Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa

The music of Okinawa has an indefinable island quality. Whether it’s Cuba, Cape Verde, Madagascar, Java, Hawaii or Okinawa, island music is special. A bit like everywhere but totally unlike anywhere. Okinawan music has developed from a unique set of influences down the centuries as local traditions have mingled with those of sea faring and trading nations. As a result of feuding for it’s control and exploitation, the people have endured much suffering and hardship. Throughout, they have remained indefatigable, combining a mellow and genial nature, with a fierce sense of pride and identity. Music has evolved organically until the present day. While Japan’s musical traditions have been largely forgotten or ‘preserved’ by societies, Okinawa is the country’s only surviving enclave with a thriving and living local music rooted in a tradition. Tragic female vocals, shuffling syncopated rhythms and the lonely twang of the snake skinned banjo, the sanshin, can be heard everywhere; on the beaches, in restaurants, shopping malls, and at night musicians perform in numerous bars.

Poetically described as a “knotted rope cast into a distant sea”, the 73 sub-tropical islands of Okinawa Prefecture stretch for over 700 km from Kagoshima (mainland Japan’s southernmost Prefecture) almost to Taiwan. Situated at roughly mid-point is the largest island of Okinawa, a name sometimes used to encompass the whole archipelago, which are otherwise known under it’s original kingdom name, the Ryukyu islands.

Most Japanese might consider Okinawa as rather exotic islands, not exactly foreign, but not exactly Japanese. Get off the plane at Naha, the main port and biggest city and the balmy atmosphere is decidedly south east Asian. To the Okinawans, the islands are very much their own, with a distinct language, culture and music. Islands of sun, sea and sand, but also the sanshin and above all songs. The more recent of their vast repertoire of min’yo (folk songs) they call ‘island songs’ or shima uta.

While Okinawa got left behind as post-war Japan got modernized, westernized, industrialized, and even ‘internationalized’, the popular image of a backward island ‘paradise’ is somewhat fanciful. An island paradox is more accurate. Due to it’s strategic location as an important trading link between Japan, China, and south east Asia, Okinawa has been a melting pot, absorbing more foreign cultures than anywhere else in Japan. While the most notable influences are Chinese and Japanese, the pentatonic scale is identical to that of some areas of Indonesia, and related to Polynesia and Micronesia. In the last 50 years, the American military presence, currently around 50,000, has ensured a strong western influence too.

Music in Okinawa is intrinsically linked to the past. Okinawa’s earliest history is of battling warlords until the 14th century when a unified Kingdom was established. Trading links with China were forged and Okinawa became a tributary state of China, achieving it’s ‘golden age’ of trade during the 15th century. At the heart of Okinawan music is the sanshin, derived from the larger Chinese sanxien, which arrived during this period, initially as an instrument of the Ryukyu nobility. In 1609 Okinawa was invaded by the Satsuma clan of southern Japan, and with them came a relatively modern political system and enforced changes including the levying of harsh taxes. Nevertheless, classical Ryukuan culture flourished. After Commodore Perry arrived in Naha in 1853, Britain, the US, France and Russia all tried to establish trading links with Okinawa. Japan, not wishing to lose it’s share of the cut, sent a force to invade the islands in 1879, afterwhich Okinawa was made a prefecture of Japan proper.

Despite Japanese efforts to suppress Okinawan culture and language, the music entered a new and important phase. Many of the now disbanded Okinawan nobility had become competent musicians. Forced to pay their own way, some moved to different areas of the islands to teach the local communities. Folk traditions were given a new lease of life, and on some of the outer islands, previously unaccompanied working songs, a sanshin accompaniment. Original songs were composed which gave rise to the modern day shima uta.

Towards the end of 19th century, mainly due to poverty, many Okinawans emigrated to Hawaii, Brazil, south east Asia and to the Kansai region of Western Japan. They didn’t leave their music behind and instead composed songs of emigration, including the island’s first major figure of shima uta, Choki Fukuhara. He established Marafuku Records, Okinawa’s first and most important record company, originally in Osaka in 1926. Even today many of Okinawa’s greatest musicians were born in Kansai.

Shima uta developed further as the people’s music, at all night beach revelries or mo-ashibi, which thrived until the second world war. With the outbreak of war, mo-ashibi were banned, and Okinawa entered it’s most tragic period of history. 150,000 or a third of the population died at the Battle of Okinawa. Using Okinawa as a buffer, many believe the Okinawans were sacrificed by the Japanese to save the mainland.

Under American control from 1945, musicians took the leading role in restoring pride and expressing the feelings of the people. Later a new music scene developed in clubs around the American military bases. These became progressively wilder, especially during the Vietnam war, the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972 and as the GI’s developed a thirst for other forms of ‘entertainment’.

Most bands played soul, r&b, blues and rock covers, but it didn’t take long for these influences to gradually infiltrate Okinawan music. During the 1970s and 80s, the mixtures got more radical, and with Okinawa now part of Japan again, Japanese musicians started to mix Okinawan with western music.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Japanese record companies took the lead role in introducing Okinawan music to the mainland, as part of the burgeoning world music scene. which helped to revitalize the local music scene. Some musicians opened their own clubs, mainly to perform for an ever increasing Japanese tourist clientele. Japanese/Okinawan collaborations in some form, became the norm, as not only rock, but jazz and Japanese traditions became part of the mix, without the music ever losing it’s Okinawan identity.

As new trends evolve these too have been absorbed into Okinawan music, while at the beginning of this century, there is renewed interest on the mainland in the traditional music. This was spawned by the death in 1999 of Rinsho Kadekaru, one of Okinawa’s greatest musicians. and the hit movie “Nabbie no Koi”, that featured Kadekaru along with several other notable elder musicians, including Seijin Noborikawa who had a starring role.

This Rough Guide contains most of the spectrum of Okinawan music. Traditional songs are performed by both legendary and younger musicians, with sanshin, vocals, and usually the accompaniment of taiko drums and sanba (castanets). Other tracks are of Okinawan and Japanese collaborations on both traditional and original songs in a mixture of styles and instrumentation. Elsewhere, Japanese musicians perform their own take on Okinawan music, with the occasional input of the many western musicians who have become entranced with the music of Okinawa.

1. RINSHO KADEKARU featuring SEIJIN NOBORIKAWA

There was a no more revered figure in Okinawan music than the ‘Godfather’ of shima uta, Rinsho Kadekaru. With his slightly husky voice, pristine sanshin playing and whimsical character he entertained and inspired Okinawans for over 60 years. Born in Goeko, Okinawa, on July 4th 1920, Kadekaru began playing sanshin at the age of seven. By the time he was 15 he had started to participate in his village’s mo-ashibi parties, at which he first gained a reputation, before moving to Osaka for a few years. He was conscripted into the military during the war, after which he stayed on the Micronesian islands of Saipan and Tinian returning to Okinawa in 1949. His reputation had not been forgotten and he became one of the pivotal figures in the post-war Okinawa min’yo boom. Kadekaru recorded nearly 250 songs for local record labels, more than any other Okinawan musician. Koko Kuduchi is a duet with one of Kadekaru’s contemporaries, Seijin Noborikawa (track 16 ) and was originally released as a single in 1974 on the Okinawan label Marafuku, when Kadekaru was probably in his prime as a musician. Kuduchi is a type of song whereby the lyrics, sung in talking style, tell stories of people’s lives. Rinsho Kadekaru died in October 1999, aged 79.

2. CHIEKO IHA / FOUR SISTERS

Before Nenes, there was another female quartet; Four Sisters. These four real sisters (Chieko, Sadako, Kumiko and Midori) got back together after more than twenty years to record this song, taken from the youngest sister, Chieko Iha’s 1998 solo album. She started performing from the age of eight, and with her sisters had several local hits on the Marafuku label. After Four Sisters disbanded in 1974, Iha continued to record as a solo artist under the guidance of Tsuneo Fukuhara, the prolific songwriter, producer and owner of Marafuku Records. Shima Jima Kaisha (Beautiful Islands) is one of Tsuneo Fukuhara’s and Okinawa’s best loved songs, and features the composer on sanshin together with the Kurikorder Quartet, a group of top Japanese session musicians playing a variety of recorders.

3. TAKASHI HIRAYASU & BOB BROZMAN

Born in 1952, Takashi Hirayasu lived a double life as a young musician. He was a session player at Marafuku Records playing Okinawan traditional music with artists such as Four Sisters (track 2) while at the same time playing rock, soul and r&b covers in clubs in Koza for the American military. It proved to be the perfect training for his later career as guitarist with Shokichi Kina and Champloose, for whom he wrote and arranged much material. On going solo, his first album mixed up Okinawan music with a wide range of world influences, while a meeting with American guitarist Bob Brozman broadened his mind further. Hirayasu’s sanshin and vocals and Brozman’s Hawaiian and National steel guitar, blended together with intuitive ease on their first album “Jin Jin”, mainly traditional Okinawan songs for children, including Chon Chon Kijimuna, about a friendly tree spirit who can fly. The album became the best ever selling Okinawan album overseas. The two have since collaborated on an eclectic range of styles and with a growing number of musicians both live and on their latest album, “Nankuru Naisa”.

4. SHISARS

Formed in 1986, Shisars didn’t record their first album for another ten years but it was an album worth waiting for. Akemi Mochida and Yoshie Uno, (original member Jun Yasuba went on to form An-Chang Project) were joined by Natsuki Hattori on guitar, and guests including Wataru Ohkuma on clarinet (of Cicala Mvta) on the album “Kuwa no Shita de Biiru” that pushed the edges of Okinawan music toward the outer limits. Mochida and Uno, both from Japan, learnt songs from Tokyo resident Okinawans and from travelling to the outer islands of Okinawa. Psychedelic guitar and honking brass accompanied mainly Okinawan traditional songs, with harmonious, slightly quirky vocals. For their second album, released in April 2001 “Da Hua Gu”, Shisars jumble up the styles with even more zest. Itta Anma Makaiga ~ Karabato is a medley of two songs taken from this latest album, and are traditional children’s songs featuring Ohkuma, Hattori and Shinya Kimura on drums and percussion.

5. MISAKO OHSHIRO

Misako Ohshiro was born in Osaka in 1936, although she grew up in Nago, in the northern part of the main Okinawan island. She started to learn music from the age of six and perform when she was nine. Initially encouraged by Tsuneo Fukuhara, she studied sanshin under Teihan China, the father of Sadao China. With her expressive voice she is sometimes regarded as the female equivalent of Rinsho Kadekaru, with whom she was a regular collaborator. Uranami Bushi was written by Okinawa’s first major figure of shima uta, Choki Fukuhara, also founder of Marafuku Records. Marafuku released records by all the greats of Okinawan music in the post war Okinawan min’yo ‘boom’. The original Marafuku still survives, although his son, Tsuneo Fukuhara started a separate company, also called Marafuku (but distinguished by a different logo) to carry on the tradition of his father.

6. RINJI KADEKARU

Music runs deep in many families, none more so than the Kadekaru household. Rinji Kadekaru was born in 1956, and grew up listening to his father Rinsho (track 1). His voice and sanshin style is remarkably similar to his father, and in addition Rinji is a fine violin player which he also plays on this track. Jidai no Nagare (The Passage of Time) is one of the songs most associated with Rinsho Kadekaru who wrote the text. It tells the history of Okinawa, passed from one power to another, ‘From the rule of China to Yamato (Japan), From Yamato to America, Our Okinawa was changing hands rapidly, Our Okinawa isn’t what it used to be in the old days’. Rinji Kadekaru is accompanied by the BC Street Band with N’Naru Horns, a mixture of Okinawan and Japanese musicians playing brass instruments, electric guitar, bass and drums.

7. SARABANDGE

Sarabange is the latest, project of Kenji Yano, also responsible for The Surf Champlers (track 18), and Okinawan singer Sachiko Shima. Born in Osaka in 1961, Yano attended university in Okinawa, after which he became the guitarist with Rokunin Gumi, who combined Okinawan music and rock with a rare gusto. Still remembered for their powerful live shows, the group never recorded an album. Yano worked as a studio musician and engineer in Tokyo, before moving back to Okinawa. Sarabange combines Yano’s keyboards and stringed instruments with the min’yo style vocals of Sachiko Shima in music that they dubbed as “Okinawan Trance Music.” The two had first collaborated on an Hawaiian/ Okinawan crossover album, “Sons of Ailana” in 1995. Both Yano and Shima have recently worked with Tetsuhiro Daiku, and on music for television documentaries.

8. MISAKO KOJA

Misako Koja is best known as the former vocal leader of the female quartet Nenes (track 17) but has continually proved her prowess as a solo artist. She was born in 1954 in Kadena, near to Koza. She began learning sanshin when she was six from a relative, and then from Koutoku Tsuha and Setsuko Ishihara. She made her first recording when she was nine for Marafuku Records, and performed live from this time. She gained more prominence in Japan and overseas as part of the “Okinawan Chans”, three female vocalists who performed and recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto toward the end of the 1980s (together with Yoriko Ganeko and Kazumi Tamaki) and toured in Europe and America. When Sadao China, put together Nenes in 1990 he chose Koja to lead the group, and so began a five year association that saw Nenes become one of Okinawa’s best known groups in Japan, and tour and record overseas. Leaving the Nenes fold at the same time to work with Koja was Nenes co-producer and keyboard player Kazuya Sahara, who had been partly responsible for shaping the Nenes sound. Warabi Gami, written by Sahara, was Koja’s first post Nenes single, exclusively sold at her concerts, and is heading toward status as a modern classic of Okinawan music.

9. TESTSUHIRO DAIKU

Tetsuhiro Daiku was born in 1949 on Ishigaki Island, the most populated of the Yaeyama islands. A mentor of Yukichi Yamazato, Daiku moved to the main Okinawan island port city of Naha when he was nineteen. He won several prizes for his sanshin and fue (flute) playing and a national NHK (the public broadcasting corporation) min’yo competition. He made several albums mainly for local record labels, before in 1991, his career took a unexpected twist after meeting Japanese saxophone player Kazutoki Umezu. The two collaborated with an ever growing number of other musicians on cello, percussion, guitar, clarinet, and chindon (a Japanese drum used for street performances), on a series of groundbreaking albums. Other groups have since been influenced by the original vision first heard on Daiku’s albums, including Osaka’s Soul Flower Union. As well as being one of Okinawa’s most respected musicians, Daiku is also one of the most traveled, having toured in South America, Africa and Europe. This traditional working song from Yaeyama features the trademark call and response vocals, provided here by Tsundalers, a trio of female singers that includes Daiku’s wife Naiko, with Kazutoki Umezu on sax and bass clarinet.

Tetsuhiro Daiku

Tetsuhiro Daiku

10. AKANARS.

Akanars (The Sunsets) are a quartet of female singers, aged 19 when they recorded this song. They studied traditional min’yo under Tetsuo Uehara. Go-Go Chimbora is a popular traditional song, originally titled Umi nu Chinbora, from the island of Ie, west of the Motobu Peninsula on the main Okinawan island. Chinbora is the name of a type of conch shell, although the eventual meaning in this song developed slightly erotic connotations, after it became popular in the ‘pleasure quarters’ of Naha. Originally, a slow min’yo tune, it was performed at a faster tempo as an accompaniment to a dance. This high speed version features various Japanese musicians including Yoshiki Sakurai on guitar and Takero Sekijma on trumpet both of Strada and Cicala Mvta.

11. RIKKI

Rikki (full name Ritsuki Nakano) was born in 1975 on Amami island, now officially a part of Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of mainland Japan. Situated half way between the mainland of Japan and Okinawa, the traditional music of Amami, has received a corresponding mixture of influences from it’s larger neighbours. As on the mainland, min’yo is played in a minor scale, the sanshin is tuned differently to the Okinawan main island, giving a brighter tone and the singing is in a falsetto style. Something of a child prodigy, Rikki was born into a musical family and started singing shima uta from the age of four. She appeared at the Japan min’yo award show in Kagoshima at just five years old, winning the same award the following year and for next six years until 1988. Two years later, she captured the All Japan Min’yo award at the unprecedented age of 15. She first performed in Tokyo in 1992 and her first record was released by a major Japanese label in 1993. In 1995 she worked with one of Japan’s premier champions of Asian music, producer Makoto Kubota on her third album, that included Asian influences and reggae. She has also performed and recorded with the Boom (track 15) and Japanese singer Sandii, including at the MIDEM conference in Cannes, France. This track is one of the most well known songs on Amami, and features the sanshin of her mentor Shunzo Tsukiji.

Rikki

Rikki

12. YASUKATSU OHSHIMA

Despite his age, Yasukatsu Ohshima, born in 1969 in Shiraho on Ishigaki island, Yaeyama, is one of Okinawa’s finest interpreters of traditional songs. He also has a penchant for writing his own tunes, including “Akai Ura”, that are nevertheless steeped in tradition. Situated over 400 kilometers south-west of the main Okinawan island, much closer to Taiwan, the music of the Yaeyama group of islands is unique within Okinawa, including in scale and vocal technique, sharing a stronger link to south east Asia. Originally, working songs (Yunta and Jiraba) would be sung call and response style, usually while working in the fields. The sanshin was incorporated into the music only about 100 years ago, until this time, being an unaffordable luxury to most of the 50,000 population, kept poor by oppressive taxes levied upon them by the Japanese and Okinawan governments. The eventual end of the taxation during the feudalistic era, became a catalyst for the development of Yaeyama min’yo. Ohshima learnt from listening to his grandfather playing sanshin at home, and didn’t consider a career in music until he moved to Tokyo when he was 20. Virtually self taught on the sanshin, the vast repertoire of songs he had heard growing up remained deep in his psyche and he developed his own way of singing, not strictly Yaeyama traditional, but in his own decorative style.

Yasukatsu Oshima

Yasukatsu Oshima

13. RYUKYU UNDERGROUND

Ryukyu Underground is UK born Keith Gordon and American Jon Taylor, who met in Okinawa in 1998. Sharing an interest in Okinawan and contemporary dance music, they decided to collaborate to produce a radical new mixture by combining Okinawan traditional min’yo with elements of ambient, drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop, jungle, dub and electronica. As yet unreleased, Tinsaga nu Hana Dub features the vocals of Naomi Ohshiro, Toshio Tamanaha on sanshin, and the voice of the compiler of this CD unwittingly sampled from the radio. Tinsagu nu Hana is one of Okinawa’s most popular children’s songs, describing the duties of children to their parents, “We paint our nails with balsam flowers, the words of our parents dye our minds”.

14. DONTO

Kyoto born Donto, who died in January 2000 aged 37, first came to prominence as guitarist and singer with group Rosa Luxembourg and later Bo Gumbos who played Bo-Diddley inspired New Orleans style music. In 1995 Donto was part of a unit “Uminosachi” that recorded a wacky blend of Indonesian, Indian and Okinawan music. He relocated to Okinawa, where he took up the sanshin, and recorded three solo albums. Whatever he turned his hand to, Donto did so with his own unique style, intelligence and humour. “Jin Jin” (Firefly) is an unreleased recording of a well known traditional song, performed by Shokichi Kina, Takashi Hirayasu and others, and features his partner Sachiho, formerly of the group Zelda, on backing vocals.

15. THE BOOM

It is difficult to overestimate the effect on Okinawan music that the Boom’s number one, 1.5 million selling single “Shima Uta” had in 1993. Even today, this is perhaps the best known “Okinawan” song in Japan. Although interest in Okinawan music had swelled on the mainland from the end of 1980s, it was the Boom that brought the sanshin and Okinawan influenced music to the masses. The Boom’s singer and songwriter Kazufumi Miyazawa had encountered Okinawan music through spending time there, and recorded and performed live with various musicians including Shokichi Kina, Rikki and Yoriko Ganeko. Later influences on the Boom’s music would include Indonesian and Brazilian music, but Okinawa has remained a constant element in their increasingly eclectic mixtures. “Tida Akara Nami Kirara” was originally released as a limited edition single in Okinawa, for the “Sanshin 3000” event in 1995, where it was performed in a stadium by Kazufumi Miyazawa, various Okinawan musicians and 3000 sanshin players. The single soon became a rare item, available generally for the first time on this album.

16. SEIJIN NOBORIKAWA

After the death of Rinsho Kadekaru, perhaps Seijin Noborikawa stands as the island’s most loved and respected elder musician. Noborikawa (or “Seigwa” as he is often referred to) equally stands alone, not easily fitting into the ‘traditional’ musician category. He doesn’t usually dress in kimono, doesn’t only sing traditional repertoire but composes his own, anti-war and other protest songs, developed his own six string sanshin, the ‘rokushin’ and is known as the Okinawan ‘Jimi Hendrix’. Born in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan in 1930, he moved back to Okinawa as a child. A sanshin player from childhood he performed as a backing musician for a theatre group, where he perfected the traditional style and first met Rinsho Kadekaru, an association that would last a lifetime. Noborikawa later worked on an American base where he heard and digested the American hit songs of the day, an influence that gradually crept into his own music. Nevertheless, he was one of the founding members and later president of a traditional music society, and taught the sanshin to a 12 year old Sadao China. Despite his standing, perhaps overshadowed by Kadekaru and other traditional singers, he released relatively few albums. It was only after his starring role in the 1999 film “Nabbie no Koi” (Nabbie’s Love) that his fame spread to the rest of Japan. His album released in 2001,”Spiritual Unity” was produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union, who along with his band mates play on some of the songs, including guitar and the Japanese chindon drum on “Naritai Bushi”, a recent Noborikawa composition.

17. NENES

Of all the Okinawan artists during the 1990s, Nenes championed the cause of Okinawan roots music in Japan with probably more success than anyone else, while making some inroads overseas. Originally intended to make Okinawan min’yo accessible to young Okinawans, Nenes were brought together by Sadao China, who had first combined Okinawan music with pop elements on his 1977 local hit, “Bye, Bye, Okinawa”. With Nenes, China took a backseat role as producer and songwriter, where he was able to expand that vision further and with greater effect. The unison voices of Misako Koja, Yasuko Yoshida, Yukino Hiyane and Namiko Miyazato were combined with China’s sanshin, over a backing of guitars, drums, percussion, bass and perhaps most notably, the keyboards of co-producer Kazuya Sahara. It was a winning formula, first heard on the 1991 album “Ikawu”, now a seminal album of Okinawan music. During the next 10 years Nenes released another 6 original albums, varying the influences to include reggae, Brazilian, Hawaiian and Indonesian music, some staying closer to the tradition than others. Recording locations included Indonesia, Hawaii and Los Angeles, and recording guests Ry Cooder, David Lindley and David Hidalgo. Misako Koja (track 8) left Nenes in 1995, and was replaced by Eriko Touma, the subsequent line-up disbanding in 1999. This version of Umkaji, a Sadao China composition originally on their second album, ‘Yunta”, was recorded live at one of their last concerts, and is a rare recording of all five of Nenes singers together.

18. SURF CHAMPLERS

The ever inventive Kenji Yano released one of Okinawa’s most extraordinary albums in 1995. Under the pseudonym of The Surf Champlers, he combined Okinawan traditional and surf music on the album “Champloo a Go Go” released on a local label. Whereas he’s playing sanshin on a western tune on “James Bond Theme” included on the Rough Guide to Japan, Toshin Doi is a traditional tune played surf style on guitar with keyboards and other backing instruments. One of Okinawa’s best known tunes, Toshin Doi is performed often as a rousing finale, at concerts, parties and celebrations. The song takes it name from Toshin, the ship that traded with China when Okinawa was an independent kingdom. A hazardous journey, it’s safe return would be rejoiced at by the Okinawans.

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