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Talk between two generations

Date Posted: 2001-06-08

George Murasaki was the key person who helped create Okinawan Rock. We interviewed him and his son Ray, who is following his father’s footsteps as a musician.

“Murasaki” – George Murasaki, the leader and keyboardist of the band, and twin brothers Toshio and Masao Shiroma formed the legendary band in 1970. In 1976 the band landed a recording contract with a major Japanese record company and released albums “Murasaki” and “Impact”, which achieved record-breaking sales a domestic rock group in Japan. The band, however, broke up in two years leaving behind hit songs and its legacy.

In 1978, George Murasaki formed “George Murasaki & Mariner.” This band released two albums and a single that were all recorded in California. Three years later, George formed “George Murasaki & Okinawa.” Even after that, he kept on creating avant-garde music in various ways. He released works featuring renowned 20-string koto player Keiko Nozaka in 1983. He helped organize the “Murasaki, Why Now? Peaceful Love Rock Concert,” – the beginning of the well-known Peaceful Love Rock Festival, which has entered its 19th year this year. A newly formed Murasaki staged an unforgettable performance in 1986 that attracted a crowd of 4,000 rock fans at an open-air stage in Okinawa City. Musasaki’s original compositions were also used at the Kaiho National Games that year.

George Murasaki kept experimenting with one project after another, including his rock musical “London Story” and the rock opera “Shangri-La Ryukyu.” He even incorporated the traditional Eisa obon music and dancing into his rock performances (’77). At that time, however, as even he himself acknowledges it, these ventures were too avant-garde. Not so far in the past, the media marveled at Ryuichi Sakamoto incorporating samples of Ryukyuan folk music into his works. George Murasaki was basically doing the same thing already in the early ‘70s.

George Murasaki, who was born in Okinawa, studied classical music since childhood. In 1967, he enrolled in UCLA, majoring in mathematics and computer science. He also minored in music, and studied piano, pipe organ and voice there. Three years later, he formed the original Murasaki band. Experiencing American society at the time when it was bubbling with various subcultures, such as hippies and flower children, left immeasurable impressions on him. Throughout his career, George Murasaki has been active in many areas, and remains so even now. In 1992, the original Murasaki reformed and opened up for the Ian Gillan Band, led by Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillian, and demonstrated to local rock fans the real talents of Okinawan Rock musicians. George Murasaki has also performed at the Asia Music Pageant in Okinawa with his solo project called the George Murasaki Project (GMP). He now has a project called “Nirai Kanai Triangle,” which mixes the shakuhachi, a type of traditional Japanese flute, and the koto, a traditional Japanese string instrument, with modern instruments. This project also attempts to merge rock, classical, and ethnic Japanese and Ryukyuan music. He has collaborated with renowned photographer Shokyu Otsuka, composing, performing and recording background music for Otsuka’s CD-ROM “South Wind Arriving,” a collection of excellent photographs of Okinawa’s beautiful scenery and traditional festivities. The two artists have held joint photo exhibitions and concerts in Florida, Colorado and other states.

George Murasaki looks back at the early ‘70s. “At that time, Okinawan rock was closely linked to U.S. military bases, and the vibrations that we received from our audiences were totally different. As time passed, the environment also changed with the influence of military bases diminishing, and new sounds and musical styles emerging. Back in the ‘70s, an open-air all-night rock festival in the summer used to attract some 20,000 rock fans, and it was almost like Woodstock.

“After experiencing the real America and going through the experience of playing in front of rough and tension-filled soldiers, I matured as an artist, more so than merely developing playing technique. A skill can be acquired if you practice enough, but this kind of experience is something that the current young generation can never go through,” Murasaki says.

A dollar was worth 360 yen at the time, and American soldiers who returned safely from Vietnam were freely spending their money in A-sign bars on wine and women. It was said that band members could even build a house in a short time with the money they were being paid. “Club owners stuffed into trash cans dollar cash that soldiers were pouring in and horded them over to banks,” George recalls. “There were quite a few Filipino and Korean bands playing at both on-base and off-base venues. There were many clubs in Okinawa City where bands could play. Now, places for live band activities are limited, and there are many genres of music that people can choose to listen to. Rock fans still exist, but because of those other genres, people have more options.. Americans who liked rock music at the time are no longer here. There has been a generation change, like that between us who play hard rock and progressive rock, such as Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, and my sons who play today’s so called alternative rock.”

George Murasaki’s two sons, Ray and Leon, went to the U.S. like their father and studied music at the Musicians’ Institute (MI) in Hollywood. After they returned to Okinawa in 1997, they formed their own bands called “Lequio” and “8-ball”. Recently, they have played at the Hideaway and Fujiyama on Gate 2 Street. Last year Ray opened his own live house called the “7th Heaven” where his bands now perform regularly. Ray says that “Even though I have never experienced the ‘80s when my dad was at his peak, the tension we feel when we play at Fujiyama is probably close to what it was like in ‘80s because the audiences are mostly American military people.”

He adds, “Okinawa rock is the sound of the ‘70s and ‘80s and I think that it is already well established like traditional Okinawan folk music.” George Murasaki, however, says, “Even folk music keeps evolving, and the important thing is to continue performing and keep progressing.

Last year, George Murasaki and Eiichi Miyanaga, a member of the original Murasaki, formed the new “Murasaki” band with Ray, Leon and Keiichi Sato who studied guitar at MI with Ray and Leon. The new band has big shoes to fill. In its heyday, Murasaki was voted the best Japanese rock group, George Murasaki the best keyboardist, and Eiichi Miyanaga ranked third among Japanese drummers in a popularity poll conducted by “Music Life,” a widely read music magazine in the ‘70s and ‘89s. Guitarist Keiichi Sato was picked as the winner from more than 700 entrants in “Challenge Yngve” contest sponsored by the popular “Young Guitar” magazine. Yngve Malmsten is a Swedish guitarist who is well respected by Japanese young guitar players. He listened to selected participants and personally picked Keiichi as the winner.

The group’s musical quality is beyond doubt, but by joining the talents of different generations, the sound of Murasaki is better than ever with their new combination giving the group additional depth that does not exist anywhere else. The new “Murasaki,” which has acquired new energy from the younger generation, coupled with the band’s legendary charisma, plays hard-driving rock that is full of power and speed. The group will perform at the 7th Heaven on June 30, at the Peaceful Love Rock Festival on July 8, and Chatan Seaport Carnival on July 14.

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