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Ryukyu Underground is cutting-edge blend of modern and traditional music

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2002-03-14

Ryukyu Underground is a team of two producers, Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon, who have been making a fusion of music by mixing traditional Okinawan music with drum sequences since 1998. Over the years they have released one album and are currently working on their next, which should be finished around June.

Gordon explains why he left England after graduating from college. “I had wanderlust,” he says. “I had plans to travel around the world.” After saving a chunk of change, he flew to Thailand, visited Malaysia, dropped by Darwin and stayed in Australia for three years. This was where he was first introduced to the music of Okinawa. “My first experience with Okinawan music was through an Okinawan girl in Australia,” he says.

He came to Okinawa in 1997. “I was really interested in coming here to find out more about the music. After starting Ryukyu Underground in 1998, we started making music just for fun. There was no ulterior motive; it was just a ‘Let’s-see-how-it-goes’ kind of thing. We had so much fun with it all, we decided to stick with it.”

“I lived in the mainland for three years and listened to a lot of Okinawan music there,” he says. “When we first started out, we’d mesh the music with drum machines and sequencers, and we had very good results but no direction.” Gordon says that the two musicians found each other because they both had the same interests and background. Gordon has a lot of respect for Taylor. “Jon has toured with some legends and has a great pedigree. He is certainly the musician of us two. I am more of the DJ/remixer. He has a really good background in music.” Thriving off of each other’s strong points, the team has put out some truly interesting music with excellent sound quality.

“We’re trying to mix traditional Okinawan music with dance music,” says Gordon. “Whenever we do this at parties, the Okinawans go crazy. It definitely gives us the courage to go on. When we first started, we didn’t want to disrespect the local culture with our music, so we were a little afraid of how they’d take it. But everything has been very positive. We’re trying to make Okinawan music new and young again. I think our music is a good introduction to Okinawan music. It’s the easy way in. After listening to our music, we hope others will buy real traditional Okinawan music.” Gordon also feels that some of the best traditional Okinawan music is still being played on island and that you are cheating yourself if you don’t go out to hear it for yourself. “If you like the traditional music, go see it. Living on Okinawa, it’s on your doorstep. Okinawa has so many great minyo bars that are so exclusively Okinawan. If you leave the island without doing anything, it just seems like a crime to me.”

When not making music, Gordon teaches at a school in Onna Village. His dream is to focus on music. He loves the island and has decided to put down roots here. While living on Okinawa, he wants to continue to put out music inspired by the island’s traditional tunes. He currently has an Okinawan girlfriend and feels that Okinawa is a great place. “If I was a kid, I’d love to grow up here. With tropical beaches and warm weather, it’s great. If I had kids, raising them here would be the best thing I could do for them.”

The group is currently working on their next album, which should be done and released by June 2002. This project is a combination of two years’ work, and the group is currently looking for Okinawan musicians to work with. “We want to work with other Okinawan musicians and do remixes of Okinawan songs,” he says. After releasing their next album, Gordon says they are planning on having an upcoming album release party. For the time being, however, he has backed off club events to focus all efforts on the project at hand. “I don’t play at many parties these days. I’m just so busy. I don’t get as much time at parties as I’d like to.”

If you’d like to get your hands on any Ryukyu Underground work, you can pick up their music at Takara records, Freak Show, Get Happy records, Sam Goody and Tower records. Their work is also released on world music networks, so you can order it from anywhere in the world. If you can’t find their records at the music shops on Okinawa, Gordon hopes you will order them.

The two musicians certainly have put a huge effort into bridging the gap between traditional and dance music, and they have also created something that will surely open a few eyes to the music of Okinawa. However, Gordon says, “I hope people won’t see our work as a novelty but rather will take it seriously. It’s very deep and means a lot more to us than that.” For more information on the group, check out souljazzinc.wwma.net.

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