Jun Yasuba & An Chang Project – fRoots

This was originally published as a front cover feature for fRoots magazine in the UK in April 2000. Unfortunately, Yoshie Uno passed away in 2009.

1999 was, at best, a mixed year for Okinawan music. Sales and the number of releases in Japan were at a decade low. The main Okinawan music event on the mainland, the Ryukyu Festival went from being held over two days in a huge Tokyo arena just a few years ago to last year’s rather low-key one day event. Worryingly, the dreaded ‘Healing Music’ (Japan’s category for dreamy new age) started to creep into Okinawan music. The four singers of Nenes bowed out to be replaced in 2000 by four young singers, (the Shima-uta Spice Girls?), bar one, with no grounding in Okinawan min’yo (folk). But the biggest blow was the death on October 9th aged 79 of Rinhso Kadekaru, the ‘Godfather’ of shima uta and the island’s most recorded and perhaps respected musician.

On a more positive note, the album that made most news was former Champloose guitarist Takashi Hirayasu’s collaboration with Bob Brozman ‘Warabi Uta’, (released outside of Japan titled ‘Jin Jin / Firefly’ by Riverboat/WMN in March this year). Apart from racking up newspaper column inches and magazine features, the two performed live on national prime time TV. This was followed by an album from the best of the young musicians upholding the tradition, Yasukatsu Ohshima’s ‘Ari Nutu.’ Last year also saw the resurgence of another elder musician, Seijin Noborikawa through the film ‘Nabbie no Koi’ Then as the year took it’s final gasp, total salvation arrived in the shape of the new album by Jun Yasuba and her An Chang Project, ‘Harara Rude’.

The saviour of Okinawan music? Jun Yasuba is at present unknown to even Okinawan music aficionados. It took her 2 years to sell 500 of the first An-Chang Project album ‘Yarayo-Uta No Sahanji’ and at present isn’t expecting much more from the second. “I’ve pressed 1000 this time, so it might take four years to sell them.” she says, with a hopeful tone. “Anyway, I’ll be sleeping with them all around me for a while”.


Quiet and unassuming, but clear and passionate in her beliefs, Jun Yasuba is sitting in front of me at a Thai restaurant in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku district. The music that her, and her friends and co-conspirators from Shisars, Yoshie Uno and Natsuki Hattori creates, is certainly unlike any other Okinawan music by either local musicians or those many Japanese who have offered their take on Japan’s most vibrant folk music. The songs are mostly traditional, but are sung in harmony, whereas traditionally the vocals are sung in unison. Underpinning those vocals is some searing, psychedelic guitar parts, and in the case of Shisars bits of accordion, honking brass and clarinet as well. ‘Harara Rude’ sounds at first like a random collage of sounds; sudden, unexpected rhythm and key changes, punctuated by short accappella, Bulgarian like voices and some seriously weird guitar knob twiddling. Random, but in the end, cleverly cohesive. However, this quite radical approach is not part of any fashion or an ideology to ‘update’ Okinawan music, but is simply born out of their own desire to naturally express themselves. “All I want to do, is just let the audience feel like they want to sing” she says. Well I for one know that, having taken up the call after being handed the lyrics to one of the songs at a live show.

“We’re not from Okinawa, just fond of Okinawan music. We can’t and don’t want to imitate Okinawan music, because we already have our own history, being brought up in Honshu (the main island of Japan) and we have our own favourite music, so we put everything together that’s inside us; our past, hearts and minds to express ourselves. We never think that we want to update Okinawan music, probably we destroy traditional songs! Those musicians from Okinawa should do update it. What we did receive from the southern islands of Okinawa, is the notion of the power that people, anybody, can sing and that songs can spring out from your usual life. People can sing in the same way as they talk. It’s a part of life. That’s the point we learnt from Okinawa, then we can make our own music from wherever we stand.”

Jun Yasuba was born in Kyoto in 1959 and grew up on the usual diet of ‘kayokyoku’ (Japanese style pop) and some western music especially the Beatles. She first became interested in Japanese min’yo after hearing a working song from Miyazaki (in Kyushu, the southern of the main islands of Japan) ‘Kariboshi Kiriuta’ while at Junior High School. “There are two types of min’yo. One you can hear on the TV, still today, it’s a kind of sophisticated style, a bit like enka (the ever-popular, sentimental mix of min’yo with western string accompaniment) but the melody has been changed and it’s been adapted to the usual Japanese scale. But the original was totally different and that was the one I loved, in it’s original major scale. Everywhere in Japan the same thing has happened to Min’yo. Okinawa though is different, they’ve always had their own special scale.”

Indeed Okinawa has always been different to the rest of Japan. The Okinawans themselves are believed to originate, as do the mainland Japanese, from Northern Asia, coming through Korea and Mongolia, but unlike the Japanese also from southeast Asia through the Phillipines or southern China. Musically, the pentatonic scale is identical to that of some areas of Indonesia and is related to scales used in Micronesia and Polynesia. The strategically located Ryukyu Islands have always provided a trading link between Japan, China and south east Asia and have a history of feuding for their control from within, Japan and more recently America, all of which is strongly reflected in their unique and colourful culture and music. After an initial period of battling warlords and tiny kingdoms, in the 13th century the first Okinawan dynasty was established, after which the Ryukyu islands remained essentially independent, although at various times split into separate kingdoms. By the late 14th century a unified Ryukyu Kingdom emerged, and in the 15th century the capital was moved to Shuri, near to today’s largest city and port of Naha on the main island. Throughout this time, the country traded with China, Japan, Korea, and southeast Asia, and developed in language and culture in relative isolation. The kingdom later expanded to include the four island groups, of Amami in the north, through to the centrally located Okinawa main island, to Miyako in the west and Yaeyama to the south, each combining it’s local culture with those of the many they came into contact with. The reign of Sho Shin between 1477 and 1525 is considered especially important for the development of Okinawan culture and craft, remembered as ‘the golden age of Chuzan’. (Chuzan being the name given to Okinawa in the 15th century).

The sanshin, the three stringed snake skinned lute at the heart of all modern Okinawan folk music, is derived from the Chinese sanxien, and arrived in Okinawa during this time, about 500 years ago. Originally, it was an instrument of the Ryukyu nobility who would play it as a court music for visiting Chinese envoys. The islands were later invaded by the Satsuma province in southern Japan in 1609, and effectively became a colony of Japan until 1879. During this period however, local culture and music thrived. 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. With the disbandment of the Okinawan government, the nobility were forced to pay their own way, and as many had become competent musicians, some moved to different areas of the islands to teach the local communities. Folk traditions were given a new lease of life and the songs a sanshin accompaniment. On the outer islands, such as Yaeyama, formerly vocal only working songs, ‘Yunta’ and ‘Jiraba’ were set to sanshin, or the oldest of all, sacred songs called ‘Aoyo’. In this way too, original songs were composed, which gave rise to what’s known today as ‘shima uta’ or ‘island songs’.


Regarded as the first major figure in modern folk music, Choki Fukuhara was born in 1903 and composed many, now classic, songs and established Marafuku Records, the most important local label. It’s a position which Marafuku still holds today, run by his son Tsuneo Fukuhara, himself a top composer and producer. Another influential figure of ‘shima uta’ was Rinsho Kadekaru born in 1920 in Goeku, central Okinawa. He learnt to play at his village’s all night revelries known as mo-ashibi. Here, young people would sing, dance and drink, usually on the beach, often until dawn, do a full day’s hard labour in the fields, then party again the next night. In the pre-war years there are stories of parents encouraging their children to take part in the mo-ashibi every night, in the hope they would fail the medical for military conscription due to exhaustion! Despite attempts to ban them, mo-ashibi flourished until just before the second world war, although following the war and the US occupation, they were outlawed for good. In the wake of the second world war, when up to a third of the population had died, musicians such as Rinsho Kadekaru, who had been in exile in Saipan during the war, and Shouei Kina (father of Shokichi Kina) were a source of inspiration in restoring the pride of the people. Kadekaru went on to record over 250 songs for local labels, more than any other musician, before his death last year.

Okinawa remained governed by the US until 1972, during which time a new music scene developed around the military bases, especially the wild years of the Vietnam war. Most Okinawan groups played western music in the nightclubs, until Shokichi Kina and his family group, Champloose, mixed Okinawan local songs with rock, and electric guitar and drums with sanshin in the mid-70s. After hearing Kina, Japanese musicians such as Haruomi Hosono and Makoto Kubota started to play Okinawan influenced music at this time , and recorded with Kina on the album ‘Bloodline’ in 1980, which also featured Ry Cooder (most tracks of which appear on the album ‘Peppermint Tea House’ on Luaka Bop)

Yasuba too, was first inspired after hearing an early Shokichi Kina and Champloose recording. “The first Okinawan record I heard was Shokichi’s first album, the one featuring Haisai Ojisan (released in the UK titled ‘The Music Power of Okinawa’ from GlobeStyle ORB 072) I heard that back in 1979, oh my god 20 years ago! I was fascinated by the music’s beat and melody, so in 1980 I went to Okinawa although I had no idea about Okinawan music, but on that LP, Shokichi had said there are lots of traditional songs that he had arranged and I became interested in the traditional Okinawan music and wanted to know about it. It wasn’t just the music though, I wanted to know about everything.” She went as far south and west as she could go in Japan, to the island of Yonaguni, as far away from the main island of Okinawa as the mainland of Japan. I wondered how she had ended up there? “When I was in college I went to Nagano Prefecture (northern Honshu) to do work on a farm picking, lettuces and cabbages, and I met one guy there who said every year he spent the summer in Nagano and the winter in Okinawa cutting sugar beet. It sounded like a good idea, although a bit hard, so I got a job at a factory making brown sugar, which wasn’t so physically strenuous, during the following winter. That factory happened to be on Yonaguni. At that time I didn’t know the difference between Okinawa and Yonaguni it was just the same to me, but in fact it’s very different, including the traditional songs. I didn’t go to any festivals or music events, but I did learn some songs from the daughter of the minshuku (Japanese inn) where I was staying. She taught me Asadoya Yunta (possibly the most famous Okinawan folk song, from Taketomi island near Ishigaki) and ‘Harara Rude’ which is a Yonaguni lullaby, and now is the title of the new album. She told me that her mother had taught her the song, and her grandmother had taught her mother. That was when I realised that songs were transferred from one generation to another.”

After returning to Kyoto she started to learn the sanshin, before moving to Tokyo. “I happened to see information about a concert by Shinkato Aizo. When he first came to Tokyo from Okinawa, 30 or 40 years ago, nobody was interested in Okinawan music or culture and Aizo wanted to tell people in Tokyo about Okinawan history. So he began to sing and write protest songs playing sanshin, sometimes singing about the war, and he would sing every month at a community centre. He never charged anyone, he just wanted to let the audience know about Okinawan music and history. This was fortunately at the next station to where to I lived so I went along. Aizo also formed a circle of sanshin players, or people just interested in sanshin so I went to that too. I really do owe him a lot as I met a lot of friends there including Akemi Mochida (now of Shisars). Aizo and two other sanshin players from Yaeyama and Miyako formed a group, and Mochida and I occasionally were allowed to join their gigs.” A few years later, Yasuba and Mochida formed their own group, Shisars. “We started Shisars in 1986 or 87 with another woman, who was from Ishigaki but she quit singing after getting pregnant. For a while it was just me and Mochida, but then we were joined by Yoshie Uno in 1991 or 1992, initially as a taiko drummer but she soon started singing too.’

Shisars recorded their first and only, album “Kuwagi nu Shita de Biru” in 1996 (one track is sampled on Froots #8). The CD was produced by and featured the clarinet playing of Wataru Ohkuma, of Cicala Mvta and part-time Soul Flower Union member. However, Yasuba was not on the CD. “About 5 years ago I got sick and I couldn’t sing. It took me nearly a year to get better and then after I just had to rest. At the same time I got really busy with my job (teaching Japanese to Japanese returnees from China ) and everyday I had to work overtime. Shisars got quite famous, judging from what was our norm, but I couldn’t join them because I still hadn’t recovered. I was very frustrated as I wanted to sing. I didn’t know what to do, and after I got a bit better, Yoshie called me and said ‘let’s practice’. She really helped me.” Those practice sessions led to the formation of An-Chang Project. “An Chang is the Mandarin Chinese reading of my name. Also it’s a kind of slang, meaning ‘Hey Guy’ and a lot of people mistake me for an ‘An-Chang’! I also like the sound of it, so that’s why I chose that name.” Unusually, Yasuba doesn’t only play the usual sanshin but also it’s precursor, the almost identical but larger Chinese sanxien. “Actually I’m not so good at playing that as it requires a high technique. I want to sing more than play instruments.”


With vocal duties shared between Yasuba and Uno, and Uno also playing sanshin, the other instrumentation is provided by Shisars guitarist Natsuki Hattori. “He’s responsible for all those guitar parts and arrangements that you like. He’s very talented, a rock freak especially of British rock. He used to play with Mochida at one time as a psychedelic rock unit.” In addition to that guitar, probably the other most striking aspect of their music is those harmony vocals. “I happened to hear on the radio, at around the same time as I became interested in Okinawan music, a song from the South Pacific, from Gilbert Island in Kiribati, ‘Ta Berante’ which they sang in harmony. That was actually the original Japanese way of singing. Okinawan music though has never been sung in harmony, but that’s how I wanted to sing, like in the Pacific Islands. I also became interested in Bulgarian Chorus groups, but at school we were taught the Western classical way of singing, which I just didn’t like. I wanted to sing those harmony vocals not just in Okinawan music but in any music. In fact the last song on our first CD and this new CD is that original song that I heard from Gilbert Island, although I added Japanese lyrics and called it ‘Saru Hamo Song.’ In 1996, entranced with the music of the Pacific islands, Yasuba travelled to Kiribati, specifically to Banaba Island to find out more. “These are the islands that celebrated the Millennium first, in fact they even changed the name of one island to ‘Millennium Island’.

On ‘Harara Rude’, Yoshie Uno contributes two original songs with Yasuba writing new lyrics to others. However many songs on both An-Chang Project records, especially the latest, originate from Yonaguni, the island where Yasuba worked in that sugar factory. These include from the first album Yamagoi Bushi, included on both the Rough Guide to Japan and Froots 14#. “I heard that song, and others we’ve recorded, on tapes lent by a friend. I was always afraid the old people on Yonaguni wouldn’t like it, but they were okay about it, I think!”

Acceptance from those ‘old people’ is very important to Yasuba. She cites them as her major source of inspiration. “We’re in a hurry to learn songs from them, because maybe they’d die out if we didn’t. Old people can tell us so many things, and we have many friends in Okinawa. They’re not professional but they have lots of things we have to pay respect to, because they’re simply ordinary people who sing. That’s harder I think than just only singing for a living.” Asked to name her current favourite musicians and influences Yasuba cites Kate Rusby, Chinese rock singer Dou Wei and female singer Faye Wong. From Okinawa, she picks several older traditional singers from Yaeyama, but struggles to think of current musicians she likes. “I do like Yasukatsu Ohshima’s singing, but I liked it more before. Actually, I’m now interested more in Taiwanese indigenous music. It seems the same thing is happening there as in Okinawa before. The traditional music faded away, and the new generation didn’t want to sing those old rusty songs. But now musicians have got back that power. It’s like you feel when you first listen to Shokichi Kina.”

At the beginning of the century, Okinawan music does appear to be at a crossroads. Although the sanshin is still widely studied, there is a lack of younger professional musicians with their roots in the tradition. Instead, Okinawa is being called the ‘Entertainment Island’ with a succession of singers and girl and boy groups from Okinawa dominating the Japanese charts, such as Namie Amuro, Speed, Max and Da-Pump. To me, these groups sound awful, or as Mark Lamarr succinctly put it on a visit; ‘Imagine Tiffany or Debbie Gibson or Robson & Jerome, imagine them all put together, then imagine all their rough edges worn away, imagine their talent pulled away from underneath them, then imagine them all recording a Boyzone tribute album. Well, that would be like listening to Nine Inch Nails compared to this lot!’. Strangely enough, those musicians still involved in the roots side of things always tell me that all these singers somehow put their own Okinawan flavour into the music, although,( perhaps it’s my ‘western ears’) I certainly can’t hear it. The same musicians also are confident of the survival of traditional Okinawan music. After all the local music has always survived threats in past, so why not today?

After the initial burst of energy at the end of the 70s from Shokichi Kina, it wasn’t until the end of the 80s that other musicians started to combine Okinawan music with other influences. From the same generation as Kina, Teruya Rinken formed Rinken Band, and made several excellent albums, including a mini-CD with the 3 Mustapahas 3. The group went through several personnel changes, but musically somehow got locked into a formula. Rinken has become the ‘salary man’ of Okinawan music, releasing a new album every year, but those long days spent in the studio getting an album out on schedule were perhaps at the expense of creativity. Sadao China formed the female quartet, Nenes, whose first album ‘Ikawu’ in 1991 was a seminal album of Okinawan folk and pop. Nenes recorded the exceptional ‘Koza Dabasa’ in Los Angeles in 1994 with guests including David Lindley, David Hidalgo and Ry Cooder. (Shima Jima Kaisha from this album and written by Tsuneo Fukuharu is included on the Froots ‘Routes’ compilation on Nascente). At the end of the decade, the four current singers felt it was, according to Yasuko Yoshida, one of the original members “a good time for a change. We tried hard for 10 years, now some of us want to get married, some want to have children.” With Sadao China still at the helm as main composer and producer they will keep the name, but Nenes will have four new young singers. China is promising something a bit different with the ‘new Nenes’, although musically will keep the same basic formula. Already, the new Nenes are set to perform overseas. In June they’ll be in Rome, Paris and Moscow as part of the Japanese governments efforts to promote Okinawan culture ahead of the G8 Summit to be held in Okinawa Prefecture in July.

The influential Shokichi Kina’s career meanwhile has been littered with long periods of musical inactivity, during which time his albums have consisted of mostly re-recordings and re-mixes of older material. During the latter half of the 90s his albums didn’t even coming close to the ones he released at the start. His music suffered at the expense of his energies, however well intentioned, being channeled elsewhere, and sometimes wasted, into various causes. He once tried to enlist the help of an influential supporter to his idea of swapping weapons for musical instruments by asking President Clinton to blow his saxophone along with Champloose. More recently, his long time plan to sail to America in a white ship, in response to the black ship of Commodore Perry that arrived in Okinawa in 1853, was thwarted by US refusal to grant him permission to land. Certainly his former guitarist Takashi Hirayasu, blooming after leaving Champloose, is making the more interesting music these days. Meanwhile Kina’s former wife, Tomoko Kina, owner of that heartbreakingly beautiful voice on the original version of ‘Hana’ can still be found singing in a ‘shima uta’ bar, but apart from an occasional guest appearance, hasn’t made a record since her first and only album several years ago. There are several such min’yo bars in Okinawa, and after several years of not having one, both Shokichi Kina and Rinken Band can now be found playing nearly every night at theirs, while Nenes have been performing at their ‘Shima Uta’ live house since the beginning. While it might be a commercial necessity, a few musicians have confided in me that playing mainly for Japanese tourists everynight, rather deadens the senses.

Someone who doesn’t play in such a bar, as he’s a full time civil servant, is Yaeyama’s Tetsuhiro Daiku (featured in FR 145). Daiku has released some of the best Okinawan music of recent years, especially his albums that mixed Okinawan music with chindon, which proved to be a big influence on the acoustic unit of Osaka rock band Soul Flower Union, Soul Flower Mononoke Summit. Another Japanese group Shang Shang Typhoon were also once followers of Shokichi Kina, but in the latter half of the last decade released fewer albums as their popularity dwindled. The Boom had a 1.5 million selling single in 1993 with Shima Uta, which did much to popularise Okinawan music with the Japanese young generation, but since, the group’s leader Kazufumi Miyazawa has directed his musical attention more towards Brazil. Japanese, but Okinawan resident musician Kenji Yano was a member in the 80s of ‘Rokunin Gumi’ who built up a cult following in Okinawa but never released an album, shame as I have some tapes of live recordings which match the claim that this band were as exciting as Champloose in their heyday. In the 90s Yano released three innovative albums with singer Sachiko Shima, under the pseudonyms of Sons of Ailana, the Surf Champlers and Sarabandge, which mixed Okinawan with Hawaiian, Surf and Trance music respectively. All brilliant, but mostly available only in Okinawa, and a bit like An-Chang Project and Shisars, ‘underground’ classics.

It’s within the twenty-something bracket that there does seem to be a lack of musicians interested in Okinawan music enough to either play the traditional or take ‘shima uta’ in new directions. Yukito Ara and his group Parsha Club were once called leaders of the ‘new wave’ of Okinawan music (they have one song on the EMI Hemisphere compilation ‘Ethno Punk’) but ironically after being dropped by their major record company, turned into a pop group. However, they’re too good not to be back with something better. Peruvian/Okinawan group Diamantes have constantly disappointed since their first album, their major record company striving to reinvent them as a latin pop group. From the same small town as Yukito Ara, Shiraho on Ishigaki island, the aforementioned Yasukatsu Ohshima, just turned 30, has a voice that drips with the tradition of Okinawa, and is perhaps the best of the young musicians. Probably the island where the tradition is kept most alive is these days not part of Okinawa at all, Amami, which has it’s own style of shima uta with falsetto vocals, it’s music reflecting it’s geographical location, half way between Okinawa and Japan. Female singer Rikki has been championed by Makoto Kubota, who produced her first album, while teenagers Mizuki Nakamura and Kousuke Atari both released promising albums in 1999.

Jun Yasuba seems quite happy to keep her music mostly a secret, at least for the time being. ” We didn’t really try and promote ourselves, either myself or Shisars. I was happy to sell my CDs to friends and at concerts. I just sold the 500 of the first album, mostly at gigs and that was enough. If possible though, we would want to sell our CDs in record shops, we’ll see. For me now, my job is very important and that inspires me to sing, and through my job I got interested in the Chinese way of singing. I have a firm belief that sounds should be born from where you live or how you live, so my work lets me create. What I’m interested in most is how human beings express themselves, speak, or just utter sounds. If I lost my job I’d be very sad, and perhaps I couldn’t sing anymore. It made the recording of the album very hard though. It took us nearly every weekend during August and September and some evenings too, so the next morning I’d be so tired.”

Fast forward two months. I’m at a television studio at Tokyo Bay with Jun Yasuba, Yoshie Uno and Natsuki Hattori. Once a month I’m a guest on a Tokyo station with an artist featured on the ‘Rough Guide to the Music of Japan’, and on this occasion it’s the turn of An-Chang Project. It’s their first time to be on TV, and are a bit nervous, as I am (as always) in case my Japanese fails me. An-Chang Project play two songs in the studio, ‘Amagoi Bushi’ and ‘Harara Rude’. I have to introduce them and my vocabulary doesn’t extend much beyond than to say their music is ‘kimochi’- roughly meaning ‘it makes you feel good’ and try to explain a little bit about the harmony vocals. They perform, beautifully, which sends shivers down my spine. Afterwards the presenters are visibly moved. FRoots gets shown on the screen and I explain they’re going to be on the front cover, which impresses everyone. “Foreigners seem to love your music!” exclaim the presenters. In Japan too, record companies and distributors have, since we last spoke, shown interest. Perhaps Yasuba won’t have too much difficulty shifting those thousand CDs after all.

With the TV finished they rush off for the photo session (another first) for this magazine, still made up and dressed up for the TV, but now cold, as the sun sets over Tokyo Bay. Afterwards we all go to a restaurant and let out a collective sigh. The talk inevitably reverts back to music. Favourite musicians, best albums of 99 etc. Uno, the only one now a member of both Shisars and An Chang Project, tells me Shisars are now taking a break as Mochida has moved to Okinawa, but she’s coming back to Tokyo for a Shisars concert soon. Hattori runs off a impressive list of favourite musicians; Captain Beefheart, Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson, the Taj Mahal / Toumani Diabate album of last year and various Malagasy guitarists. “I never liked the style of learning Japanese min’yo, from teacher to student, I’ve always played my own style. Okinawa though was different, anyone who wants to can just play. The first Okinawan music I heard was by Haruomi Hosono and Makoto Kubota in the 70s, and then after that Shokichi Kina. I particularly like the free space of the electric guitar when I’m playing Okinawan music. ” .

The words ‘space’ and ‘guitar’ might bring to mind Ry Cooder, who in these pages last year, said all the great Okinawan musicians were now dead, (prophetically correct as it turned out with respect to Rinsho Kadekaru) and scorned the younger Okinawan generation for not doing ‘what they should.’ While it’s true there does appear to be a lack of musicians bubbling under the generation of Kina, Rinken, China or Daiku, it’s worth noting all these musicians didn’t make their best music until they were into their forties. Even Kina, who famously wrote ‘Haisai Ojisan’ as a teenager, didn’t actually have a hit with it, by combining the melody with a punk attitude, until 10 years later. Perhaps musicians first need to gain a thorough understanding of their own tradition, and time to absorb other types of music before being able to confidently start to combine them. With a healthy number of young Okinawans playing sanshin, as well as embracing technology and with it more opportunity than ever before to be exposed to an eclectic assortment of sounds, perhaps it won’t be long before Okinawan music is presented once again in a fresh light.

At present, Jun Yasuba & her An-Chang Project are creating some of most enjoyable and experimental Okinawan music, and despite my best efforts are keeping it to themselves and their friends. One of the reasons for the timing of the TV was to announce a forthcoming live show. They only tell me afterwards the ‘venue’ only holds 20 people. The place is wall to wall as I walk in, the door opening straight onto the ‘stage’. Strangely, everyone is drinking hot chocolate. Wataru Ohkuma plays clarinet on a couple of songs. We all listen attentively, there are a few mis-haps with tuning and running order, but what the heck? Those lyrics to that song from Kiribati are handed out once again, but after An- Chang Project finish, they realise they forgot to play it. The mikes are switched on again and we all sing along. Everyone is having a good time and Yasuba looks happy. This, after all, for US to sing, is what she wants most.


Kazufumi Miyazawa – fRoots April 2003

My first trip to Japan in a year, after ten years of living there, and I’m immediately reminded why I like it. First I’m inquired of by customs, ever so politely, that it hadn’t accidentally slipped my mind to declare those firearms, drugs and pornography I might be carrying. Within a whisker, six people are loading my suitcase onto the 10:30 am ‘Friendly Limousine Bus’ and bowing in unison as we head off to downtown Tokyo. I confidently adjust my watch to 10:30. God, this country is efficient.

After a few days grappling with the urban jungles of Tokyo and Yokohama, I feel ready for a trip to the countryside. I’m also ready to see some music, and hear that the Boom are playing in Toyama, about five hours north west of Tokyo on the Sea of Japan. Two birds, one stone. The singer of the Boom, Kazufumi Miyazawa has recently released his third solo album, just issued in the UK (through Stern’s) titled Deeper Than Oceans. Although somewhat known in Brazil and Argentina, and other parts of Asia, perhaps finally Miyazawa is on his way to receiving recognition in Europe. For over ten years in Japan, he’s been a kind of Paul Simon, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel figure rolled into one, bringing various unknown music from around the world to the Japanese masses.


To get to Toyama, I have to board the shinkansen (bullet train). Even at such high speeds, the metropolis of Tokyo disappears slowly. Passing through an endless succession of tunnels cut through the mountains, we eventually emerge into open countryside. I change trains and get on the ‘Thunderbird’, in a stroke realising one of my childhood dreams.

For their latest tour, the Boom are playing at small towns and villages on open air, or specially constructed outdoor stages. “Delivering music to the people” is what Miyazawa calls it. Makes a change from the usual antiseptic Shimin Kaikan or city halls that most tours comprise. Last year the Boom had one of their biggest successes ever, with the release of their album Okinawa- Watashi no Shima, continuing their love affair with the island. In 1993, their single Shima Uta sold a million and a half copies, becoming probably Japan’s best known ‘Okinawan’ song. Somewhat bizarrely last year 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 beleaguered (yes!) Argentinean football team at last year’s World Cup.

Much Music

Such rare success of a Japanese song overseas became big news in Japan, and by a fate of timing, the album was released at the same time, featuring a new version of Shima Uta and other Okinawan influenced songs.

After a long bus journey from Toyama, I eventually reach the outdoor stage, in a park on the outskirts of the city, just in time for the start. To say Miyazawa has the audience in the palm of his hands is an understatement. They stand up when he stands up. They sit down when he sits down. They wave their hands when he waves his. At one point Miyazawa stands on his head. There are limitations I learn, but nevertheless Miyazawa has in abundance what I can only describe as natural charisma.

Two hours of greatest hits, and a fair smattering of Okinawan songs later, the show ends in a tumultuous finale. The whole exhausted entourage, eleven musicians and at least as many staff, retire to a Toyama restaurant. Miyazawa is clearly shattered. Today was a national holiday, he’s been touring incessantly, recording, acting in a TV drama, writing essays, books, travelling, but still graciously accepts my request for an interview. Together with two of his personal managers, we sit ourselves down at a table tucked away from the larger group, promising to be back before the main courses arrive.

I begin by asking how he first got interested in Okinawan music. “There weren’t many opportunities to listen to Okinawan music in Japan when I first started to get interested in it, so I asked friends who went to Okinawa to get some tapes for me. 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, the same rhythm throughout, and I thought it was very similar to reggae. That was about thirteen years ago in 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 form 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.”

In 1999 he 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. “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 create orthodox music of top quality, as if I had ordered a tailored suit for myself which fitted me perfectly.”

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.”

Miyazawa and his new Brazilian friends performed in Japan and Brazil. His fans lapped it up, but Afrosick didn’t manage to popularise Brazilian music in Japan, in the same way he had succeeded with the Boom. As a solo artist he was still to forge his own identity as a Japanese musician playing essentially Brazilian music. Instead it sometimes sounded like Brazilian music, just sung in Japanese.

Deeper Than Oceans probably realises 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.”

Deeper Than Oceans 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.”

Miyazawa believes his latest solo album is probably his best suited for an international audience. ” 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.”

He is planning to tour in Europe later this year, having performed at a festival in Spain last year. “I like this unit of musicians very much and would like to do concerts with them in Japan as well as in Europe, but I might need to make a solo album every year with them as the circle of the Japanese music scene is very fast. It might be different in Europe, where people seem to think of what they are doing in a longer term. I want to be well prepared anyway, to always have a permanent unit to play with in Europe when I am offered any chances. I also have to think of the Boom too of course, and a ‘Best of’ was released last year in Argentina. The fact that Shima Uta was such as big hit in Argentina, while sung in Japanese, gave us some confidence that we don’t always have to sing in English.”

Suddenly realizing my promise that this would be a short interview, we return to the main table where everyone is still waiting patiently. Probably never before has the end of an fRoots interview been greeted with such a collective sigh of relief.

Next day my shinkansen arrives back in Tokyo about one minute late for which we receive a gracious apology over the train’s loudspeaker system. Two days later I arrive back at Heathrow to find the Underground isn’t running due to flooding. I decide to take a bus. While queuing up a bus driver comes up to me. “Have you got the time, mate?”. My watch may be nine hours ahead, but at least the minutes are still pretty accurate from my first morning in Japan. The bus driver adjusts his watch. I can’t but help feel there was a certain amount of irony attached to that simple question. Eventually the bus departs nearly an hour late.

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