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Songs of Okinawa

31 Mar

elisa with shinobu matsuda
This never ending winter has been punctuated by a few amazing musical experiences, and at the top of that list is a free concert at the Freer Gallery of Art last month, Songs of Okinawa featuring The Ryukyuans.

The four musicians played traditional folk songs from their native Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa, Yaeyama and Miyako) on the standard sanshin fiddle and shima-daiko drums, plus original songs adding acoustic guitar.

Every song seemed so familiar, brought me right back to adventuring in Okinawa with my family, brought a tear to my eye!

The one woman in the group, Shinobu Matsuda, performed a few songs alone with only drum accompaniment. Each one was captivating. Her sanshin (above) has been in her family for over 100 years, passed down from her grandfather to father to her, and she introduced this “pop” song as her father’s favorite:

“Moashibi Chijuya” (as you can hear, she’s a badass)

They did a song I featured once before, when I complained I couldn’t translate the lyrics. Luckily singer Isamu Shimoji prefaced with an explanation: “I love you, I need you, I want you/ Hold me tight/ Love. Very, very simple song.”

“Kanayo / Amakaa”

They closed with a contemporary song that got everyone on their feet dancing and some finger-whistling along. Isamu began saying the title translates to “Summer Solstice, Southerly Wind.” “I don’t know why.” (Haha, and I’m just now noticing that he’s the composer).

“Kaa chi pai” (cut off due to dead battery)

If you want to read more about the concert and some history of Okinawa and its folk music, I wrote a short article for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival blog.

Meridian Hill Drum Circle

13 Mar

Meridian Hill Park drum circle

There’s a drum circle in Washington, D.C., that meets (nearly) every Sunday afternoon at the top of Meridian Hill Park. According to legend (a.k.a. this Washington City Paper article), some newly freed slaves danced and celebrated emancipation at this park in 1862. The weekly tradition began after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.

I carried my bike up like a hundred steps to see them a few weeks ago. They stalled until a guy named Lizard or Owl or something rolled up on a bike with a conga on his back and a full-sized marching band-style bass drum on his handlebars. It was pretty jammin’.

I would have jumped in with some samba school breaks, but no one offered me an instrument! Next time I’ll come prepared.

Javanese Gamelan Gadhon

12 Mar

Javanese Gamelan Gadhon at Mondavi

My last couple of trips back to Davis have perfectly coincided with glorious gamelan gatherings. In October, I made it to town just in time to see the giants of the UC Davis and UC Berkeley ensembles perform a free noon concert in the lobby of the Mondavi Center.

Gamelan has a huge range in sounds, dynamics, instrumentation, performance setting and number of performers. This particular version, gamelan gadhon, is the classical chamber music style of Central Java, and this ensemble was only six players plus the singer. Traditionally ensembles and repertoires were divided into “loud” and “soft” styles; most modern groups combine the two, but this group featured the soft instruments.

You can read about the performers in the program notes (and… ignore the “Audio or visual recording is prohibited”).

Generifus at The Foxhole

3 Mar

generifus in baltimore

On the West Coast, I got pretty spoiled with a very active, well-connected underground music community. People who host concerts in their kitchens, promote with hand-written flyers, tour in their moms’ cars, pay gas with passed-hat donations, and release their music unironically on cassette tapes.

I haven’t quite found that scene in Washington, D.C., yet, so last month I had to jump on a MARC train after work to catch a piece of it in Baltimore.

Spencer Sult, a.k.a. Generifus, was one of a handful of musicians who unknowingly convinced me to spend a summer in Olympia, Washington. The show in Baltimore, at a pretty grungy house called The Foxhole, brought me back to shows in the Northwest, in all their cramped, cold, cat urine-stenched, low-ceilinged glory. It felt like home!

Spencer’s doing a song-a-day project for the month of March. Follow along!

Four Tet at U St. Music Hall

1 Mar

kieran hebden four tet at u st music hall
A little bit of magic at the end of a long, cold work week: seeing Four Tet at the U Street Music Hall, getting in for free because Kieran Hebden himself put me on the guest list, and meeting him afterward and talking about favorite and upcoming Folkways releases.

I spent most of his set trying to avoid getting elbowed in the eye by the huge sweaty guys jostling everyone around at the front, but there was a moment of relative calm when he came back for an encore song, beginning with this beautiful harplike loop.

If anyone is curious, this is Kieran Hebden’s favorite Folkways album. Some of my favorite album art, too! Continue reading


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