Top 10 Albums of 2016

The Top 10 Albums of 2016

1. TAKASHI HIRAYASU / YUU

yuu7020

It’s difficult for me not to be influenced by my personal affection for Takashi Hirayasu having worked with him for many years while I was in Japan and a little bit since too. Takashi has been talking to me about a ‘new album’ for ages and had some quite clear ideas as to what that album would be. This, is a bit different to what he had talked about, and I must admit to feeling slightly nervous when I first put it on. Fortunately though, if anything, it exceeded my expectations. It’s a lot more simple than the original ideas I heard about, but inventive enough to make it stand out as different from anything else from Okinawa. It has quite a variety of sounds from upbeat to slow to traditional. His personality exudes from every track and producer Gerhan Oshima has done a great job too.

2. OKI DUB AINU BAND / UTARHYTHM

utarhythm6593

Okay, another artist I know well, possibly clouding my judgement, but again this a genuinely great album. Perhaps not their absolute best, yet still full of great ideas; political, angry, pulsating, dynamic. Oki Dub Ainu Band seemed to have cemented their reputation in Japan in the last few years for their brilliant live shows as well as around the world.

3. RYUICHI SAKAMOTO / IKARI

ikari7102

I must admit to finding it difficult to keep up with all the new Ryuichi Sakamoto albums, re-releases, soundtracks etc. This is the best of the bunch, a soundtrack to a film that I would love to see. His trademark sound permeates most of it, and I can’t help but be entranced. Sakamoto has recently been nominated for a Grammy for The Revenant, but I probably prefer this.

4. U TIN / THE MUSIC OF BURMA, BURMESE GUITAR

musicofburma7015

Last year the same record company put out another album of Burmese guitar and another of Burmese piano. This year’s release is just as good, if not better. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information in the booklet or online so we are just left with a superb CD and an intriguing You Tube video. Burmese slide guitar, takes its place alongside Vietnamese, Indian, and other slide guitar traditions.

5. E-DO / YEOMINROK

yeominrok6987

When I lived in Japan there was probably more Korean music in the ‘world music’ sections of record stores than anywhere else in the world. Virtually everywhere else none. Since then the profile of Korean music has significantly increased, not just because of Gangnam Style but also the Korean government putting lots of money into supporting Korean artists performing at festivals and events around the world. One of my favourites is cheolhyeongeum (iron zither) player Yu Kyung Hwa and here she is with a band on what is an extraordinary album.

6. METAFIVE / META

meta6912

Any band featuring Yukihiro Takashi (YMO), Keigo Oyamada (Cornelius) and Tei Towa could be described as a ‘supergroup’ but it’s the lesser known, Japanese/Swedish, sometimes UK resident Leo Imai who is possibly the most impressive. Tracks range from Takahashi singing electropop to more rock based stuff with Imai on vocal duties. And all the other members are pretty good too.

7. KENGO SAITO / JAPANISTAN

japanistan7045

When musicians live in a different country and culture they often think more about their own roots and come up with a new take on it, often influenced by their new surroundings. Such is the case with Kengo Saito, playing the Afghan lute the rubab on an album of Japanese traditional and folk tunes. The Indian and Arabic backing adds to the mix.

8. ARAGEHONZI / NANATSUOTO

hanatsuoto7018

I first came across this band when they were featured on a compilation of new Japanese roots music artists. Minyo, folk, bon-odori dances are still part of the Japanese psyche and every now and then someone emerges to take these types of music in new directions. Aragehonzi fit in this category with some clever new arrangements presented in a fresh way.

9. KUNIHIRO IZUMI / MOGARIBUE

mogaribue7002

Anyone who plays for Shibasashirazu is likely to grab my attention. There are so many great, inventive musicians playing a kind of underground, experimental, improvised, jazz, roots, and frankly unclassifiable music in Japan. Izumi is one of them and this album was quite a big surprise. He also plays guitar, saxophone and some crazy toy instruments. An album of shakuhachi but not as we know it.

10. KAHORU NAKAMURA / YUSURA, PLAYING THE GAKUBIWA

4P jacket_1pocket sei2.5mm

This is one of those strange records that sounded familiar in some ways, but totally unfamiliar in others. Biwa is one of the main traditional instruments in Japan, but I hadn’t heard this style before. Turns out most of the tracks were ancient and long lost compositions which Nakamura has put her interpretation to. At the same time they sounded quite new in their repetitive style, like avant garde music played on a traditional instrument. Intriguing.

Advertisements

10 Classic Albums of Asian Music

Another Top 10 that is also a radio show.

This show was inspired by the re-released, re-mastered version of Shoukichi Kina’s Bloodine in November 2016, that originally came out in 1980.

In no particular order the Top 10 are

1. SHOUKICHI KINA / BLOODLINE (1980) (OKINAWA/JAPAN)
bloodline2016_7031

One of the first albums of Okinawan music I had heard of but not actually listened to, back in the late 1980s when I had a record shop in London. Folk Roots editor (as it was called back then) Ian Anderson had selected it in his ‘playlist’ for the Stern’s Tradewinds newsletter. It was impossible to buy anywhere back then, but was quite sought after partly because it featured Ry Cooder. When I went to Japan in 1989, I managed to find the album and loved it. The famous track, Hana, is brilliant and probably the best track and still my favourite version with the incredible vocals of Tomoko Kina. But other tracks are fantastic too. It’s on the short side (30 odd minutes) but every minute is perfect. It was the first CD to be listed in the Far Side Music catalogue of 1991, and we sold quite a few. I spent New Year of 1990/91 with Kina in Okinawa for a Folk Roots article that appeared in the April 1991 edition.

2. NENES / IKAWU (1991) (OKINAWA/JAPAN)

When this album came out it caused quite a stir. ‘World Music’ as a term, had caught in Japan and this was one of the albums that Japanese thought of as their own ‘world music’. Featuring Sadao China on sanshin, the four women singers and a sound mainly crafted by Kazuya Sahara it captured the spirit of the time, combining superb songs and production. It might not be their best album, but definitely the most influential. Again I went to Okinawa to interview them for Folk Roots in 1993, for a cover feature. A select band of western musicians too caught the Okinawa music bug thanks mainly to Nenes. There have been various reincarnations of Nenes ever since, but they don’t even come close to the original quartet.

3. CUI JIAN / ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ON THE NEW LONG MARCH (1989) (CHINA)

Cui Jian demonstrated the power of music with this album. He’d already gained some notoriety when he appeared on TV in 1986 in his army greens at the Workers Stadium. Nothing to My Name from this album, became the anthem of the Tiananmen Square protests in the year it was released. He was a regular down at the protests and following the crackdown he was forced into hiding. But he was soon back, touring in China, taking on the government, wearing a symbolic red blindfold, and having his tour cancelled for it. Brave, defiant, bold, principled, daring, inspirational, and let’s not forget a brilliant musician. He came to Japan in the early 1990s where I met him and saw him perform. Even my piece on him for the Japan Times got censored when I talked about Tiananmen as a ‘massacre’. First time that had happened!

4. LABOUR EXCHANGE BAND / LET US SING MOUNTAIN SONGS (1999) (TAIWAN)

Political bands are as much as rarity in Taiwan as on mainland China. Singer / songwriter Lin Sheng Xiang took on the establishment when a dam was being built in his hometown in the mountains of Meinung, that would have had devastating consequences for the locals. He joined the anti-dam campaign, formed a band and got local villagers to join in. This is the resulting album. And the best news of all, the dam never got built. I went to Taiwan and interviewed him for an article you can read. A gentle, unimposing figure on the surface, but with a fire that burns deeply within him. A really clever blend of western music and mountain music, both of which he grew up with.

5. RHOMA IRAMA / BEGADANG (1973) (INDONESIA)

begadang-2-rhoma-irama

A massive, million selling hit album (or cassette as it was at the time) especially the title track, confirmed Rhoma Irama as the King of Dangdut. A compelling mix of Indonesian, Arabic, Latin and Indian film music, dangdut became the street music of Jakarta and a music popular throughout Indonesia where normally local styles triumphed over national ones. This track has been released and recorded in various styles and versions, but the orginal perhaps best demonstrates the power and charisma of Rhoma Irama.

6. SITI NURHALIZA / SANGGAR MUSTIKA (2002) (MALAYSIA)

6189xxccb-l

Okay, so I’m sure this is nowhere near Siti Nurhaliza’s most popular album (it was her eighth) but it sums up what makes Siti a special singer. Enormously popular at home, she sings pop but occasionally knocks out an album of traditional or Irama Malaysia. It’s bit like Adele occasionally releasing an album of English folk songs, or Beyonce a Cajun album. It does more to popularise the tradition and keep it alive than any government, stuffy organisation could ever do. It pays tribute to Malaysia’s greatest singer P. Ramlee, with covers of a couple of his songs, while praise should be given to producers/musicians Pak Ngah and S.Atan for cleverly mixing the past and the present.

7. POMPUANG DUANGJAN / NAPUNG KUNAN (1990) (THAILAND)

It’s difficult to find an album by Pompuang Duangjan that isn’t a compilation and I can’t even be sure that this one isn’t. I bought it in Thailand before she tragically died in 1992 aged just 30. So, I think it is an original album that I also had on cassette before finding it on CD. Her death was massive news in Thailand with thousands attending her funeral, but news also filtered into Japan where I was living at the time. I knew her as the country’s most famous singer of Luk Thung, a kind of country or folk music, from the poor region of central Thailand. She added synthesisers, which while in retrospect don’t sound great, at the time brought the music up to date and to the masses more than ever before. Some of it is pure pop, while some songs are of classic Luk Thung that suited her voice perfectly. And what a voice, gliding, hovering, around the melody but not in some contrived way you might hear today. Hers was the classic rags to riches story, although apparently much of those riches were taken away by unscrupulous managers and hangers on, meaning she couldn’t even afford hospital treatment when she needed it.

8. BYUNGKI HWANG / CHIMYANG-MOO, KAYAGUM MASTERPIECES VOL. 1 (1978) (SOUTH KOREA)

In recent years, the South Korean government through various organisations, has been keen to promote Korean traditional and roots music to the world. Much of it is great, but naturally these artists have built on what has come before. Byungki Hwang is probably Korea’s best known traditional musician and since the 1960s has done much to popularise the music, especially the kayagum (a kind of zither), both within Korea and around the world. This was his first full album (although he had previously made other recordings) recorded in 1978. The opening track Forest was composed in 1962, and was the first ever piece of a genre that became known as changjak kukak- or newly composed Korean traditional music. Before Byungki Hwang such a concept didn’t exist. A truly groundbreaking album that sounds as fresh today as ever.

9. KOTO VORTEX / KOTO VORTEX 1 (1994) (JAPAN)

When it comes to Japanese traditional music there are more revered musicians than Koto Vortex. Shakuhachi players such as Goro Yamaguchi, Hozan Yamamoto or Minoru Muraoka. Koto players such as Michio Miyagi, Tadao Sawai or Kazue Sawai. All of these musicians were innovators as well as traditional masters. However, I still come back to this album by the four women koto quartet Koto Vortex for raising the bar at the time, and setting the benchmark for a new generation. Etsuko Takezawa, Michiyo Yagi, Miki Maruta and Yoko Nishi, were all young musicians studying under the Sawai school operated by Tadao and Kazue. I had a friend who was also part of the school and he excitedly played me this album by four of his fellow students. I thought it was extraordinary, a feeling that has not changed over time. Playing as duos, trios or as a quartet it took koto music in a new direction. Koto Vortex only lasted a few years, this album was self released with little fanfare and they only recorded one other album. All have gone to have successful solo careers and have continued to take koto music in new directions and inspire others who have taken on their mantle. Somehow though, the magic of the four of them at this place in time, mesmerising, spellbinding, hypnotic yet highly accessible has never been surpassed.

10. HARUOMI HOSONO / TROPICAL DANDY (1975) (JAPAN)

This is another album I picked up in the late 80s on my first visit to Japan. I was into all kinds of world music mixtures, and this fitted the bill; Latin, jazz, Caribbean, Chinese, Japanese, New Orleans, Hawaiian. What was it? Tropical? Exotica? It was therefore a surprise to find out it was recorded nearly 15 years before in 1975. Haruomi Hosono however has always been ahead of the game. Pioneering the folk scene in the early 70s and later electronic music with Yellow Magic Orchestra. Tropical Dandy is the middle of a trio of albums in this vain, the others being Hosono House in 1973 and Taian Yoko (Bon Voyage Co.) in 1976. His influence in Japanese music even today runs deep. Haruomi Hosono. One of a kind.

Top 10 Greatest Ever Songs from Asia

A Top 10 that started out as a Far Side Radio show. You can listen to the two programmes here.


Originally on the morning of the first show, I was planning on playing 10 of my personal favourite tunes in one programme. Soon, however, I realised I had numerous versions of many of the songs that came to mind. Then, instead of playing just my personal favourites, it got me wondering just what are, truly, the most popular songs in the region. I wanted to choose songs that were not just massively popular in their own country, but were popular in other countries in Asia, or in some cases around the world. They also have had to stand the test of time, and be popular today. Hopefully these criteria meant I could exclude Gangnam Style!

Eventually, I settled on this list, which is a mixture of some of my favourites and songs that somehow I thought couldn’t be left out. I hadn’t begun by putting them in order, but the more I got engrossed in the theme, the more, even sub-consciously it did become a kind of countdown. However, ranking the songs is purely subjective and wasn’t intended to be definitive. More a bit of fun. So, here we go. The Top 10 Greatest Asian Songs are:

10. DENG ZHE NI HUI LAI (I WAIT FOR YOUR RETURN)
(CHINA)

(music: Chen Re Jing lyrics : Yen Huan)

I first heard this song over 20 years ago on some old EMI box sets released in Hong Kong of Shanghai music from the 1930s and 40s. I liked the atmosphere, repetitiveness, the sense of yearning of the song, and also the slightly deeper voice of the singer, compared to other tracks. I didn’t know anything about Bai Kwong (or Bai Guang as she is also known) at the time, but the song stuck in my memory. Years later, the late BBC DJ Charlie Gillett played a version on an album by American guitarist Gary Lucas. I bought the album and later interviewed Gary Lucas for BBC Radio 3 about how he discovered this music. Some time after this, when DJ’ing at a club in London, someone gave me a CDR of some remixes of these old Chinese tunes by the music producer Ian Widgery, who had renamed the track Waiting 4U. These are the three versions on the radio show.

I’m waiting for your return (x2)
I’m thinking of your return (x2)

I wait for your return to make me happy (x2)
Why don’t you return (x2)
I want you to return (x2)

If you don’t return there will be no spring light
If you don’t return hot tears will be all over my face
Up in the rafters the swallows have already returned
In the courtyard spring flowers have already opened up for you
Why don’t you return (x2)
I want you to return (x2)

9. CHNAM OUN DOP PRAM MAUY (I’M SIXTEEN)
(CAMBODIA)
(usually credited as ‘traditional’ but sometimes credited to Ros Sereysothea)

Travelling around Cambodia about 15 years ago, I became a bit obsessed (as I usually do) with finding local record shops. I was attracted to some great looking covers on a series of CDs and soon got to recognise the faces and names; Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea were both particularly omnipresent. Back in the UK I spent hours listening to the 30 or 40 titles I’d bought, and this is one of the songs I liked. At the time there wasn’t much information about them, although that subsequently changed with in-depth articles appearing in the Observer Music Monthly and elsewhere. This song was featured in the Matt Dillon film City of Ghosts, and when Dengue Fever from Los Angeles released their first record, this was one of the tracks they covered. You can hear both on the radio show.

This year, I’m 16… This year I’m 16
There are no worries
fa la la la
Life is like flowers,
giving off a nice scent
fa la la la la la la la

This year, I’m 16… This year I’m 16
There are no worries
fa la la la
What is love?
Is it bitter, sour, or sweet?
fa la la la la la la la

8. ARIRANG
(KOREA)

(traditional Korean folk song)
I can’t remember when I first heard Arirang, but it was in Japan where it is also a well known song. Some Japanese minyo or folk singers, like Takio Ito, used to sing it in Japanese, as did Soul Flower Union and Mononoke Summit, that you can hear on the radio show. I once had an album called Arirang in North and South Korea with about ten different versions. It seems this folk song is one of the few things that unites North and South Korea. There are hundreds of versions of it, it’s like the unofficial national anthem of Korea. Arirang is a mountain pass, although different versions place it in different geographical locations. This video is by the singer I played on the radio, Ja Sa Ik.

Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo
Crossing over Arirang Pass
You who abandoned me here
Will not walk even ten li before your feet hurt

Just as there are many stars in the clear sky
There are also many dreams in our heart

There, over there that mountain is Baekdu Mountain
Where, even in the middle of winter days, flowers bloom

7. BENGAWAN SOLO (SOLO RIVER)
(INDONESIA)

(music and lyrics, Gesang)

This is another song I first heard in Japan where it is also well known. I was lucky enough to see the singer and composer, Gesang, perform it live in Tokyo. It’s about the Solo river that flows through Gesang’s hometown of Surakarta. I was working at JVC in Tokyo when Gesang recorded his album in the Victor Studio although at the time, 1994, I didn’t realise the significance. It’s the song I probably have most versions of. Just a quick look through my CD racks and iTunes library I came across about 20 different ones, and a whole album of covers. It’s also well known in China and an English language version of it (sometimes called By the River of Love) was sung by Hong Kong singer Rebecca Pan and was included in the Wong Kar Wai film, In the Mood for Love.

Bengawan Solo, this is a song of your history
People have been fascinated with this great river since ancient times
In the dry season, your waters are shallow, and in the rainy season, your water overflows till far
Around the source of the Solo River, there are a thousand mountains
And the river flows all the way to the sea

There are always many merchants on board ships going up and down the river
These ships also show your history

6. HANA (FLOWER)
(OKINAWA/JAPAN)

(music and lyrics, Shoukichi Kina)

I first became aware of this song, or to be precise, the album it was on when I was living in London at the end of the 80s. That’s because Ry Cooder had played on the album Bloodline by Shoukichi Kina from Okinawa, but virtually no one had actually heard it. One of the first things I did when I went to Japan for the first time in 1989 was to go and buy it. Immediately this track stood out. Apart from the melody, it was the heartbreakingly beautiful vocals by Tomoko Kina. I soon went to Okinawa to meet and interview Shoukichi, a memorable experience in itself. Around this time in the early 90s, the popularity of Hana (the full title is Subete no Kokoro ni Hana o, in English A Flower for Everyone’s Heart) started to spread more within Japan and around the world. Numerous covers appeared in Japan, Asia and Malagasy group Tarika Sammy recorded it on the Henry Kaiser, David Lindley project, A World Out of Time. It’s today an Okinawan staple. Kina has recorded numerous versions and just about every Okinawan musician seems to have recorded it. An insider on the Bloodline album once told me that Kina based it on Peter, Paul and Mary’s Where Have All the Flower’s Gone? That kind of makes sense, but I prefer to think it as having a bit more of Okinawa at its heart.

Rivers are flowing, where oh where do they go?
People are flowing too, where oh where do they go?
About the time when flow arrives somewhere
As flowers, as flowers I want to let them bloom

Cry as much as you can, laugh all you want
Someday, one day, someday, one day, the flowers will be made to bloom

5. RASA SAYANG (LOVING FEELING)
(MALAYSIA)

(traditional Malay folk song)

Rasa Sayang is a song I feel like I’ve heard forever. I wanted to include a song from Malaysia and I’m a big fan of P.Ramlee and Saloma but couldn’t really settle on one particular song. Rasa Sayang is popular throughout the region, particularly Indonesia and Singapore. So much so, that there is dispute as to the origins of the song, with much consternation caused in Indonesia when the Malaysian Tourist Board used it in a TV commercial. With that in mind, on the radio I played an old version from Indonesia, Singaporean Dick Lee’s version from 1989 and a recent version by Hanie Soraya from Malaysia.

I’ve got that loving feeling, hey!
I’ve got that loving feeling, hey!
See that girl in the distance
I’ve got that loving feeling hey!

The cempedak fruit is outside the fence
Take a pole and poke it down
I’m just a new guy trying to learn
So if I’m wrong then please tell me

Pandan Island far in midst
With the three peaked Mount Daik
While the body decomposes in earth
Good deeds remain to be remembered

Two or three cats are running around
With the striped one which can vie
Two or three I can find
Which man can compare with you

Pisang emas brought on a sailing trip
One ripens on a box
If gold is owed, it can be repaid
But if it is gratitude, it is carried to the grave

4. YUE LIANG DAI BIAO WO DE XIN (THE MOON REPRESENTS MY HEART)
(CHINA)

(music; Weng Ching-hsi, lyrics; Sun Yi)

The most famous version of this song, is sung by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. If there is one artist who was popular throughout Eastern Asia it would be her. Personally I prefer some of her other songs, but this one is probably her most popular. It’s also one of the most popular songs in China, Chinese speaking countries and communities around the world. There’s something about these sentimental ballads that appeals in most countries in Asia; Japanese enka, Korean trot and Thai lukthung. This song is one of the ultimate examples.

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you
My affection is real
My love is real
The moon represents my heart

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you
My affection does not waver
My love will not change.
The moon represents my heart

Just one soft kiss
is enough to move my heart
A period of time when our affection was deep
Has made me miss you until now

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you

Go think about it
Go and have a look
The moon represents my heart

3. SHIMA UTA (ISLAND SONG)
(JAPAN)

(music and lyrics, Kazufumi Miyazawa)

I can remember quite clearly when I first heard this song. I was in Okinawa, at the house of local musician Shoukichi Kina, and Kazufumi Miyazawa of the Boom and his manager came to see Shoukichi. The Boom’s Okinawan inspired song, Shima Uta was a hit in Okinawa at the time and the band had arrived to play a concert that night. The manager played it on a little CD player. I thought it was good but didn’t realise it’s greatness and significance at the time. It was only a few months later when I started hearing it in convenience stores or in the public bath, it dawned that the song had reached the mainstream and had entered the public consciousness as well as mine. It went on to sell 1.5 million copies and brought Okinawan music to the masses. It’s since been covered numerous times, including several overseas versions. The most significant of these was probably in Argentina by rock musician Alfredo Casero. It was adopted by the Argentina football team for the World Cup song in 2002 when it was staged in Japan/Korea.

The deigo flowers began to bloom, and the wind began to blow, and the storm came

The deigo flowers were in full bloom, and the wind was blowing, and the storm had come
My recurring sadness is like a wave that crosses the islands

I met you in a forest of sugarcane
Under the sugarcane, we parted forever

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my tears

The deigo flowers blossoms have fallen, and there is only the rippling of the sea
Our small happiness was a momentary flower on the foamy waves

Oh, my friend, who sang in the forest of sugarcane!
Under the sugarcane, we parted forever

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my love

Oh sea, oh universe, oh God, oh life
let this evening calm continue forever!

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my tears
Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my love

La, la, la…

2. LEUM MAI LONG (WON’T FORGET)
(THAILAND)

(traditional)

I probably first heard this song on a Surapol Sumbatcharoen compilation but it didn’t register at the time. I took notice when it was in the wonderful film Monrak Transistor, and then would hear it on other albums of Lukthung. It’s a genre of music I love, and while personally there are other songs I probably like a bit more, I can’t argue with the popularity and influence of this song. It was later featured in the Danish / French film, Only God Forgives.

Won’t forget, won’t forget and won’t fade; like the moon that paired up with the sky
Won’t forget the flavour of the love that you’d ever entrust upon me
Won’t forget the past that we had ever passed through
Till the end of life, I would also not forget

(Won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget.)

Won’t forget, won’t forget and won’t fade, throughout the months and years
Won’t forget our love that was ever happy
Won’t forget the dreams we had before this
No matter how many months or years, I’ll also not forget

(Won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget.)

1. SUKIYAKI
(JAPAN)

(music; Hachidai Nakamura, lyrics; Rokusuke Ei)

I don’t know about now, but when I was living in Japan in the 1990s, the holy grail for some Japanese artists was to have a Number 1 record in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. A lot of the big J-pop stars of the day, such as Seiko Matsuda, Dreams Come True, Utada Hikaru, were all promoted by their record companies in the US at different times,sometimes with an ill-advised English language version of an album, a big budget video or a big name American producer. More often that not, these attempts ended in failure. Why they failed was a question I was often asked as a British music journalist working in Japan. Perhaps they should have learnt from Kyu Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki that still remains today, the only Japanese record to have been a US Number 1, in 1963. Firstly, it’s a great song Secondly, it was brilliantly recorded. Thirdly, it’s sung in Japanese. Contrary to popular belief that doesn’t mean it can’t be a hit. What did make a difference however, was calling it Sukiyaki (by a British record company), a title that had no connection to the song at all. In Japanese it’s called Ue o Muite Aruko (I Look Up as I Walk). There’s been load of cover versions over the years. On the radio show is a little known version by the US group Brave Combo. Sukiyaki remains as probably the most famous song to come out of Japan.

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Remembering those spring days
But I am all alone tonight
I look up as I walk
Counting the stars with tears in my eyes
Remembering those summer days
But I am all alone tonight

Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies up above the sky

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone

Remembering those autumn days
But I am all alone tonight

Sadness lies in the shadow of the stars
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone

Far Side Top 10 of 2014

Overall, not the greatest year for music, but not the worst either. Good to know there’s a lot of new good music being made throughout the region. Korean artists have become fairly popular at festivals, but less so on CD, indeed even the artists who are touring don’t always have any album that we can actually sell. Most of this list are CDs (and some 7 inch vinyl!) released in Asia, particularly Japan. Noteworthy as European releases this year, but not included on our list (we prefer to highlight stuff you are unlikely to encounter elsewhere) was Thai morlam music from the 70s on the Sounds of Siam Vol.2 compilation, music we’ve been banging on about for about 20 years, but only just now being ‘discovered’, and Cambodian music, with the release of the Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cambodia. This list is a mixture of bigger selling albums and singles, personal favourites and the critically acclaimed. They are in some kind of order, but quite frankly that order would probably be different tomorrow, or even in the next hour! You can have a look at all albums and take a listen to sound samples here, and listen to them all, as broadcast on 10th December on Far Side Radio, Resonance 104.4fm here. So, without further ado, in descending order,the Far Side Top 10 of 2014 is:

10. Shizuko Oshiro – Washita Shimauta

There’s nothing new or particularly different about this album, but what it is, is a beautifully recorded, and performed, album of Okinawan traditional music, which I am a bit of a sucker for. Shizuko has been around for a long time, but hasn’t got the same profile as her namesake, Misako, for example. Hopefully this album helps to redress the balance a little. Shizuko had a lot of success early in her career, and then kept a reasonably low profile, playing in a shima uta bar and teaching. Aged 67, this is something of a welcome return and recognition.

9. Yasuaki Shimizu, Hideo Yamaki, Gen Ogimi – Syo

I first heard of saxophone player Yasuaki Shimizu when I was working with JVC/Victor in Tokyo, who he recorded for. The person who really got me, and indeed a lot of other people, to pay more attention was the late BBC broadcaster Charlie Gillett. When Charlie played tracks from Shimizu’s Bach Cello Suites on his BBC World Service, it would usually be followed by many enquiries to us as to who this musician was. Ever since, I’ve followed him closely and this year’s album, along with two other musicians is one of his best. A real mix of sounds; acoustic, electronic, modern, traditional, improvised and quirky.

If you’ve never heard Yasuaki Shimizu and Saxophonettes take a look at the video and his Far Side page here

8. Siti Nurhaliza – Konsert Lentera Timur

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Siti Nurhaliza. I love her traditional (or as they say in Malaysia ‘tradisional’) stuff, going back to her early hit Cindai, but am not much of a fan of her pop stuff. It was interesting to hear this live album. She’s backed by a 40 piece tradisional orchestra, the crowd are screaming like they’re at a pop concert, it all sounds a bit extravagant and over the top, and somehow those traditional tunes sound a bit more poppy than on the original albums. Not sure if that’s the effect of the crowd. Still, Siti has a great voice which shines through in the end.

7. Krom – Neon Dark

Based in Phnom Penh, Krom is female vocalist Sophea Chamroeun and guitarist/composer Christopher Minko. I love the blend of blues guitar and Khmer vocals. Other tracks on the album feature traditional musicians, and other vocalists including the deep growling in English from Christopher. This album actually came out in 2013 I think, but we only discovered it this year.

6. Oki Dub Ainu Band – Sumar Mukar + Sakhalin Rock EP

I’ve enjoyed Oki’s music for many years, and have had the pleasure of touring him in Europe a few times. I loved this new track, Sumar Mukar (Sakhalin Rock is an old one) which only came out on a 7 inch single. Oki’s vocal sounds more gruff than ever before, but that seems to add to the power and tension of the track.

5. Various – Tokyo no Oto

Strangely enough we sell more and more Japanese music from the 1940s-60s than ever before. A lot of it is the old enka, minyo and jazz, where Japanese traditional and western elements were brilliantly combined. This album is a kind of snapshot of field, or more like street recordings made in Tokyo in 1959. There’s train stations, markets, festivals, even a fire in Ginza. There’s also some music recorded on the street or sometimes in a studio. Geisha, Komuso shakuhachi, chindonya, and street shamisen music. Fascinating.

4. Emiko & Kirisute Gomen- Shyohatto

Based in France, Emiko & Kirisute Gomen play a kind of mix of Japanese minyo and Psychedelic surf guitar. A little bit wacky, and love the different images within one band. Would like to see them live. In fact hope to book them to play myself.

3. Shoukichi Kina – Pascal Plantinga – Washinnayo

I think I first heard from Dutch musician Pascal Plantinga when he sent me a beautifully packaged 12 inch single of him and Keiko Kina, sister of Shoukichi. It sounded great, and the attention to detail in the overall packaging was very impressive. Getting Shoukichi Kina, a legend of Okinawan music (but more into politics than music these days) into the studio a couple of years later, and making him sound this great is no mean feat. Once again, beautifully packaged, a record I genuinely treasure. This is a video of Shoukichi Kina together with Ry Cooder, The Chieftains and others from 1994 at the Great Music Experience outside the huge Todai-ji temple in Nara in 1994. A spectacular setting. I remember vividly watching this live, unbelievably exciting.

2. Yukihiro Takahashi & Meta Five – Techno Recital

We sell a lot of Yellow Magic Orchestra and related albums by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi, Haruomi Hosono and others from the YMO family. This was probably the biggest selling such item this year. A live album from a great band, turning back the clock with mostly covers of YMO hits. Brilliant.

1. Shigeri Kitsu – Shigeri Bushi

I first heard of Shigeri Kitsu from a producer/musician in Tokyo about 20 years ago when I was working with Celtic music. She sang at a party for the Irish group Altan, as a kind of example of Japanese folk music, and completely wowed the audience. Over the next few years she recorded as part of a duo called Tsuru to Kame, with Haruomi Hosono becoming involved on their third album. Shigeri came to London for a concert we arranged about 10 years ago, and I interviewed her for a BBC radio programme in Tokyo. Although I noticed she was playing concerts regularly there hadn’t been anything new recorded for a while. It was a pleasant surprise to hear this album, where she is really given a chance to shine. What’s nice about this album, is it’s not just traditional, but has a modern edge, produced by Aoyagi Takuji, featuring Haruomi Hosono, Okinawans Yasukatsu Oshima and Yukito Ara and mastered by Makoto Kubota. Keeping a Japanese flavour throughout it manages to sound contemporary at the same time.

Top 10 Greatest Ever Female Singers from Asia

Okay, I know Top 10 lists don’t come without their limitations, are entirely subjective and are nearly always incredibly frustrating more in what’s been left out than what’s in them. Still, at least we can disagree about something. Here’s the first list, which also became a Far Side radio show on 22nd October 14. The greatest ever female singers from the Far East. I tried to choose singers who are true icons at home, and in some cases across different countries in the region. Many of them are no longer with us, but their legacy lives on and they have inspired a younger generation. In short, singers worthy to be called Legends. What it is not, is a list of the most popular singers in Asia right now, although who knows, some of the excellent singers today might be on a list in future years if they have a sustained career. It’s also not a list of necessarily my favourite singers, some who are relatively unknown. So, here we go. In no particular order, the 10 greatest ever female singers from the Far East are:

 

1. Saloma (Malaysia)

Saloma is often overshadowed by her more famous husband P.Ramlee but was a fantastic singer in her own right. Not just a beautiful voice her music encompassed Malay roots with jazz, Latin, rock ‘n’ roll and other styles. She was quite the pioneer. Who knows, without Saloma, maybe Siti Nurhaliza and others wouldn’t be singing music with such strong local flavours. She died aged 48 in 1983.

2. Elvy Sukaesih (Indonesia)

The Queen of Dangdut, the street music of Indonesia that emerged from 1950s Orkes Melayu (orchestras). Dangdut blended rock, Arabic, Indian and other styles with Indonesian instruments. The ‘Golden Age’ of dangdut was the mid 70s when Elvy was at the peak of her powers. Born in 1951 she is still active today.

3. Ros Sereysothea (Cambodia)

When I first came across the name of Ros Sereysothea, while visiting Cambodia, she was just about unknown in the west. That all changed when her music, mostly from the early 70s, was used in the film City of Ghosts and the band Dengue Fever out of Los Angeles started to cover her songs. She made hundreds of recordings in a relatively short career and her popularity has probably never been greater than now. She was born in 1948 and is believed to have died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in 1977.

4. Hibari Misora (Japan)

There is probably no greater Japanese singing icon than Hibari Misora. She started singing incredibly young, aged 12, and was only 13 when she sung one of her most famous songs, Tokyo Kid. Perhaps she became known best for singing enka, but I also love her versions of minyo (folk) songs with big band arrangements and jazzy style. Like many other singing stars from Asia, she also appeared in many films. She died in 1989 aged 52.

5. Teresa Teng (Taiwan)

If there’s one singer in this list who is popular throughout the region, its probably Tawian’s Teresa Teng. Her fame spread to Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and mainland China, despite her music being banned there for many years. A brilliant singer, she  managed to incorporate Chinese folk elements into western styles. She was just 42 when she died in 1995. Her legacy lives on in the music of Faye Wong and many others.

6. Pompuang Duangjan (Thailand)

Generally I enjoy Thai lukthung, pre the advent of keyboards and synthesisers, but Pompuang Duangjan was such an exceptional singer I can forgive her for being a pioneer of the electronic version of this country style of music. She came from a poor family and was idolized by the country’s poorer classes, for whom she represented a dream of a young poor girl making good. When she died in 1992, aged 31, hundreds of thousands of people attended her funeral, including the royal family. Her status in Thailand is akin to say Edith Piaf in France or Hibari Misora in Japan.

7. Bai Guang (China)

Bai Guang is one of the so-called seven singing stars of China, popular in pre-communist 1930s and 40s Shanghai, who doubled up as the most famous film stars of the day. I rather like her slightly deeper voice. Born in 1921, she died in 1999 while living in Malaysia. Many of the singing stars of Shanghai moved to Hong Kong and helped to spawn Cantopop. But we can forgive them that.

8. Hetty Koes Endang (Indonesia)

Incredibly versatile, Hetty is probably best known for singing Kroncong, but she is also a successful pop singer and has also sung dangdut, and local styles Pop Sunda and Minang. She also became popular in Japan after winning a song contest there. Born in 1957 she still remains active today.

9. Mar Mar Aye (Burma)

Probably the least known of all the singers on this list, Mar Mar Aye (born in 1942) was incredibly popular in Burma, singing the vast majority of all film soundtracks by the 1980s. She emigrated to the USA in 1998 and returned from exile in 2012 with the permission of the President. She has become politically acitive and an inspiration to young Burmese after publishing he memoirs in 2012.

10. Siti Nurhaliza (Malaysia)

By far the youngest on this list, born in 1979, Siti’s incredible success from an early age, definitely warrants her inclusion as one of the greatest singers from the region. Although she sings pop, she hasn’t forgotten her roots and consistently released traditional based albums, helping no doubt to popularise Malaysia’s deep cultural heritage in music and dance.