Between the 12th and 19th centuries, the Ryukyu Islands (modern day Okinawa), under the Ryukyu Kingdom, exercised considerable trading influence in South East Asia. At its peak, sometime between 1385 and 1570, the kingdom was responsible for two incredibly important contributions to the world. One was karate, which grew out of a ban on the possession of private weapons and the second was the classical form of music that permeated every level of society in the Kingdom.
Okinawan music, as it exists in its present form, draws heavily from this classical style but also from its folk roots. Deeply routed in island tradition, the music was particularly showcased in seemingly endless sessions of music and dance through the night, known as Mo Ashibi. With Japan doing its level best to annex the islands and eventually succeeding, the arts, especially music, tended to create a welcome diversion. Unfortunately, much of the music, either untouched or influenced by other worldly genres, is still very much concentrated locally and not as well known as some of the mainstream sounds that comes out of Japan. Thanks to the duo of Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon, we are lucky enough to be privy to the intricate and historically important music that emanates from these small islands just south of the Japanese mainland.
The Ryukyu Remixed project is their latest endeavor. Not available outside Japan yet, the two disc collection reads like a who's who of the electronic dance scene, spanning three continents. Biging-up the Asian Massive first, we see it is well represented by some of the brightest (insider Dimm Summer says the cd started off as Asian Underground vs. Ryukyu Underground). Rohan's take on "Yanbaru Birdcall" is such a diversion from the original (drum n' bass gets the chillout treatment), that it reminds me of Mukul's Acid Lullaby mix of Karsh Kale's "Home," in terms of scope. With its breathy diva-delivered vocals and airy strings, Rohan has updated an already great tune. Kaushik, aka DC's Brown Sounds, brings a full-on dancehall vibe to "Kanasando." Not having heard the original on Ryukyu's sophomore release Mo Ashibi, it definitely peaks my interest. Sharaab's treatment of "Agarijo" has its sights set squarely on a dark, smoky dancefloor. You can almost picture clubbers moving in time with the tabla-infused ambient-trance beats. Just when I thought the Massive could not get anymore Progressive, Karsh throws down the breakbeats in top form, complete with epic breakdowns that even the most hardcore of E-poppin', Ibiza-goin' DJs would sweat. Dubfarm views my favorite Ryukyu track through roots and electronics-inspired eyes and successfully demonstrates that Sam Godin's talents obviously also lie beyond his well known place in Karsh Kale's backing band.
Other highlights include the ill-named "Akata Sundunchi (Riding the Indian Ghost Pony Mix)" by Kid Loco, blending mystical South Asian strings, electric guitar and dope beats into something only he can create. Friedel Lelonek helps salvage an arguably weaker first disc with the ultra-funky "Sefa Utaki." For someone who hails from as-German-a-city as Karlstadt, Lelonek sure knows how to do Asian breakbeat with attitude. I knew there was a reason this man was part of the original Anokha Crew! Most of us have never heard of Chaos Luda but their ambient-heavy electronics on "East is East" is the most sublime of the lot. Reminds us of early ambient-techno works by the Orb and the like. Only better.
But filling two discs with hit after hit is a lot to ask for. In comparison to the stellar cuts throughout, some disappointments do surface: Depth Charge's contribution sounds like Aphex Twin on a bad hip-hop trip; Jason Bentley and Junkie XL (yes, the same guy who did that ubiquitous Elvis remix a few years back) rain on the proceedings with the same formulaic fluff that turned me off most mainstream electronica in the first place.
All things considered, Ryukyu Remixed is an above average collection of tracks with a diverse range of styles rarely seen on remix projects. In the interim of a US release date being announced however, explore RU's already impressive catalogue and understand what they're about before delving into these interpretations by their contemporaries.