Nowhere in Japan upholds its musical traditions as proudly as Okinawa. There, to make your name as a musician on a small island where there are hundreds of others, you have to be something special. “Sanshin Zanmai” by the 60-year-old Hirokazu Matsuda, his first album to be released nationwide, could put him in that league.
Matsuda has been a local institution for years, as a regular performer with the late, great Rinsho Kadekaru, and having written and recorded scores of songs and taught around 200 students. It is hardly surprising, then, that this is such an assured debut.
Three tracks are original tunes, with the other 11 traditional minyo (folk song) classics. His sanshin (three-stringed lute) playing has a fluid and brittle quality, its melodies and rhythms at times seemingly totally independent of the vocal line. Yet those songs remain coherent, something only the greatest players can pull off convincingly.
Matsuda’s voice, meanwhile, is rich and resonant without the overaffected ornamentation that can sometimes afflict those who try too hard. There probably hasn’t been a better album of traditional Okinawan music released this year — it’s beauty is its simplicity, with just the shima daiko drum used as accompaniment. At his age, perhaps Matsuda is giving notice that he’s ready to take on the mantle vacated by Kadekaru as a key upholder and developer of a great musical legacy.
As if further proof of his credentials were needed, Matsuda comes from a very musical family, of which he is the eldest of three musician brothers. To launch the album he’s playing at Aoyama Mandala in Tokyo on Nov. 23 (7 p.m. start; tickets are ¥4,200; call  5474-0411) together with a young member of his extended family, the highly rated Kazutoshi Matsuda.
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