What is it with Western artists and Okinawan music?

Michael Nyman, George Winston, Henry Kaiser, Ry Cooder and Bob Brozman are just some of those who have become entranced with the vibrant sounds emanating from Japan’s deep south and have played or recorded with local musicians.

The latest to have come under the island music spell and released an album is American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer.

“I heard Okinawan music on cable radio in my hotel room while on tour in Fukuoka in the early 1990s,” he tells The Japan Times. “It sounded so different to anything else I’d listened to, yet I almost felt like I’d heard it before, like it was from a past life. After that, I tried to listen to as much Okinawan music as I could.”

Keezer always had it in mind to collaborate with an Okinawan musician, but it wasn’t until he heard Yasukatsu Oshima that he knew he had found that person.

“I knew immediately he was the one. We’re both in our 30s, but he sounds older, and people have said the same about my piano playing,” says Keezer.

They both grew up within musical families, Keezer in Wisconsin, and Oshima on Ishigaki Island. Whereas Keezer seemed destined for a career in music, playing from the age of 3 and attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Oshima stumbled upon making a living from music. His grandfather and father both played the sanshin a three stringed banjo and Oshima had his own, but didn’t play it much.

“I never had any records or listened to radio and was more interested in playing around on my bicycle,” says Oshima. “I wanted to be a hairdresser actually.”

An inherently modest man, he says he came to Tokyo when he was 20 to become a salaryman. Amazingly, though, he got himself a record contract.

“Just lucky. I’d never played live before I released a record, and before I recorded, I’d never written a song,” he says. “I once played at a gig in Tokyo with some friends of mine from back home in a band called Begin. Someone from a record company saw me and offered me a deal, just like that.”

After one year studying at Berklee in 1989, Keezer was turning down Miles Davis to play with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He’s since gone on to a successful solo career, recording with, among many others, Diana Krall, Chick Corea and slack-key guitarist Keola Beamer.

As for Oshima, traditional Yaeyama music from the islands and Okinawan music has seeped deeper into him than he had ever thought it would. These songs are typically working songs, celebration songs or songs about travelling, with Yaeyama tunes generally having a more tragic element to them, due to a history of persecution and occupation. Some evolved from call-and-response songs from the fields into their present forms.

Oshima has made several acclaimed records, and, whether on traditional tunes or his own compositions, his rich voice oozes an ingrained heritage that blends with the delicate and brittle tone of his sanshin.

He is a popular collaborator, having played with musicians such as Japan’s Choro Club, taiko drummers Ondekoza, Japanese singer UA and Ireland’s traditional music supergroup Altan. Still, he says he had never heard jazz before, apart from a few times on the radio. That didn’t get in the way of the natural interaction evident on the record.

“Geoffrey understood Okinawan music more than any other musician I’ve worked with before,” says Oshima.

And the admiration is mutual Keezer says that “Oshima is similar in spirit to a jazz musician. He never plays a song twice in the same way. He sent me a demo and I transcribed it into notated piano parts, but when we recorded he played it totally differently! So, I had to rely on my ears, just like when I accompany another jazz musician.”

Oshima mostly chose the songs for the album “Yasukatsu Oshima with Geoffrey Keezer” based on what he thought would suit a piano accompaniment. These are divided roughly between Yaeyama and Okinawa traditional tunes, with a couple of his own songs, including the album’s opener, the beautiful and simple “Ryusei,” which is dedicated to one of his heroes, the late “Godfather of Shima Uta (island songs)” Rinsho Kadekaru.

While most songs feature just the duo, three feature jazz musicians on drums and bass, and a wind ensemble from New York, all of whom Keezer plays with regularly.

“I felt honored that Oshima trusted me enough to experiment with his music in a jazz context, and I could present him in my element, in the middle of a jazz group,” says Keezer.

He is already looking forward to recording another album with the sanshin player.

“I’m really thrilled with this record. I hope the next one can be with a full string section.”

Oshima, typically, is more laid back.

“I’m not trying to challenge myself or develop the music. All I’m doing is enjoying myself,” he says.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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