Top 10 Albums of 2016

The Top 10 Albums of 2016



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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


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


Newsletter September October 2016

Dear Customer and friend of the Far Side,

It’s a been a little while, but time to tell you what’s been happening over on the Far Side.

Lot’s of new releases out this month and next and lots of new stuff to listen to and watch on the Far Side web site.

Ryuichi Sakamoto has a new soundtrack album out for the film Ikari (Anger). Following his death earlier in the year, there are quite a few Tomita albums out, and a few more in the pipeline. Low price reissues of three albums, Cosmos, Pictures at an Exhibition and Firebird, plus a new compilation of his soundtracks out next month.


Two small Japanese labels releasing Asian music that have been popular in the last year or so, have new releases out. U Tin is a Burmese slide guitar player, following on from similar Burmese releases. While carrying on with their fascinating series of vintage music, comes an album of 1950s Hawaiian music of Indonesia.


From Okinawa, two of our favourite artists have new albums out. Takashi Hirayasu has probably sold more records outside of Japan than any other Okinawan musician, through his collaborations with the late Bob Brozman. It’s been a while but he has a new album out. We still don’t have a release date, and so you can’t actually order it yet, (keep a check on the web site) but you can listen to the album trailer. Kenji Yano of Surf Champlers and Sarabandge fame has a new album out of relaxing Hawaiian influenced versions of well known Okinawan songs. While for any sanshin players, the large booklet that comes with an album of Ryukyu classical music, includes the notation.


Onto roots and traditional Japanese music. Aragehonzi play festival style folk music with a modern twist. There are two very albums of ancient styles. Shigeo Tanaka plays mesmerising Yumi Kagura, on an unusual one stringed bow. Kahoru Nakamura meanwhile plays gakubiwa, the biwa used in gagaku music, interpreting lost classics.


From the experimental / avant garde scene are two 10 inch vinyl releases of interpretations of enka mood songs, and a genuinely ground breaking album from the mid 70s, featuring sax player Kazutoki Umezu recorded in New York gets a release.


After a summer break, Far Side Radio is back on the air on Resonance 104.4fm. The last three shows have been of new releases and rare oddities, a focus on Yukihiro Takahashi and this week’s show with Korean group Jeong Ga Ak Hoe who are playing in London this weekend as part of K-Music 2016. Before the break were shows of new releases, a Japanese/European special and vinyl only show. Listen via Mixcloud or via the Far Side web site.

We will be busy soon looking after an artist we have worked with for many years, India’s slide guitar maestro Debashish Bhattacharya who is back London to pick up his Songlines Magazine award and play at the winners concert at the Barbican on October 3rd for winning the Asian category, and to play a show at the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall on October 2nd. Congratulations to Debashish.

until next time.

All the best


The Very Best of the Far East




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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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



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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


Buy the Very Best of the Far East CD here

Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


There was a no more revered figure in Okinawan music than the ‘Godfather’ of shima uta, Rinsho Kadekaru. With his slightly husky voice, pristine sanshin playing and whimsical character he entertained and inspired Okinawans for over 60 years. Born in Goeko, Okinawa, on July 4th 1920, Kadekaru began playing sanshin at the age of seven. By the time he was 15 he had started to participate in his village’s mo-ashibi parties, at which he first gained a reputation, before moving to Osaka for a few years. He was conscripted into the military during the war, after which he stayed on the Micronesian islands of Saipan and Tinian returning to Okinawa in 1949. His reputation had not been forgotten and he became one of the pivotal figures in the post-war Okinawa min’yo boom. Kadekaru recorded nearly 250 songs for local record labels, more than any other Okinawan musician. Koko Kuduchi is a duet with one of Kadekaru’s contemporaries, Seijin Noborikawa (track 16 ) and was originally released as a single in 1974 on the Okinawan label Marafuku, when Kadekaru was probably in his prime as a musician. Kuduchi is a type of song whereby the lyrics, sung in talking style, tell stories of people’s lives. Rinsho Kadekaru died in October 1999, aged 79.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Tetsuhiro Daiku

Tetsuhiro Daiku


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


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




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

Yasukatsu Oshima

Yasukatsu Oshima


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


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


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


After the death of Rinsho Kadekaru, perhaps Seijin Noborikawa stands as the island’s most loved and respected elder musician. Noborikawa (or “Seigwa” as he is often referred to) equally stands alone, not easily fitting into the ‘traditional’ musician category. He doesn’t usually dress in kimono, doesn’t only sing traditional repertoire but composes his own, anti-war and other protest songs, developed his own six string sanshin, the ‘rokushin’ and is known as the Okinawan ‘Jimi Hendrix’. Born in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan in 1930, he moved back to Okinawa as a child. A sanshin player from childhood he performed as a backing musician for a theatre group, where he perfected the traditional style and first met Rinsho Kadekaru, an association that would last a lifetime. Noborikawa later worked on an American base where he heard and digested the American hit songs of the day, an influence that gradually crept into his own music. Nevertheless, he was one of the founding members and later president of a traditional music society, and taught the sanshin to a 12 year old Sadao China. Despite his standing, perhaps overshadowed by Kadekaru and other traditional singers, he released relatively few albums. It was only after his starring role in the 1999 film “Nabbie no Koi” (Nabbie’s Love) that his fame spread to the rest of Japan. His album released in 2001,”Spiritual Unity” was produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union, who along with his band mates play on some of the songs, including guitar and the Japanese chindon drum on “Naritai Bushi”, a recent Noborikawa composition.


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


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

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Rough Guide to the Music of Japan Vol. 2

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground

Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground


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

Seijin Noborikawa pictured with Sadao China

Seijin Noborikawa pictured with Sadao China


Soul Flower Mononoke Summit is the acoustic version of Soul Flower Union, a rock group from Osaka. They were formed in the wake of the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 when the group took to the streets of Kobe to play for the victims. This track is taken from their third album Deracine Ching-Dong (2007) and is their usual blend of Okinawan sanshin, the characteristic chindon drum (also the name of the music, a kind of early form of street advertising) plus accordion, clarinet guitars, hayashi backing vocals and the rasping vocals of Takashi Nakagawa. It was written by Azenbo Soeda (1872-1944) in 1908, a legendary political street singer who was reduced to silence by the authorities after the 1920s. Mononoke Summit play mostly these soshi enka (political street songs) while others are from Okinawa, and buraku (former outcast) songs, a contentious issue in Japan but not one this politically motivated group are about to shy away from.


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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

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Rough Guide to the Music of Japan Vol. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

From the CD “For Life” – For Life Records


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

From the CD “Happy” – Pony Canyon


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

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

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit


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

From the CD “Jonkara” – Kyoto Records


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

From the CD “Ondo” – VAP Inc.


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

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


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

From the CD “Kariyushi no Tsuki” – Respect Records


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

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


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

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


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

From the CD “Kamuy Kor Nupurpe” – Chikar Studio




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

From the CD “Shizuka Naru Toki” – Kyoto Records


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

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


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

From the CD “Yunta & Jiraba” – Disc Akabana


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

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


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

From the CD “13 Classics” – Vivid Sound Corporation

Makoto Kubota in Hawaii

Makoto Kubota in Hawaii


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

From the CD “Iijiyaibi” – Marufuku Records


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

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


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

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


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

From the CD “Cicala Mvta” – Respect Records

Cicala Mvta

Cicala Mvta

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