Ryukyu Underground – Okinawan Fusion Duo Jon Taylor & Keith Gordon

The following are excerpts from Stephen Mansfield’s “Putting Down Roots with Ryukyu Underground” (Japan Times, 11/22/13).

Ryukyu Underground

Ryukyu Underground with shimauta vocalist Mika Uchizato. Photo from the Ryukyu Underground website.

The Englishman, who hails from Newcastle in the northeast, met his future wife, an uchinanchu, or Okinawan, while backpacking in Australia. He confesses to have never heard of Okinawa at the time. The absence of preconceptions may have helped Gordon form fresh, unbiased impressions of a part of the world that would become his permanent home.

Gordon arrived in Okinawa in 1994. “When I stepped off the plane in Naha, I felt this was more like Southeast Asia. The sub-tropical weather, flora, food, cultural identity and attitudes are quite different here to mainland Japan. They have an expression, “teige,” which means something like “take it easy, don’t worry. A lot of Japanese, and not a few foreigners, come down here to resettle. It’s not the money they’re after but the lifestyle.”

As Gordon discovered, living in Okinawa requires coexisting with a rich and demanding spirit world, and paying heed to the principles of geomancy, which require, among other things, that buildings be arranged in positions conducive to favorable energy flows.

A synthesis of dub, house, hip-hop, indie, techno and world music sounds that include Indian, Arabic and Afro-beat rhythms, their work remains essentially Okinawan in its understanding and respect for the music and culture of the islands. This view is corroborated by music writer John Potter in his groundbreaking book on the music of the islands, “The Power of Okinawa,” when he wrote that, despite their experiments being embraced by other groups, “it is Ryukyu Underground who have more closely followed an Okinawan roots path.”

“After we’ve collected the songs, we bring in Okinawan musicians like Mika Uchizato and Yonaharu Toru to work with. Jon comes to Okinawa to spend four or five days with us in the studio, then we transfer and exchange files over the Net. Songs often evolve into two or three versions.” At the end of the process, everything is mixed in Los Angeles.

Musical collaborations in Okinawa are nothing new. American guitarists Bob Brozman and Ry Cooder have made albums with Okinawan musicians, and pianist Geoffrey Keezer has recorded with Yasukatsu Oshima, to name just a couple of examples.

Gordon’s daughter attends the village elementary school, where she has picked up all the local language traits and is perfectly assimilated into indigenous music and dance.

“To all intents and purposes, my daughter is Okinawan,” Gordon asserts.

With his family and interests here, Gordon looks set to put down roots on the island. As if to confirm the impression, he adds, “It’s my spiritual home.”

Click here to read the full article.

Wikipedia: Ryukyu Underground, 11/22/13.
Mika Uchizato, Japan Nite 10th Anniversary, SXSW, March 2006.
John Potter, The Power of Okinawa: Roots Music from the Ryukyus, 2010.

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