Japanese Music: CD & Book Reviews
Japanese Music 音楽
Released: Oct 1991
The Music Power from Okinawa is a European re-issue of what is arguably the most influential album in Okinawan music history, the eponymous Kina Shoukichi and Champloose. At a time when the islands had recently been returned to Japan after decades of American rule, Okinawan culture was in danger of losing its distinctiveness in the face of increasing emigration and outside influence. However, one young musician, Kina Shoukichi, was able to use these potentially destructive western elements to revitalize Okinawan folk music and bring it to audiences throughout Asia and the world. His blend of traditional singing and sanshin (three-stringed banjo) with a rock rhythm section is nowhere more exuberant than on this full-length live album recorded in 1977. Revolutionary in its time, this album is still relevant today, and is a welcome escape from many of the keyboard dominated folk-pop recordings that have become common in recent years.
The opening track, Hai Sai Ojisan ("Hey Man!"), a light-hearted dialogue between a boy and an old man about women and alcohol, was an instant success locally and went on to become popular in mainland Japan. Although Kina himself wrote the song, its delivery is one of the more traditional on the album with the sanshin and wailing female vocals to the fore and the drums, bass, and guitar in supporting roles. Other tracks are a bit more adventurous. The sanshin and guitar on Bancho Guwa are reminiscent of fifties American rock, and Bashaguwa Suncha sounds like it was lifted from the soundtrack of an Okinawan Western. Throughout the album, however, Kina and his band never stray far from their Okinawan roots, and the music is definitely folk with the power of rock, rather than rock with a thin folk veneer. Most of the lyrics are in the local dialect, but you don't have to be an expert Uchinaguchi speaker to appreciate the joy and uniquely laid-back intensity of the music. Even the more political songs such as Tokyo Sanbika, a criticism of the stress of city life, maintain a sense of joy and exhilaration that transcends language. The lyrics might be incomprehensible and the recording quality is a bit rough, but this album is guaranteed to put a smile on the dourest face and get even the most jaded couch potato up and dancing.
Released: Aug 1998
Best of Kodo is the first of two compilations on Sony Records highlighting the career of the most widely known wadaiko or taiko (traditional Japanese drum) troupe. Although this collection is far from representative it only covers the years 1988-1992 and half of the tracks are taken from a single album (Irodori) it includes many of Kodo's most famous pieces that have since been adopted into the repertoire of taiko groups around the world. With the exception of Yumi-ga-hama and the famous, stomach-wrenching Yatai Bayashi, all of the pieces are original. Especially prominent are the highly imaginative works of Leonard Eto such as Lion with its hints of Balinese ketjak, the subtle dynamics of Monochrome, and the classic Zoku.
Taiko is a notoriously difficult genre to capture on record due to the wide dynamic range of the drums and the strong emphasis on the visual aesthetic of the performance. This CD does a fairly good job coping with both issues with its clear sound quality and the hints that it gives of the group's live performances by including the vocalizations of the drummers and an effective use of a wide stereo field. Although no recording can convey the completeness of a Kodo performance in all its manic complexity, this disc comes pretty close. If you've ever had the chance to see them live, it goes a long way toward conjuring up the graceful movements of the drummers; if you haven't had that pleasure, you will at least get a glimpse of what you're missing.
The liner notes include a short chronology of Kodo's tours and releases from 1981 to 1993, but newcomers to the genre may be disappointed by the lack of a clear explanation of what taiko is all about. While the selection is far from representative of the group's history, it does include some of their more famous pieces, and the sound quality is adequate. Notwithstanding the sparse liner notes, it is a good introduction to Kodo and to taiko in general.
Released: Aug 1999
Former Champloose guitarist Hirayasu Takashi and world musician extraordinaire Bob Brozman have teamed up to produce one of the most successful meetings of east and west in recent years. Like Kina Shoukichi and Champloose's work with Ry Cooder twenty years ago, this album mixes sanshin (three-stringed banjo) and slide guitar, and remains distinctly Okinawan while increasing the music's accessibility and appeal. Although Hirayasu and Brozman had not previously met, by the end of their four day recording session on tiny Taketomi Island they had formed a musical relationship that was later to lead to other, unfortunately less successful, collaborations. Jin Jin/Firefly captures the very beginning of their friendship, and conveys the joy of new discovery as both musicians explore and learn from each other's traditions.
As the original title suggests, this is a collection of children's songs. However, many of them are far from western ideas of what constitutes suitable listening for the very young what mother would rock her child to sleep blithely singing tales of psychotic monks slashing off the ears of crying babies? Mimichiri Boji is an extreme example, and all of the tracks have something of the carefree playfulness characteristic of much Okinawan music. While some, such as Bebe nu Kusakaiga, achieve this with a fair amount of reserve, others give way to wild improvisation, notably Uruku Tumi Gushiku (Mimura Bushi) and Tsuki nu Kaisha. Fans of Okinawan music may notice that none of the songs are particularly rare, but these old standards and Hirayasu's sanshin and bare vocals are spiced up with equal parts of jazz, blues, and Hawaiian guitar from Brozman. Highlights include the frenetic energy and eerie slides of the title track and the bouncing charago of Hana nu Kajimaya.
Hirayasu and Brozman wrap up their session of trans-pacific fusion with a short improvisational instrumental that might leave you wondering whether Okinawa really is closer to Japan than Hawaii.
Released: Apr 1999
Like the Blues Brothers stuck in a country and western bar, the visitor to Japan could be forgiven for believing that there are only two kinds of music - in this case J-Pop and enka. Moving beyond these ubiquitous products of the highly commercial Japanese music industry is daunting not only due to the difficulty in tracking down more traditional sounds live and on disc, but also because of the bewilderingly wide range of music hiding just around the neon-lit corners of modern Japan. These compilations from the World Music Network label provide a convenient introduction to the surprising musical diversity to be found in what is often paradoxically considered one of the most culturally homogenous countries in the world.
The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan is the most ambitious, covering the country from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south; the refinement of the koto to unpolished street music. Probably the most popular styles of traditional music in Japan at the moment tsugaru-jamisen (Sato Micihiro) and Okinawan folk (Yasuba Jun & An-Chang Project, Takashi Hirayasu, Ayame Band, Daiku Tetsuhiro, Kubota Makoto & The Sunset Gang, and Yoshida Yasuko) are well represented, as are festival styles such as Kawachi Ondo (Kawachiya Kikusuimaru) and taiko (Hayashi Eitetsu), and new works for ancient instruments such as biwa (Goto Yukihiro), koto (Koto Vortex) and shakuhachi (Tanabe Shozan). However, more unusual sounds including Ainu tonkori (Oki) and banana-sellers' calls (Ikawa Tadayoshi) are also given space in this whirlwind tour of Japanese music.
One strength of this compilation is the light it throws on some of the many experiments in which traditionally disparate styles have been brought together to create unique new sounds notably Daiku Tetsuhiro's fusion of Yaeyama yunta and mainland chindon. It also includes some musicians who have looked even further for inspiration The Surf Champlers' Okinawan-surf take on the James Bond theme makes one wonder how something so wrong can sound so right!
This long list of traditional mainstays and little-known local styles might seem to suggest that this disc is an academic exercise in folklore or a cabinet of musical curiosities. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Ito Takio's recording of Soran Bushi made this northern dance tune a hit throughout the country when it was featured on a TV drama, and Kawachiya Kikusuimaru's Kakin Ondo invaded homes throughout the country when it was used as part of a TV commercial. Two other songs featured on this disc are tragically relevant through their associations with the greatest disaster in Japan's recent history - the Great Hanshin Earthquake (Soul Flower Mononoke Summit's Fukko Bushi and Hirayasu Takashi's Mangetsu no Yube). All of the pieces selected for this compilation are unified by their relevance to both contemporary and traditional Japan. This might explain why some better-known ancient styles such as gagaku and theatre music have been omitted in favour of what are essentially advertising jingles.
The extensive liner notes by Japanese music guru Paul Fisher include descriptions of each artist and genre, as well as instructions for dancing Okinawan katcharsee so you can have your own mini Okinawan beach party in your living room.
Released: July 2001
Okinawan music features prominently on the above disc, which is no surprise considering the vitality of the islands' traditional culture in relation to the Japanese mainland. The folk traditions of Okinawa are so rich that Wold Music Network have devoted an entire disc to the archipelago in their series of compilations from around the world. Like their guide to Japan as a whole, The Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa combines a good selection of widely ranging tracks with informative liner notes to create one of the best introductions to the music of Japan's deep south.
The geographical boundaries of this compilation comprise present-day Okinawa Prefecture, with numerous examples from the main island and Yaeyama in the south. However, they also extend to include the culturally related Amami islands to the north (Rikki's Miss You Amami), and many offerings by outsiders who have become fascinated by the tradition and interpret it in their own way. Among the latter category are Shisars and The Boom who add popular and traditional music from the Japanese mainland to the mix, Donto's punk and Indonesian influences, and the 'Okinawan trance' and folk-electronica of Sarabange and Ryukyu Underground.
This far-reaching collection includes a number of standards (Shimajima Kaisha, Tinsagu no Hana, Toshin Doi, Jin Jin), but all of their arrangements reflect the more innovative currents in the field. Similarly, new compositions by Koja Misako and Oshima Yasukatsu provide yet another example of the directions in which Okinawan music is moving. These tracks are balanced by more traditional appearances by the 'godfather' and 'godmother' of shimauta Kadekaru Rinsho and Oshiro Misako. The coupling of experimentation and reverence captured on this compilation reveals the essence of Okinawan music today a living music firmly rooted in tradition while moving with the fluidity of the katcharsee dancing it inspires.
Although this disc serves as a wonderful introduction to Okinawan music, it is not just appealing to newcomers to the genre. Aficionados should be happy to hear that it features a rare version of The Boom's Tida Akara Nami Kirara from the CD single Sanshin 3000 (since re-released on the album Okinawa: Watashi no Shima) and a previously unreleased recording of Jin Jin by Donto.If you're certain that there must be more to Japanese music than the latest J-Pop and enka charts would have you believe, but are not sure of the best place to start digging deeper, these two compilations should point you in the right direction. Both of them perform the admirable feat of presenting a representative, though somewhat idiosyncratic, selection of the best of what traditional Japanese music has to offer without becoming overly academic or obscure.
Released: August 2001
The influence of the smallest and poorest and least populated prefecture in Japan on the rest of the country's music scene cannot be overstated. Okinawa punches well above its weight. While mass-produced "boy bands" dot the Honshu landscape, Okinawans seem to come by music naturally. The leading practioners of Okinawan minyo - folk singing - are the quartet Nenes. These four sisters sing in a high-pitched island style that can literally bring tears to your eyes. Though much of their music is sung in Okinawan dialect (which is very different from Japanese, and I do not understand), the melody is more than enough to transport you to a different place. Absolutely lovely. This album features Haru No Uta (spring song), Shina Muchi Bushi, and many more.
Released: July 2002
Chitose Hajime, the eponymously-titled CD (in Japanese, it is called Hainumikaze), is heavenly. There is little more in print that one can say in print to elucidate just how wonderful Chitose Hajime's voice actually is. She was discovered while still a teenager working as a hair stylist near her home on a remote island in Kagoshima Prefecture just north of Okinawa. Like singers from Okinawa, she has a lilting, magical style of singing. She was blessed, moreover, will an astounding range. A wonderful talent, a lovely CD.
Released: August 2001
Without wanting to doom them to the dustbin of musical history, it is safe to say that Rinken Band is one of the best-known Okinawan bands. Their lively, carefree, and infectious sound has graced many a tv commercial and nighttime drama in Japan. There could hardly be a band more closely associated with Okinawa and its amazing music than Rinken. I saw a show in Nakano, Tokyo, that had 5,000 people standing on their seats and clapping. A great party band.
This album has the usual island sound and samisen plunk that will have you snapping your fingers and whistling Okinawa-style. Really fun.
Released: Oct 2003
JPOP CD from Tofu Records is one of the first and best compilations of contemporary Japanese pop to be released in the US. Its 15 tracks are a broad and well-selected sample of the various streams that make up the world of Japanese youth music many of them being TV anime theme tunes. The first band, the gothic Siam Shade, features the (admittedly very poppy) glam-rock sound singing the theme from Samurai X: '1/3 Pure Heart Emotion'. Next up, Zone, consists of girls singing the garage-style theme from Astro Boy. Tommy February - also a member of the extraordinarily successful The Brilliant Green sings the theme song for the TV anime series Piroppo. Suiteisho-jo sums up funky, pre-pubescent nasal innocence with 'Agreement' from the program Series One Piece. Compare this with the more soulful sounds towards the end of the CD of, among others, Ken Hirai with 'Strawberry Sex', and 'Floatin'' by the talent-quest-created super-duo Chemistry. Disparate as many of the tracks are in terms of style, they are all identifiably members of the world of Japanese pop. A highly recommended sampler of what's turning Japan right on right now.
Released: Oct 2003
Ayumi Hamaskai (or just "Ayu") is the reigning pop diva in Japan. If she tries on a pair of sunglasses or boots or false eyelashes, the entire Japanese archipelago will be awash in teenage girls sporting the identical look. She dominates JPop in a way Madonna could not have dreamed of attempting in the US. In the December 31, 2004, edition of Kohaku, NHK television's massive annual New Year's Eve singalong program watched by millions, she was the climax, the grand finale clad in a cyber kimono (which she lost soon enough).
Although she tends to squeak on high notes, her voice has mellowed a bit as she has matured. All the songs on this CD are in Japanese (the Japanese lyrics are included in the insert).There are ballads and techno/pop, so you A Best gives the listener a good sense of what she is capable of. A good comparison would be to the more recent Cyber Trance Presents: Ayu Trance.
Josephine Yun, illustrated by Yana Moskaluk
This colorful volume offers brief bios and appreciations of some of Japan's biggest music stars with stylized, conceptual illustrations. The pictures are fun, but in most cases probably make most of the groups seem more interesting than they actually are. Although this book has its heart in the right place, and is something of a pioneer in providing information about Japan's vibrant, if insular, music scene to the world at large, it is probably too breathless in its delivery to do anybody much good, and in some cases it makes no sense at all.
For example, what can you glean from this excerpt on Glay: "Glay - the band that's not black or white, hard or soft, rock or pop - was formed in 1988 " Or this on Mr. Children: It's name may sound villainous, but Mr. Children is more realistic than evil."
The writing wins no style points either as this abuse of alliteration shows: "Judy and Mary, the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-esque pop rock band fronted by super-peppy, petite, and playfully petulant vocalist Yuki was formed in 1992."
Nevertheless, there are few places to learn about J-pop in English, and it's nice to see groups like Shonen Knife, Love Psychedelico the Brilliant Green and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant get a little more international attention.
This review was originally published in Kansai Time Out
Released: May 2003
In the obsessive, inward-looking world of JPop, the Holy Grail is to make it big in the US. Many have attempted, and to date all have failed. Language problems, talent issues, and lack of interest in US producers have all been cited. With Sony now actively promoting Japanese artists in the US, it would seem to be a matter of time before the Great Japanese Hope will make it.
Hikaru Utada may just be the one. Her parents are both musicians, she grew up in New York, was educated at international schools in Japan and (briefly) at Columbia University, is attractive - and can really sing. Her English is flawless, her range more than enough for the demands of a pop diva, and her phrasing clever and ironic and smooth. She manages soul and love ballads equally well. Songs such as "Time Will Tell," "Automatic," "Can You Keep A Secret" are featured on this compilation. Following up First Love, this is a must-have CD. Time will tell, but this reviewer expects her to be the One.
Released: Nov 2006
This compilation marks the 25th anniversary of the Sado Island troupe that has become synonymous with Japan's premier drumming form.
This is a best of and it showcases the incredible diversity of Kodo drumming. The album features the koto harp, fue pipe, and in addition foreign groups.
Among them are the brilliant percussion of Brazil--its berimbau work is fantastic--and Indonesia.
In addition to the Sado troupe, there is a who's who of producers that worked on the album: Mickey Hart and Bill Laswell. An amazing and powerful work.
Other Recommended Books & CDs of Japanese Music
For an excellent introduction to the music of the taiko drum Way of Taiko by Heidi Varian of San Francisco Taiko Dojo is an excellent start with superb photography.
Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments by William Malm is the classic text in the genre.
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