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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
01. RYUKYU UNDERGROUND (OKINAWA) AKATA SUNDUNCHI (KID LOCO’S RIDING THE INDIAN GHOST PONT MIX) 5:29
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.
02. JOSE BARINAGA (INDONESIA/SPAIN) KECAK SUARTI 5:11
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.
03. KIN TAII (CHINA) A NIGHT IN THE HOLY PLACE 7:19
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.
04. BLUE ASIA (VIETNAM/MALAYSIA/JAPAN) EM VE VOI HUE 5:26
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.
05. KODO (JAPAN) KEVIN YOST’S DEEP AND ETHNIC MIX 7:28
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.
06. MIYAZAWA (JAPAN) UCHINA NI FURU YUKI 4:19
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.
07. OKI KANO (JAPAN) MATNAW RERA 4:06
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.
08. SARABANDGE (OKINAWA) IWAI BUSHI 5:09
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.
09. DETTY KURNIA (INDONESIA) DURIRAN 3:53
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.
10. WALDJINAH (INDONESIA) KENCONO WUNGU 5:03
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.
11. CALM (JAPAN) LONG WAY, LONG TIME (THE SECOND PAGE OF CREATOR’S DELIGHT) 8:57
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.
12. SHOKICHI KINA (OKINAWA) HAISAI OJISAN 3:23
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.
HUONG THANH (VIETNAM) IN THE PAGODA 6:42
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.
URNA (MONGOLIA) SANGJIDORJI 3:50
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.
DAVID DARLING AND THE WULU BUNUN (TAIWAN/USA) LUGU LUGU KAN-IBI 2:26
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 (JAPAN) MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE 4:37
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 (CHINA) AMBIENCE SINICA 6:49
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.
NENES (OKINAWA) SHIMA JIMA KAISHA 7:07
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 (JAPAN / MALAYSIA) SYUMICHINAGAHAMA 4:47
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 (JAPAN/INDONESIA) SANGHYANG 6:31
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 SANSHIN CAFE ORCHESTRA (OKINAWA) INNOCENT SMILE 5:13
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.
TAKASHI HIRAYASU AND BOB BROZMAN (OKINAWA/USA) BEBE NU KUSAKAIGA 3:20
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 (JAPAN) YAMATO 7:11
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.
HIDA SHINGONSANGA + TATSUYA KOUMAZAKI + PANGAEA (JAPAN)
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 (JAPAN) AFTERNOON IN STRING FIGURES 3 2:19
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 a.k.a. GEETEK (OKINAWA) ASADOYA YUNTA 3:17
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.
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.
1. RINSHO KADEKARU featuring SEIJIN NOBORIKAWA
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.
2. CHIEKO IHA / FOUR SISTERS
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.
3. TAKASHI HIRAYASU & BOB BROZMAN
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.
5. MISAKO OHSHIRO
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.
6. RINJI KADEKARU
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.
8. MISAKO KOJA
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.
9. TESTSUHIRO DAIKU
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.
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.
12. YASUKATSU OHSHIMA
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.
13. RYUKYU UNDERGROUND
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.
15. THE BOOM
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.
16. SEIJIN NOBORIKAWA
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.
18. SURF CHAMPLERS
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.
Okinawa is an island of paradise and paradox. In Japanese terms, the place is crawling with foreigners, some 50,000 US military and personnel are based there. However, the Okinawans are less impressed or swayed by the latest Western trends than anywhere else in Japan, and the foreigners devoid of the usual wide-eyed fascination that grips most first time visitors. Just about all the Military are unaware when they occasionally venture off base to cruise down Chuo Park Avenue in downtown Koza (Okinawa City) they are in the heart of Okinawa’s local music scene. The Teruya (of Rinken Band fame) family house and store is literally just a stone’s (or in this case, sanshin or sanba) throw away. The Motown of Okinawan music, Marafuku Records have their studios just up the hill and Shokichi Kina’s retreat is perched on the hills overlooking the city. On the environs of the Kadena Air Base just to the south is the original Shima Uta nightclub where Nenes started out performing. Okinawans are clearly used to foreigners, and to many, those ‘foreigners’ include the Japanese themselves.
Much of the west coast is littered with resort hotels, packed in summer with visitors from the mainland who come for the superb beaches and to marvel at the fast disappearing coral. For the Japanese too, Okinawa represents a foreign land. Get off the plane at Naha and the atmosphere is decidedly south east Asian. There’s less of the bright neon and teaming streets of Tokyo, Osaka or any of the main cities on the mainland of Japan. The pace is slower, the people are more relaxed and speak their own dialect. They are prone to swoon over a swine, and appear happiest tucking into every conceivable part of a pig. They drink saké from bottles with a poisonous snake wrapped inside as a pick-me-up. Well, for Japanese you couldn’t get more foreign that that.
On the face of it, the sprawling military bases and gaudy hotels, seem to co-exist happily alongside the local neighbourhoods. However the population’s tolerance, belies a proud nature. The Okinawans are a people who not only strive to keep their tradition alive, but revel in it. In a sense today is no different to the past. Okinawa, and the other islands that make up the Ryukyu chain have due to their strategic position, always provided an important trading link between south east Asia and Japan, China and Korea. The resulting interchange of influences has resulted in a unique and colorful culture, and the music ‘Shima Uta’ (island songs) has been blessed with that indefinable quality of island music. The instrument at the heart of the music, the snake skinned banjo ,the sanshin, is believed to have come from China about 600 years ago, and the Okinawan pentatonic scale is identical to that used in some areas of Indonesia and related to scales used in Polynesia and Micronesia.
Throughout a tragic history of feuding for the island’s control by it’s neighbours, and in the face of much adversity, the Okinawans have refused to sit back and allow their island and culture to be dominated. During the second world war 150,000 citizens, a third of the population were killed, and music played a pivotal role in restoring strength to the people. They haven’t been afraid to experiment either, but have realised for it to survive, the music has to grow. It’s this attitude that spurned the first wave of Okinawan bred rock, born out of the clubs surrounding the American bases during the wild years of the Vietnam war, and 1972 when Okinawa was returned to Japan from the US. Primarily with Shokichi Kina and Champloose, whose first and classic album was previously re-released on GlobeStyle (CDORB 072).
Music has always been a part of the Okinawan daily life, and in contrast to Japan where traditional music is studied to a strict regiment, they learn to play music, sing and dance purely for the fun of it. Wherever you go on the island you’ll likely to hear music; piped out on the beaches, and along shopping malls, in bars, and if you’re lucky an impromptu performance on a beach. Before long you too find yourself dancing the katcharsee,with your arms raised and hands waving to the rhythm.
The relatively brief history and attitude of the group Nenes, draws many parallels to the history and people of Okinawa itself. A fierce tradition and proud identity countered by an uncanny sense for updating Okinawan music with extraneous colours. The group were formed in 1990 in an attempt to make min’yo (folk music) accessible to the young in Okinawa. In the process the band have recorded some of the most compelling Okinawan folk and pop ever, starting in 1991 with ‘Ikawu’ for an independent label. An album now considered a seminal work of the subsequent Okinawan roots music movement in Japan. Although arguably removed, the Japanese could at last claim there is a homegrown roots music in Japan to rival anything produced in the world.
When I first met the female singers of Nenes back in 1993, (for a Folk Roots cover feature in September 1993) at the Shima Uta bar, despite some success life appeared to have changed little. They were still serving the drinks, acting as ‘hostesses’ as well as playing for the odd customer on the tiny stage. They revealed their ‘Japaneseness’ by referring to the the group’s mentor, composer and sanshin player Sadao China as ‘sensei’, an honorific term meaning ‘teacher’. Such hierarchical talk seemed slightly at odds with the informality of music in Okinawa, but I soon learnt traditional musicians are held in the highest esteem. They were rather bemused by the interest of a westerner, after all not one American had set foot inside the bar. Since then however, a steady stream of Western musicians and Japanese have made the journey to their revamped Shima Uta Live House in Ginowan, where the women no longer have to serve the drinks. Michael Nyman, Peter Rowan and George Winston have all hung out there. Recording partners for Nenes have included Ry Cooder, David Lindley (on the brilliant 1994 album Koza Dabasa) and Talvin Singh. Recording locations have ranged from Los Angeles to Bali and Hawaii, but I get the feeling that Sadao China is happier with the world coming to Okinawa rather than him having to venture outside. Their first attempts to launch an international career in 1994 with a brief tour of Europe, a date in Newport USA and the release in France of their third album ‘Ashibi’ failed to gain momentum, but earned the band a few choice fans and a cult status.
Over seven albums,(plus one ‘best of’) Nenes have essentially stayed close to Sadao China’s original formula. The four women’s enchanting chorus vocals and China’s sanshin are weaved around a rich variety of keyboard textures, stringed instruments and percussion. Some albums have stayed closer to the tradition than others, while the instrumentation and influences have been adjusted in varying measures; from Balinese gamelan and Brazilian samba to Mexican and Hawaiian music to rap and reggae. There have been personnel changes, and Akemodoro Unai is Nenes’ first album without their former main vocalist Misako Koja, (replaced by Erika Touma) and ‘sound producer’ and keyboard player Kazuya Sahara. The original backing group Spiritual Unity has been replaced by the Sadao China Band, although it still features some of the former musicians. One of the most notable additions on Akemodoro Unai are Japanese acoustic guitar duo Gontiti, who render a tranquil accompaniment on a couple of tracks (Shima Yakara and Erabu no Komori uta). Nenes also try their hand at a song written by one of the many Japanese artists inspired by Okinawa, Keisuke Kuwata, leader of perhaps Japan’s most enduring rock band, Southern All Stars who originally had a hit in Japan with Heiwa no Ryuka.
Which brings us to the biggest paradox of all. For all it’s qualities as a living roots music in Okinawa with an ever vibrant local scene and a strong following on the mainland, to the outside world the music of Okinawa remains one of the undiscovered jewels of the Orient. Perhaps this CD can provide the key to unlock a treasure chest that is literally brimming with infectious music. Just bursting to get out.