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...
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.
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.