It strains the brain to think that Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman had never played together, never met, never really spoken, and had no idea if they'd even get along before sequestering themselves for a week in a small wooden cottage on Taketomi, the most untrammeled of the Ryukyu Islands. Musical strangers meet and part for session work and collaborations all the time, but rarely to temper tunes as intimate as those on the quirky Okinawan/Hawaiian blend Jin Jin/Firefly.
Hirayasu gained fame as the guitarist for Shoukichi Kina's band Champloose, which brought folk-rock stylings and a reggae-minded stubbornness to traditional Okinawan shimauta "island songs" and earned kudos from Bob Marley. A walking CD-ROM of American music genres, Brozman is best known for his acoustic slide-guitar teaming with Cyril Pahinui and other Hawaiian slack key artists, not to mention his guest appearances on NPR's Prairie Home Companion. Although Okinawa lies just south of Japan (which is the occupying government of the day after years of American possession), its musical roots throw tendrils throughout the Pacific, from Bali to Polynesia, making the pairing of Hirayasu and Brozman a more natural fact than you would anticipate. Slow, teary-eyed cuts such as "Bebe Nu Kasakaiga" have the sweetness, pacing, and melancholy of traditional Hawaiian heart-tuggers, as well as indications of shared modality.
But it's the off-the-cuff honky-tonk vibes of the one- and two-take wonders on Jin Jin that sell this happy fusion, which meshes as if the principals were lifelong cellmates. Disc opener "Akata Sun Dunchi" is maybe a bit too rough, leading with bovine vocals that may send wary listeners flailing for the stop button, but it's all smooth grazing from there. "Uruku Tumi Gushiku" cranks up with an ubiquitous chip-chop island rhythm, peppy lyrics about the mercantile trade, and a woodsy back-and-forth flow between sanshin lute, baritone guitar, and slide guitar. "Umfura Udun" marries a plodding beat set by Hirayasu's guitar to rippling accompaniment by Brozman well suited to this comical sounding lullaby. The "Firefly" title track, with its over-the-top singing from Takashi's midsection and popping, snapping, incandescent acoustic guitar from both men, is the album's tour de force, proving that raw charm and dazzling musicianship aren't mutually exclusive.
All but a couple of cuts on Jin Jin are based on traditional songs so well absorbed into Okinawan culture they're literally the equivalent of "Pop Goes the Weasel." That means the tried-and-true melodies have been socially engineered to stick to the listener's memory like Day-Glo Post-its. This plus the luscious guitar work makes the disc irresistible. And come to think of it, I'd love to hear Hirayasu and Brozman tackle "The Old Gray Mare" next time around.