Once a reviewer, always a reviewer, I guess; I tend to review everything that comes my way (cars, food, books, music, travel, movies, politics, the list is seemingly without end) and to pass along picks (or pans) to anyone who cares to listen. I understand that it can be a fine line between offering an opinion, and inflicting same, so I try to keep my eye-rolling muscles in check when, say, my sister tells me that she has just bought another Saturn (some time after the first one’s engine blew up, and not long before the entire Saturn division of GM followed suit). The four words that will never pass through the portals of my lips (within earshot of my sister, at least) are “Shoulda bought a Honda…”, even if I might be thinking it rather loudly.
However, by and large, I prefer to give good reviews. If a book (song, car, etc.) sucks so badly that nobody would want to buy it, I really don’t want to waste valuable time and ink trashing it. I don’t even want to read (listen to, drive) it. I just want it to disappear from my life with the utmost dispatch. I particularly enjoy being able to recommend a dark horse, though, and being in Japan gives me a rare opportunity to discover things not readily available in the West, or rather things that are available but not so easy to find unless you know what to look for. So, for my first public venture into non-book-reviewing, I would like to introduce you to four Asian music sensations, ones you may not have run across up until now.
The first two folks I want to mention are Kotaro Oshio and Sung Ha Jung, two of the finest acoustic guitar players in Asia. Kotaro is an Osaka-born artist who should appeal strongly to fans of the late Michael Hedges. He often uses open tunings, non-standard guitar tunings which allow for complementary “drone” strings to resonate even when not being plucked, lending an ethereal quality to the music. He has also borrowed from the Hedges playbook in his use of fingerpicking and percussive arrangements, playing melody, rhythm and bass line seamlessly, without support of backing musicians. He was so well received at the 2002 Montreux Jazz Festival that he was invited to jam with blues legend B.B. King, and quickly became known as “that incredible Japanese guitarist.” Check out his YouTube videos from Montreux, “Bolero”, and “Hard Rain”.
Korean-born Sungha Jung has been playing guitar for only two years, and already he has caught the eye of such axe legends as Trace Bundy and Tommy Emmanuel. He is a YouTube sensation in Japan, with acoustic versions of such diverse pieces as “Fields of Gold”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “The Mission Impossible Theme”, “Hit the Road, Jack”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to name but a few. And get this: Sungha Jung just turned thirteen! There is no posturing, no strange facial expressions, just a tasteful and masterful rendering of everything he turns his hand(s) to. You can find his stuff on YouTube both under Sung Ha Jung and Sungha Jung, and there is enough to keep you busy (and entertained) for hours. PS, if you play guitar, this kid will either inspire you to practice harder, or just give up entirely!
Okinawa folksinger Rimi Natsukawa was singing “Hana” the first time I heard her, backed by (of all things) a ukulele player. Not just any ukulele player, but the estimable Jake Shimabukuro. Natsukawa and Shimabukuro share an Okinawan heritage, although Shimabukuro was born and raised in Hawaii. He has elevated the indigenous Hawaiian instrument to musical places nobody thought to take it before, much in the way that Bela Fleck reinvented the role of the banjo in contemporary jazz. Rimi Natsukawa, for her part, has one of the purest voices in contemporary music; think “Alison Krauss singing in Japanese”, and you won’t be far off the mark. Together, they create a haunting Asian-folk fusion that will pull at your heartstrings even though the lyrics are in a foreign language. “Hana and Warabigami” is the title of the YouTube video they did together, but both can be found separately and in concert with others (including the aforementioned Sungha Jung and Tommy Emmanuel, with whom Shimabukuro does a killer version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”).