Posted by: seanoldblog | 2011/06/14

Urakaji – Rinken Records, Okinawa, Japan

Sean was visiting  Okinawa in September of 2003 and met the legendary Rinken Teruya of Rinken Band fame.  Upon hearing Sean play one of his solo pieces (Coming Home) Rinken san sent him home with the complete catalogue of Rinken Band CDs – all 24 of them – with instructions to select 10 songs and come back with solo guitar arrangements to make a CD!  Urakaji (“breeze/wind over Urasoe Village”) is Harkness’s first completely SOLO guitar CD.  10 of the 12 songs were composed by Rinken san and arranged by Sean, the other 2 are are Sean’s original compositions.  This recording reflects Sean Harkness - Trio of One rhapsody_bttnNapster_bttneMusic_bttnAmazon_bttnLicensing

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the spontaneity of Rinken – all live takes, no edits! – and the magical spirit of Rinken’s Okinawa, as told by Sean’s guitar.  Guitars used are steel string acoustic (thanks to David Ralston), a nylon string classical acoustic (thanks to Takako Suzuki), and Sean’s Fender Subsonic electric baritone guitar.

* * *

“Sean has so far composed many musical works with full-scale arrangements …his artful and beautiful harmony [also hides] a big charm as music of the calm healing system.  Here Sean, who plays an active part in New York, added international flavor to the music of Rinken.  Whether familiar with Rinken’s music or not, I want the people to let their body feel the [breeze/wind] of his fingerstyle guitar playing.”
Review from the Nihon Keizai Shinbun, Japan’s ‘Wall Street Journal’



Musicians & Staff

Guitars: Sean Harkness
Guitar Arrangements: Sean Harkness

Producer: Rinken Teruya
Recording Engineer: Rinken Teruya, Jin (ajima inc.)
Assistant Engineer: Junko Nakamura (Kalahaai)
Mixing Engineer: Rinken Teruya (ajima inc.)
Recording Studio: ajima Studio in Chatan, Okinawa
Mastering Studio: Sony Music Studios Tokyo, Japan
Production Manager: Yoshiyaki Nakanishi (ajima inc)
Director: Tetsuya Tasaki (Rinken Records)
Artist Management: Miwa Hayakawa (Mercer Street Music Inc.)
Cover Photo: Kvon (
Other Photos: Rinken Teruya (ajima inc.) Haruki Yoshida (Digital Magic)
Art Director: Haruki Yoshida (Digital Magic)

Special Thanks

The Suzuki family, the Harkness family, the entire staff at ajima inc., Hideki Ninomiya (Mercer Street Music Inc.), David Ralston*, Gachapine, Bokunen Naga, Al DiMarco, Liz Story, Steve Gentile, Randall Plourde (Evergreen Programs, VT)

Guitars Used:

Steel String Acoustic: Alvarez Yairi WY-1* on songs 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10Onstage_wRinken

Classical Acoustic: Yamaha CG-151C on songs 1, 3, 12
Baritone Electric: Fender Sub-Sonic on songs 4, 11

* * *

Urakaji Full Story:

In September of 2003 during one visit to Japan, my [then] girlfriend Takako and I flew from Tokyo to sunny Okinawa to visit her brother and his family for five days.  Okinawa is a lovely island country with a rich, ancient history, and its own very distinct culture, language, and music.  It lies roughly halfway between Japan and Taiwan in the East China Sea and is presently a possession of Japan.

Through the international network of musician friends (“hey, I’m going to Okinawa next week – who should I call?”) I was introduced to Nakanishi san, the manager for Rinken Teruya of Rinken Band fame.   On a Friday afternoon Taka and I were given a tour of their music complex which consisted of a recording studio, a restaurant, bar, theatre, rehearsal rooms, and offices – all on the western beach of Chatan.  We were also invited to a Rinken Band concert that evening.

The show was magical, with an 8-piece ensemble, colorful costumes, light show, dancing, laughing…  The music was mostly composed by Rinken, but was firmly rooted in the tradition of Okinawan culture.  Rinken’s wife Tomoko was awe-inspiring with her exotic singing and her stunning  presence on stage.  The
audience was ALL ages, and about half Japanese and half Okinawan.  It was very interesting to see the Japanese folks sitting still and pleasantly smiling while the Okinawans were standing, dancing with their hands in the air and often shouting and whistling on the upbeats, as is part of the traditional dancing.

After the show the band is already waiting just outside the main entrance, in costume, to have their pictures taken (the Japanese love their pictures!), sign autographs, etc.  Taka and I watch on, cheekbones aching with long smiles, taking in the magic vibe these folks had going on.   As the crowd was thinning Rinken himself came over, sat down next to me and asked, “Who are you?”

Fortunately, Taka was there, because that was pretty much the extent of his English.  When she explained to him that I was a guitarist from New York City traveling in Japan, he suggested that we meet him in 10 minutes or so in his office and we’d have some tea.  On the way, Taka and I went to our car to fetch one of my CDs for him, which naturally was in my guitar case.

When we appeared in his office, I reached into my guitar case to give him a CD. He said (in Japanese), “I don’t want a CD, thanks – please play me a song!”  So, I took out the guitar and played him ‘Coming Home’.  When it was over, he just sat there with a very thoughtful look on his face,  not saying a word.  Strange reaction, I thought to myself.  After a while, he began speaking very quickly to Taka, who then translated.

The plan was this: he sent me home that night with a Rinken Band Greatest Hits CD and instructions to please create a solo guitar arrangement for the song of my choice.  When it’s ready, he said, come back over to the studio and we’ll record a demo to see how it goes.

I spent all of the next day (apologies to the Suzuki family!) working on TWO songs, which we recorded the following day.  Time in the studio together with the three of us (Rinken, Taka as translator, and myself) was such a complete blast that he sent us home with the full Rinken Band catalogue – 26 CDs and 2 DVDs – with the assignment of creating a full album’s worth of solo guitar arrangements. We drew up the paperwork and made plans for a return visit to Okinawa to make a new CD for Rinken’s label.  Taka was also invited to come as interpreter. Very exciting stuff!

The more time I spent learning about Rinken and sifting through his mountain of songs and videos at home, the more excited I got about returning to Okinawa. Rinken’s instrument is the Sanshin, which has three strings that pass over a stretched snakeskin head.  It appears to be an early predecessor to the banjo.  It is generally used to outline the melody while laying down a very clear rhythm.  The lines are usually simple and clear, repetitive, and blossoming from that joyful scale that most Okinawan songs come from [1, 3, 4 5, 7 – or do, mi, fa, sol, ti].

Having no idea about his history, and unable to understand the lyrics, it was interesting to discover that the songs I selected were all hits at one time or another.  The music speaks for itself!

I listened very carefully for songs that had strong, well-developed melodies, and for songs that seemed to lend themselves to a guitar arrangement.  Each song got a different treatment – one felt like a good acoustic rock anthem (think waving lighters during the slow song at a rock concert), one became a bossa nova, a couple went to the baritone electric, many to the steel string acoustic, a few to the classical nylon string guitar.  Countless hours later, I sent Rinken a demo recording of what I’d done and we made travel plans.

Meanwhile, Taka and I were making big progress in our relationship.  No longer
were we alternating visits between Tokyo and New York every two months.  Now she was well into a series of three-month tourist visas staying with me in New York.  The US immigration offices didn’t know it, but we were living together!  Every three months we would travel together to Japan to visit with her family, grow my musical connections there, and reset her visa.  During one of these visits, in February of 2004 we went to Okinawa to do the recording with Rinken.  I had big plans for that trip myself – I had a diamond ring in my pocket!

With a hearty blessing from Taka’s father, we arrived in Okinawa two days ahead of our recording schedule so that I could find a good place and time to propose.  We met Rinken san that first night and had a lovely dinner together at his restaurant, after which he asked what time I’d  be at the studio the next morning.  Awkward moment.  Luckily, Taka needed to  be excused from the table, and I took the opportunity to explain (in my developing but still pitiful Japanese) that I was hoping to find a nice beach tomorrow to give Taka the ring. He smiled his huge smile and said that he understood.

Our hotel phone rang very early the next morning and it was Rinken san inviting us to spend the day on his friend’s boat. I thought then that maybe he didn’t understand after all.  When he said to please invite Taka’s brother and family as well I realized that he was one step ahead of me!

The glass-bottomed boat reached the coral reef way out in the sea looking over Urasoe City and the splendor of the Okinawan islands.  Taka and I took a little walk topside.  “What a beautiful day”, I said.  She agreed.  I asked, “We could work together to make every day for the rest of our lives just as beautiful – what do you say?” while handing her a lovely diamond ring.  She agreed that this was a wonderful idea.  We went back into the boat and shared our happy news with her brother and our new friends.

I had told Rinken that we were very interested to see Okinawa – the real Okinawa.  Not the American military base, not the Japanese tourist attractions – we wanted to see  his Okinawa.  We started recording the next day at around 10:00 in the morning: getting sounds, making a plan, trying different things out.  A few hours later Rinken says in English “I’m hungry!”  That was our first four-hour lunch.  We worked another couple of hours in the afternoon, then a long dinner.  For 6 days we repeated this same scenario.

We went go-cart racing up in the north.  We went to his sister and brother’s musical instrument shop in the city.  We met his mom; learned about his father who was a prominent figure in the Okinawan music scene his whole life.  We met his friend Bokunen the renowned woodcut artist who co-wrote many songs with Rinken as lyricist.  We met friends, family, visited favorite cafes and restaurants.  We went to a marine science underwater observatory, then to the space telescope on top of the mountain.  Every day was an adventure.  While I’m sure all of these things contributed to the spirit  of the recording, fortunately I was musically fairly well prepared since we spent so little time recording!

When the new CD titled ‘Urakaji’ was released that  summer Taka and I once
again left New York for Tokyo and a series of solo guitar performances.  We got a wonderful review from the Nihon Keizai Shinbun, which is their equivalent to the Wall Street Journal.  It read:

“Sean has so far composed many musical works with full-scale arrangements …his artful and beautiful harmony [also hides] a big charm as music of the calm healing system.  Here Sean, who plays an active part in New York, added international flavor to the music of Rinken.  Whether familiar with Rinken’s music or not, I invite the people to let their body feel the [breeze/wind] of his fingerstyle guitar playing.”

‘Urakaji’ means literally ‘island country breeze’.   It also refers to Urasoe City where our enchanted boat ride took place.  The two characters on the cover mean ‘island country’ (same as the Urasoe city name) and ‘wind’ [or ‘breeze’].

The prominent New York design artist Jay Sylvester has reworked the original
Okinawan album art (which features photos taken by  Rinken during our delightful visit), my wife Takako translated the Japanese to English, and we now have a very special product that we’re happy to share with the American market.



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