Cuckoo for Ryukyu

Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman put Okinawa on the musical map

Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman in a rare quiet moment.

Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman in a rare quiet moment.

Quick—what’s the most charming thing you can think of, right now, off the top of your head? Here’s mine: It’s a humble little disc of traditional children’s folk songs, mostly lullabies, performed on guitars and sanshin (a traditional, banjo-like, three-stringed instrument from Japan that’s made from wood and stretched snakeskin) and sung in Okinawan, a dialect related to Japanese.

Mind you, I have no idea what Takashi Hirayasu is singing, although the booklet that accompanies the CD Jin Jin/Firefly (Riverboat/World Music Network Records) contains lyrics from the album’s songs translated into English, so I can kinda figure it out. Most of them are prosaic sketches of island life—insects, fish, goats, even a Buddhist priest who died and turned into an evil spirit—kind of like the bogeyman American parents might scare misbehaving tots with.

But joyful noise is an international language, and this music has it in droves; its ebullience is unabashedly infectious. Take Jin Jin/Firefly‘s opening track, “Akata Sun Dunchi,” which begins slowly, then settles into a loping beat, with Hirayasu singing and plinking on his sanshin over ethnomusicologist and stringed-instrument enthusiast Bob Brozman’s muted guitar strums. Then Brozman comes in with a delicious slide solo on a resonator guitar that sways like a tropical palm in a tradewind breeze.

And if this doesn’t make you smile, you must be in a pretty bad mood.

Of all the CDs released in 2000, in every genre, Jin Jin/Firefly is my choice for the best. It came about when the peripatetic Brozman—who sometimes lives in Santa Cruz but more often can be found in some exotic place making music with the locals—decided Okinawa would be his next destination. As a collaborative partner, he’d zeroed in on Hirayasu, whose work with the Okinawan band Shokichi Kina’s Champloose two decades earlier had combined native music with rock. The two hadn’t met—until just before the sessions for Jin Jin/Firefly began.

Brozman’s usual MO is to immerse himself in whatever cultural milieu he’s exploring musically. He seems to have a special affinity for island musicians, from Hawaii (slack-key guitarist Cyril Pahinui) to Reunion (accordionist Rene Lacaille), located east of Madagascar. In this case, he connected with Hirayasu some 900 miles southwest of Tokyo in Okinawa, the capital of Japan’s Ryukyu archipelago, a chain of islands that stretches from Japan’s southern tip all the way to Taiwan. From there, they traveled another 250 miles to tiny Taketomi, population 200, a sand dollar of an islet off the coast of Ishigaki. We’re talking seriously remote.

The duo got together in an old one-room house with eight other people—a recording engineer and a producer, plus photographers, journalists and cooks—for a four-day session. Hirayasu would lay out a song’s chorda progression and feel, explain what the song was about, and then he and Brozman would go for a take; most of the album consists of first and second takes. The emphasis was on spontaneity, and that quality certainly comes across on the record.

The result speaks for itself. While there is a certain Japanese-ness to the melodies, and Hirayasu’s sanshin sounds like a tea-house banjo, Brozman’s deft picking and slide work—on conventional, Hawaiian and resonator guitars—elevates the album from a very good collection of ethnic collection to something of a trans-cultural achievement.

Hey, you can see what all the fuss is about next Wednesday night, when Hirayasu and Brozman bring Jin Jin/Firefly to the Palms.