Haisai Ojisan!

This is based on a piece that first appeared on "The Gridler" website, way back at the turn of the century...

"Okinawa! where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain..." So how is it that a group of little islands south of Japan has produced some of the finest shit-kickin', country-soundin' music this side of Mumblin' Jack Unitroba? Probably because the local instrument of choice is the sanshin (similar to the Japanese samishen) which aurally bears an uncanny resemblance to the banjo, there is a definite "down-home" quality to the music which has caught the ears of such ornery pluckers as Bob Brozman and Ry Cooder.

Ry himself described the scene at a typical bar where

"you might hear a small shamisen (sic) and percussion combo working in a ka-chunk ka-chunk feel, while the old folks do a dance that looks like cattle egrets walking through mud. The women sing the ballads and they get a high lonesome Appalachian sound, like Mother Maybelle Carter in great pain – very soulful and pitiful…"

Hmm, I wonder what Mother Maybelle Carter walking through mud would sound like? Now I'm no expert, ah jes' know what ah lahk... so here are some names to look out for on the katcharsee scene...

We had the pleasure of catching NENES at WOMAD a few years ago - "High lonesome sound" indeed! Backed by a band that combined sanshins and pedal steels for that definitive "Nashville East of Java" sound, these four lovelies serenaded us with beautiful harmonies for a hot Sunday afternoon in Berkshire, dressed in traditional dress and swaying in unison like the Ikettes at a tea house. I've since learned that the national costume bit is strictly for the Tokyo and western audiences who seem to go for that sort of thing – back home at their own bar in Okinawa City, they are more likely to be seen waiting tables in denims and trainies. I also learned that they were 'manufactured', Spice Girls-style, by svengali-esque producer Sadao China (pronounced 'cheena') who wanted to gather together the cream of Okinawa's trad singers to form the ultimate girl group. Don't let that put you off though... I've only ever seen their CDs available at festivals, living, as I do, out in the burbs where record shops have problems with this sort of thing - Globestyle released an album ("Akemodoro Unai" which is fabulous... and fairly representative of their anthemic sound), otherwise their back catalogue is sold at inflated Japanese import-type prices... Their disembodied voices can be heard, in a very different context, on Talvin Singh's award-winning "OK" album of a few years back.

I simply must recommend SHOUKICHI KINA… Look for his "Best Of…" CD on Luaka Bop (Yes! Them again!), the best tenner I've spent at a record fair in many a year. Subtitled "Peppermint Tea House", it features most of his hits with his band Champloose, some dating back to the sixties, the infuriatingly catchy "Jing Jing", as well as some of his collaborations with Ry Cooder and various Paris musos. "Them's that's heard it" also recommend his "Celebration Live" album from 1983. "Kina's unique reggae-garage-surf-boogie has made him an Okinawan revolutionary folk hero over the last twenty years"… all set to a gridloid floppy boot stomp! So-called 'traditional' music never sounded so joyous... Richard Thompson, John French, Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser had a crack at their anthem "Haisai Ojisan" on one of their strange CDs.

Talking of "Jing Jing" (or "Jin Jin" meaning 'Firefly'), seek out the (back to basics) version on the first CD featuring Kina sidekick TAKASHI HIRAYASU with the aforementioned Bob Brozman... they were another rockin' teenage combo who thrilled us over a WOMAD weekend… earthy, spontaneous acoustic music at its best, but with a sense of FUN! The second CD features Takashi's own (even more Western-sounding) songs... the accordion player from Los Lobos appears on a couple of tunes, giving the disc more of a "San Antonio East of Java" sound!

Rinken Teruya, leader of RINKENBAND, is a close compatriot of Shoukichi Kina – their fathers had played together too, a mixture of Okinawan sounds and Perez Prado hits to appeal to the locally based US servicemen*. Rinkenband recorded an EP of sorts with our old chums 3 Mustaphas 3 - the circle closes!.

(*Did I ever mention the tape of "Ilocano Songs" I once found in the charity shop bargain bin? Thinking I might have stumbled across the latest World Music sensation, I found, upon first hearing, that it featured sub-Jim Reeves country-esque ballads, rendered in the indigenous dialect of the Philippines and accompanied by the cheesiest of club organs with inbuilt drum box! They probably think they have invented the perfect music to appeal to US servicemen – they are probably right!).

SHANG SHANG TYPHOON led by Yokohama's Kohryu, are not strictly speaking an Okinawan band at all, but a Japanese band who perform in the popular 'Okinawan' style. Fronted by The Sunflower Sisters, theirs is a more poppy blend of styles – the rhythm section is clearly at home in jazz and rock styles – but the "roots" are still there. Kohryu says the real sanshin was too difficult to play so, instead, he put sanshin strings on a banjo, to achieve the same effect! Truly thou art a gridler, Kohryu! I dig your style!

AN CHANG PROJECT are not really an Okinawan operation either, hailing as they do from Kyoto, but their "Monkey Harmonising Songs" features much repertoire from Okinawa (as well as Kiribati, Yonaguni and numerous other Pacific locales), so I mention it here simply because it is sort of appropriate... and gorgeous. Okinawa's vocal groups usually sing in unison, but An Chang have introduced harmonic intervals which suggest they have been influenced by Bulgarian choral music and West African Griots... Very plaintive, with sanshins plunking well to the fore... and if the hairs on the back of your neck are not fully erect by track 17, then there's some Fripp-soundalike electric guitar just to make sure! They played in London at the Barbican's 'Urban Beats' festival... anyone out there see 'em?

I'm sure there are loads of others I haven't mentioned, but that's mainly 'cause I haven't heard 'em yet!

STOP PRESS... Since I started writing this page, those good people at World Music Network released their own "ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF OKINAWA" on budget priced seedy disc... if you're only thinking of buying ONE Okinawan CD (an unlikely scenario), then this would be a good start! It's compiled by, and has copious sleevenotes by Paul Fisher, to whom we should all give praises, as he almost single-handedly made so much of this product accessible in the west - he runs the Jap-import company Far Side, as well as writing about all manner of Oriental sounds for The Rough Guides and Folk Roots (I believe we have to call it Froots these days.. Ed), demonstrating considerably more knowledge and depth than the flippant, ill-informed shallow style that I can usually muster!

The CD is so jam-packed with goodies, that to single out any individual tunes would be futile... so I will.

I can highly recommend the track by SHISARS (not just because there is a connection with An-Chang Project and because it features clarinet by Watura Ohkuma of CICALA MVTA, the wacky and fantastic Tokyo-based street band - imagine the 3 Mustaphas 3 jamming with "Hot Rats"-period Zappa!), the Okinawan Trance Music of SARABANDGE, the dub fusion of RYUKYU UNDERGROUND (even though it is mainly the work of a couple of English ex-pats) and the surf-bop stylings of THE SURF CHAMPLERS (yet another pseudonym for Kenji Yano of Sarabandge), of whom I would like to hear LOTS more!

It is not the place of this web-thingy to provide free advertising space to the world's CD manufacturing industry, but I guarantee that, if you purchase this volume (plus maybe its companion disc, "THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF JAPAN") you will derive hours of enjoyment from the oriental nutty boys (and gals) therein.

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