Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, August 2, 2002


art
"Ryukyu Underground"
Ryukyu Underground (Riverboat/World Music Network)




‘Ryukyu Underground’
is a find

By Gary C.W. Chun
gchun@starbulletin.com

Much like America's South, the music of Okinawa, a group of more than 100 islands in the south of Japan, is distinctive, reflecting influences that have come from the Japanese, Chinese and other Southeast Asians, and later, the American military forces that have been there since World War II.

The traditional folk music, called minyo or shima uta, is punchy and infectious, with soaring, quavering vocals and the plunking of the snake-skinned banjo, the sanshin.

There have been wonderful contemporary music groups that have built on this foundation, i.e. Shoukichi Kina and Champloose, the female vocal trio Nenes and the Rinken Band. But there are also thriving independent rock and dance club scenes, which leads us to this appealing project by two outside DJs -- one British, the other American -- who became enamored with the sounds of Okinawa.

Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor reportedly received the enthusiastic blessings of the original artists to go ahead and blend and juxtapose ambient, dub, jungle, drum-and-bass and hip-hop elements into their music. With the exception of one track, "Tinsagu Na Hana Dub," which uses real live Okinawan musicians, much of the music is sampled off of previous recordings.

On the whole, Ryukyu Underground's reinterpretations work well, being respectful of the tradition while bringing the music into the 21st century. The music evolved over two years, and this CD is being distributed in Okinawa and Japan.

Taylor composed most of the melodies, the sound experimentation and production, while Gordon found appropriate rhythms, with some of the tracks club-tested during his DJ sessions in Okinawa. There are three particularly good tracks that would fill any club's dance floor: the good groove established on "Kokusai Dori Dub" (an aural portrait of Naha City's night life), the ambient and hypnotic "Shinkaichi" (named after a bar district), and the self-penned and adventurous "Yanbaru Birdcall."

The latter is an adept mixture of rain forest-inspired jungle rhythms with moments of light and luxurious birdcall textures.

The duo also do a remixed version of a popular Okinawan/Japanese tune, "Snow in Okinawa," originally done by Miyazawa and his group The Boom. The light vocal and melody floats over a deep drum and bass rhythm.

For those already familiar with Okinawan music, "Ryukyu Underground" is a real find.


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