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Putting down roots with Ryukyu Underground

Keith Gordon, one half of the Okinawan fusion duo, finds 'spiritual home' on southern island

by Stephen Mansfield

The sky was an intense indigo, the sun as hot as a branding iron on the afternoon of the interview with Keith Gordon, drummer and co-composer of the band Ryukyu Underground.

Gordon’s village of Kunigami, in the northern region of Motobu on Okinawa’s main island, is accessed from a lane off the coastal road. Arriving at Gordon’s home by scooter, something streaks across the road, practically grazing the front wheel of the vehicle, before vanishing into subtropical undergrowth.

“That was a mongoose,” Gordon, who is waiting at the gate of his house, explains. “It’s a good sign. They keep the number of habu at bay.” This was just as well, as the interview was conducted under a pergola thick with passion fruit vines, the ideal habitat for Okinawa’s most venomous serpent.

It hadn’t rained for weeks, but Gordon’s garden, fringed with hibiscus, looked the very epitome of a sprinkled tropical Eden, an idealized view modified by the comment, “I spend most of my time fighting back invasive plants, including wild sugarcane stands.” He also grows vegetables, evidenced by a large net frame covering orderly rows of edible plants.

The house, a white cube resembling a minimalist designer residence of the type featured in glossy home magazines, sits on slightly elevated ground, affording magisterial views of the surrounding greenery, a village saturated in nature, and the aquamarine waters of the East China Sea.

“When I saw the sunset over there,” he says, pointing at the afternoon ocean, “I knew this was the place for us to live.”

A cold glass of sanpin-cha, an Okinawan tea similar to jasmine, appears, and a tour of the one-story house is offered. Gordon, a hands-on person, put down the wooden floors himself, and made other adjustments to the inside of the house, which he and his wife bought from an Okinawan woman.

“Sometime after we moved in, the previous owner contacted us and asked if we could alter the design of the interior, claiming that the present layout was adversely affecting her son’s health. At the very least, she wanted us to call in the services of a yuta, a shamaness.”

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.

Gordon is fortunate to have his own studio, a separate building in the back garden that is more spacious than some Tokyo homes. It is here that you can see the equipment and materials he works with, and get a sense — among the drum kits, recording equipment and turntables — of a working life in music.

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.

It was in Australia that Gordon first heard a tape of Okinawan music — Nenes or the Rinken Band, he thinks — that his then-girlfriend had put together. He recalls being immediately drawn to the rhythms and vocal phrasing, particularly of the female singers.

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.”

After arriving, Gordon undertook a number of teaching jobs, even working at one time on one of the U.S. military bases. “It gave me an insight into the pressures and injustices that American personnel also experience in Okinawa.”

He recalls visiting a real-estate office to look for accommodation. “They asked me what rank I was,” he chuckles. “When I told the woman that I was English, she replaced the file of available apartments with an identical one, but with the rental fees quoted at half the rate. A lot of Americans get ripped off here.”

During the interview, Gordon picks up a sanshin, the three-stringed snakeskin instrument that defines the sound of these islands and often appears on the band’s albums, and effortlessly picks out a melody. Some remembered electric bass lines played by Gordon on their recordings come to mind, hinting at an instrumental dexterity.

“My father had me learn the piano when I was a kid, at the age of 10 or 11; it gave me a solid foundation in music, a valuable resource for what I’m doing now. I was good at numbers, pattern recognition, so it helped in learning music.”

Listening to everything from funk, reggae and Stax to electronic and club music, he started out doing shows as a DJ at a club in Whitley Bay, a seaside town in northeast England, when he was 16. Working professionally, spinning at clubs in Denmark in the late 1980s, he started manipulating and remixing sounds in a studio. In Okinawa, he began using computers to cut and paste sounds, sensing the potential for new kinds of fusion. “Now, I thought, it’s time to reinvent Okinawan music.”

Gordon’s meeting with Jon Taylor, an American guitarist who was conducting doctoral research into environmental problems in Okinawa, led to the creation of Ryukyu Underground. Since their eponymous first album in 2002, the band has gone on to make three more CDs and a longer double-album of remixes. The difficult logistics of performing live shows means that Ryukyu Underground remains largely a studio band.

To call the band’s music eclectic would be an understatement. Its sheer audio scope and the soak of eclectic sounds are hallmarks of Ryukyu Underground. In other hands, this approach might result in audio overload, but it is a testament to the imaginative and technical skills of Gordon and Taylor that what comes out at the end of the process manages to be both stimulating and calming — even soothing.

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.”

Gordon and Taylor have crafted a sound that offers a microcosm of the Okinawan world.

“We start with the meaning of the Okinawan song we’re interested in,” Gordon explains. “I carry a small recording device with me for sound additions to the tracks: a festival, markets, wind in the sugarcane.”

If the voices of the female singers on some of the recordings sound like priestesses and shamans, it is all part of creating a musical landscape that is specifically Okinawan.

“We like to take people on a 60-70 minute journey,” Gordon says, “so the order of the songs, the progression, is important.”

Asked about the shared instrumentation and absence of any obvious soloists, Gordon explains, “The music is very collaborative. We find people who want to free up their musical horizons, to take risks. There is a lot of sharing, a to and fro of ideas between people in the studio.

“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.

Track 13 of the compilation CD “The Rough Guide To The Music of Okinawa” is “Tinsagu Nu Hana Dub,” a traditional song that has gone through the Ryukyu Underground blender to emerge with the “dub” suffix. A strong vindication of their work, its inclusion in the collection was an acknowledgement of their place in Okinawan and world music.

Asked what he thought their main audience was, Gordon responds, “Young people mostly, and those interested in this Okinawan fusion niche. Serious fans. And I don’t mean that in a snobbish sense.”

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.”

How would he spend the rest of the afternoon? Gordon intended to cycle out to the nearby village of Bise after the interview. He has a small boat moored there, and if the waters were calm enough, he would take his skiff out into the bay. Leaving him standing in the lane outside his home, it seemed he was already turning his mind towards the sea.

For information and updates on Ryukyu Underground, see the group’s website at www.ryukyu-underground.wwma.net. Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.