Music | MUSIC NOMAD

Lonesome Strings come out of the shadows

by Paul Fisher

Like anyone who’s really good at something, Yoshiki Sakurai makes it look easy. On stage, as he lets fly with complicated riffs and rhythms in any variety of styles, he stands expressionless.

Lonesome Strings: (l to r) Genichi Tamura, Satoshi Hara, Yoshiki Sakurai and Takayoshi Matsunaga

I’ve seen him play African guitar with Mandinka, avant-garde world mixtures with Strada and Cicala Mvta, Hawaiian guitar with Sandii and tango with Ryota Komatsu. He’s also played on several of my favorite Okinawan albums, including releases by Tetsuhiro Daiku and Tsuha Kotoku. But while he’s one of Japan’s most talented guitarists, he’s used to being in the background.

Now he’s formed his own band, Lonesome Strings, with similarly proficient musicians usually found in the shadows. Contrabass player Takayoshi Matsunga is best known as a former member of Japanese dub pioneers Mute Beat. Genichi Tamura, who plays Hawaiian, pedal steel and National steel guitar, has worked with Calypso/dub outfit Little Tempo, while Satoshi Hara has been playing banjo with Japan’s Tsugaru shamisen wonderkids Yoshida Kyodai.

“We originally got together at the beginning of last year to record an album,” says Sakurai of the quartet, “the basic idea being simply to record string instruments together.”

He says he was influenced by “nobody in particular,” but when pressed the guitarists he cited as favorites give some clue to the group’s sound — John Fahey and Bill Frisell. Like much of Frisell’s music, “New High Lonesome Sound,” with its atmospherics and mood changes, would make a great soundtrack.

“I suppose the root of the music is American folk, but a lot of it just came together in the studio or at rehearsals,” says Sakurai. Bluegrass, African, Hawaiian, blues and klezmer are just some of the elements swimming around in the mix. About half the songs were written by Sakurai or are group compositions, the rest being either traditional tunes or covers of artists ranging from African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim to The Band.

Sakurai admits to having difficulty adjusting to leading a band for the first time. “You have to worry about so many things. Yes, it’s difficult,” he says resignedly.

Fortunately, he’s not talking about musical matters. That comes naturally.

Lonesome Strings: 7:30 p.m., May 25 at Mandala 2 in Kichijoji, (0422) 42-1579; 7 p.m., June 30 at Shibuya BYG.

The county of Donegal is home to some of Ireland’s most revered female singers and musical families. Best-known is Enya, who started out with her family’s group, Clannad, before turning solo. But a studio-created kaleidoscope of breathy voices has little to do with one of Europe’s richest and most passionate traditions.

Maigread and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill will be touring Japan in early June with their brother Michael.

Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, sister Triona and brother Michael O Dhomhnaill play music that is much more the genuine article, although the latter two have made their own incursions into New Age territory. For expressing the pure soul of Irish sean nos (old style), Maighread is perhaps Ireland’s greatest singer. Triona is also a fine vocalist and keyboard player, and Michael is a top guitarist.

“The sean nos songs are handed down from generation to generation and were originally unaccompanied. Some of the songs can be hundreds of years old,” says Maighread. “In Ranafast, the place where I am from in Donegal, certain songs would be in one family, and other families would have other songs.”

Maighread learned songs mainly from her Aunt Neili, but also from her grandfather and her father Aodh, who was an avid collector of songs and is credited with the preservation of many Donegal songs. She made her first recording when she was 15 with Skara Brae, along with Triona and Michael, who both went on to play with a seminal group of modern Irish music, The Bothy Band, as well as other outfits in America.

Maighread, who remained in Ireland, released her first solo album in 1976, and in recent years has recorded two excellent albums. “No Dowry” consists almost entirely of sean nos songs recorded with Triona, Michael and Donal Lunny, whose mother is also from Ranafast. “Between the Two Lights” highlights the sisters’ voices independently, in unison and in harmony, and once again features and was produced by Lunny.

For their upcoming tour of Japan, Maighread, Triona and Michael will mainly play those sean nos songs that Maighread learned as a child. The arrangements might be modern, but their origin and essential nature has remained intact.