For pure charisma, no other Okinawan musician, past or present can match Shoukichi Kina. Over a thirty year career Kina has proven he’s capable of writing not just some of Okinawa and Japan’s most memorable music, but songs that can stand up to anything produced anywhere, in any genre, in the world. Most notably, ‘Haisai Ojisan’, which he wrote when he was just 16, and famously was a hit while he was in prison on a drugs charge, and ‘Hana’ the original version of which in 1980 featured Ry Cooder, and has been covered ubiquitously by singers across Asia and as far away as Madagascar.
His career however is also littered with long periods of musical inactivity, during which time his albums have consisted of mostly re-recordings and re-mixes of older material. Indeed he seems to have been in such a slump the latter half of the 90s,, his recent albums not even coming close to the ones he released at the start of it. Kina has survived despite himself, his music suffering at the expense of his energies, however well intentioned, being channeled elsewhere into various causes.
A master of the overstatement and the grandiose plan, before leaving for the first time to perform in the US, he told the Washington Post that he believed that when President Kennedy was assassinated the torch he had extended was passed to the Asian world, and that Kina was now in possession of that torch and was bringing it back to the American people. This was followed by a brief sentence along the lines of ‘Is Mr Kina serious?’. The point is he was, totally, and furthermore thought he might be able to gain an influential supporter to his idea of swapping weapons for musical instruments by asking President Clinton to blow his saxophone along with Champloose. More recently, his long time plan to sail to America in a white ship, in response to the black ship of Commodore Perry that arrived in Japan in 1853, was thwarted by US refusal to grant him permission to land.
In a sense a Kina concert mirrors his lifestyle. Chaotic, but with goodwill and the people rooting for him, triumphant in the end. Initially he cuts an unimposing figure on stage; somewhat squat, long messy hair flecked with gray, usually unshaven and dressed in white, he looks not unlike the leader of an infamous Japanese cult. He constantly works out a crook in his neck, is at times manic, intense and fidgety. He endangers losing his audience’s attention with a barely comprehensible diatribe on spirits, a borderless world or whatever else is on his mind, but gleefully embraces and positively encourages them back to join him on stage to dance. By the end, invariably, many do, usually during ‘Haisai Ojisan’. The musicians gradually get swamped, with Kina’s grinning face popping up and down somewhere in the mayhem as he pogoes and punches the air, the irony being he’s now turning into that gray haired old man, taunted by a younger woman on his bawdy hit, “Haisai Ojisan”. It’s an experience not to be missed.
Originally published in 1999