For an older music fan such as myself, an album like Umui by Ryukyu Underground can pose certain challenges. For a person my age, remixing is usually understood as a task undertaken by an engineer to remedy flaws in the original casting of a recording. It is his or her job to fix problems with an earlier mix, so that listeners can experience the music as it was meant to be heard before things went slightly or terribly wrong. Remixes of classic albums such as The Grateful Dead's American Beauty revealed hitherto unheard dobro solos by Jerry Garcia and a recent cleaning up and remixing of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue caught a timing error in the original mastering. In such cases, the engineer serves as a patient musical archeologist who unearths and restores. His or her own footprint and presence is all but invisible.
This is certainly not the case with today's remixes where the 'remix artist' often completely alters the original musical source so that it is all but unrecognizable. And, I have to confess that when I first embarked on trying to appreciate the current 'remix craze', I often heard little more than beats and synth washes that 'got in the way' of the music. Furthermore, most of the songs I listened to had no recognizable key or time signature to anchor them, and I was often at a loss to understand the appeal of this kind of musical endeavor.
The record that changed everything for me was Dub Qawwali, Gaudi's masterful re-imagining of the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. When I listened to it, I could finally appreciate that even though Gaudi had jettisoned much of the original backing music, he had still managed to retain the essence of Khan's artistry. Someone who could reconfigure devotional Sufi music into credible dub reggae was all right with me. Since then, there's been no turning back, and I've come to consider artists like Gaudi Tangle Eye, and Cheb I Sabbah at the forefront of today's music scene.
Like Gaudi and Cheb I Sabbah, Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor, the duo who make up Ryukyu Underground have taken an indigenous music and used it as a template for their creative explorations. As expatriates working in Japan, the two men developed an appreciation for Okinawan music, and since meeting in 1998, the pair has enjoyed reconfiguring traditional music from the region for the club and dance floor. Initially, Ryukyu Underground CDs were simply remixes of existing compositions that they expanded by overlaying dub and electronic effects, but Umui, the outfit's fourth collection represents a huge musical leap forward. This time out, there are more original compositions that are augmented with performances recorded especially for the project. The results are unfailingly impressive, and Umui firmly places Ryukyu Underground alongside other world electronica acts like Thievery Corporation who have evolved from simply remixing cuts and creating sonic environments to composing new and vital music for the genre.
While ethno-musical purists and those well acquainted with Okinawan music may find elements to quibble over in Taylor and Gordon's approach to Umui's source material, most people who hear Umui won't judge it from that perspective. Taken on strictly musical terms, there is a tremendous amount to enjoy on this disc. Live vocals from Okinawan singer, Mika Uchizato and instrumental contributions from Toru Yonaha and Natsuki Nakamura create a traditional Japanese ambience to the album that fits in surprisingly well with the late seventies dub style overlay that augments many of the tracks. The swirling kotos featured in cuts like Ahabushi and Umaku Kamade provide a certain grace and melodic framework that is very appealing, and effectively bridges the gap between traditional Japanese music and the modern digital world.
Umui is blessed with a gorgeous production style and a satisfying sense of dynamics. The layering and structuring of diverse musical elements allows for a variety of listening experiences. Played softly in the background, Umui encourages a sense of peace and repose. It is the perfect antidote for a hectic day in the city or to wind down with after a long night of dancing. As one unfamiliar with the Japanese language, the drifting vocals serve as a texture rather than a narrative. Indeed, Tayor and Gordon choose to use voices in this way throughout Umui, as can be heard when Rastafarian prayers buried deep in the mix of East Town Dub provide a layer of color and an indistinct, subconscious evocation of the sacred.
Approached at louder volumes, Umui sounds like a different CD and reveals a glorious panoply of textures as the percussions come to the forefront and the interplay between the synths and the traditional instruments takes on a more important role in the overall architecture of each piece. The scattered funk and choppy one drop guitar accents along with the judiciously used reverb effects prove that Ryukyu Underground understands that there's more to good dub than turning up the bass and echo to the max.
In the end, what is most impressive about Umui is the care and discretion involved in its realization. Every sound selected contains an element that carries emotional weight and provides physical dimension to the piece it is featured in. Umui is a masterwork of subtle engineering and tasteful manipulation. It is a beautiful, fully realized work that builds on Ryukyu Underground's three previous albums and points the way to more thrilling musical excursions as their unique approach to Okinawan music continues to develop and expand.
Umui is an album that can be enjoyed anywhere at any time. Highly recommended.