Oki: Tonkori in the Moonlight review – joyous celebration of a dying art form | Folk music


Oki, the performing name of Oki Kano, plays folk of the most urgent kind – music from a critically endangered culture. The language in which he performs and his cultural ancestry is Ainu; both have been suppressed through the centuries by the Japanese. Oki’s instrument is Ainu, too: a five-stringed ancient harp, the tonkori, with a bewitchingly woody, stark, hollow sound.

After working in New York in the 1980s, Oki returned to his home island of Hokkaido to plait together threads of Ainu music with international influences like throat singing, dub and African drumming. This compilation of the first 10 years of his music-making sounds thrillingly fresh. Kai Kai As To (Rippling Lake) is supple and lithe, his tonkori lifted by approximations of birdsong and harmonies by singers Yayo Boo and Noda Tin. Oki’s instrument provides an urgent, percussive undertow to Iso Kaari Irekte (Beat Trap Rhythm) as a bass clarinet sighs alongside it like a lovable, lumbering animal. Yaykatekar Dub, a tune by late tonkori player Ume Nishihira, gets a sprightlier update: it sounds like a dazzling offcut from the Ze Records catalogue that brought us Kid Creole and Lizzy Mercier Descloux.

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Late Ainu singer Umeko Ando leads some of the best tracks. A call-and-response passage between her and younger singers Rekpo and Kapiw drives Iuta Upopo (Pestle Song), a fantastic, strident finger-clicker. Oki’s love for improvisation also shines throughout; there’s even what sounds like an uncredited Hammond organ in Afghan Herbal Garden, complete with a stuttering preset rhythm. This is music from the past with the future on its mind, preserving traditions as it propels them into new places.

Also out this week

Jacken Elswyth’s cassette label continues to shore up jagged folk jewels. Betwixt and Between 8 is another set of two sides, the first featuring Sullow, Elswyth’s new, explosive free-folk trio, the second psych-folk group the Silver Field, who paint a shivery palette of traditional and modern sounds. The viral sea shanty craze of 2021 began with Bristol band the Longest Johns’ version of Wellerman. Smoke + Oakum (Decca), their first major-label release, is all thigh-slapping, conventional fare, albeit delivered with endearing gusto. Alaw’s Denwyd i’r Goleuni/Drawn to the Light (Taith) is the band’s third album of exploratory Welsh and English traditionals. New singer and harmonium player Nia Lynn hones the mood of soul-cossetting folk-rock.

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