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World Music Features

Ryukyu Underground

By Sari Heifetz
Published January 30, 2006

There is a local saying in Okinawa, “Ichariba chode,” which translates into “Once we meet we become brothers.” Ryukyu Underground carries this message, vibe and spirit to audiences far beyond Japan.

There is a local saying in Okinawa, “Ichariba chode,” which translates into “Once we meet we become brothers.” Ryukyu Underground’s self-titled debut release (Riverboat Records/World Music Network) carries this message, vibe and spirit to audiences far beyond Japan. The music is multi-layered, but still simple in its ability to get the head bopping and to infuse the groove into a global audience. Ryukyu Underground is a Japanese island/ambient groove/Afrobeat dub kind of thing, which is making its way into the global Asian realm of sonic pleasures and festivities, among them the Asian Massive crew, with traditional Indian ragas and beats that combine with DJ mixes of all kinds. Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands (which number over 100) of southern Japan in the East China Sea, and is infamous for its blinding white sand beaches and turquoise seas.

Keith Gordon of the U.K. is a world traveler and has been a DJ for 15 years. He started out in the late ’80s warehouse scene and created a name for himself around Europe, known for his unique mixes of rare groove/funk/house and techno. When he arrived in Okinawa, he set up Soul Jazz, Inc. and promoted events around the island.

         Serendipitously, he crossed paths with Jon Taylor, a world music radio and club DJ, journalist, producer and musician, who has played guitar with reggae band Murder City Players and backed legendary reggae musicians U-Roy and the Ethiopians. With his groups the Subjects and Mach 5, he released techno records, combined with undercurrents of ambient, industrial and world music.

 The two began to collaborate and soon found themselves working in harmony. Gordon is the beat master, having already found an audience on the dance floors of Okinawa in his DJ residency there. Taylor composes most of the melodies and experiments with sound and production. The good luck kept flowing, leading to a record contract with Respect Records and notoriety in the Japanese music community.

Gordon recalls the time when he was first introduced to Okinawan music. “I don’t think I had heard any vocalists sing in the same way as the Okinawan women were singing—the way they kind of glide between notes is stunning. The actual songs themselves had the most exquisitely beautiful yet melancholy feel to them and the more I heard, the more I was inspired to find out about the place and its people.”

Ryukyu Underground provides a refreshing flavor that is different from other electronica releases in that there is something more, something hard to describe. There is depth here. The producers are inspired by the magic of the islands; they draw from a well that is the beauty of the people and lifestyle, and especially by the folk music. They are juxtaposing world cultures and electronica in a harmonic<