Okinawa is an island of paradise and paradox. In Japanese terms, the place is crawling with foreigners, some 50,000 US military and personnel are based there. However, the Okinawans are less impressed or swayed by the latest Western trends than anywhere else in Japan, and the foreigners devoid of the usual wide-eyed fascination that grips most first time visitors. Just about all the Military are unaware when they occasionally venture off base to cruise down Chuo Park Avenue in downtown Koza (Okinawa City) they are in the heart of Okinawa’s local music scene. The Teruya (of Rinken Band fame) family house and store is literally just a stone’s (or in this case, sanshin or sanba) throw away. The Motown of Okinawan music, Marafuku Records have their studios just up the hill and Shokichi Kina’s retreat is perched on the hills overlooking the city. On the environs of the Kadena Air Base just to the south is the original Shima Uta nightclub where Nenes started out performing. Okinawans are clearly used to foreigners, and to many, those ‘foreigners’ include the Japanese themselves.
Much of the west coast is littered with resort hotels, packed in summer with visitors from the mainland who come for the superb beaches and to marvel at the fast disappearing coral. For the Japanese too, Okinawa represents a foreign land. Get off the plane at Naha and the atmosphere is decidedly south east Asian. There’s less of the bright neon and teaming streets of Tokyo, Osaka or any of the main cities on the mainland of Japan. The pace is slower, the people are more relaxed and speak their own dialect. They are prone to swoon over a swine, and appear happiest tucking into every conceivable part of a pig. They drink saké from bottles with a poisonous snake wrapped inside as a pick-me-up. Well, for Japanese you couldn’t get more foreign that that.
On the face of it, the sprawling military bases and gaudy hotels, seem to co-exist happily alongside the local neighbourhoods. However the population’s tolerance, belies a proud nature. The Okinawans are a people who not only strive to keep their tradition alive, but revel in it. In a sense today is no different to the past. Okinawa, and the other islands that make up the Ryukyu chain have due to their strategic position, always provided an important trading link between south east Asia and Japan, China and Korea. The resulting interchange of influences has resulted in a unique and colorful culture, and the music ‘Shima Uta’ (island songs) has been blessed with that indefinable quality of island music. The instrument at the heart of the music, the snake skinned banjo ,the sanshin, is believed to have come from China about 600 years ago, and the Okinawan pentatonic scale is identical to that used in some areas of Indonesia and related to scales used in Polynesia and Micronesia.
Throughout a tragic history of feuding for the island’s control by it’s neighbours, and in the face of much adversity, the Okinawans have refused to sit back and allow their island and culture to be dominated. During the second world war 150,000 citizens, a third of the population were killed, and music played a pivotal role in restoring strength to the people. They haven’t been afraid to experiment either, but have realised for it to survive, the music has to grow. It’s this attitude that spurned the first wave of Okinawan bred rock, born out of the clubs surrounding the American bases during the wild years of the Vietnam war, and 1972 when Okinawa was returned to Japan from the US. Primarily with Shokichi Kina and Champloose, whose first and classic album was previously re-released on GlobeStyle (CDORB 072).
Music has always been a part of the Okinawan daily life, and in contrast to Japan where traditional music is studied to a strict regiment, they learn to play music, sing and dance purely for the fun of it. Wherever you go on the island you’ll likely to hear music; piped out on the beaches, and along shopping malls, in bars, and if you’re lucky an impromptu performance on a beach. Before long you too find yourself dancing the katcharsee,with your arms raised and hands waving to the rhythm.
The relatively brief history and attitude of the group Nenes, draws many parallels to the history and people of Okinawa itself. A fierce tradition and proud identity countered by an uncanny sense for updating Okinawan music with extraneous colours. The group were formed in 1990 in an attempt to make min’yo (folk music) accessible to the young in Okinawa. In the process the band have recorded some of the most compelling Okinawan folk and pop ever, starting in 1991 with ‘Ikawu’ for an independent label. An album now considered a seminal work of the subsequent Okinawan roots music movement in Japan. Although arguably removed, the Japanese could at last claim there is a homegrown roots music in Japan to rival anything produced in the world.
When I first met the female singers of Nenes back in 1993, (for a Folk Roots cover feature in September 1993) at the Shima Uta bar, despite some success life appeared to have changed little. They were still serving the drinks, acting as ‘hostesses’ as well as playing for the odd customer on the tiny stage. They revealed their ‘Japaneseness’ by referring to the the group’s mentor, composer and sanshin player Sadao China as ‘sensei’, an honorific term meaning ‘teacher’. Such hierarchical talk seemed slightly at odds with the informality of music in Okinawa, but I soon learnt traditional musicians are held in the highest esteem. They were rather bemused by the interest of a westerner, after all not one American had set foot inside the bar. Since then however, a steady stream of Western musicians and Japanese have made the journey to their revamped Shima Uta Live House in Ginowan, where the women no longer have to serve the drinks. Michael Nyman, Peter Rowan and George Winston have all hung out there. Recording partners for Nenes have included Ry Cooder, David Lindley (on the brilliant 1994 album Koza Dabasa) and Talvin Singh. Recording locations have ranged from Los Angeles to Bali and Hawaii, but I get the feeling that Sadao China is happier with the world coming to Okinawa rather than him having to venture outside. Their first attempts to launch an international career in 1994 with a brief tour of Europe, a date in Newport USA and the release in France of their third album ‘Ashibi’ failed to gain momentum, but earned the band a few choice fans and a cult status.
Over seven albums,(plus one ‘best of’) Nenes have essentially stayed close to Sadao China’s original formula. The four women’s enchanting chorus vocals and China’s sanshin are weaved around a rich variety of keyboard textures, stringed instruments and percussion. Some albums have stayed closer to the tradition than others, while the instrumentation and influences have been adjusted in varying measures; from Balinese gamelan and Brazilian samba to Mexican and Hawaiian music to rap and reggae. There have been personnel changes, and Akemodoro Unai is Nenes’ first album without their former main vocalist Misako Koja, (replaced by Erika Touma) and ‘sound producer’ and keyboard player Kazuya Sahara. The original backing group Spiritual Unity has been replaced by the Sadao China Band, although it still features some of the former musicians. One of the most notable additions on Akemodoro Unai are Japanese acoustic guitar duo Gontiti, who render a tranquil accompaniment on a couple of tracks (Shima Yakara and Erabu no Komori uta). Nenes also try their hand at a song written by one of the many Japanese artists inspired by Okinawa, Keisuke Kuwata, leader of perhaps Japan’s most enduring rock band, Southern All Stars who originally had a hit in Japan with Heiwa no Ryuka.
Which brings us to the biggest paradox of all. For all it’s qualities as a living roots music in Okinawa with an ever vibrant local scene and a strong following on the mainland, to the outside world the music of Okinawa remains one of the undiscovered jewels of the Orient. Perhaps this CD can provide the key to unlock a treasure chest that is literally brimming with infectious music. Just bursting to get out.