The crossing at Roppongi is one of Tokyo’s busiest and seediest places. Men in black suits and women in red mini-skirts hand out leaflets for the strip shows, hostess bars and night clubs. On one corner is the Almond coffee shop, famed as a location for any meeting with a dubious agenda. Opposite, tucked away on the eighth floor of a building is “Wonderful Tonight”, a small Eric Clapton tribute bar.
It was here, surrounded by Clapton memorabilia that Yasukatsu Oshima, the man being touted as the young bright hope for traditional Okinawan music, got his professional start in music. Soon after I arrived in Tokyo in 1993, a friend had coerced me down to Wonderful Tonight- this was, after all, during Clapton’s rather annoying “MTV Unplugged” phase. Still, I was going to hear Okinawan music, or sort of. Oshima played acoustic guitar as well as sanshin (the Okinawan lute) and was joined by another acoustic guitarist. Aside to Okinawan tunes, they played what the Japanese call “folk” songs (anything from the 70s that featured an acoustic guitar), and a few western covers, probably Layla or something. Oshima had an infectious appeal; a likeable demeanour, a good voice and some excellent original songs. The gig left a lasting impression that would draw me to him a few years later.
Almost exactly eight years on, and we’re once again in a slightly dodgy bar, this time attached to a London hotel. Today is Yasukatsu Oshima’s last day of a UK tour and tonight his last gig in London at the Spitz. “Wonderful Tonight was my start in music” muses Oshima. “I hadn’t played live before and didn’t really know what I was doing. In fact, I didn’t know anything.” Nevertheless, his first album was just about to come out, and on a major record company at that. “That was just lucky” he says with an embarrassed laugh. “I’d never played live before I released a record and before I recorded I’d never written a song. I once played at a gig in Tokyo with some friends of mine from back home in a band called Begin. Someone from a record company saw me and offered me a deal, just like that. So I did it. I’d come to Tokyo when I was twenty but only to work as a ‘salary man’ in a computer company, not to play music.”
Even allowing for Oshima’s modesty and self depreciation there has to be more to it to it than this. There is, although he did somewhat stumble upon the choice of music for a living. He grew up immersed in traditional music and his typically laid back Okinawan attitude belies a studious and respectful approach to that tradition and other music too.
Yasukatsu Oshima is from Shiraho on Ishigaki island, the biggest of the Yaeyama chain, the westernmost of the Okinawan islands. “Ever since I can remember I heard the sound of the sanshin. My grandfather and father would play every night in our house and at festivals. They are my biggest influences. From them I got to know all the Okinawan songs. My grandfather made sanshins and he gave one to me when I was about 10 years old. He was a farmer and a carpenter, one of those people who can do anything. Even now the sanshin I use was made by him. I never played it much though. I did try and study once but soon gave it up. I didn’t know much about music, not even the Beatles. I never had any records, never listened to the radio and was more interested in playing around on my bicycle. I wanted to be a hairdresser actually, and would cut my friends hair in return for a cigarette.”
Shiraho is an anonymous sort of village by the sea. It has however gained international attention in recent years, for the unique species of blue coral found off it’s coast. The WWF (the wildlife one) has had a boat moored there, researching the coral and supporting the local campaign against building an airport that would destroy it. Seeing the blue coral for yourself has become one of the main tourist activities in Ishigaki.
Shiraho is becoming equally known as a unique breeding ground for musicians. One of Okinawa’s greatest musicians, Yukichi Yamazato is from here, as is another young artist Yukito Ara, who with his band Parsha Club were once labeled leaders of the “new wave of Okinawan music”, but never quite realised their early promise.
“My friends, such as Ara were all into music” says Oshima. “Ara lived near me, but was one year older. I was in the same class at school as the people in Begin, so I learnt to play guitar a bit and played together with them for fun.”
After leaving school Oshima went to Naha, the biggest city on the main island of Okinawa, where he studied computers. He then got a job in Tokyo. “I worked for two years in a company. My only friends from home who were living in Tokyo were Begin, which is why I played music as well. I got more interested in sanshin at this time and traditional music. I didn’t have a teacher though, I just taught myself from tapes or CDs. I also saw lots of good players and studied from watching. At first I just copied the greats like Rinsho Kadekaru or Seijin Noborikawa. Gradually I developed my own style. The trouble with having a teacher is that it’s possible you end up playing too much like your teacher.”
Japanese traditional music is usually taught within a strict code by certified teachers. Self expression is not usually encouraged. Is Okinawa different? “Yes I think it is” says Oshima. “It’s not strict or laid down. Everyone has their own style. Kadekaru and Noborikawa are really different to each other.”
It was also at this time that Oshima says he began to develop his style of singing. In contrast to the essentially Western style vocals of say Shokichi Kina or Takashi Hirayasu, Oshima’s voice seems to be heavily rooted in the min’yo (original folk) tradition. “I think my voice is quite different from the old singers though” says Oshima. “I’m as much influenced by Kiyoshiro Imawano (a legend from that 70s Japanese “folk” scene). I started off copying everyone and from there developed my own style.”
According to Oshima, the musician I saw at Wonderful Tonight, was still very much in a period of transition. “When I listen to that first album now it’s a bit embarrassing, I’m playing guitar which I don’t do now, my way of singing is totally different. It’s not bad though, I was young and it has a certain power to it.”
That first album was called “Nishi Kaji Hai Kaji”, and given a long winded English translation “After the North Wind Comes the Fall, the Summer Comes after the South Wind”. The album gained a select band of admirers in the UK. One of the standout tracks was one of those first songs that Oshima had ever written, together with his old friend Eisho Higa from Begin, ” Irayoi Tsuki Yo Hama”. This song was admired by the head of a world music label in London, who described it as “one of those ‘We Are Sailing’ type Okinawan ballads.” Any link between Rod Stewart and Okinawan min’yo had escaped me, but he was dead right.
In major record company terms the album bombed. Oshima was eventually dropped and finished his residency at Wonderful Tonight. For the next few years he mostly disappeared from the scene.
Four years later I played that album to another major record company, JVC Victor, when asked to recommend an Okinawan musician to record. They liked what they heard and for a few months I tried contacting him, but all leads lead nowhere. Finally I tracked him down to Osaka, to where he had moved a year before.
I wasn’t the only one searching for him. Coincidentally so too were Off Note, an independent label responsible for some of Japan and Okinawa’s most creative roots releases , including the albums by another Ishigaki musician, Tetsuhiro Daiku. They wanted him to sing with a Japanese brass band, Orquesta Bore. The resulting album, “Ima du Wakari’ with the English title, “Now O Now, I Need Must Part” was a departure for Oshima. He didn’t do much more than just sing and play sanshin, it being fair to say it was the band (some of whom have recorded with Cicala Mvta, Tetsuhiro Daiku and others) and their arrangements that made it an extraordinary album.
Apart from this project, Oshima had been keeping a low profile, playing on the odd occasions, mostly at small bars. When I was to next see him, in front of a dozen or so people in a Tokyo suburb, his music had changed quite considerably. Gone was the guitar, and the ‘folk’ elements with it. Instead he sat alone, playing sanshin, singing mostly traditional songs with a voice to match and telling stories and the history of each song.
Most Okinawan musicians I’d known had started off playing traditional songs by themselves, then later had played with others and expanded their horizons. Oshima had done the opposite. “Yes, that’s because it’s the hardest thing I think to play by yourself, and once you can do it, it’s very satisfying. Once I’ve built that base then I can start playing with others, and it will then sound the better for it. The traditional tunes are the most fantastic music there is. I learn how to write my own songs from knowing those traditional songs. ”
Oshima’s first album for JVC Victor was called Ari Nu Tou. He was joined by three musicians, including Yukito Ara. It was roughly divided between traditional Yaeyama tunes and ones penned by Oshima himself, the two pretty much indistinguishable. Was this somehow his goal, to make what might be called the “traditional” songs of the future? ” That’s my absolute goal, the purpose of what I’m doing. That would make me happier than anything. There are so many songs in Okinawa, but there are only a few songs that everyone knows. Only the best songs become regarded as part of the traditional repertoire.”
Oshima’s latest, “Wagashima nu Uta” or “Songs of My Islands” features just Ohshima’s sanshin and voice and purely Yaeyama traditional tunes. The great elders of Okinawan music such as Seijin Noborikawa or Syoei Kina (Shokichi’s father) are now in their 70s. Shokichi Kina, Sadao China, Teruya Rinken or Takashi Hiraysu are either past or approaching 50. Oshima is just about the only musician in his 30s to be playing traditional Okinawan music. Is he on some kind of crusade to keep the real tradition going?
“Not really, I don’t have the power to do that but as I’ve studied from those people above me, I would like to pass on the tradition to those below. Years ago there was only traditional music and nothing else which is why it has survived. Nowadays, there’s so many types of music. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and there’s still lots of people who like traditional min’yo, so it will survive.” And does he envisage ever going back to Okinawa one day to teach, as for example Tetsuhiro Daiku does? “Never, I can’t do that. I think it’s great that people do teach, but I didn’t study formally, so I can’t teach formally. Anyway, I’m still studying.”
On returning to Japan, Oshima was to start work on a new album. Earlier in 200I he had performed in Tokyo with a group called Chorro Club, featuring guitar, mandolin, violin, accordion and percussion. It seemed a natural combination, with Oshima totally at ease, and his repertoire given fresh and inspired arrangements. “For me this is the best group to play with.” he says. “Instead of accordion I’ll include a friend from Begin on piano who I’m writing the new songs with. It’s not that I don’t want to play only sanshin, but just that I find playing guitar and sanshin too difficult, especially live. I need to concentrate on just the sanshin, and then have someone else play guitar.”
Oshima is equally happy to perform solo wherever and whenever he can. “Playing live is the most enjoyable thing for me. Whether it’s in Tokyo, Osaka or Okinawa. I want to play abroad again and come back to England. This is the second time I’ve been to England. The first time was the Japanorama tour, with about 12 artists. then I only played about three or four songs for about twenty minutes. This time there’s just two of us, so I can relax. Here people don’t know Okinawan music at all so it’s so interesting gauging their reactions. Now I wish I could only explain the background of the songs. I’d better learn some English as well.” If the apparent speed with which he mastered traditional Okinawan music is anything to go by, expect him to be fluent.
Originally published in fRoots magazine April 2002