Umeko Ando made Japanese folk music with a pop sensibility that honors its elders.
With the help of producer Oki Kano, Umeko Ando made Japanese folk music with a pop sensibility that honors its elders. Intensely dramatic, at times surprisingly hummable and sometimes even danceable, the album Ihunke, recorded in 2000 when Ando was 68 years old, is now available on vinyl for the first time. The record is a document of the venerable Ainu, indigenous Japanese who live on Hokkaido Island in the northern part of the country. But its sounds are not merely educational—this is music that transcends cultures and can be enjoyed by anyone with open ears.
The album begins with the raw “Pekanpe Uk,” which was later heard on the anime series “Samurai Champloo.” Oki (as he is known) plays tonkori, a five-string harp, and is accompanied solely by crows for several bars before Ando’s haunting, weathered voice comes in, seeming to speak with the birds. This is uncompromising folk music, with some of the brooding drama (and grizzled voice) of Bob Dylan circa Time Out of Mind.
But this isn’t simply a folk album. With its staccato rhythm and mesmerizing pulse, “Hutare Chui” is a modest track that could easily induce a trance if it lasted even a little longer than 2:20. The delicately plucked tonkori lends itself easily to charming melodies and entrancing rhythms, and when Ando picks up the mukkuri, a bamboo instrument that sounds much like a Jew’s harp, its rubbery timbre adds another level of delight, especially on a pair of solo showcases for the instrument. Those tracks are recorded so intimately that you can hear Ando’s breathing.
The bass line that opens “Iyomante Upopo” gives the strummed tonkori the feel of power chords—or folk rock. Oki, an experienced Ainu musician and dub producer, guides his elder through something like pop structures, respecting their common heritage while making it fairly catchy: Chants become hooks and female choruses (with backup singer Rekpo) suggest a quirky vocal group.
Ihunke starts out as a fragile traditional music, but its airs grow more enchanting (and pop-like) as Kano’s accompaniment plucks out hooks from unexpected places. ”Chup Kawa Kamuy Ran” begins with Ando a capella, but a transcendent tonkori figure leads it to some kind of elemental music, like a new wave vocal group unplugged.
At nearly six minutes, “Saraba / Iya Ko Ko” reaches the trancelike heights only hinted at on briefer pieces. Light hand percussion (including a low-register drum that serves as a bass line) holds a steady rhythm under Ando’s chants (accompanied by Rekpo) and gorgeous layers of tonkori melodies. While the vocal melody remains constant through much of the track, Oki drops accompaniment in and out to focus on different elements, constructing an ingenious structure out of deceptively simple pieces.
The German label Pingipung helped introduced Ando to a Western audience last fall with the limited single “Iuta Upopo,” which featured two mixes of a folk-based track that seemed modern and even futuristic, layers of percussion and even handclaps giving it an unlikely dancefloor potential. Ihunke is more stripped down, but the rhythms and melodies that made that single so infectious are still there in a more traditional form. Ando died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 71, and if she left behind only a few commercial recordings, they’re a precious treasure.