Okinawa, the sub-tropical deep south of Japan. He was definitely good looking, exuded a certain coolness, but was refreshingly normal, a little shy.

We were in the garden of Shokichi Kina, Okinawa’s most eccentric musician, with a posse of his band and followers. With Kina dressed like he’d just come off the set of Star Trek, and talking for most of the day about spirits, Miyazawa had actually brought with him a semblance of normality. The following evening Kina would be joining Miyazawa and his group the Boom on a couple of songs at their concert in Okinawa. The Boom played a kind of ska and rock hybrid I was told, a bit like the Specials. Now they were topping the charts in Okinawa with a single Shima Uta (island songs), also the name given to the local music. Surprising in the first place since Miyazawa and the Boom are not from Okinawa, but from the Japanese mainland. Miyazawa’s manager, Go san, took me into the house to play me the single. I was intrigued, but half expected to hear just a cosmetic ‘exotic’ flavour of Okinawa. The Specials and Okinawan music seemed miles apart. On the other hand, ska and upbeat Okinawan ‘katcharsee’ tunes both had that infectious up beat rhythm.

Instead, Shima Uta explosively announced itself with an electric guitar intro, before developing into a classic sounding Okinawan melody, with Miyazawa playing the sanshin, the local snake skinned banjo, gradually building up to a rocking crescendo. Rather than taking from a tradition, it definitely added something. This was where Miyazawa really went against the grain in the Japanese pop world. He had talent- and in abundance.

That single, Shima Uta went on to sell over a million and a half copies, popularizing Japan’s most exciting roots music and winning the Japanese equivalent of a Grammy that year. Over the following years, Miyazawa would expand his horizons, travelling to and absorbing music from Indonesia, Jamaica, Cuba, Argentina and particularly Brazil. This year, 2004, the Boom are celebrating their 15th anniversary, as one of Japan’s most consistently successful bands. In addition Miyazawa recorded four solo albums to indulge some of his more ambitious and experimental leanings, mixing up those influences and collaborating with musicians from around the world. He is one of Japan’s most celebrated songwriters. Even within the more radical mixtures, the strength of Miyazawa’s songs consistently shine through. This CD is compiled from those four solo albums.


The starting point on Miyazawa’s musical journey was Okinawa. “There weren’t many opportunities to listen to Okinawan music in Japan when I first started to get interested in it” he explains “so I asked friends who went to Okinawa to get some tapes for me. I got the same kind of feeling or shock as when I listened to Bob Marley when I was a high school student. I really liked that the melodies were repeated often, almost incessantly, and the chorus too, with the same rhythm throughout, and I thought it was very similar to reggae. That was in about 1989 when we recorded our first record.”

In the 1970s, Haruomi Hosono had already found inspiration from Okinawa in some of his songs, which had not gone unnoticed by Miyazawa. “I knew Hosono was playing Okinawan music before he played with Yellow Magic Orchestra. Also, Shokichi Kina’s Haisai Ojisan was a hit in Japan in the late 70s, so I already had listened to some Okinawan music, but this was before I really got into it.”

It was the success of Shima Uta in 1993 that changed Miyazawa and the Boom forever. “I went to Okinawa to take some photos for the Boom’s third album, to a very beautiful and natural area called Yanbaru and for the first time saw a deeper side of Okinawa. I saw some remains of the war there and visited the Himeyuri Peace and Memorial Museum and learnt about the female students who became like voluntary nurses looking after injured soldiers. There were no places to escape from the US army in Okinawa, so they had to find underground caves. Although they hid from the US army, they knew they would be searching for them, and thought they would be killed, so they moved from one cave to another. Eventually they died in the caves. I heard this story from a woman who was one of these girls and who survived. I was still thinking about how terrible it was after I left the museum. Sugar canes were waving in the wind outside the museum when I left and it inspired me to write a song. I also thought I wanted to write a song to dedicate to that woman who told me the story. Although there was darkness and sadness in the underground museum, there was a beautiful world outside. This contrast was shocking and inspiring. There are two types of melody in the song Shima Uta, one from Okinawa and the other from Yamato (Japan). I wanted to tell the truth that Okinawa had been sacrificed for the rest of Japan, and Japan had to take responsibility for that. Actually, I wasn’t sure that I had the right to sing a song with such a delicate topic, as I’m Japanese, and no Okinawan musicians had done that. Although Hosono started to embrace Okinawan music into his own music early on, it was in a different way to what I was trying to do. Then I asked Shokichi Kina what he thought I should do about Shima Uta and he said that I should sing it. He told me that Okinawan people are trying to break down the wall between them and Yamato (mainland) Japanese, so he told me I should do the same and encouraged me to release Shima Uta.”

After such a spectacular and unexpected success, he next turned his attention to Brazilian music. ” I first heard bossa nova when I was high school student. I had an image of bossa nova as a kind of salon music but then found out it was completely different. I saw Joyce performing live in Tokyo and it was incredible. It was fast paced, complicated and thrilling music. I tried to do something similar with the Boom and recorded our first bossa nova song, Carnaval. I then went to Rio De Janeiro to see people’s real life, to feel and understand the local beat and went to a samba concert which was fantastic. The audience really enjoyed themselves, sharing enjoyment with others and they seemed more like the main star than the artist to me. I was in the rock music business in Japan where always the rock star is in the centre creating a dream world which was quite unrealistic. The samba scene was a new experience to me just as Okinawan music had been, and I wondered if I could make Japanese samba that the audience would want to sing together with us. I think we kind of succeeded with Kaze ni Naritai, which became a hit single. The Boom then released two Brazilian influenced albums, Kyokuto Samba (Far East Samba) and Tropicalism.”

Tropicalism was the Boom’s most ambitious project thus far, encompassing a wide range of influences that Miyazawa had encountered from Okinawa, Brazil, Indonesia and reggae, far from what a major record company might have expected of a best selling rock band. From the original four members, with the virtually full time guest musicians, the Boom had blossomed to about fifteen musicians. With his band somewhat spiraling out of control, Tropicalism was to act as a catalyst for Miyazawa’s solo career.

“Tropicalism became like my solo album eventually as I had too many of my own ideas and asked all those other musicians to play with us. Although the four of us in the Boom were still at the centre of things, we didn’t play together on some of the songs. Anyway, in retrospect, Tropicalism lacked the Boom’s own atmosphere. I had lots of ideas, so I thought I should do this experimenting solo. I could then play with musicians who I really wanted to, and do what I really wanted. The songs I write solo are generally less pop than the Boom, the lyrics are more personal.”

Despite the global influences and recording locations, the Boom mainly concentrated on their home market, releasing a string of singles, mini-albums and original albums plus performing sold out tours nearly every year for their legions of fans. After that first meeting in Okinawa, Miyazawa and myself remained friends, even presenting a radio show together for five years. Miyazawa had changed from a young rock ‘idol’ to a mature and respected musician, constantly challenging the status quo of the Japanese pop world, lyrically and musically. He never took the easy option, to continue the formula that brought him and the Boom success. Perhaps this was a shrewd move, as while other Japanese bands disappeared in what is a pretty fickle market, the Boom fans remained remarkably loyal, many passionately following Miyazawa’s interest in Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere, some even as far as visiting the countries themselves.

The Boom did make some inroads internationally. They toured in Brazil, had an album released there, and played at a couple of festivals in Europe, including the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1997. The fame of Shima Uta spread outside Japan, becoming a much covered song in Asia, including in China and Hong Kong. Somewhat bizarrely in 2002 it became almost as well known in Argentina as well, sung (in Japanese) by actor and musician Alfredo Cassero, and chosen as the official song of the Argentinean football team at the World Cup in Japan and Korea. A ‘Best of’ the Boom was subsequently released in Argentina. Following this success, Miyazawa recorded a Spanish version of Shima Uta , titled Cancion de la Isla, included on this CD.

I saw the Boom perform numerous times, consistently impressed at how different each show was, with it’s own special energy. Yet there remained something almost intangibly Japanese about their music. The intelligence of the lyrics helped to set Miyazawa apart from his peers, largely unnoticed by me, but after about ten years in Japan, perhaps my ears had become attuned to a Japanese style of singing and melody. It was a pretty weird experience, not altogether unpleasant, being sometimes the only foreigner or ‘gaijin’, surrounded by thousands of excitable women. All would wave their hands waving in choreographed unison, regularly screaming ‘Miya’! Even I started to be recognized, just knowing Miyazawa made me undeservingly cool as well.


Following his experience with the Boom album Tropicalism, in 1999 Miyazawa released two solo albums in quick succession, Sixteenth Moon recorded in London, and Afrosick recorded in Brazil. Sixteenth Moon turned out to be a fairly straight ahead pop album, produced by Hugh Padgham, probably best known for his work with Sting, and featuring many of the same musicians who played on Sting’s albums. These include the distinctive drumming of Manu Katche, the brilliant Argentina born guitarist Dominic Miller and legendary bassist Pino Palladino. “I always liked Sting very much, and I felt that as I’d been playing for over ten years, I wanted to know how far I’d come as an artist, and thought that by playing with Sting’s musicians I might find out. I wanted to find out what quality of music I could create with them. I had no idea how it would go beforehand, so I wrote the music score out and the lyrics as well, although I don’t write the lyrics down beforehand usually. I prepared an English translation of the lyrics and made a demo tape. I didn’t care at that time if it was new or not. I wanted to create orthodox music of top quality, as if I had ordered a tailored suit for myself which fitted me perfectly.” This CD contains three tracks from Sixteenth Moon including one of Miyazawa’s first attempts to sing in English, My Heart, My Soul, My Fear.

Afrosick recorded straight after in Brazil was a different affair, with some of the leading lights of the contemporary music scene that had influenced Miyazawa’s music with the Boom, such as Carlinhos Brown and Lenine. “My mind set for making Afrosick was like a fashion designer’s collection which changes every season. My mode at that time was for hip, kitsch pop, aggressive and progressive rock. I wrote the melodies and Carlinhos Brown wrote the lyrics and arranged for the other musicians with Marcos Suzano. I produced the album together with Carlinhos Brown. Suzano and Fernando Moura arranged some of the songs and then asked others such as Pedro Luiz, Paulinho Moska and Lenine to write other tunes.”

Some songs on Afrosick were recorded in both Japanese and Portuguese, the latter released on a Brazilian version of Afrosick., while Miyazawa and his new Brazilian friends toured in Japan and Brazil to promote Afrosick. On this CD are four songs from the Japanese version of Afrosick.


Miyazawa’s next solo album, simply titled Miyazawa in Japan, probably mostly realised Miyazawa’s own original ambition for mixing different types of music into something cohesive, original and unique to him. To help him achieve this, he enlisted the help of American Arto Lindsay as producer. They were introduced by mutual friend Ryuichi Sakamoto about fourteen years ago, after a show at New York’s Knitting Factory. “I thought I had managed to make a style that mixed different types of music, but for the new album, I wanted to make a kind of natural mixture, almost unrecognizable, so it doesn’t matter what kind of music is in that mixture. Bahian rhythms are not so unusual for me anymore, it’s a rhythm naturally inside me. It’s the same with Okinawan music. These were very different and unfamiliar years ago, but now I can use them for my own music.”

Miyazawa decided to work with some of the new generation of Brazilian musicians as well as some he had worked with on Afrosick. “I knew that Arto knows that younger generation. He heard Afrosick and told me his opinion and gave me some ideas, and we decided to work together on a new album. We’re completely different types, but I like the music he produced for artists such as Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte and Ile Aiye. I think he is an artist who gets power from playing with other artists. He gave me lots of advice during the recording and I learnt a lot. He advised me not to over express emotion too much, to sing in a natural way as the melody is strong enough to carry that emotion. If I had produced the album by myself it would have been too much in my style. I also had something he didn’t have, so this too worked well.”

Miyazawa was recorded at various locations around the world with some forty musicians roughly divided equally between Brazilian and Japanese. “First, I went to Bahia to record the rhythm tracks with six or seven musicians from Ile Aiye a famous percussion group in Bahia. I asked Juninho to play with me again, a guitarist who was on Afrosick before. Then I flew to Sao Paulo and worked on one song with a young musician, Max de Castro. After that I went to Rio de Janeiro and did some recording with Kassin, who was also on Afrosick and with Caetano Veloso’s son Moreno.”

“After finishing recording in Brazil, and just before flying to New York, our next recording location, I stopped in Buenos Aires for one day and had a meeting about recording there. In New York, we recorded at Arto’s friends’ studio. Arto is meticulous about studio work and never misses what sounds need to be recorded. He is like me as the type of artist who records the main sounds one by one in the studio but he has many more attributes that I do not have. The taste and atmosphere of Arto’s friends in New York, the rhythm tracks of Bahia and my own melodies all helped to make the music this time very interesting.”

“Back to Tokyo from New York, Arto and I continued recording for another month, including with Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, and after that we went down to Okinawa to record with Yoriko Ganeko . Buenos Aires was the last recording location for this project. We had already recorded Tango for Guevara and Evita in Rio de Janeiro but I wanted to make another version with real tango musicians in Argentina. The lyrics of the song were sort of flexible and I revised the words from time to time, as I wanted to make a kind of documentary song. Osvaldo Requena, one of the country’s most important tango musicians and arrangers, put a melody to my lyrics together with a tango orchestra. He read a Spanish translation of my lyrics and liked them. He said this was not only Japan’s problem, but Argentina’s as well. In Brazil, I kind of recorded according to Brazilian rules, but overall the album has no nationality with traces of the chaos or disease of Tokyo. It has some elements of Japanese tradition and a very modern style as well.”

A version of the album Miyazawa was released by Stern’s in the UK, titled Deeper Than Oceans. In 2002 Miyazawa performed at a festival in Pamplona Spain, and in 2003 played in Lisbon, Portugal, Tubingen, Germany and Warsaw, Poland. In Poland he was greeted at the airport by a group of students singing Shima Uta, having been taught it by their Japanese teacher. Miyazawa and his band went on to sing Shima Uta on national television.


This CD contains four songs from the album Miyazawa. The opening Final Groove version of Tokyo Story was released on the Japanese Best of Miyazawa, Miyazawa Sick, while the Okinawan language version, Uchina Furu Yuki was included only on the Japanese version of the album.

Aside to pursuing his musical career with the Boom and as a solo artist, the workaholic Miyazawa has been much in demand as a songwriter for other Japanese artists. On his fourth solo album Spiritek, he chose eleven songs he had originally written for other artists, to record himself. This CD contains three tracks from Spiritek.

Compiled specifically for overseas release, Tokyo Story introduces the work of one of Japan’s most remarkable musicians of the last fifteen years. The CD features a dazzling array of talented collaborators and musical mixtures from Japan, Okinawa, Brazil, Argentina, the UK and the USA. Miyazawa has been called the Japanese version of David Byrne or Paul Simon, yet is equally very much his own person. He is one of the greatest songwriters of his generation with his own set of unique influences, producing music with a distinctive Miyazawa stamp of quality.

Buy Tokyo Story and other Miyazawa CDs here

The Very Best of the Far East




The Ryukyu Islands are home to Japan’s most thriving music scene. Steeped in tradition, modern day Okinawa is brimming with musical vitality. Ryukyu Underground (American Jon Taylor and Brit Keith Gordon), mix the past and present together with spectacular results. Their self titled first album sampled mainly traditional recordings on local labels, while the follow up Mo-Ashibi was largely a collaboration with some fine young Okinawan musicians. On their third album, Ryukyu Remixed from which this track was taken, those tunes are given new mixes by a dazzling array of like-minded DJs, musicians, producers, remixers, other creative artists and Ryukyu Underground themselves. They include some of the top names in the world dance music scene, alongside equally talented up and coming artists. Kid Loco who remixed this version of Akata Sundunchi is a Paris based musician, producer and remixer, and a leading figure in the trip-hop downtempo scene.


Spanish born electronic music guru José Barinaga went to Bali in March 1997 and became fixated with the local gamelan music he discovered there. On return to his now native Paris he soon started work on an Indonesian music project. The following year, Barinaga teamed up with I Wayan Sadra, a creative art teacher at the renowned STSI (Music and Dance School) in Solo, Central Java, who arranged the recording of the gamelan, voices, and other Indonesian instruments, which were played by teachers from the school. I Wayan Sadra is furthermore uniquely an influential and experimental composer, working with Balinese and other traditional Indonesian traditions within a contemporary perspective. They were joined by percussionist and composer Steve Shehan, known for his worldwide collaborations including with Rokia Traore, Nittin Sawhney and Paul Simon. This track also features the Desak Suarti group from Bali.


Kin Taii whose father is Chinese and mother Japanese went to Japan when he was 15 in 1979. His parents were afraid of the persecution of the Cultural Revolution, especially as his father is related to the imperial family of the Qing Dynasty. Until this time he had only listened to Russian classical composers such as Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and Chinese revolutionary songs. He remembers the shock of listening to rock music for the first time, by the likes of Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones. He bought a synthesizer and started playing rock covers, listened to New Wave groups from the UK and then from Japan Y.M.O, which was his first entry into techno and pop, along with Kraftwerk. These groups have remained a strong influence on his music until today. In 2001 Kin Taii went to Yunnan Province in southern China, home to 26 different ethnic communities, specifically to learn the music of the Naxi tribe living in Highlands 3500 metres above sea level. Their so-called Tompa culture, is reportedly the last language in the world to still use hieroglyphs, and has a rich and ancient musical range of songs. Kin Taii recorded those songs, to which he then added his own modern programmed beats and synthesized backing.


Blue Asia is a project of possibly Japan’s most innovative producer Makoto Kubota, together with his assistant and arranger Yoichi Ikeda, and the Malaysian top producer team of Mac Chew and Jenny Chin. Since the 1970s Kubota has been at the cutting edge of Japanese productions of world music, with groundbreaking albums by among others Indonesian singers Elvy Sukaesih, Detty Kurnia and Malagasy band Njava. Blue Asia travel to work with artists in their own locality, including previously Turkey, Bali and on this track, Vietnam. The music is full of the local atmosphere with the local musicians given a platform to shine. Hotel Vietnam features traditional instruments such as the monochord, the dan bau, and some glorious female singers who Blue Asia discovered while recording in Vietnam, on this track Vanh Khan.

The taiko drummers group Kodo are one of Japan’s major musical exports. Their music evokes the sounds of nature- the roar of thunder, the crash of the surf, and the melodic hum of the breeze. Taiko drumming has its roots in kagura, music offered to the gods. The belief is that within each drum there is a god who is awakened by the beating of the drum. The summoned goodwill then exerts a favourable influence on the crops. Formed in 1981, as a breakaway offshoot of the group Ondekoza who had exiled themselves to Sado island, Kodo have until today remained on the island, where they live in a converted farmhouse. They divide their time between touring overseas, in Japan or preparing new material on Sado, where they also organise the annual Earth Celebration festival with artists from around the world. Kodo have collaborated with a wide range of artists including Zakir Hussein and Airto Moreira. The album Sai-so, from which this track is taken is a remix of Kodo’s Bill Laswell produced album Ibuki. Kevin Yost is an American percussionist who combines electronic music and jazz on his remix of their track, The Hunted.

One of Japan’s leading musicians, Kazufumi Miyazawa has been called the Japanese David Byrne, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel rolled into one. He formed a rock group, the Boom at the end of the 80s who in 1993 released an Okinawan influenced single Shima Uta, (island songs) which went on to sell over a million and a half copies. Over the following years, Miyazawa expanded his horizons, travelling to and absorbing music from Indonesia, Jamaica, Cuba and particularly Brazil. Eventually he decided to divide his creativity between a more orthodox rock group and experimentation with various solo projects. He recorded solo albums in London and Brazil, and for his third self titled album, from which this track is taken, enlisted the help of producer and musician Arto Lindsay, that combined all of Miyazawa’s global influences. On Uchina ni Furu Yuki, he spectacularly mixed the music of Okinawa and Brazil, played by both Brazilian and Japanese musicians.

Oki is a musician of mixed Japanese and Ainu (indigenous Japanese) blood. He didn’t learn of his Ainu ancestry until he was 24. Ever since Oki has made it his mission to revive Ainu culture and increase it’s awareness, which has been in danger of dying out ever since the Japanese government adopted a policy to ignore the Ainu existence over 300 years ago. After his cousin gave him the tonkori, a long skinny five stringed wooden instrument, he discovered that role was to show young Ainu a new perspective, and turn their culture into an exciting and relevant tradition. Oki intends to rediscover the identity of the Ainu, with the creation of a new Ainu music. His music encompasses a wide ranges of influences, including reggae, rock and electronica, although is mostly based on traditional tunes. Matnaw Rera is taken from his latest album, No One’s Land featuring the vocals of female Ainu singer Repko.

Sarabandge was the third project by Osaka native, Kenji Yano who now makes Okinawa his home. Yano went to University in Okinawa and became besotted with the local roots music, becoming a member of the legendary group Rokunin Gumi. Sarabandge features female singer Sachiko Shima along with Yano’s guitar, stringed instruments and keyboards. One of the most inventive musicians in Okinawa, Yano is also known for his Surf Champlers project, that mixed surf and Okinawan music. ‘Iwai Bushi’ is a traditional song, taken from Sarabandge’s only album.


Born in Bandung, Sunda, Western Java in 1960, Detty Kurnia is Indonesia’s finest singer of pop sunda, a genre that mixes traditional Sundanese music with western elements. Detty grew up singing traditional music making her first recording aged 11, before becoming a well known pop sunda singer from the mid 1970s. Duriran is a pop sunda song taken from the album Dari Sunda, produced by Japanese producer Makoto Kubota (see Blue Asia) who brought new recording standards to Indonesian music. It also features former drummer of Japanese legendary group the Sunsetz Hideo Inoura, and the Indonesian drum (kendang) playing of Koko Wahyudin. Dari Sunda became a popular album in Japan and Detty Kurnia performed at the inaugural WOMAD festival in Japan in 1991.


Waldjinah has been a national singing star in Indonesia for over four decades. She is something of a singing chameleon, seamlessly switching from fairly traditional to more pop sounding material, but is probably best known for singing the style called kroncong, played on various stringed instruments with elements of Asian and European music and traces of possibly Arab and African influences too. Born in 1943 in Solo, Central Java, Waldjinah helped to develop a new style of popular music, called langgam jawa, based on Western pop music, accompanied by kroncong instrumentation, yet played in the traditional pentatonic (five note) pelog scale. On the album Ratu Jawa (Queen of Java) from which this track was taken, she was joined a dazzling array of talented Indonesian and Japanese musicians and producers. Kencono Wungu features long time Waldjinah collaborator Mantou’s, a top composer and musician of kroncong and modern Javanese music. This song has an historical theme about Queen Kencono Wungu, of the last Hindu Javanese based kingdom of Majapahit of the 14th century.

Since 1996, Kiyotaka Fukagawa, under the professional alias of Calm (and also Farr) has been carving out a reputation in the global dance and electronic music scene both in Japan and overseas. Aside to his own albums he has been much in demand as a contributor to compilation albums and as a remixer. His worldwide mixing credits include Femi Kuti and Arto Lindsay, and in Japan Port of Notes and Sakura. In Europe he has been championed by the likes of Giles Peterson, Rainer Truby, Ross Allen and Patrick Forge and in the US by the San Francisco record label, Ubiquity. His music, variously described as nu-jazz, or chilled hip hop, usually contains Latin American or East Asian elements.


For pure charisma, no other Okinawan musician, past or present can match Shokichi Kina. Over a thirty year career Kina has proven he’s capable of writing some of Okinawa’s most memorable music. He wrote Haisai Ojisan when he was just 16, which famously became a hit in Japan and Okinawa while he was in prison on a drugs charge. It was one of the first songs to mix Okinawan music and its local ‘katcharsee’ dance rhythm, with the rock music that he encountered around Okinawa’s military bases. In 1980 he recorded the album ‘Bloodline’ with Ry Cooder as a guest guitarist, which featured his other big hit, Hana. His career however is also littered with long periods of musical inactivity, during which time his albums have consisted of mostly re-recordings and re-mixes of older material. Instead he has concentrated his energies onto various causes and politics, culminating in him being elected as politician in 2004. This version of Haisai Ojisan was recorded live at the Mikado club in Koza, Okinawa in 1977 and is a classic of Asian music.


Female singer Huong Thanh and guitarist / producer Nguyen Le mix up Vietnamese traditional music, with all kinds of extraneous influences. Huong Thanh was born in Saigon, where her father was one of the biggest stars of Cai Luong, a kind of Vietnamese theatre. In 1977, two years after the war ended, her family moved to Marseille in France, before moving to Paris. In 1995 she met guitarist Nguyen Le, who was born in Paris to Vietnamese parents, and started out playing rock and then jazz guitar. Eventually he wanted to explore his own identity which opened up the possibility to mix the Vietnamese music he remembers as a young child, with jazz and the other styles that he grew up with in Paris. The multicultural city of Paris has also been influential to their sound, this track featuring the Barbes Deluxe Strings. Most of their songs, including this track, are based on traditional tunes from all over Vietnam.


From the Ordos grasslands of the Southwest of Inner Mongolia, Urna Chahar-Tugchi comes from a family of livestock farmers. She learned traditional Mongolian songs from her grandmother and parents and later studied Yangqin (Chinese dulcimer) at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She combines these two different experiences in her own compositions, partly tradition and partly innovation. Furthermore, she adds the influences of other musical cultures to create original sounds. The most striking aspect of her music is Urna’s amazing voice, her ability to improvise and her dynamic range. This traditional song is about Sangjidorji, a freedom fighter from her homeland.



One of the most successful East / West collaborations in recent years has been American cello pioneer David Darling’s work with the Wulu Bulu people of Taiwan. In 2000, Darling (best known for his work with ECM and various soundtracks including Heat) visited the village of Wulu in the mountains of Taiwan and listened in astonishment to the harmony singing of the aboriginal Bunun tribe. A couple of years later he returned to the village to make an extraordinary album, whereby Darling’s cello is multi-layered over the villager’s polyphonic choral singing. With Darling’s sensitive accompaniment, the Bunun’s ancient tunes are given a radically different and beautiful interpretation, as on this song, about the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren. David Darling and 23 members of the Wulu Bunun, subsequently toured in the UK

Ryuichi Sakamoto is fairly unique in the Japanese music world, being almost as well known outside of Japan as at home. For over 25 years he has been one of Asia’s great musical innovators, with an interest in world cultures while pushing technical boundaries. He was one of the founding members of the Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978, who went on to become internationally acclaimed as pioneers of technopop. As a solo artist he has become even better known as one of the world’s leading film soundtrack composers. Beginning in 1983, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, in which he also had an acting role alongside David Bowie, remains probably his best known work. He has since scored soundtracks for including The Last Emperor and Little Buddha. His musical collaborators have included David Byrne, David Sylvian, Youssou N’Dour and recently Jaques and Paula Morelenbaum on an acclaimed album of material by the bossa nova maestro Antonio Carlos Jobim.


fm3 is American punk composer Christiaan Virant and Chinese computer musician Zhang Jian. Both had been pioneering musicians operating in Beijing’s underground music scene for over a decade, before forming fm3 in 1999. Fm3 are China’s first ever avant garde electronica project, combining ancient Chinese traditional instruments (on this track the lute instrument, the pipa) with lo-fi computer software and a variety of original instruments.
Loaded with atmosphere, their original sound has a slightly eerie edge, that seeps its way into the listener’s consciousness. Fm3 embarked on a successful six month European tour introducing their original, and spellbinding sound.


At the beginning of the 1990s, female vocal quartet Nenes championed the cause of Okinawan roots music in Japan with probably more success than anyone else as part of the burgeoning world music scene. Originally intended to make Okinawan min’yo or folk music accessible to young Okinawans, Nenes were brought together by producer Sadao China. The unison voices of Misako Koja, Yasuko Yoshida, Yukino Hiyane and Namiko Miyazato were combined with China’s sanshin, over a backing of guitars, drums, percussion, bass and the layered keyboards of co-producer Kazuya Sahara. They varied the influences to include reggae, Brazilian, Hawaiian and Indonesian music, some staying closer to the tradition than others. In 1994, American guitarist Ry Cooder recorded with them on their wonderful album Koza Dabasa, which also featured David Lindley and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. The much loved local song Shima Jima Kaisha was the album’s most glorious moment.


Rikki is from a place just about as far south in Japan proper as you can get. Amami island is the last drop of Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of Kyushu, the southern of the four main islands that comprise Japan. Amami shima uta (island songs) are often considered to be the Japanese blues, and the southernmost of the country’s folk styles. Rikki (full name Ritsuki Nakano) was born to sing Amami shima uta., beginning when she was four years old, eventually becoming the youngest ever winner of the National Folk Award title. On the album Miss You Amami, from which this track was taken, Rikki sings traditional songs and others rooted in the island tradition, with other influences and elements to create a new Amami island music. On Syumichinagahama she is joined by top Malaysian musicians, accordion player S.Atan, and pianist Mac Chew.

Chitotihc is a project of veteran Japanese drummer Chito Kawachi, who has played with variety of musicians, from appearing on Okinawan Shokichi Kina’s album Bloodline with Ry Cooder, to Japan’s the Boom featuring Kazufumi Miyazawa. Chitotihc incorporated Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian music into an eclectic and innovative pan Asian music brew with a talented group of musicians playing Japanese and other world instruments.


The latest one man band project by Kenji Yano, is The Sanshin Cafe Orchestra. Yano plays sanshin (snake skinned banjo) in medleys of some of Okinawa’s most famous traditional tunes. This track Innocent Smile features two lullabies, Nishinjyo Bushi and Ittaanma Makaiga. In addition, Yano plays 6 and 12 stringed acoustic guitars and his custom made shimolele and chrominca.

American guitarist Bob Brozman first met Okinawan sanshin and guitar maestro Takashi Hirayasu on the tiny island of Taketomi, Okinawa in 1999. For the next four days they recorded the beautifully simple and exquisite album Jin Jin, comprised almost entirely of Okinawan traditional children’s songs and lullabies. The album gained unexpected worldwide acclaim, with Bob and Takashi going on to delight audiences around the world with their live versions of these songs. Bob Brozman is one of the world’s leading players of National Steel and Hawaiian guitars, while Takashi Hirayasu grew up with both Okinawan traditional music and western rock and soul, playing guitar with Shokichi Kina’s group Champloose. Bebe Nu Kusakaiga is a well known lullaby, given a new alluring arrangement.


Tokyosphere was a group fronted by American shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) player John Kaizan Neptune. Neptune began studying shakuhachi in 1971 while living in Hawaii, before relocating to Japan determined to master the instrument. He subsequently earned himself the top certificate in shakuhachi playing and the honorary name ‘Kaizan’ literally meaning sea mountain. Technically brilliant, he has pushed the boundaries of shakuhachi music with various projects, from mainstream jazz to various world mixtures. With Tokyosphere he performed with other master musicians from Japan on koto (zither) and Japanese percussion. Yamato Dawn was originally written to accompany a dance performance. The various kotos are plucked with fingers, while Neptune plays a bass shakuhachi.

This amazing project, pits acoustic guitarist and composer Tatsuya Koumazaki with monks from the Shingon buddhist sect in the Hida area of Gifu prefecture. The Shingon (Mantra) sect was founded by Kukai (774-835) in Wakayama prefecture. Koumazaki has played with different musicians from Asia, and is constantly exploring ways to combine his guitar with various roots music from around the world. Searching for the meeting point between Japanese and other world music, he discovered shomyo, or Buddhist chants from Japan, also the connection that links India to China and Japan. Accompanying them is Koumazaki’s regular group Pangaea on wadaiko drums, sho (mouth organ), shinobue and nohkan (flutes) and koto.

Koto Vortex have gained a cult status for their minimalist, hypnotic music played on the Japanese zither, the koto. The koto is probably the most conservative of the Japanese traditional instruments, originating in China and being absorbed into Japanese court music. The four women of Koto Vortex studied under the late and great koto innovator Tadao Sawai and his wife Kazue Sawai, who devised a range of innovative techniques, increasing the tonal possibilities of the koto. Koto Vortex expanded this vision on their groundbreaking first album of compositions of renowned experimental composer Hiroshi Yoshimura who sadly died in 2003. This piece features two koto players, Miki Maruta and Michiyo Yagi.

Takuji is a dj and producer from Okinawa, who first mixed club and Okinawan folk music on his album Mensore of Sound. Since then, he has been a regular on the Japanese dance and club scene, mostly based in Tokyo. In 2003 he remixed the instrumental acoustic album Uto Ashibi by Takashi Hirayasu and Yoshikawa Chuei that featured some of Okinawa’s most loved tunes. Asadoya Yunta, taken from that album, is perhaps Okinawa’s best known song, originating on the small island of Taketomi in Ishigaki.


Buy the Very Best of the Far East CD here

Rough Guide to the Music of Indonesia

Stretching over 3,000 miles across the equator between the Asian and Australian continental mainlands, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago. The name Indonesia has it’s roots in two Greek words, “Indos”, meaning Indian and “Nesos”,islands. An appropriate description historically and geographically for a country consisting of over 17,500 islands, of which about 6,000 are inhabited.

It’s people, culture and religions are as diverse as it’s land. The fourth most populous nation in the world, there are over 550 ethnic groups speaking a similar number of languages and dialects, although Bahasa Indonesian is promoted as the national language. Today about 85% of the population follow Islam, although Hinduism dominates in Bali, Christianity further to the east, while animistic beliefs still have a major influence on life in south Sulawesi. The majority of the population live on 5 main islands and 30 smaller archipelagoes, 70% on the smallest of the main islands, Java.

Indonesia’s strategic position and wealth of natural resources has resulted in a turbulent and at times tragic history. Ensuing feuds and periods of dominance however, left behind a stunningly rich and eclectic culture. It’s unique music is shaped by a tempestuous past and entangled within a complex web of events. Some have ancient roots, lost in the mists of time.

Other musics can trace their source to the first European settlers, while in more recent developments, western trends have been assimilated, sometimes with political coercion, into a music still discernibly Indonesian. From strange and hypnotic gamelan music to wild ‘champur’ or mixtures in a host of modern genres, such as dangdut and pop sunda, Indonesia is perhaps south east Asia’s most exciting musical destination.

It’s female singers can rival those of West Africa for their soulful and searing voices,with that indefinable sense of yearning that just isn’t there in most Western music. An array of instruments; gongs, zithers, flutes, barrel drums, violins, jew’s harp and many more can dazzle the listener. It can, however, be as equally bewildering as breathtaking. Many musicians and singers are capable of seamlessly switching from wistful traditions to heartrending ballads or abandoned pop, making identification of your favorite genre a more trustworthy guide than the performer.

Within the dusty streets of urban chaos in Jakarta, the green tropical paradise of Bali, the cool highlands of Sunda, the historically abundant central Java and Yogyakarta, or the wilderness of Sumatra, there exists a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of sounds to suit every taste and any occasion.

The first known migrants to Indonesia are believed to have been of Mongoloid stock from China dating back to around 3,000 BC. From the first century AD. Indian traders entered the archipelago at the time the Hindu and Buddhist empires were emerging. A powerful Buddhist Kingdom had expanded into Java by the 7th century, and in the 13th century the Majapahit Hindu Empire united the whole region,including modern day Malaysia and ruled for two centuries. This period gave rise to much of the gamelan tradition either as a refined court music or an invigorating spiritual celebration for the gods. The arrival of Arab traders and merchants initiated
the spread of Islam which eventually became the dominant religion by the end of the 16th century. Today many genres still reflect an Arabic influence in varying degrees, most noticeably in the Islamic pop of Qasidah.

One of the first Europeans to arrive was Marco Polo in 1292, but the period of European influence didn’t begin until 1509, when the Portuguese first established trading routes from Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, seeking a monopoly of the lucrative spice trade. They were soon ousted by the Dutch, who despite a brief period of British rule and intermittent bloody wars launched by the local people, mostly kept control of the Dutch East Indies until the outbreak of World War II, when the Japanese occupied the territory. Aside from Western thought, the colonialists brought instruments. The small kroncong guitar, also the name of a music, is derived from the Portuguese braguinha, sharing it’s root with the Hawaiian ukulele. Kroncong music is believed to have originated in the communities of freed Portuguese slaves in the 16th century. European influence from this time can also be heard in the music of the Batak people of North Sumatra, and from the end of the 19th century, the beginnings of guitar accompaniment incorporated within a distinctly Indonesian idiom in music from Sumatra, South Sulawesi and elsewhere.

Following a bitter war with the Dutch who tried to reclaim the territory after the Japanese defeat, Indonesia was granted independence in 1949. The transition to independence was not easy, firstly under the presidency of Sukarno a former nationalist movement leader. Under a policy of ‘guided democracy’, in the early 1960s Sukarno outlawed the broadcast and import of Western music, fearing the rock ‘n’ roll and Beatlemania that was spreading to Asia, ordering musicians to either uphold Indonesian traditions or create an Indonesian pop music. Although many Indonesian musicians had already been updating traditions, this policy provided further impetus and was a particularly fertile time for the development of styles including kroncong,
orkes melayu and sunda modern.

After Sukarno was ousted by ironically the army general who suppressed an earlier coup, new President Suharto embarked on a policy of embracing western economic values and culture. At the start of the 70s, modern pop music styles were created that emphasized their Indonesian feel, to combat the free flowing importation of western music, but under those same influences of rock, jazz and latin music. Dangdut, pop melayu, and new mixtures such as kroncong dangdut were all were formed at this time. In recent years, Indonesian ‘champur’ styles have mostly mirrored those of the
west, adopting and dismissing dance trends, for example disco sunda now giving way to sunda house. However the economic crisis has put buying the luxury of music beyond many Indonesians, especially the former ‘middle classes’, with whom more refined music styles were popular. However, dangdut a national music especially popular with the poorest, or the Jakarta initiated gambang kromong have taken on an element of unifying the oppressed.

While political opposition was largely repressed with military backing during
Suharto’s reign, with his downfall the national motto of ‘Unity in Diversity’ has proved impossible to maintain. Tensions between Muslims and Christians, ethnic tensions and independence movements following East Timor’s vote for independence have buried any notion of a free, democratic and united Indonesia. Throughout what is today Indonesia, music is certain to keep evolving and traditions will be maintained. However, with an ugly jingoism in the air and a patriotic militia, the only thing politically predictable about the country’s next course, is it’s unpredictability.


available on the album: SAMBASUNDA

CBMW were formed in Bandung , the capital and cultural centre of Western Java, more commonly known as Sunda. The Sundanese are the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia with a unique language and culture. This group of 14 musicians were formed by Ismet Ruchimat Maulana, a well known local kacapi, or Sundanese zither player, who also featured on the Sunda Africa album devised by Spanish globetrotting percussionist Django Mango (released by GlobeStyle in the UK). CBMW update the lilting sounds of Sundanese gamelan degung and bamboo gamelan by adding elements of Jakarta’s gambang kromong, Sunda’s jaipong, Balinese kebyar and the
Brazilian rhythm of samba. The result is a mesmerizing mix that manages, strangely, to be both relentlessly exciting and passively tranquil.


available on the album: LANGGAM JAWA, ANOMAN OBONG

Born in 1943 in Solo (Surabaya) in eastern Java, Waldjinah first came to prominence aged 15 after winning a local music competition singing kroncong in her native Javanese language, the first singer to do so. Although still today she is probably best known as a kroncong singer, Waldjinah has proved herself capable of singing a variety of other local music genres. Toward of the end of the 1960s she developed her own pop style, known as langgam jawa using the traditional pelog and slendro scales with kroncong instruments in an approach reminiscent of a gamelan ensemble. In 1969 a song in this style, “Walang Kekek” (The Singing Cricket) was a big hit for Waldjinah, and remains her best known song. Anamon Obong is fairly unrepresentative of her usual repertoire, it’s story taken from the Hindu epic, Ramayana, the hero being Anoman ( a white monkey). Musically it contains elements of the gamelan that accompanies Wayang Kulit, the Javanese shadow puppet theatre, often based on Ramayana stories. It’s exciting arrangement cleverly mixes kroncong and gamelan, with a heavily percussive background and chanting, keeping both a modern and traditional feel.


available on the album: THE DANGDUT QUEEN

Dubbed the “Queen of Dangdut”, Elvy Sukaesih was born in Jakarta in 1951, made her first recording at only 13 years of age, and by her late teens had already made a name for herself singing with a famous orkes Melayu ( literally “Malay orchestra”, but in this sense meaning a new form of pop music sung in the Melayu language and encouraged to unite the newly independent nation). She sung together with Rhoma Irama as a duet and in his group from 1973, before turning solo three years later. Ever since, she has had a consistent string of hits, releasing hundreds of albums and aside to her glorious voice is known for her entertaining and humourous style. Kareta Malam “Travelling at Night” (presumably by train) is taken from her early solo career, and exemplifies the still early development of dangdut, blending Indian film music, Arabic pop with western elements, a sense of fun and spontaneity adding to the music’s vitality.


available on the album: BEGANDANG- THE GREATEST HITS 1975-1980

If there is one music that could identify the Indonesian nation it is dangdut, the music popular on the streets and particularly associated with the working classes. The word dangdut was coined in the late 1960s and is an onomatopoeic word, based on the sound of the kendang, a drum similar to the Indian tabla. The origins of dangdut lies in orkes melayu (orchestras) especially encouraged by Sukarno to cultivate national identity in the wake of independence, who would play latin and jazz music adding an Indonesian taste and later Arabic and Indian film music. The first band to incorporate the kendang into the ensemble was Orkes Melayu Punama, who at the same time added electric guitar, bass and organ. Rhoma Irama and his female counterpart Elvy Sukaesih both sung with Punama before singing together as a duo and a few years later turning solo. Rhoma Irama (real name Raden Irama) was born in 1946 in Sunda, and was first known by the nickname of Oma. Together with Sukaesih, he raised the popularity of dangdut to become an established genre, the two respectfully dubbed the “King” and “Queen” of dangdut. Rhoma Irama has released hundreds of albums, mixing styles such as kroncong and dangdut, with strong western and Arabic elements. Released in 1975, “Begadang” is his biggest hit and the title track to a million selling cassette.


available on the album: KACAPI SULING

Kacapi suling (zither and flute) is the instrumental form of tambung sunda (track 8). The larger Kacapi indung (the “mother” kacapi) plays the major lines, and on this recording two kacapi rincak (“small” kacapi) add extra ornamentation. The floating melody, which replaces the vocals of tambung sunda, is provided by the suling (flute). The soloist, Endang S. was born in 1961 and is one of the top Sundanese suling players, the nature of Kacapi Suling music, allowing him room for some spellbinding improvisation.


available on the album: DARI SUNDA

Born in Bandung, Sunda in 1960 Detty Kurnia is Indonesia’s finest singer of pop sunda, that mixes traditional Sundanese music with western elements, the term coming into general usage at the beginning of the 1980s. Detty Kurnia started singing traditional music in her early childhood and made her first recording aged 11. She went on to sing what was to become known as pop sunda from the mid 1970s and became well known first locally before her fame spread to other areas of Indonesia, eventually recording over 150 albums. Dar Der Sor is a pop sunda song composed in the 1970s, and is taken from the album “Dari Sunda” (‘From Sunda’, released in the UK by Riverboat) produced by Japanese producer Makoto Kubota who brought new recording standards to Indonesian music. Dari Sunda became a popular album in Japan and Detty Kurnia performed at the inaugural WOMAD festival in Japan in 1991. Her mellifluous voice is still one of the most beautiful to ever emanate from Indonesia, and a match for anyone, in any genre in the world.

(* Detty Kurnia died of breast cancer on April 20, 2010, aged 49.)


Grup Bamba Puang are Mandar people from South Sulawesi, whose guitar accompanied music is known as ‘sayang sayang’. Originally one guitar was used to accompany the singers although from the mid-1960s sometimes a second guitar and ukulele were added, although this track reverts to the original style. Sayang sayang are performed at weddings and other celebrations and usually have alternate male and female verses. This track is related to the urban los quin style of Ujung Pandang, and mixes western guitar elements into a sayang sayang format, and is sung in the Mandar


Male and female vocalists Imas Permas and Asep Kosasih perform a Sundanese style of music known as tembang sunda, the word tembang used to denote any vocal genre. Although related to Sundanese gamelan music, it developed in relative isolation as an aristocratic music, in Cianjur, located between Bandung and Jakarta, during colonial Dutch rule. The music takes the form of sung poetry, accompanied by kacapi or zithers, suling (flute) and occasionally rebab, a two stringed violin. This song is from the Rarancagan category, metered in time, as opposed to the free rhythm of other styles, and describes the final words of Rahwana, defeated by a supernatural weapon and facing death.


The bassist and singer with the legendary 3 Mustaphas 3 left his family behind in the Balkans and resurfaced some years later in Indonesia. He composed a song, ‘Denpassar Moon’ which became a massive hit, spawning over 50 cover versions. Although he received no payments for royalty, he was treated as such when introduced as the song’s composer but was widely mistaken for being Lebanese. Sumbawa is taken from his second album ‘Jalan Kopo’ recorded in Bandung with top Sundanese musicians and regulars at the famous Jugula studio. Sabah Habas Mustapha combines great melodies into a clever musical concoction, washed down with large helpings of cryptic wit.


available on the album:AIRMATA

Of mixed Japanese and Hawaiian ancestry, Sandii (Suzuki) is one the world’s most versatile singers. She is a multilingual vocalist but not a copyist, who manages to stamp her own trademark style on whatever kind of music she is performing. Recorded with a rich cast of Indonesian musicians, this song was produced by Makoto Kubota who at the beginning of the 1990s set about making a pan-Asian music. In the process he set new standards in recording quality and pioneered new Asian mixtures. Under the guidance of Indonesia’s greatest singers such as Elvy Sukaesih and Rhoma Irama, Sandii and Kubota succeeded in updating classic Indonesian songs by respecting Indonesian tradition and pop rhythm flavours, and bringing hitherto unknown studio techniques and a touch of genius. Rentak 106 is originally a Melay song from Medan in North Sumatra.


Joged Laksmana Mati Raden Ditembak (“Prince Laksmana Is Stabbed Dead” Dance) was recorded in Binjai, North Sumatra in 1972. Ibu Maimunah Mochtar, a former well known bangsawaran or Malay theatre singer, was 62 years old at the time. The song and instrumentation is a blend of Malay, Portuguese and Middle Eastern influences, performed on accordion and the rebana frame drum. The Melayu (Malay) are one of many ethnic groups in Sumatra, who can trace their ancestry back to the fourteeth century Islamic kingdom of Malacca, which was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. This passage is believed to refer to the death of Hang Tuah, a legend of Malay
folklore, who at the court of Malacca, received the title Laksmana, “Admiral of the Fleet”.


The Batak of North Sumatra comprise seven ethnic groups, totalling about 2 million people centered around the largest volcanic lake in the world, Lake Toba. Although related, each group has distinct languages, customs and traditional arts. Uning Uningan belong to the Christian, Toba group. Music and dance play an important role in Batak society, and musicians occupy an exalted position as intermediaries between humanity and the creator. Pege Sakarimpang is a lively song taken from the Opera Batak repertoire created by Tilang Oberlin Gultom (1896-1970). Singers Kalabius Simbolon and Zulkaidah Harahap are accompanied by unique Batak instruments, the hasapi ( two-stringed mandolin), surune etek (small clarinet), gurantung (xylophone) and sulim (flute).


available on the album:GAMELAN DEGUNG

The wistful charms of Sundanese gamelan degung can reportedly be traced back to the Bajajalan dynasty (1333-1579), and continued to develop during Dutch rule. It is usually performed by a small ensemble of seven musicians playing various gongs; suspended (jengglong), metallophones (a metal barred xylophone called Bonang) and two types of sarons or glockenspiels. The rhythm is supported by the double headed wooden barrel drum the kendang, although the most distinctive instrument is the suling, a bamboo flute. The suling player on this tune is Ujang Suyana, born totally blind in 1939 who has recorded more than 60 albums for local release. The scale, also known as degung is similar to the pelog scale of Java and other Sundanese music. The music characteristically takes an identical phrase and gradually adds extra ornamentation with a trance inducing effect.


The leading exponents of Islamic pop, qasidah modern, Nasida Ria from Semerang in Central Java, are a nine piece all women group under the leadership of H.Mudrikah Zain. Their music is an updated form of qasidah, originally a storytelling/singing form of Arabic religious epics accompanied by chanting and percussion. Nasida Ria add electric guitars, keyboards, violin, mandolin and flute with a rhythmical backing influenced by dangdut and melodies derived from Arabic pop. Not afraid to tackle controversial issues or offer advice, this song meaning “Amuse Yourselves”, contains the message “Let’s sing together and banish sadness, we may amuse ourselves, as long
as we do not get carried away and forget God.”


available on the album: WALDJINAH SINGS GESANG

Bengawan Solo (Big River of Solo) is one of Indonesia’s most famous tunes,
designated as a national song. It was written by the legendary vocalist Gesang, born in 1917 in Solo (Surabaya). Dating back to the early 1940s, Bengawan Solo is a Langgam Kroncong classic, a 32 bar style that resembled American pop song, developed by Gesang and encouraged by the Japanese occupiers at the time. The song also became well known in Japan. This version is performed with a fairly standard kroncong accompaniment of two three stringed kroncong guitars, (the lower pitched cuk, and the higher pitched cak), cello, bass, violins, flute with the addition of Malaysian accordion player S.Atan. It features duet vocals by kroncong’s greatest male singer and composer Gesang, and female vocalist Waldjinah.

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Rough Guide to the Music of Malaysia

Not many countries around the world, can match Malaysia for a local music that mixes diverse styles and cultures into a pulsating roots sound. Since as early as the first century AD, the Straits of Malacca, along the Malay Peninsula’s west coast, has been one of the world’s major shipping lanes. The region linked the world’s earliest dominant markets of India and China. The Straits provided a calm refuge for ships for several months during the monsoon period, bringing the locals into intimate contact with the passing traders. In the 13th century, Arab traders arrived, bringing Islam which is today the prominent religion in Malaysia. The Portuguese conquered Malacca at the beginning of the 16th century, replaced 130 years later by the Dutch. Add influences from nearby Indonesia and Thailand, plus other western elements in more recent years, and you can begin to understand how such a unique set of circumstances has given rise to such a potent musical force.

Malaysia lies at the centre of Southeast Asia. West or Peninsula Malaysia is separated from East Malaysia or Sabah at the northern tip of Borneo by nearly 2,000 kilometres, yet are intrinsically linked ethnically and historically. Every Malaysian over 12 years old carries an identity card that indicates one of four racial categories. Today, approximately 65% of Malaysia’s 23 million people are officially categorized as ‘bumiputra’ literally ‘sons of the soil’ or Malay. Malays share a common culture and the official language, Bahasa Malaysia. The Chinese make up about 26% of the population, largely urban based, they run the majority of businesses and stores throughout the country. About 7% of the population derive from South Asia, mostly originally from India. The remaining 2% are categorized as ‘others’ and include among others Europeans, Thais, Indonesians and Americans. These figures however disguise cross racial marriage, as Malaysians can only belong to one category, and the categories imply a religious classification, the Malays being Islamic, and everyone else not.

Musically too, each racial group has retained their own musical styles in some classical and folk traditions, with little assimilation. However, when it comes to music that is played at social occasions for all kinds of celebrations, local Malay, Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Western music have all been mixed together into a living, evolving music. Furthermore, it is this music that has provided the backbone to much of Malaysia’s mainstream roots and pop, where almost uniquely in East Asia, some of the country’s biggest hits sung by the biggest stars have a decidedly local flavor. It’s these styles, both traditional and modern that make up the majority of tracks on this Rough Guide.

One such type of music is ghazal which is performed at weddings and other celebrations in several states, but particularly in Malaysia’s deep south, in the state of Johor. Ghazal is an Arabic word meaning ‘love poems’ and is believed to date back to the 8th century from ancient Persia and had become an established form of music in India by the 13th century. There are at least two theories as to its origin in Malaysia. The first is that ghazal was brought to Malaysia by Indian traders in the 19th century and was developed by the nobility. It became centered in Johor after a Malay ruler moved from Singapore to Johor.

The second theory is that ghazal developed with Wayang Parsi (Theatre) which arrived in Johor at the beginning of the 20th century. Military officers sang ghazal melodies to traditional pantun verses, Malay four line poems , and added additional instruments to the ensemble. One distinguishing feature of ghazal is the playing of tablas, as opposed to the gendang heard on other types of Malay music. The other instruments include the Indian harmonium, violin, guitar, tambourine and the Malaysian lute, the gambus, which derived from the Arabic oud, the violin and the gambus replacing the original Indian shringgi and sitar respectively. Ghazal combines Indian, Arabic, Malay and Western music and still today scores of ghazal groups are found in Johor playing all night at weddings. These days ghazal groups can play other styles of music too, such as Indonesian dangdut, but played with a distinctly ghazal flavour and have added accordion, and other instruments to the ensemble. Track 1 features the group Mari Menari playing ghazal mixed with masri a rhythm of Middle Eastern origin, sometimes compared to a belly dancing rhythm. Masri formed the basis of the rhythm for the Islamic nasyid groups such as Raihan, that emerged in the 1990s.

Masri is one of five types of rhythms and dance styles called Tarian Melayu, the others being asli, inang, joget and zapin. Zapin grew out of the Arab communities living in Johor around the 14th century. It was originally played by people of mixed Arab and Malay blood, but these days is performed throughout Malaysia. Zapin Melayu, the Malay dance form, originated from the zapin Arab style and is a gentler dance compared to the Arabic version. Musically, zapin has retained a strong Arabic flavour, mainly through the instrumentation. Aside to the gambus, the distinctive pear shaped lute Malay oud, are two percussive instruments. The marwas is a doubled headed, circular hand drum, with the skins tied tightly to the body by rope. The rhythmic patterns of the marwas are punctuated by the dok, a cone shaped single headed drum. Sometimes the frame drum, the rebana, is added together with a gong. Western violin, accordion and a flute to play the melody are also popular in contemporary zapin ensembles. Track 6, Burung Burung Ayam performed by Kumpulan Ahmad Yusoh and Rakan-Rakan is an excellent example of a contemporary zapin piece.

The mixture of various forms of music in Malaysia accelerated after the Portuguese occupation in the 16th century. The Portuguese had brought the violin, accordion and the rebana frame drum to Malaysia, which were soon incorporated into the local music. Following British colonization, from the end of the 19th century, this mixing developed even more rapidly as the local populace saw for the first time European and American movies, parsi theatre from Bombay and even Chinese opera. One form of music to appear at this time was bangsawan or Malay opera. In the 1920s, bangsawan musicians had begun to update the traditional dance styles of asli, inang, joget, zapin and masri into modern styles. By the 1930s bangsawan had gone on to influence a type of music called ronggeng. Ronggeng is a social dance whereby pantun (traditional 4-line poems) are sung to the accompaniment of accordion, violin, gong and rebana. Ronggeng groups were the main form of entertainment at weddings and other occasions throughout the country and are believed to date back to the 18th century. Ronggen groups became best known for performing the dance and rhythm called joget, to the extent that the two words became interchangeable.

Joget is a fast dance played in a four beat pattern and is probably still today the most popular traditional dance music in Malaysia danced by couples. From the 1930s, ronggen groups performed at entertainment parks in Malaysia and Singapore a type of music that became known as joget stage. Through the influence of bangsawan, ronggeng too incorporated many western elements, both in the way of singing and in the instrumentation that now included guitar, bass, piano, flute, trumpet and trombone. The music however maintained its Malay character mainly through the rhythmic dance patterns. Track 13 Johore Sports Club is a traditional style joget dance while the following Pantun Berjoget by Yusni Hamid and R. Ismail is a modern version.

Following the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in 1942, when record companies ceased releasing records, the music scene developed alongside the film industry. The Malay film industry reached its heyday during the 1950s. Bangsawan (Malay opera) choreographers found themselves in demand, the stories often being based on bangsawan tales. A number of singers emerged, the most famous of all P.Ramlee (1929-1973) who until today is a cultural icon in Malaysia and Singapore. He appeared in some 63 films as an actor and contributed some 250 songs to those films. P.Ramlee started to compose music from the age of 17, his idea being to create a new Malay music that combined Malay folk music with some lesser known local styles and other elements. Asli, inang, masri, joget and zapin rhythms were played alongside rhythms from around the world from the rumba, mambo and cha cha cha to the waltz and the twist, fused with Arabic and Indian melodies. P. Ramlee’s films depicted the lives of ordinary Malays, and appealed to all ages regardless of social class or race.

Track 10, Berkorban Apa Saja is one of P.Ramlee’s most famous tunes, performed here by the accordion player, composer and producer S.Atan. Born in Singapore, S.Atan has worked with many of Malaysia’s leading musicians. The only singer to rival P.Ramlee in the popularity stakes was his wife, Saloma. Together they dominated the Malay popular music scene throughout the 1950s. Saloma has subsequently been an influence on many female singers in Malaysia and even outside. Japanese singer Sandii cites Saloma as her main inspiration on her album of Melayu classics ‘Airmata’. Track 3 Cinta Hampa is a famous Malay song from the 1950s that was sung by Saloma and others. Also featured on this version is accordionist S.Atan and on keyboards Mac Chew who together with Jenny Chin have been responsible for producing some of Malaysia’s most creative music of the last decade and form half of the successful Blue Asia project in Japan.

In the 1960s, under the influence of primarily the Beatles and other 60s British pop groups, a new music emerged in Malaysia dubbed pop yeh-yeh- the term derived from the Beatles lyric, ‘She Loves You, yeah, yeah, yeah’. The bands, were called kumpulan gitar rancak (rhythmic guitar bands) or by the shortened term kugiran, and usually consisted of four members playing two electric guitars, bass and drums. Fredo (Track 15) grew up listening to P.Ramlee and Saloma, but came under the spell of pop yeh-yeh, and joined a succession of groups the Tombs, the Trackers, the Jets and the Asians. The Asians renamed themselves the Flybaits and became one of the most popular groups in the 1970s. After the Flybaits disbanded in 1984 Fredo formed a new group, the Flintstones. Nasib Si Gadis is a song he recorded with the Flybaits that mixes Malay elements with rock ‘n’ roll.

M. Shariff (1951-1999) who joins Zaleha Hamid on Track 5, Setia Menuggu was dubbed ‘Mr Pop Yeh-Yeh’, but also sang lagu Melayu asli or original Malay songs and other Malay folk styles. Born Shariff Awang, he added the letter M in the 60s, when it was the trend to have an initial before your name. Malaysian music lost much of its local flavour during the 1970s and early 80s. Malay artists seemed to mimic their Western counterparts whose music had become widely available, as disco beats replaced joget. One artist who helped to revitalize Malaysian roots and take it in new directions during the 1980s was Zaleha Hamid.

Born in 1954, Hamid was the lead singer in a ghazal group in Johor, (her father was a leading ghazal singer) before turning her attention to singing other Malay traditional styles and dangdut, the Indian and Arabic street music that emerged in Indonesia in the late 1960s. She spent her early career in Singapore before moving back to Malaysia in 1987. Zaleha Hamid combined Malay roots music with dangdut, the styles of two of her favourite singers, Malaysian legend Saloma, and Indonesian dangdut queen, Elvy Sukaesih. Seti Menuggu has a gentle dangdut lilt compared to the harder Indonesian style of Jakarta. Malek Ridzuan (Track 7) also sang asli in the 1980s, including the hit song Adainya Kau Sudi. Two other veterans of asli and other traditional Malay styles are female singer Rosiah Chik and M. Salim (Track 12). Shortly after being rewarded with a lifetime achievement award by the Malaysian Music industry Rosiah Chik passed away in 2006. Berdendang Sayang is a well known traditional song.

Salih Yaacob (Track 11) has probably done more than any other musician to popularize and develop dangdut in Malaysia. Originally a comedian he rose to fame in 1992 with an album that mixed dangdut with elements of bhangra. He has gone on to create various new Malaysian dangdut dance styles combined with large doses of comedy. Azizah is an Indonesian style dangdut song.

These musicians helped to pave the way for the Malaysian roots music explosion that took place from the mid 1990s, with the music called Irama Malaysia (Malaysia Beat) or sometimes dubbed ‘Pop Tradisional’. The music drew heavily from a mixture of traditional percussion instruments from throughout Malaysia, such as the kompang rebana, marwas, gendang and tabla to which gambus and accordion were often added and the lyrics sung in the traditional pantun form.

S.Atan, and another composer, producer and accordion player Pak Ngah (Track 4) wrote many Irama Malaysia songs and produced most of the leading singers. Born Suhaimi Mohammed Zain in Kuala Lumpur in 1958, Pak Ngah learnt his trade with the Malay orchestra, National Culture Complex. Hati Kama features his trademark sound and production, an instrumental version of a song originally on the album Seri Belas, featuring two of the greatest stars of modern Malaysian roots music, Siti Nurhaliza and Noraniza Idris. Track 2, Yo Allah Saidi by Noraniza Idris, is taken from that same album, Seri Belas. Noraniza Idris was born in 1968 and made her first record in the early 1990s. Like many Malaysian singers, she started off by singing the 1950s film songs of P.Ramlee and Saloma. Her big breakthrough came by working with S.Atan and Pak Ngah on the album Ala Dondang in 1997. They composed songs specifically for her, added their production techniques and this album sold about 100,000 copies. Noraniza Idris continues to sing Malay pop traditional songs, blending styles and rhythms from throughout Malaysia.

The success of a Malay traditional album by Noraniza Idris acted as a catalyst for probably Malaysia’s current leading female singer in any genre, Siti Nurhaliza. Siti was born in 1979 in Pahang, Her family performed at local weddings and she learnt traditional songs from her mother. She was spotted by a local composer Adnan Abu Hassan, who produced her first two albums. It was her third album Cindai, and especially the title track (Track 8) that brought her into the mainstream, becoming a runaway success. Cindai was written and produced by Pak Ngah with seven of the remaining nine tracks produced by S.Atan. Cindai skillfully blended Malay and Arabic music marking the highpoint of the Irama Malaysia genre. Siti Nurhaliza has gone on to divide her recorded output between Malaysian roots and pop / r&b and is today an icon for Malaysians both at home and abroad. In April 2005 she performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall to an audience of mainly Malaysians living in the UK.

Another bright young star of the current Malaysian music scene is Liza Hanim. Born Haliza Hanim Abdul Halim in 1979, she first gained fame as a finalist of TV2’s Golden Teen Search. For her second album in 1998 Liza worked with Adban Abu Hassan credited with discovering Siti Nurhaliza, on an album of covers of P.Ramlee and Saloma. Track 9, Rindu Ha Tihu Terika is one such classic revitalized for a young audience.

Malaysia has experienced some of Southeast Asia’s most rapid economic growth in the last two decades. These days Kuala Lumpur is as a symbol of this new wealth and confidence, with some striking new architecture. Petronas Towers was once the world’s tallest building, with Islamic themes, such as the twin towers resembling minarets, combined with an interior of numerous squares and circles depicting peace and harmony. Petronas Towers stands as an expression of Malaysia’s intention to be at the forefront of modern Southeast Asia while maintaining a strong cultural identity and tradition. This attitude is mirrored by many of the country’s musicians on this CD; a harmonious mixture of cultures and styles from Asia and beyond, a blend of old and new, east and west. It’s an attitude that looks set to continue as radical changes in modern music take place within the context of a proud tradition.

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Rough Guide to the Music of China Vol.2

China, and the world’s perception of China, has changed immeasurably since the first edition of the Rough Guide to the Music of China, nearly ten years ago. Today China is set to become the world’s largest economy, probably within the next five to ten years. The influence of China on everyone in the West is obvious – we only need to take a look at all the products in our homes that are made there, and increasingly innovated there. In Brazil, Australia and large swathes of Africa, that influence is even more palpable as China invests and imports huge amounts of raw materials to fuel the economic miracle.

Yet despite this influence and arguable over dependency, on China, most in the West know little about China and its people. Hopefully, this Rough Guide can offer an insight into the ancient, modern and contemporary history of China, and perhaps even a glimpse to the future.

Instruments such as the erhu, pipa and guzheng can be dated back some 3,000 years, and were introduced to China via the Silk Road trading routes from ancient Persia. These instruments are performed in traditional style by the great masters, and in contemporary style by radical new innovators.

The music of pre-Communist 1930s to 1940s Shanghai reflected a large foreign population, which allowed the city to become known as ‘The Paris of the East’. Chinese folk was mixed with jazz to create some of the most evocative music in the country’s history, this fusion laid the foundations for much of today’s pop music.

The music of the Mao years, when nearly all songs had a message about the revolution, workers, peasants, soldiers, or the virtues of Chairman Mao and the Communist system, equally convey the sound of a bygone era. This album features one of the greatest tunes of this era, which is even still popular today.

Following the death of Mao, under Deng Xiaoping, China embarked upon a policy of reform and opening up to the outside world. This policy would have a direct effect on the music scene in China, especially Beijing. Included are artists from the 1980s rock explosion and the 1990s punk boom.

The music of the Chinese minorities and the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang are represented by artists who are updating their roots traditions, in much the same way as artists in other parts of the world, perhaps the nearest China has to what is called ‘world music’.

There is also music made by the Chinese expat communities around the world. It’s usually these artists that have gained most exposure outside of China, and have collaborated with artists from other cultures.

Finally, this album spotlights new sounds from the Chinese underground – artists who are confident and proud of the Chinese elements in their music, yet who are as savvy as anyone about music from anywhere, digesting and incorporating diverse elements, and creating something definably ‘Chinese’.

Like China itself, this Rough Guide, in attempting to give an overview of Chinese music over 3,000 years, is subject to many contradictions, dichotomies and anomalies. Just how does capitalist economy thrive under Communism? How is it possible to keep 1.3 billion people, a fifth of the world’s population, with at least fifty ethnic minorities, under a single government?

Or how did a 1980s rebellious rocker end up experimenting with a traditional instrument of the old China, the guzheng, and then adding Jamaican reggae to it?

Appropriately, for the Middle Kingdom, the answers probably lie somewhere in the middle. Today China is both an economic superpower and intrinsically unstable. Its music is at once a moment in time, a product of a complicated past and an uncertain future.

ZHANG YI WEN – The music of 1920s to 1940s Shanghai, also called shidaiqu, mixed Chinese folk with American jazz. During the 1930s some 70,000 foreign nationals resident in Shanghai lived safely in prosperous parts of the city – some shidaiqu songs reflect on their extravagant lifestyles. Others relate to events such as the second Sino-Japanese War. Zhang Yi-Wen took part in the 1946 ‘Miss Shanghai’ competition, placing second. Like many of her peers, she emigrated to Hong Kong in 1949.

SHANREN – Formed in Yunnan province in 2000, Shanren, meaning ‘Mountain People’, are a group from different ethnic backgrounds – Han, Wa and Buyi. They play and promote the music of the ethnic minority groups of Yunnan and Guihzou provinces, such as the music of the Yi people of Yunnan, who play four-stringed plucked instruments including xiangzi and qinqin and a type of drum called xianggu. They have performed at many events in China and Europe.

XIE TIAN XIAO – Xie Tian Xiao (or XTX as he is commonly called) is one of China’s biggest rock stars. He began playing guitar as a teenager and played in various bands, including the grunge-influenced Cold Blooded Animals, who were the first Chinese rock band to play the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Here he combines the guzheng with reggae, culminating in this new style of music and his latest album.

JAH WOBBLE & THE CHINESE DUB ORCHESTRA – Maverick UK bass player Jah Wobble and guzheng (zither) player Zi Lan Liao were originally asked to put together a performance as one of the events of the 2008 Liverpool Capital of Culture. That project soon mushroomed into something much bigger, resulting in a full UK tour. Guzheng and yanqin (dulcimer) are combined with bass, keyboards, beats, and various pipes and flutes.

RED CHAMBER – Red Chamber are four Canada-based Chinese virtuosi of plucked stringed instruments. Their line-up comprises zheng, pipa, ruan and sanxian. ‘Sunny Spring And White Snow’ is an ancient piece that is thought to have been composed during what is known as the Spring and Autumn Period (722 bc – 481 bc) of Chinese history.

MIN HUIFEN – Min Huifen is one of China’s greatest exponents of the erhu, the two-stringed bowed fiddle (erh means ‘two’ and hu, ‘barbarian’). The instrument, used in classical and folk music, produces one of the most instantly recognizable Chinese sounds. Born in 1945, Min has enjoyed success as erhu soloist with China National Art Troupe and the Shanghai Chinese Music Orchestra. She is also a prolific composer, and ‘Yangguan Pass Melody’ is probably her best-known piece.

SECOND HAND ROSE – Formed in Beijing in 2000, Second Hand Rose combine traditional Chinese instruments, such as the suona (oboe), with rock. Lead singer and guitarist Liang Long is from Heilongjiang province in northeast China, and is influenced by er ren zhuan (storytelling from the northeast). They are firmly part of the Chinese underground scene, and have performed in Switzerland and Holland.

URNA – Urna Chahar-Tugchi grew up on the steps of the Ordos grasslands of Inner Mongolia, one of the autonomous regions of China. She started off learning yanqin in the capital city, Hohhot, before moving to Shanghai to study singing at the Conservatory of Music. By using novel vocal techniques and collaborating with musicians from different cultures, her music still evokes the grasslands of her homeland, while creating an original and fresh sound.

MIEKO MIYAZAKI & GUO GAN – Erhu player Guo Gan, originally from Shenyang, met Japanese koto (zither) player Mieko Miyazaki in France, where they currently live. Together, they push the boundaries of their respective traditions in a combination that is entirely natural; the koto itself was derived from China. ‘Sai Ma’ (‘Horse Racing’) is a well-known tune for the erhu, here it is given a quite radical reworking yet still conveying the energetic and majestic galloping of horses.

CHANG JING – Guzheng player Chang Jing is one of the leading lights of the new generation of Chinese traditional musicians. From Sichuan province, she graduated from the China Conservatory of Music in 1995, and soon after joined the China National Song & Dance Ensemble. Later she began to explore the possibilities of her instrument, adding electronic sounds and rhythms and creating videos for her songs more akin to a pop star.

LI GUYI – Li Guyi is sometimes referred to as the first Chinese pop singer. However, her career has not always been as smooth for this unlikely rebel. Despite beginning her career as a classical musician, in the early 1980s she started to sing pop songs, and became the object of much criticism for being supposedly lewd and decadent. Despite some songs being banned, she continued to sing them due to overwhelming public demand. Blending Western pop with Chinese folk, she opened the doors for the subsequent generation of pop stars, and in 1999 received a Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala organized by China Central Television and MTV.

PANJIR – Panjir predominantly play the music of the Uyghurs from Xinjiang, the largest administrative area of China, in the heart of Central Asia. The Uyghurs are a Turkic people whose music includes influences from Persia, India and the Far East. With its rich mix of percussion (qang-dulcimer and dap), strings (tambur, dutar, satar, saz) and wind instruments (ney), the music lends itself well to the improvisation that Panjir experiment with.

COLD FAIRYLAND – From Shanghai, Cold Fairyland were put together in 2001 by female pipa player, keyboardist and singer Lin Di. She began playing pipa aged 4, and studied traditional Chinese music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. It was a shock to those around her when, taking influences from progressive rock and trip-hop among others, she decided to accompany her pipa with cello, bass, drums and keyboards, within a sometimes dark framework. Cold Fairyland became popular at all the Chinese festivals and have performed in Europe and Japan.

HANG ON THE BOX – Teenage classmates Wang Yue and Yilana met like-minded Yang Fan, and, without practising, announced they were Beijing’s first all-girl punk band. Shortly after, they embarked on their first performance and left the audience at Scream (China’s first underground club) unsure whether to laugh or jeer. The group recruited a drummer, rehearsed and were soon wowing the audiences with their audacious lyrics and fast-paced music.

THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT – This ensemble is the brainchild of Chinese-American musician Dave Liang, who draws his inspiration from the 1930s to 1940s Shanghai scene. On the album Remixed and Restored Vol. 1, he set about remixing some of the classic tracks that inspire him, including the song sampled here. Originally called ‘Ye Shang Hai’, it was recorded by Zhou Xuan, one of the so-called ’Seven Great Singing Stars’ of early twentieth-century China.

BAI GUANG – Born in Beijing in 1921, Bai Guang was one of China’s ‘Seven Great Singing Stars’ who doubled up as the most famous film stars of the day in Shanghai. Known as ‘White Light’, she had a slightly deeper voice than her contemporaries and brought a seductive tone to her records. ‘Qiu Ye (Autumn Night)’ was one of her biggest hits. Bai moved to Hong Kong following the Communist takeover in 1949, eventually settling in Malaysia.

LIU FANG – Liu Fang was born in Yunnan province and began playing pipa aged 6. At age 22 she moved to Canada and began to collaborate with other musicians from other cultures. While remaining true to tradition on her acclaimed trilogy of solo pipa albums, a number of side projects have seen her working with folk and experimental musicians from around the world. ‘Dao Chui Lian’ is her interpretation of a folk tune from Guangdong, southern China.

GUO LANYING – ‘My Motherland’, sung by Guo Lanying, is one of China’s best-known songs. It was written for the 1956 film about the Korean War, Battle on Shangganling Mountain. The popularity of the song far outstripped that of the film. Its relatively subtle message, compared to other patriotic songs of the time, reminded the soldiers of the beauty of their homeland. Guo Lanying first studied Shanxi opera style, and was eventually elevated to chief performer in the Song and Dance Theatre after Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This role took her to the Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia and even Japan, where she was celebrated as an example of Chinese musical talent.

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Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa

The music of Okinawa has an indefinable island quality. Whether it’s Cuba, Cape Verde, Madagascar, Java, Hawaii or Okinawa, island music is special. A bit like everywhere but totally unlike anywhere. Okinawan music has developed from a unique set of influences down the centuries as local traditions have mingled with those of sea faring and trading nations. As a result of feuding for it’s control and exploitation, the people have endured much suffering and hardship. Throughout, they have remained indefatigable, combining a mellow and genial nature, with a fierce sense of pride and identity. Music has evolved organically until the present day. While Japan’s musical traditions have been largely forgotten or ‘preserved’ by societies, Okinawa is the country’s only surviving enclave with a thriving and living local music rooted in a tradition. Tragic female vocals, shuffling syncopated rhythms and the lonely twang of the snake skinned banjo, the sanshin, can be heard everywhere; on the beaches, in restaurants, shopping malls, and at night musicians perform in numerous bars.

Poetically described as a “knotted rope cast into a distant sea”, the 73 sub-tropical islands of Okinawa Prefecture stretch for over 700 km from Kagoshima (mainland Japan’s southernmost Prefecture) almost to Taiwan. Situated at roughly mid-point is the largest island of Okinawa, a name sometimes used to encompass the whole archipelago, which are otherwise known under it’s original kingdom name, the Ryukyu islands.

Most Japanese might consider Okinawa as rather exotic islands, not exactly foreign, but not exactly Japanese. Get off the plane at Naha, the main port and biggest city and the balmy atmosphere is decidedly south east Asian. To the Okinawans, the islands are very much their own, with a distinct language, culture and music. Islands of sun, sea and sand, but also the sanshin and above all songs. The more recent of their vast repertoire of min’yo (folk songs) they call ‘island songs’ or shima uta.

While Okinawa got left behind as post-war Japan got modernized, westernized, industrialized, and even ‘internationalized’, the popular image of a backward island ‘paradise’ is somewhat fanciful. An island paradox is more accurate. Due to it’s strategic location as an important trading link between Japan, China, and south east Asia, Okinawa has been a melting pot, absorbing more foreign cultures than anywhere else in Japan. While the most notable influences are Chinese and Japanese, the pentatonic scale is identical to that of some areas of Indonesia, and related to Polynesia and Micronesia. In the last 50 years, the American military presence, currently around 50,000, has ensured a strong western influence too.

Music in Okinawa is intrinsically linked to the past. Okinawa’s earliest history is of battling warlords until the 14th century when a unified Kingdom was established. Trading links with China were forged and Okinawa became a tributary state of China, achieving it’s ‘golden age’ of trade during the 15th century. At the heart of Okinawan music is the sanshin, derived from the larger Chinese sanxien, which arrived during this period, initially as an instrument of the Ryukyu nobility. In 1609 Okinawa was invaded by the Satsuma clan of southern Japan, and with them came a relatively modern political system and enforced changes including the levying of harsh taxes. Nevertheless, classical Ryukuan culture flourished. After Commodore Perry arrived in Naha in 1853, Britain, the US, France and Russia all tried to establish trading links with Okinawa. Japan, not wishing to lose it’s share of the cut, sent a force to invade the islands in 1879, afterwhich Okinawa was made a prefecture of Japan proper.

Despite Japanese efforts to suppress Okinawan culture and language, the music entered a new and important phase. Many of the now disbanded Okinawan nobility had become competent musicians. Forced to pay their own way, some moved to different areas of the islands to teach the local communities. Folk traditions were given a new lease of life, and on some of the outer islands, previously unaccompanied working songs, a sanshin accompaniment. Original songs were composed which gave rise to the modern day shima uta.

Towards the end of 19th century, mainly due to poverty, many Okinawans emigrated to Hawaii, Brazil, south east Asia and to the Kansai region of Western Japan. They didn’t leave their music behind and instead composed songs of emigration, including the island’s first major figure of shima uta, Choki Fukuhara. He established Marafuku Records, Okinawa’s first and most important record company, originally in Osaka in 1926. Even today many of Okinawa’s greatest musicians were born in Kansai.

Shima uta developed further as the people’s music, at all night beach revelries or mo-ashibi, which thrived until the second world war. With the outbreak of war, mo-ashibi were banned, and Okinawa entered it’s most tragic period of history. 150,000 or a third of the population died at the Battle of Okinawa. Using Okinawa as a buffer, many believe the Okinawans were sacrificed by the Japanese to save the mainland.

Under American control from 1945, musicians took the leading role in restoring pride and expressing the feelings of the people. Later a new music scene developed in clubs around the American military bases. These became progressively wilder, especially during the Vietnam war, the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972 and as the GI’s developed a thirst for other forms of ‘entertainment’.

Most bands played soul, r&b, blues and rock covers, but it didn’t take long for these influences to gradually infiltrate Okinawan music. During the 1970s and 80s, the mixtures got more radical, and with Okinawa now part of Japan again, Japanese musicians started to mix Okinawan with western music.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Japanese record companies took the lead role in introducing Okinawan music to the mainland, as part of the burgeoning world music scene. which helped to revitalize the local music scene. Some musicians opened their own clubs, mainly to perform for an ever increasing Japanese tourist clientele. Japanese/Okinawan collaborations in some form, became the norm, as not only rock, but jazz and Japanese traditions became part of the mix, without the music ever losing it’s Okinawan identity.

As new trends evolve these too have been absorbed into Okinawan music, while at the beginning of this century, there is renewed interest on the mainland in the traditional music. This was spawned by the death in 1999 of Rinsho Kadekaru, one of Okinawa’s greatest musicians. and the hit movie “Nabbie no Koi”, that featured Kadekaru along with several other notable elder musicians, including Seijin Noborikawa who had a starring role.

This Rough Guide contains most of the spectrum of Okinawan music. Traditional songs are performed by both legendary and younger musicians, with sanshin, vocals, and usually the accompaniment of taiko drums and sanba (castanets). Other tracks are of Okinawan and Japanese collaborations on both traditional and original songs in a mixture of styles and instrumentation. Elsewhere, Japanese musicians perform their own take on Okinawan music, with the occasional input of the many western musicians who have become entranced with the music of Okinawa.


There was a no more revered figure in Okinawan music than the ‘Godfather’ of shima uta, Rinsho Kadekaru. With his slightly husky voice, pristine sanshin playing and whimsical character he entertained and inspired Okinawans for over 60 years. Born in Goeko, Okinawa, on July 4th 1920, Kadekaru began playing sanshin at the age of seven. By the time he was 15 he had started to participate in his village’s mo-ashibi parties, at which he first gained a reputation, before moving to Osaka for a few years. He was conscripted into the military during the war, after which he stayed on the Micronesian 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 min’yo boom. Kadekaru recorded nearly 250 songs for local record labels, more than any other Okinawan musician. Koko Kuduchi is a duet with one of Kadekaru’s contemporaries, Seijin Noborikawa (track 16 ) and was originally released as a single in 1974 on the Okinawan label Marafuku, when Kadekaru was probably in his prime as a musician. Kuduchi is a type of song whereby the lyrics, sung in talking style, tell stories of people’s lives. Rinsho Kadekaru died in October 1999, aged 79.


Before Nenes, there was another female quartet; Four Sisters. These four real sisters (Chieko, Sadako, Kumiko and Midori) got back together after more than twenty years to record this song, taken from the youngest sister, Chieko Iha’s 1998 solo album. She started performing from the age of eight, and with her sisters had several local hits on the Marafuku label. After Four Sisters disbanded in 1974, Iha continued to record as a solo artist under the guidance of Tsuneo Fukuhara, the prolific songwriter, producer and owner of Marafuku Records. Shima Jima Kaisha (Beautiful Islands) is one of Tsuneo Fukuhara’s and Okinawa’s best loved songs, and features the composer on sanshin together with the Kurikorder Quartet, a group of top Japanese session musicians playing a variety of recorders.


Born in 1952, Takashi Hirayasu lived a double life as a young musician. He was a session player at Marafuku Records playing Okinawan traditional music with artists such as Four Sisters (track 2) while at the same time playing rock, soul and r&b covers in clubs in Koza for the American military. It proved to be the perfect training for his later career as guitarist with Shokichi Kina and Champloose, for whom he wrote and arranged much material. On going solo, his first album mixed up Okinawan music with a wide range of world influences, while a meeting with American guitarist Bob Brozman broadened his mind further. Hirayasu’s sanshin and vocals and Brozman’s Hawaiian and National steel guitar, blended together with intuitive ease on their first album “Jin Jin”, mainly traditional Okinawan songs for children, including Chon Chon Kijimuna, about a friendly tree spirit who can fly. The album became the best ever selling Okinawan album overseas. The two have since collaborated on an eclectic range of styles and with a growing number of musicians both live and on their latest album, “Nankuru Naisa”.


Formed in 1986, Shisars didn’t record their first album for another ten years but it was an album worth waiting for. Akemi Mochida and Yoshie Uno, (original member Jun Yasuba went on to form An-Chang Project) were joined by Natsuki Hattori on guitar, and guests including Wataru Ohkuma on clarinet (of Cicala Mvta) on the album “Kuwa no Shita de Biiru” that pushed the edges of Okinawan music toward the outer limits. Mochida and Uno, both from Japan, learnt songs from Tokyo resident Okinawans and from travelling to the outer islands of Okinawa. Psychedelic guitar and honking brass accompanied mainly Okinawan traditional songs, with harmonious, slightly quirky vocals. For their second album, released in April 2001 “Da Hua Gu”, Shisars jumble up the styles with even more zest. Itta Anma Makaiga ~ Karabato is a medley of two songs taken from this latest album, and are traditional children’s songs featuring Ohkuma, Hattori and Shinya Kimura on drums and percussion.


Misako Ohshiro was born in Osaka in 1936, although she grew up in Nago, in the northern part of the main Okinawan island. She started to learn music from the age of six and perform when she was nine. Initially encouraged by Tsuneo Fukuhara, she studied sanshin under Teihan China, the father of Sadao China. With her expressive voice she is sometimes regarded as the female equivalent of Rinsho Kadekaru, with whom she was a regular collaborator. Uranami Bushi was written by Okinawa’s first major figure of shima uta, Choki Fukuhara, also founder of Marafuku Records. Marafuku released records by all the greats of Okinawan music in the post war Okinawan min’yo ‘boom’. The original Marafuku still survives, although his son, Tsuneo Fukuhara started a separate company, also called Marafuku (but distinguished by a different logo) to carry on the tradition of his father.


Music runs deep in many families, none more so than the Kadekaru household. Rinji Kadekaru was born in 1956, and grew up listening to his father Rinsho (track 1). His voice and sanshin style is remarkably similar to his father, and in addition Rinji is a fine violin player which he also plays on this track. Jidai no Nagare (The Passage of Time) is one of the songs most associated with Rinsho Kadekaru who wrote the text. It tells the history of Okinawa, passed from one power to another, ‘From the rule of China to Yamato (Japan), From Yamato to America, Our Okinawa was changing hands rapidly, Our Okinawa isn’t what it used to be in the old days’. Rinji Kadekaru is accompanied by the BC Street Band with N’Naru Horns, a mixture of Okinawan and Japanese musicians playing brass instruments, electric guitar, bass and drums.


Sarabange is the latest, project of Kenji Yano, also responsible for The Surf Champlers (track 18), and Okinawan singer Sachiko Shima. Born in Osaka in 1961, Yano attended university in Okinawa, after which he became the guitarist with Rokunin Gumi, who combined Okinawan music and rock with a rare gusto. Still remembered for their powerful live shows, the group never recorded an album. Yano worked as a studio musician and engineer in Tokyo, before moving back to Okinawa. Sarabange combines Yano’s keyboards and stringed instruments with the min’yo style vocals of Sachiko Shima in music that they dubbed as “Okinawan Trance Music.” The two had first collaborated on an Hawaiian/ Okinawan crossover album, “Sons of Ailana” in 1995. Both Yano and Shima have recently worked with Tetsuhiro Daiku, and on music for television documentaries.


Misako Koja is best known as the former vocal leader of the female quartet Nenes (track 17) but has continually proved her prowess as a solo artist. She was born in 1954 in Kadena, near to Koza. She began learning sanshin when she was six from a relative, and then from Koutoku Tsuha and Setsuko Ishihara. She made her first recording when she was nine for Marafuku Records, and performed live from this time. She gained more prominence in Japan and overseas as part of the “Okinawan Chans”, three female vocalists who performed and recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto toward the end of the 1980s (together with Yoriko Ganeko and Kazumi Tamaki) and toured in Europe and America. When Sadao China, put together Nenes in 1990 he chose Koja to lead the group, and so began a five year association that saw Nenes become one of Okinawa’s best known groups in Japan, and tour and record overseas. Leaving the Nenes fold at the same time to work with Koja was Nenes co-producer and keyboard player Kazuya Sahara, who had been partly responsible for shaping the Nenes sound. Warabi Gami, written by Sahara, was Koja’s first post Nenes single, exclusively sold at her concerts, and is heading toward status as a modern classic of Okinawan music.


Tetsuhiro Daiku was born in 1949 on Ishigaki Island, the most populated of the Yaeyama islands. A mentor of Yukichi Yamazato, Daiku moved to the main Okinawan island port city of Naha when he was nineteen. He won several prizes for his sanshin and fue (flute) playing and a national NHK (the public broadcasting corporation) min’yo competition. He made several albums mainly for local record labels, before in 1991, his career took a unexpected twist after meeting Japanese saxophone player Kazutoki Umezu. The two collaborated with an ever growing number of other musicians on cello, percussion, guitar, clarinet, and chindon (a Japanese drum used for street performances), on a series of groundbreaking albums. Other groups have since been influenced by the original vision first heard on Daiku’s albums, including Osaka’s Soul Flower Union. As well as being one of Okinawa’s most respected musicians, Daiku is also one of the most traveled, having toured in South America, Africa and Europe. This traditional working song from Yaeyama features the trademark call and response vocals, provided here by Tsundalers, a trio of female singers that includes Daiku’s wife Naiko, with Kazutoki Umezu on sax and bass clarinet.

Tetsuhiro Daiku

Tetsuhiro Daiku


Akanars (The Sunsets) are a quartet of female singers, aged 19 when they recorded this song. They studied traditional min’yo under Tetsuo Uehara. Go-Go Chimbora is a popular traditional song, originally titled Umi nu Chinbora, from the island of Ie, west of the Motobu Peninsula on the main Okinawan island. Chinbora is the name of a type of conch shell, although the eventual meaning in this song developed slightly erotic connotations, after it became popular in the ‘pleasure quarters’ of Naha. Originally, a slow min’yo tune, it was performed at a faster tempo as an accompaniment to a dance. This high speed version features various Japanese musicians including Yoshiki Sakurai on guitar and Takero Sekijma on trumpet both of Strada and Cicala Mvta.


Rikki (full name Ritsuki Nakano) was born in 1975 on Amami island, now officially a part of Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of mainland Japan. Situated half way between the mainland of Japan and Okinawa, the traditional music of Amami, has received a corresponding mixture of influences from it’s larger neighbours. As on the mainland, min’yo is played in a minor scale, the sanshin is tuned differently to the Okinawan main island, giving a brighter tone and the singing is in a falsetto style. Something of a child prodigy, Rikki was born into a musical family and started singing shima uta from the age of four. She appeared at the Japan min’yo award show in Kagoshima at just five years old, winning the same award the following year and for next six years until 1988. Two years later, she captured the All Japan Min’yo award at the unprecedented age of 15. She first performed in Tokyo in 1992 and her first record was released by a major Japanese label in 1993. In 1995 she worked with one of Japan’s premier champions of Asian music, producer Makoto Kubota on her third album, that included Asian influences and reggae. She has also performed and recorded with the Boom (track 15) and Japanese singer Sandii, including at the MIDEM conference in Cannes, France. This track is one of the most well known songs on Amami, and features the sanshin of her mentor Shunzo Tsukiji.




Despite his age, Yasukatsu Ohshima, born in 1969 in Shiraho on Ishigaki island, Yaeyama, is one of Okinawa’s finest interpreters of traditional songs. He also has a penchant for writing his own tunes, including “Akai Ura”, that are nevertheless steeped in tradition. Situated over 400 kilometers south-west of the main Okinawan island, much closer to Taiwan, the music of the Yaeyama group of islands is unique within Okinawa, including in scale and vocal technique, sharing a stronger link to south east Asia. Originally, working songs (Yunta and Jiraba) would be sung call and response style, usually while working in the fields. The sanshin was incorporated into the music only about 100 years ago, until this time, being an unaffordable luxury to most of the 50,000 population, kept poor by oppressive taxes levied upon them by the Japanese and Okinawan governments. The eventual end of the taxation during the feudalistic era, became a catalyst for the development of Yaeyama min’yo. Ohshima learnt from listening to his grandfather playing sanshin at home, and didn’t consider a career in music until he moved to Tokyo when he was 20. Virtually self taught on the sanshin, the vast repertoire of songs he had heard growing up remained deep in his psyche and he developed his own way of singing, not strictly Yaeyama traditional, but in his own decorative style.

Yasukatsu Oshima

Yasukatsu Oshima


Ryukyu Underground is UK born Keith Gordon and American Jon Taylor, who met in Okinawa in 1998. Sharing an interest in Okinawan and contemporary dance music, they decided to collaborate to produce a radical new mixture by combining Okinawan traditional min’yo with elements of ambient, drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop, jungle, dub and electronica. As yet unreleased, Tinsaga nu Hana Dub features the vocals of Naomi Ohshiro, Toshio Tamanaha on sanshin, and the voice of the compiler of this CD unwittingly sampled from the radio. Tinsagu nu Hana is one of Okinawa’s most popular children’s songs, describing the duties of children to their parents, “We paint our nails with balsam flowers, the words of our parents dye our minds”.


Kyoto born Donto, who died in January 2000 aged 37, first came to prominence as guitarist and singer with group Rosa Luxembourg and later Bo Gumbos who played Bo-Diddley inspired New Orleans style music. In 1995 Donto was part of a unit “Uminosachi” that recorded a wacky blend of Indonesian, Indian and Okinawan music. He relocated to Okinawa, where he took up the sanshin, and recorded three solo albums. Whatever he turned his hand to, Donto did so with his own unique style, intelligence and humour. “Jin Jin” (Firefly) is an unreleased recording of a well known traditional song, performed by Shokichi Kina, Takashi Hirayasu and others, and features his partner Sachiho, formerly of the group Zelda, on backing vocals.


It is difficult to overestimate the effect on Okinawan music that the Boom’s number one, 1.5 million selling single “Shima Uta” had in 1993. Even today, this is perhaps the best known “Okinawan” song in Japan. Although interest in Okinawan music had swelled on the mainland from the end of 1980s, it was the Boom that brought the sanshin and Okinawan influenced music to the masses. The Boom’s singer and songwriter Kazufumi Miyazawa had encountered Okinawan music through spending time there, and recorded and performed live with various musicians including Shokichi Kina, Rikki and Yoriko Ganeko. Later influences on the Boom’s music would include Indonesian and Brazilian music, but Okinawa has remained a constant element in their increasingly eclectic mixtures. “Tida Akara Nami Kirara” was originally released as a limited edition single in Okinawa, for the “Sanshin 3000” event in 1995, where it was performed in a stadium by Kazufumi Miyazawa, various Okinawan musicians and 3000 sanshin players. The single soon became a rare item, available generally for the first time on this album.


After the death of Rinsho Kadekaru, perhaps Seijin Noborikawa stands as the island’s most loved and respected elder musician. Noborikawa (or “Seigwa” as he is often referred to) equally stands alone, not easily fitting into the ‘traditional’ musician category. He doesn’t usually dress in kimono, doesn’t only sing traditional repertoire but composes his own, anti-war and other protest songs, developed his own six string sanshin, the ‘rokushin’ and is known as the Okinawan ‘Jimi Hendrix’. Born in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan in 1930, he moved back to Okinawa as a child. A sanshin player from childhood he performed as a backing musician for a theatre group, where he perfected the traditional style and first met 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 gradually crept into his own music. Nevertheless, he was one of the founding members and later president of a traditional music society, and taught the sanshin to a 12 year old Sadao China. Despite his standing, perhaps overshadowed by Kadekaru and other traditional singers, he released relatively few albums. 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. His album released in 2001,”Spiritual Unity” was produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union, who along with his band mates play on some of the songs, including guitar and the Japanese chindon drum on “Naritai Bushi”, a recent Noborikawa composition.


Of all the Okinawan artists during the 1990s, Nenes championed the cause of Okinawan roots music in Japan with probably more success than anyone else, while making some inroads overseas. Originally intended to make Okinawan min’yo accessible to young Okinawans, Nenes were brought together by Sadao China, who had first combined Okinawan music with pop elements on his 1977 local hit, “Bye, Bye, Okinawa”. With Nenes, China took a backseat role as producer and songwriter, where he was able to expand that vision further and with greater effect. The unison voices of Misako Koja, Yasuko Yoshida, Yukino Hiyane and Namiko Miyazato were combined with China’s sanshin, over a backing of guitars, drums, percussion, bass and perhaps most notably, the keyboards of co-producer Kazuya Sahara. It was a winning formula, first heard on the 1991 album “Ikawu”, now a seminal album of Okinawan music. During the next 10 years Nenes released another 6 original albums, varying the influences to include reggae, Brazilian, Hawaiian and Indonesian music, some staying closer to the tradition than others. Recording locations included Indonesia, Hawaii and Los Angeles, and recording guests Ry Cooder, David Lindley and David Hidalgo. Misako Koja (track 8) left Nenes in 1995, and was replaced by Eriko Touma, the subsequent line-up disbanding in 1999. This version of Umkaji, a Sadao China composition originally on their second album, ‘Yunta”, was recorded live at one of their last concerts, and is a rare recording of all five of Nenes singers together.


The ever inventive Kenji Yano released one of Okinawa’s most extraordinary albums in 1995. Under the pseudonym of The Surf Champlers, he combined Okinawan traditional and surf music on the album “Champloo a Go Go” released on a local label. Whereas he’s playing sanshin on a western tune on “James Bond Theme” included on the Rough Guide to Japan, Toshin Doi is a traditional tune played surf style on guitar with keyboards and other backing instruments. One of Okinawa’s best known tunes, Toshin Doi is performed often as a rousing finale, at concerts, parties and celebrations. The song takes it name from Toshin, the ship that traded with China when Okinawa was an independent kingdom. A hazardous journey, it’s safe return would be rejoiced at by the Okinawans.

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Rough Guide to the Music of Japan Vol. 2

The days of Japanese music being perceived at both ends of the scale as the worst excesses of idol pop or inaccessible traditional music are hopefully over. In truth, Japanese musicians have for years been skilfully adept at blending the traditional with the pop, absorbing foreign influences into their own music and coming up with some of the world’s craziest concoctions. A strict master to disciple learning system and preservation societies has meant traditions have been upheld, as well as updated by younger musicians on the outer fringes.

Today, Japanese musicians have discovered a new confidence in their own identity, leading not just Asia but increasingly the world in creating exciting directions in electronica, dance, jazz, avant-garde, improv, rock and other genres. That confidence of musicians as creators rather than copyists has translated itself into Japanese roots music too with shamisen (lute) players becoming household names. Since the 1930s and even before Japanese traditional melodies were combined with mambo, samba, other Latin rhythms, Hawaiian music and jazz. Gradually American and Western pop and rock influences took over leaving largely westernized music by the late 1960s, that apart from some notable exceptions continued through the 70s. During the first ‘world music’ boom from the end of the 1980s, Japanese musicians increasingly looked to what they had to offer. They found that local folk music or minyo had largely died out on the mainland, but down in the southern islands of Okinawa, the local music was still very much alive, uniquely in Japan, a part of everyday life. Japanese musicians started to incorporate Okinawan elements into their music, creating a new roots music scene.

Down in Okinawa, groups and artists who had been playing for years suddenly found themselves leading this trend. The effect of that first boom in Okinawan roots music had positive effects both in Okinawa, where still today local music is thriving, but throughout Japan. Eventually, musicians realized that in the not too distant past, perhaps from where they were born, there was good local music too and set about rediscovering the sounds that their parents might have grown up with. Being like an American was no longer cool, whereas being yourself was.

The search for homegrown roots music deepened through the 90s. Up in the north in Hokkaido, the Ainu (native Japanese) had been ignored for years to the extent many Ainu would rather hide their heritage. Today contemporary Ainu music is one of Japan’s most popular and hip styles of ‘world music’. While in the deep south, the tiny island of Amami situated half way between Japan proper and Okinawa, was thought of as a rather backward place that hadn’t kept pace with the rest of Japan. That image changed as Amami became a hotbed of local folk music. Even more than in Okinawa, music had survived and thrived, developing naturally among a growing band of singers and shamisen players in their teens, learning from elder musicians in their 70s.

This Rough Guide encompasses all these various styles of music from throughout the history of Japanese music and from throughout Japan. From ancient gagaku music that sounds almost as it would have done 1200 years ago to a recent shamisen bluegrass concoction that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Music from the current hotbeds of roots music from opposite ends of the islands, Ainu and Amami. The most quintessential Japanese music of all, enka, post war boogie-woogie that inspired a defeated nation, brilliant innovators of traditional instruments, Okinawan legends, music of the floating world inhabited by geishas a hundred years ago, culminating in a 20 piece free jazz orchestra who take as much inspiration from the futuristic Sun Ra Arkestra (some of who feature on the recording) as they do from ancient butoh dance. An album that defies categories, challenges stereotypes and highlights artists who are some of the most potent musical forces of the east.


Festivals (matsuri) take place throughout Japan throughout the year at temples and shrines of all sizes. From large cities to small villages, for New Year, spring, midsummer, autumn harvest or winter snow. Often loud, raucous events, music plays an integral part. Huge taiko drums might beat to the rhythm of the mikoshi (portable shrine) being carried around town, or rows of kimono clad ladies might dance in perfect sequence and sing in unison to the accompaniment of taiko and shamisen. Ushibuka Haiya Matsuri takes place every April on the coast in Amakusa in Kumamoto prefecture, Kyushu. The song and dance originated during the Edo period (1603-1868) when women would perform for the entertainment of the crews from the ships who had called at the port. These days some 3000 women dance to this song down the street, enjoyed by young and old. The song’s popularity spread to other parts of Japan, forming the basis for other local festival songs.


Chanchiki are committed to preserving and updating minyo, local Japanese folk music. Minyo used to form an integral part of daily life; celebrating weddings and other festivities, as work songs for planting rice or fishing, songs to dance to or as ballads telling of hardship. Until the 1960s, minyo songs and melodies pervaded the popular music scene while these days people have mostly lost any connection with minyo, perhaps hearing it performed only at local festivals. The leader of Chanchiki, Tsutom Tanaka, wanted to inject a fresh energy and impetus to minyo, restoring the balance between tradition and creation by seeking out almost forgotten repertoire and adding western instruments and elements of rock, Latin, African and other styles. He enlisted the help of like-minded young musicians such as female singer Makiko Ikeda, shamisen player Hajime Nishi and shakuhachi player Koushi Tsukuda. Adding to the line-up is bass player Tacoji and a horn section made up of members from Shibusashirazu.

The small island of Amami is the last drop of Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of Kyushu, the southern of the four main islands that comprise Japan. Amami lies geographically and musically half way between Japan and Okinawa, a unique hybrid of its two neighbours. As on Okinawa, the main instrument is the three stringed snake skinned banjo, the sanshin, although the Amami version has thinner strings, is tuned to a higher pitch and has a sharper tone. The music however is played in a minor scale as in the rest of Japan. Amami has one of the most vibrant local roots music scenes with a host of young musicians playing traditional music and updating it in ingenious ways. Born in 1983, Nami Makioka won three successive local folk competitions by the time she was sixteen. She made her first record in 2002, with this track taken from her latest album from 2007.


Born in Okinawa in 1952, as a teenager Takashi Hirayasu played guitar with blues and rock bands at bars and clubs catering for the American GIs taking part in the Vietnam war stationed at one of the numerous bases on the island. In his early 20s he became more interested in Okinawan shima-uta (island songs) and learnt the sanshin, the three stringed snakeskin banjo. He went on to join Shokichi Kina and Champloose as guitarist, helping to forge their seminal rock roots sound and took part in the classic Bloodline album in 1980 that featured Ry Cooder. After leaving Champloose he released his first solo album in 1998, produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union, from which this track is taken, featuring ex-Nenes vocalist Misako Koja. Takashi went on to record two albums with Bob Brozman which gained international acclaim and has toured extensively around the world.


Somewhat ironically, Oki Dub Ainu Band have become one of Japan’s most successful exports in the world music scene. Ironic, because Oki himself doesn’t really consider himself to be Japanese at all, but in fact a proud Ainu, that is indigenous Japanese. Before Oki arrived plucking his tonkori, a brittle stringed instrument, the music of the Ainu had been virtually forgotten, reduced to being heard in one of the Ainu tourist villages in Hokkaido, home to most of the remaining Ainu living in Japan. Upon discovering his ancestry (he is half Ainu/Japanese) Oki felt it was his mission to bring the music of the Ainu into the modern age and give the young Ainu something to feel proud about it. He listened intently to ancient archive recordings of his Ainu elders which he combined with the music he had grown to love; dub, reggae and world styles. Oki Dub Ainu Band is the culmination of his original ideas.


The largest of the Ryukyu Islands in the deep south of Japan, Okinawa’s music scene encompasses minyo and shima uta (meaning ‘island songs’) together with an equally vibrant pop, indie rock and dance scene. Small, dark, cavernous clubs reverberate to the latest beats, contrasting with the white sand beaches, and natural beauty of the island. It’s from this creative atmosphere and confluence of cultures that the UK/US duo of Ryukyu Underground emerged. Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor desired to combine the traditional sounds around them with electronic production and other musical influences. Their first album in 2002 became an instant hit in Japan as did the follow up, Mo Ashibi, in 2003. Tracks from these two albums were then handed over to leading re-mixers and djs for the 2CD set ‘Ryukyu Remixed’ (2004) including this track, given a remix by Los Angeles producer/downtempo dj, Saru.

Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground

Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground


Seijin Noborikawa is probably Okinawa’s most loved and respected elder musician. However, he doesn’t fit easily into the ‘traditional’ musician category. He doesn’t usually dress in kimono, composes his own anti-war and other protest songs, developed a six-string sanshin, the ‘rokushin’, and is known as the Okinawan ‘Jimi Hendrix’ for his fast sanshin playing. Born in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan in 1930, he moved back to Okinawa as a child. A sanshin player from childhood, he was one of the founding members of a traditional music society and started recording from the 1950s. It was only after his starring role in the 1999 film Nabbie no Koi (Nabbie’s Love) and subsequent Hotel Hibiscus that his fame spread to the rest of Japan. Asadoya Yunta is one of Okinawa’s most famous traditional songs, this track taken from his album Spiritual Unity produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union and featuring other members of the group.

Seijin Noborikawa pictured with Sadao China

Seijin Noborikawa pictured with Sadao China


Soul Flower Mononoke Summit is the acoustic version of Soul Flower Union, a rock group from Osaka. They were 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. This track is taken from their third album Deracine Ching-Dong (2007) 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 guitars, hayashi backing vocals and the rasping vocals of Takashi Nakagawa. It was written by Azenbo Soeda (1872-1944) in 1908, a legendary political street singer who was reduced to silence by the authorities after the 1920s. Mononoke Summit play mostly these soshi enka (political street songs) while others are from Okinawa, and buraku (former outcast) songs, a contentious issue in Japan but not one this politically motivated group are about to shy away from.


Kawachi is a suburb of Osaka. Formerly a farming district, people have long enjoyed dancing at their summer bon odori festival, when the souls of ancestors return from the world of the dead. Kawachi Ondo developed unlike other ondo (dance music), the lyrics describing current events, the music embracing influences from 70s soul to reggae, electric guitar to string sections and took to being performed not just outdoors in the summer but indoors throughout the year. The musicians perform on a raised stage around which the audience dance in their kimonos in a circular style. Various stars of Kawachi ondo emerged who became known throughout the country. Kawachi Ondo became a source of pride for the working classes of Osaka, whose migrant workers in Tokyo organized their own annual festival. Hajime Ikoma formed his own team, Ikoma Kai, in 1970 and made his first record the following year. Kawachi no Ryu is one of his best known hits.


The thirteen stringed zither, the koto is one of three important traditional instruments, the others being the shakuhachi and the shamisen. The person who did more than any other to bring the koto into the modern age was Tadao Sawai (1937-1997). His compositions are some of the most performed and well known of the last fifty years, and his influence on a new generation of players is immense. His thoroughly inventive approach changed the rules of koto composition. Both left and right hands worked independently yet interdependently building layer upon layer of shifting rhythms creating a multitude of subtle textures. Dramatic hitting of the strings could be followed by serene passages of grace. Sawai performed around the world before his untimely death but left behind a legacy of over seventy compositions. This track, played by Sawai himself, is based on the theme of one of Japan’s best known melodies Sakura Sakura.


Kunaichi Gakubu, is the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency. They comprise about 30 members and perform gagaku for official occasions at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and elsewhere. Gagaku is an ancient form of Japanese classical music and has been performed at the Imperial court for about 1200 years. One of the main types of repertory is togaku, a body of pieces brought to Japan by musicians who visited China during the Tang period (618-907). When performed without dance these are called kangen, the most famous piece of which is Entenraku. Netori are short pieces played prior to Entenraku in a free rhythm to establish the mode, in this case Hyojo. A gagaku ensemble uses a number of unique instruments such as hichiriki. a small bamboo pipe with a large double reed, sho, a mouth organ with seventeen pipes, ryuteki, a transverse bamboo flute, gakuso, a thirteen stringed zither and percussion instruments kakko (small barrel drum), dadaiko (large barrel drum) and shoko (brass gong).


Shomyo is the Japanese version of Buddhist chants, the adding of melodic patterns to sacred Buddhist words in Sanskrit and other texts in different languages. Buddhist chanting originated in the birthplace of Buddhism in India, crossed into China where it developed and entered Japan in the 5th century. Tendai Shomyo is one of the main Buddhist sects, founded by Saichu and Ennin in the 9th century at Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei, having gained knowledge of rituals and chanting after returning from Tang Dynasty China. For 1,150 years it has been passed down from master to disciple. Usually largely unaccompanied, on this recording Tatsuya Koumazaki plays an acoustic guitar made from paulownia wood, as is the koto, the sound half way between the two instruments. This recording is a rare combination of different Japanese traditions and instrumentation.



The twang of the shamisen has been heard in Japan since at the least the beginning of the 17th century, although the earliest sources date back to 1562 in Osaka. The shamisen arrived in Japan via Okinawa, who first adapted the instrument from the Chinese sanxien into the sanshin. It is the instrument that has the greatest variety of uses in Japanese music, the backbone of kabuki music, folk music and the chosen instrument of geishas. This is one such piece performed by geisha in the pleasure quarters, known as kouta or short song, with often playful lyrics about love in various situations or about nature. Haru no Tatsu Tokya means something like ‘When You Get Angry’.


Takeharu Kunimoto first heard American bluegrass on the radio when he fourteen. The following year he went to see Bill Monroe play live and shook hands with him after the concert. This inspired him to take up the mandolin and he formed a Bill Monroe tribute band at school. By the time he was nineteen he started learning the shamisen and had become fascinated with rokyoku, (traditional style storytelling). A man with a keen sense of humour, over the years he developed his own wacky style of rokyoku, playing rock ‘n’ roll on the shamisen and telling hilarious stories at the same, and dropping in the occasional bluegrass tune as well. In 2003 he went to East Tennessee State University to study American traditional cultures and bluegrass for a year. He joined a bluegrass group and then formed his own band, The Last Frontier. Appalachian Shamisen is the ultimate melding of his two great musical passions.


During the second world war popular music was somewhat hijacked by the government for patriotic purposes. In post war Japan, the positive tone of the 1930s returned as Japanese elements were mixed with American music and other styles in one of the most creative periods in popular music. The greatest songwriter during this period and a legend of Japanese music was Ryoichi Hattori (1907-1993) whose vast body of work laid the foundation for post war enka. Tokyo Boogie-Woogie was one of Hattori’s biggest hits, recorded in 1948 by Shizuko Kasagi one of the most popular stars of the day. She also appeared in films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. This song, along with others helped revive the spirit of the Japanese people and symbolized a new optimism. Kasagi was a graduate of the Shochiku Revue and was known as the queen of boogie.


Enka is in many ways the most quintessential of Japanese music, sometimes compared to French chanson or Italian canzone. The term enka has only been around for about 30 years, although similar songs were previously classified as simply popular music. Enka connects individuals with their dreams and heartaches through music. Nothing comes easily to the subject of an enka song, the struggle being all important. Hibari Misora (1937-1989) was Japan’s greatest ever enka singer, but perhaps Harumi Miyako could lay claim to the present crown. Born in 1948 in Kyoto, her mother taught her various singing techniques including her unari, singing an important phrase of a song with a growling voice. She made her first record in 1964 and for the next twenty years was one of the most popular singers in Japan. In 1984 she unexpectedly decided to quit, citing exhaustion, a desire to lead a normal life and look after her ailing father. She came out of retirement in 1990 singing songs in a more pop style with a personal touch to the lyrics.


Born in 1948 in Hokkaido, Mortio Agata was one of the ‘gentle generation’ of singer/songwriters of the early 1970s, influenced by US folk/rock and hippy culture. Agata’s music evoked the spirit of 1920 and 30s Japanese popular music, mixing Japanese style melodies with western instrumentation. By 1987 he’d become fascinated with world music and formed the influential group Raizo at the beginning of the 1990s. Coming from similar backgrounds, Agata and producer Makoto Kubota have been working together for years. Kubota was one of the driving forces and taste makers of the burgeoning world music scene in Japan in the late 80s. In recent years he’s gained worldwide acclaim for his Blue Asia project. Tokyo Bushi was a popular song in 1920s Japan, with lyrics set to the tune of Marching Through Georgia which had arrived with the opening up of Japan to the Western world to which Kubota has added Brazilian Nordeste rhythms.


‘There is no other band on the planet like us’ say Shibusashirazu. Little to argue with there, for once this is a group for which the word ‘unique’ can be applied correctly. Shibusashirazu (roughly meaning Never Be Cool) is a loose collective of around twenty musicians. Founded by bass player Daisuke Fuwa in 1989, the band comprises some of Japan’s top free and improvised jazz musicians combining experimental and avant- garde jazz with elements of rock, punk, Japanese pop, enka and traditional music, to name but a few of their eclectic influences. In concert they also feature butoh dancers, ‘groovedance’ girls and stage props that turns the stage itself into a piece of art. They’ve forged a considerable live reputation in Japan and in Europe, where in 2002 they opened Glastonbury Festival on the Pyramid Stage. This track features several members of the Sun-Ra Arkestra, probably their nearest counterparts in the west.

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Rough Guide to the Music of Japan Vol. 1

Like most things in Japan, the music can be bewildering to a foreigner. On the face of it, traditional culture is preserved with a devout passion; until you discover the students are only studying as a means to get married. Music schools and preservation societies abound and remain deeply conservative. While those musicians with the strength of personality to be free from institutionalisation, display an enormous capacity to create and experiment. After all, change and progression, often with a total disregard to the past, is the lifeblood of the Japanese.

The stereotypical images at the extremes bear little resemblance to reality. Unless you pay through the teeth, you’re unlikely to encounter a kimono-clad geisha plucking a shamisen (lute). Likewise, there’s little chance of stumbling upon some dead ringer copycat band playing salsa, soukous or whatever. Sadly there is one truth. The mainstream pop world is still (but less so) overpopulated by talentless ‘talentos’. This ever so-karaoke-friendly, mind numbing form of blandness is best left undiscovered. There is however a myriad of brilliant music, rooted in Japanese tradition and brought screaming into the present, that has remained buried somewhere under the quagmire of monstrosity and magic that is today’s Japan. Finally unearthed, and brought to you here on this compact disc.

Following the war, in their rush to embrace American culture, many Japanese musicians did seem to forget their own rich and diverse musical heritage. Parrot like boogie-woogie, rockabilly and jazz bands proliferated. Whatever the genre, these day’s there’s plenty of original, inspiring and challenging music, mixing up all kinds of elements. When it comes to music incorporating homegrown roots, musicians really do possess an extraordinary ability to adapt their own tradition and absorb outside influences.

While only a ‘rough’ guide to Japan’s music, just about all the major roots music styles and main instruments are presented. Not included are ‘popular’ forms such as kayokyoku, (standard popular music) or enka, akin to say American country music. The folk (min’yo) and traditional music worlds are in reality quite distinct from one another. Their inclusion together, along with modern roots music, may cause some purists to consider committing harikiri. Their idea of the ‘real Japan’ is that mystical one, before westernisation 130 years ago. This however, is the Japan of the imagination. Nothing is more ‘real’ than the happy co-existence of the old and new with a touch of kitsch thrown in.

During the post-war economic boom, Japanese people lost almost all contact with music on a daily basis. Nevertheless, a few of the songs and tunes selected for the CD, entrenched in folklore or still performed at festivals, will be familiar to almost any Japanese person. Others will be about as familiar as a pygmy chant in the rainforest.

Only in the southern islands of Okinawa is singing and dancing as much an integral part of daily life as eating or sleeping. Hence the slightly disproportionate number of Okinawan artists, and Japanese musicians who unable to get inspiration from the mainland, too turned to Okinawa.

In Japan where convenience is everything, music too often needs no effort to listen to, and no heart to perform. Okinawans put that heart back. Some of the Okinawan tracks are of the best loved folk songs, although performed in a not so conventional way. Others are less known but more radical, that push the borders of Okinawan music ever further into unchartered territory.

The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan is a comprehensive musical journey that reflects the many moods and contradictions of the nation. In the hi-tech urban jungle, the blazing neon of the advertising hoardes cast a shimmering light over the tranquility of a nearby temple. So it is with this compact disc; the past and present sit side by side, or mingle to convert into energy in an unparalleled fashion. An experience that is somehow uniquely Japanese.


Japanese often put the letter J before an adopted western entity. Hence we have the J-League, J-Pop, and here we have the original J-Rap. Kunimoto is Japan’s finest exponent of the traditional spoken art of ‘ro-kyoku’ that originated in the Kansai region. Typical stories tell of the separation of lovers, backstabbing and family feuds. Ro-kyoku was a big hit at the beginning of the century and produced Japan’s first ever recording stars. ‘Makura’ is taken from his second album ‘For Life’ which was recorded in Paris in 1993 with a mixed cast of Japanese and African musicians. Kunimoto’s word play is accompanied not by a Japanese drum but the djembe of Maré Sanogo, which sounds uncannily Japanese anyway.

From the CD “For Life” – For Life Records


Kawachi Ondo was originally music to accompany the bon-odori (festival of the dead) in Kawachi, a suburb of Osaka. As far as I can make out, there are only two refrains, played on guitar and accompanied by a drum, which are repeated over and over, with a kind of mesmeric effect. Attending a Kawachi Ondo festival is like stepping back in time, as hundreds of dancers move in a circle around a center stage, dressed in yukata (summer kimono). Kawachiya Kikusuimaru is Kawachi Ondo’s most famous traditional singer, although also it’s prime innovator. He was once releasing CDs nearly every month of his shinbun yomi (newspaper readings), setting his opinions on current events to Kawachi ondo. A flamboyant character, he’s constantly dressed in kimono, and has friends in high places. Kakin Ondo is not Kawachi Ondo at all, although the vocal style unmistakably is. Driven by a reggaefied beat, the story tells the fortunes of an ‘arbeiter’ a part-timer, and was used in a TV commercial, which brought Kikusuimaru national fame.

From the CD “Happy” – Pony Canyon


At the beginning of 1995, the city of Kobe was devastated by the Great Hanshin earthquake. Takashi Nakagawa from nearby Osaka decided to take his group Soul Flower Union to the streets of Kobe, to ‘cheer up’ the victims. In the abscence of electricity, his band were forced to go ‘unplugged’. They swapped electric instruments for Okinawan sanshin, and chindon, a percussive instrument used with clarinets and brass instruments. (see track 19). They played mainly old Japanese songs, including ‘Fukko Bushi’. Based on a traditional Chinese melody, ‘Fukko Bushi’ was the most popular song in the ruins of the Kanto earthquake that struck the Tokyo area in 1923. Nakagawa put new words to the melody, which included lines about ‘Nagata’ in Tokyo, the government area being rich, and Nagata in Kobe, an area of mainly immigrants, being poor. Too controversial to release for their major record company, the group formed the ‘punk chindon’ unit Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, and released a record themselves. The result is some of Japan’s most infectious music of recent years.

From the CD “Asyl-Ching Dong” – Respect Records

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit


Every now and then, something catches the collective imagination of the nation, and experiences a ‘boom’. Responsible for the Tsugaru shamisen boom in the mid-1970s was recently deceased blind player Takahashi Chikuzan. Tsugaru is an older name for Aomori, in the north of Honshu the main island of Japan, and the shamisen is a lute like instrument. Known for it’s harsh cold winters, the folk music of Tsugaru is perhaps mainland Japan’s most exciting. The shamisen is plucked with amazing speed in intricate patterns and semi improvisations. Michihiro Sato, one of the best of the younger players, is an apprentice of another great player Chisato Yamada. On this version of Nikata Bushi, Sato’s shamisen is accompanied by shakuhachi.

From the CD “Jonkara” – Kyoto Records


One of Japan’s greatest vocalists, Takio Ito, the son of a fisherman, was born in Hokkaido, the Northern island of Japan. He grew up listening to the singing of his father as he worked, including this song, a Hokkaido min’yo standard that relates the life of a herring fisherman. He was a brilliant min’yo singer from an early age. A certified teacher at 18, he won the national min’yo championships three years running. However, he found the confines of belonging to the somewhat staid Min’yo assocaition, stifling for his creativity and promptly quit. Ever since, Takio has been expanding the realms of min’yo further and further, incorporating jazz, rock and other Asian traditional elements. At the end of the 19th century the government tried to root out traditional min’yo, as it was not deemed suitable for a western-style nation, and is perhaps Japan’s true ‘popular’ music. Takio’s driving, powerful versions of ‘Soran Bushi’ have become the highlight of his recorded output and live shows. Pumping your fist in the air to the response calls is obligatory.

From the CD “Ondo” – VAP Inc.


Yasuba Jun is the third ‘part time’ member of a Japanese female duo, Shisars who update Okinawan traditional folk with bits of honking sax and grunge-like guitar among other things. Yasuba Jun didn’t find time to appear on Shisars’ excellent album, but fortunately did find the time to make her own, equally brilliant solo album. Featuring one half of Shisars, and the same fine guitarist, her album is even more raw and sparse, with a sense of naiviety that makes it utterly refreshing. She doesn’t play the usual Okinawan sanshin, but it’s older cousin from China, the slightly bigger sangen. Yasuba Jun drew her inspiration from the usual ojisan and obachan (old folk) she observed singing and dancing in Okinawa. Amagoi Bushi is a traditional folk tune of Yonaguni island, the western most island of Japan, where she once worked in a sugar factory. No hint of saccharine here, just Okinawan music made naturally sweet.

From the CD “Yarayo-Uta no Sahanji” – Mangetsu Records


Takashi Hirayasu was once guitarist with possibly Okinawa’s most famous group, Shokichi Kina and Champloose. He was an important contributor to some of the band’s classic material, including the1980 album ‘Bloodline’ featuring Ry Cooder. After quitting Champloose he set about putting together an album to encompass his wide ranging musical influences.Among the unmistakably Okinawan melodies are rock guitars, plus African and Caribbean rhythms. Mangetsu no Yube (A Full Moon Evening) was written by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union (see track 3) and Hiroshi Yamaguchi of the group Heat Wave, for the victims of the Kobe earthquake. The song is fast becoming a classic of Japanese music, in much the same way as Kina’s ‘Hana’ before. Probably, the best Japanese song of the 1990s.

From the CD “Kariyushi no Tsuki” – Respect Records


It’s time to put your arms in the air. Now bend your elbows slightly, relax your wrists, and then wave your arms and hands in the air, like a snake being charmed. For added effect run on the spot, or alternatively just jump. You’re now doing the Katcharsee. The dance the Okinawans love to do to the faster songs, and also the name of the upbeat style of music. Hiyami Kachi Bushi is classic Katcharsee, here performed by Ayame Band, led by another ex-Champloose member, sanshin player Takao Nagama. The sanshin is the 3 stringed snake-skinned banjo at the heart of all Okinawan music, and Nagama, from the Yaeyama islands, is known for being one of its fastest players. Much like Kina, he formed his own family band featuring his brother as keyboardist/arranger, with his sister leading the chorus. As yet, Ayame Band CDs and concerts have been exclusively confined to Okinawa. If the katcharsee is too energetic, this version allows you to follow the sanshin part with a simple guitar hero pose.

From the CD ” ‘Akemio No Machi Kara’ – Kokusai Boueki


“Roll up, roll up, get you’re banana’s here!”. Japanese had never seen a banana until the start of the Meiji period, towards the end of the 19th century. They first entered Japan through the port of Shimonoseki, facing Korea in the west of Honshu on the Sea of Japan. The nearest major city was Kitakyushu, right at the northern tip of Kyushu, the southern of the main Japanese islands. It was here that ‘Banana no Tatakiuri’ selling bananas with this colourful, rapping and stick beating began, in the town of Moji. Strangely enough it even exists, in pockets, until this day.

From the CD “An Account of BANAtyans” – Active Voice


Oki (Kano) is a musician of mixed Japanese and Ainu (native Japanese) blood. Upon discovering his background , he followed his Kamuy instinct, the Ainu spirit, and moved to Hokkaido, the ancestral home of the Ainu. His cousin gave him a tonkori, a skinny, five-stringed wooden instrument, and suggested Oki bring the Tonkori and Ainu culture out of the past and into the present. The Ainu are said to be close to nature, but have never had their own land or the chance to develop their culture or socialogical status. Oki intends to rediscover the identity of the Ainu, with the creation of a new Ainu music. Utuwaskarap means ‘Let’s Understand One Another’ and takes nature and harmony as it’s theme. “People created by kamuy and brought up on this earth, shouldn’t hate one another. I’ll be waiting with hope.”

From the CD “Kamuy Kor Nupurpe” – Chikar Studio




Whenever a Japanese, or even Asian, character or scene is introduced in a film, invariably it will be accompanied by the drifting sound of the Japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi; supposedly evoking all the mysticism of the Orient. The origins of the shakuhachi can be traced back to early 7th century China. It has strong associations with Zen Buddhism, and was played by the itinerant monks, Komuso, during the Edo period. There are two streams of music, myoan the purely meditational, and the other that concentrates on the more musical aspects, of which there are two major schools, Kinko and Tozan. Both of these include gaikyoku, ensemble pieces, and honkyoku, ‘original, true, music’ for solo shakuhachi. It is within Honkyoku that the uniquess, and tonal possiblities of the shakuhachi can be appreciated. A sense of serenity, the lack of any rhythm or melody, half tones, quarter tones, the silence. Shozan Tanabe is one of Japan’s finest young players of the Tozan school, that introduces elements of western music. Nyorai Shizune is a modern composition that translates as ‘Tranquility of the Great One Truth’ that demonstrates the versatility of the instrument and the expression of the performer.

From the CD “Shizuka Naru Toki” – Kyoto Records


The Japanese biwa has it’s origins in ancient Persia, and is related to the Arabic oud. It’s believed the biwa entered Japan in the 6th century, specifically to Satsuma, the modern day city of Kagoshima and the southern most city of mainland Japan. The Satsuma biwa tradition, is the longest established in Japan, and in it’s playing technique is sometimes compared to the Delta Mississippi Blues. Yukihiro Goto, is a young player of the Satsuma biwa, who was equally influenced by American blues music. Ubue is a recent composition written by accordion player Aki Tamura, and also features shakuhachi.

From the CD “Poetry of Japanese Ballads on Biwa” – Zanmai Records


There is a no more respected musician in Okinawa than Tetsuhiro Daiku. A civil servant by day, he stills find time to teach hundreds of students, record albums, and perform live regularly in Japan and around the world. Daiku san (as he’s always called) is from the Yaeyama islands, about 300 miles south west of the main Okinawan island. Yaeyama shima uta (island songs) are quite different to those of Okinawa. The music, originally just vocal, grew out of the fields as working songs, known as Yunta & Jiraba, (also the title of the CD, from which this track was taken). He recorded several albums of traditional shima uta, before a meeting with Japanese saxophinist Kazutoki Umezu led him in a new musical direction. Mixing mainly Yunta & Jiraba with jazz and chindon, with an array of brass and stringed instruments, each album in this style has been groundbreaking.Asadoya Yunta originated on the island of Taketomi, the most unspoilt of all Okinawan islands, where time seems perpetually frozen and the means of transport is still water buffallo drawn cart. It’s the most popular song from Yaeyama, and is among the best known of all Okinawan tunes.

From the CD “Yunta & Jiraba” – Disc Akabana


The name is Yano, Kenji Yano. He was born in Osaka, but now makes Okinawa his home. He was a member of a group Rokunin Gumi in the 80s, who in concert reportedly could match Kina and Champloose in their heyday for pure passion, but who sadly never recorded an album. Always ahead of his time, and experimenting with new sounds, under the pseudonym of The Surf Champlers, in a master stroke he mixed mainly Okinawan Katcharsee classics with surf music. Producing, mixing, recording and playing all instruments himself. By the sound of it, in his bedroom. Virtually unknown in Okinawa or Japan, just recently he’s been getting some attention with his new project, “Sarabandge”, Okinawan Trance Music.

From the CD “Champloo A Go Go” – Qwotchee Records


Two seminal figures for bringing Okinawan, Asian and other ‘world’ musics to a Japanese audience are Makoto Kubota and Haruomi Hosono. Kubota and his band, featuring Hosono on drums and as co-producer, recorded Shokichi Kina’s classic ‘Haisai Ojisan’ in 1975. Arguably they created the first wave of interest in Okinawan music in Japan, Kina having a hit with his song two years later. Due to a now slightly dodgy original master tape, this version was slightly remixed by Kubota in 1989, and features Sandii on backing vocals. Kubota and Hosono have never swayed from their pioneering spirit. Kubota producing several Indonesian artists including Detty Kurnia and an ecclectic assortment of music with Sandii. Hosono, perhaps Japan’s only musical genius, seems to be the spark that lights everything, from folk and ‘group sounds’, to technopop and ambient.

From the CD “13 Classics” – Vivid Sound Corporation

Makoto Kubota in Hawaii

Makoto Kubota in Hawaii


With the departure of Misaka Koja, Yasuko Yoshida is now the chorus leader of the female quartet Nenes. Together with Kina and Rinken Band, Nenes have been at the forefront of the Okinawan music scene for nearly a decade.Their fans around the world include Ry Cooder, with whom they recorded in 1994, and Talvin Singh, for whom they supply backing vocals to the title track on Singh’s album ‘OK’. Nenes performed at the 1998 WOMAD festival in the UK, and took part in the subsequent Real World recording week. Taking a more simple and traditional approach than the ‘Uchina pop’ of Nenes, this recent composition features Nenes mentor Sadao China on sanshin and also ryukin, the Okinawan koto or harp. Although not at the same time, I imagine.

From the CD “Iijiyaibi” – Marufuku Records


Koto Vortex are four women who met while studying the koto under Kazue and the late Tadao Sawai. The Sawai’s were known for their innovative approach to the koto, and while following in their teacher’s quest for breaking the mould, Koto Vortex take the koto along their own path of exploration. The harp-like koto is probably the most conservative of the Japanese traditional instruments, originating in China and being absorbed into Japanese court music. Studied by young girls and taught by old women as a virtuous exercise before marriage, there is a massive void between the ages, of serious performers. Koto Vortex fill that void, and bring the koto vibrantly to life. The compositions they perform are often minimalistic and repititious, but hypnotic and intoxicating.

From the CD “Koto Vortex 1, Works by Hiroshi Yoshimura” – Paradise Records


Kicked out of bed at 2 am to go for a run in the freezing cold. Forbidden to offer more than just a cursory glance at a member of the opposite sex. A full length marathon a day. Remuneration, zero. The small print in the job description of being a member of Sado Islands first drumming group Ondekoza, a group ‘in search of the generative power and origin of the Japanese people’. Some would discover their rebellious spirit, and form a breakaway group Kodo. Eitetsu Hayashi the lead drummer with Ondekoza, had been with the group for 11 years. He joined Kodo at it’s inception but soon decided to break out on his own. The only member with a background in rhythm, Hayashi is undoubtedly the star of ‘wadaiko’ (Japanese drum). With it’s roots in Kagura, music offered to the gods, it evokes the sounds of nature- the roar of thunder, the crash of the surf, and the melodic hum of the breeze. Hayashi adds to that tradition with a dazzling array of instruments and sounds. On this piece he is accompanied by the nohkan, a horizontal flute.

From the CD “Eitetsu”- King Record Co. Ltd


Before the TV commercial, there was the chindon commercial. Musicians dressed in colourful costumes would walk the streets, carrying a banner, blowing saxophones and clarinets, usually led by a woman carrying and banging the three drums of her chindon. Clarinet and accordion player Wataru Ohkuma first helped to bring this colourful instrumental music storming into the present with the group Compostella. He also added the chindon sounds to albums by Tetsuhiro Daiku and Soul Flower Mononoke Summit. Cicala Mvta is the name of his own unit whose repertroire mixes influences from chindon to Klezmer, Balkan, Turkish and Nepalese music. Shi Chome builds ceaselessly in a never ending climax before screeching to halt with the chindon cello saw massacre.

From the CD “Cicala Mvta” – Respect Records

Cicala Mvta

Cicala Mvta

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Takashi Hirayasu & Bob Brozman – Jin Jin / Firefly

Within an hour of meeting eachother, Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman were sowing the seeds for this album; working out chords, trying out combinations of instruments, furtively glancing at eachother for encouragement. Would it work? Would they like eachother, let alone be able to make decent music together? There was a tangible tension in the air. If not created by the musicians, then by us; the handful of staff and selected onlookers.

They had hardly had time to exchange more than a cursory greeting at the airport on the small Okinawan island of Ishigaki, before rushing to catch the boat for the 10 minute trip to the much smaller island of Taketomi. Now, it was as if the moment of truth had come. Any doubts, any fears, soon evaporated into the cool night air. Smiles broke out that got increasingly wider over the following four days. The two musicians ignited a spark in eachother. A feeling of deep mutual respect grew, and a genuine personal affinity and understanding of eachother, communicated through the universal language of music.


This album was recorded in a small, traditional wooden house on Taketomi, the most unspoilt of the Ryukyu islands of Okinawa, in the deep south of Japan. As flat as a pancake, there are only 200 inhabitants and no paved roads. Just a maze of narrow sandy streets in the centre that spread out in all directions towards the sea, stunningly turquoise even on the mainly cloudy winter days we were there. Recording equipment was shipped in from Tokyo, and microphones set up on the straw matting of the house’s single room, that also doubled as our dining room and bedroom. The location had been chosen to enable the musicians to immerse themselves entirely in an Okinawan island atmosphere with little distractions; except the occasional dog bark, cat fight or crow caw (captured on one song, but left in for effect).

Most songs were recorded in one or two takes, Bob and Takashi playing together live with only minimal overdubbing added for extra ornamentation. The process would go something like this; Takashi would teach Bob the chords, the two would experiment for about half an hour with different instruments and work out an arrangement, Takashi would convey the general meaning of the lyrics and the feel of the song. Then they would record, and after we would all listen to the playback. Sometimes we would be grinning the whole way through, ‘it’s like magic!’ Takashi would exclaim. On the heartbreakingly beautiful ballads, a hush would descend over us, the two musicians driven to tears on a few occasions.

Although both artists have strong and unique styles and personalities, it became increasingly clear over the week that their ideas and beliefs in music converge in several ways. Perhaps no other Okinawan musician would have been up for this challenge. Although paying a healthy respect to traditional Okinawan music, Takashi’s mind is equally open to rock, reggae, African, Indian and Caribbean music. He helped to bring these influences into some of the groundbreaking music of Shokichi Kina, during his time as guitarist with Kina’s band, Champloose. What can you say about Bob, and his enormous capacity to digest and absorb music? Perhaps if it was discovered music existed in another universe, Bob would be the Planet Earth’s representative for an inter-planetary collaboration. He doesn’t just listen to the music, but watches and observes every muscle in his playing partner; the way he breathes and reacts.

Hopefully this album conveys the general atmosphere of fun that was had by all involved. Gradually, everyone could understand Bob’s wicked sense of humour, and his Japanese came on leaps and bounds. By the end he was the one shouting ‘torimasu!’ (recording) before each take. We were all surprised by Takashi’s English, some of it taken straight out of a Hollywood movie. Special mention should made, for keeping a sense of joviality, of Kenichi Takahashi of Respect Records. His English had us all in stitches, his endearing vulnerability mixed with honesty earning him the nickname of the ‘Japanese Woody Allen’. As he said, “I happy You happy, everybody happy! EVERYBODY HAPPY MAKES GOOD RECORD! ” And so it proved.

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