SOUL GAKUDAN - Ryukyu Beatles 2

review - 03.24.2011 02:05

Traditional meets modern in this second cover album.

SOUL GAKUDAN is a quintet from the Ryukyu Islands. The members include Yonaha Toru who plays the fue, sings three lines and provides accompaniment; Onaga Yoko on the 17-string koto; Onaga Yoshitada on an additional koto; Uechi Kazunari who plays island taiko, samba and shouko; and lastly Natsuko Morita on the kuuchou (more commonly known as kokyuu outside of Japan). Their first album, Ryukyu Beatles, was released on June 24, 2008 under a different label.

Ryukyu Beatles 2 is essentially a cover album of Beatles tracks, but with a twist. All the tracks featured on the album are instrumental pieces which incorporate traditional Japanese instruments with an Okinawan flavour and then are paired with a Western style to recreate timeless Beatles works. First up is A Hard Day’s Night which is a jovial track at first listen. It’s hard not to compare the cover to the original, but SOUL GAKUDAN does a pretty good job and keeps the same uplifting, easygoing feeling that the original holds.

A little more down tempo and alluring, Yesterday brings a strange sense of calmness to the listener, possibly due to the use of less instruments in comparison to the rest of the album. The fue may be a little too overpowering the first few moments into Yesterday, but overall the song is still beautiful to listen to.

Drive my Car almost switches to a different genre and somewhat kills the relaxed mood left by the previous track with its fun, bouncy melody. If not paying much attention to all the instruments played, the track can sound like a country inspired song. The koto and sanshin together have a certain twang which would lead to listener to think such things, especially to an untrained ear.

Awash in dark, minor tones, the koto and fue are heard best in an oriental flavoured cover of the renown track Eleanor Rigby. The deep haunting sounds plucked from each of the koto strings are eventuated by the equally elegant fue. The cover of Eleanor Rigby adds an element of suspense; the fue draws out a fleeting melody with its deep, fluted timbre heard in the hook to the chorus. The koto alone is simply beautiful to listen to.

The familiar chords in the original of Let it be are emulated in this piece by the 17-stringed koto and the fue as its main attributes. The gentle use of fue replaces the vocals in the original version and because of the soft sound the fue produces, the song becomes more powerful. By the time the song reaches the chorus, listeners can easily find themselves humming along to the melody. The listener is immediately calmed down after hearing the cover of the well-known original.

The final track of the album, All you need is love, slows down the tempo completely to match the original. About ten seconds in, the song introduces itself with the well-known sound byte taken from the opening of the French national anthem but played on the fue and the chiisai taiko, among other traditional instruments. The original included the same sound byte except that it was played on brass instruments. SOUL GAKUDAN’s cover of All you need is love also features short commands and chants (hayashi) heard during the taiko performances, and such commands are heard later on in the background - an element commonly heard and expected in traditional Okinawan music.

What is most interesting and breathtaking about Ryukyu Beatles 2 is that the traditional Japanese instruments have always been known for certain traditional aspects. To hear such instruments in mainstream music is rare, although it is becoming more popular. Beatles fans will definitely enjoy hearing their favourite songs presented with this mix of traditional Japanese instruments. SOUL GAKUDAN definitely twists the traditional sounds and expectations of these selected original Beatles works for the better.
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