Upopo Sanke

02/09/2023Pingipung Posthumously Reissues Transcendental Second Album Of Iconic Ainu Singer Umeko Ando

"Let's sing a song," is the translated meaning of "Upopo Sanke", the second album of Ainu artist Umeko Ando (1932-2004). The Ainu, in case you didn't know (because neither did we), are an indigenous people of Japan, the earliest of the northern island of Hokkaido, "whose lands once spanned from northern Honshu [on the Japanese mainland] north to Sakhalin and the Kuril islands [now a disputed part of the Russian Federation]" (read more here). And Umeko Ando is one of the best-known artists of this long-oppressed and marginalised community, even posthumously.  Hamburg's Pingipung Records was onto something when they reissued her debut album "Ihunke" in 2018 (originally recorded in 2000) and now continues to contribute to this unique singer's legacy by following up with an audiophile remaster of her sophomore album.

This 14-track full-length was originally recorded in 2003 in a farmhouse in Tokachi by fellow "musical ambassador of the Ainu culture" Oki Kano, who wonderfully succeeded in capturing Umeko Ando's genuinely captivating timbre and distinct delivery. Accompanying these otherworldly, stripped-back soundscapes, we hear "dogs barking, a distant thunderstorm and voices imitating animals," grounding elements that are hardly needed though definitely welcome, endowing this already enchanting affair with their own kind of magic. Taking center stage is Umeko Ando, singing "traditional [Ainu] songs [alongside] Oki Kano on the Tonkori harp, [members of the female vocal group Marewrew, Ainu percussionists, a string player and a male singer who provides rhythmic shouts and also throat singing]. The call-and-response structure of many of the songs is performed with a mantric, hypnotic quality in a vocal style that is perhaps best described as elastic, relaxed and breathing."

There is an indubitable meditative quality to theses recordings, Umeko Ando's tender, nurturing voice and repetitive chants being the constant, unifying element, emphasised by persistent drumming and enriched by varying vocal and instrumental flourishes, respectively adding splashes of colour to the heartfelt canvas. "The lyrics praise the lush nature of the islands. They mention the deity Kamuy, who can appear in the form of animals such as bears or swordfish, and the singers repeatedly ask the audience to dance," the release notes detail. And indeed, the experience is utterly mesmerising, albeit borderline transcendental. The "Upopo Sanke" 2LP comes with liner notes containing the anecdotal memories of Umeko Ando and Oki Kano and embellishing the songs' stories.

AUTHOR: Lev Nordstrom