When I first discovered the music of Okinawa through Shoukichi Kina at the end of the 1980s I had no idea that a few years later Kina would be sharing the stage with another of my musical heroes Bob Dylan. Better still, I would be in the audience to witness this unlikely meeting which took place over three days in May 1994 at the renowned eighth century Todai-ji Temple in Nara.
The rather grandly titled Great Music Experience was a UNESCO sponsored event intended to be the first in a series of annual concerts held outdoors at important historical sites around the world. Its purpose was to gather together artists from different cultures and the first of these was a bringing closer of East and West with a number of high profile Western pop and rock musicians joining artists from Japan (and one from Okinawa).
Shoukichi Kina has always been fond of being photographed with other celebrities and he took the opportunity for a backstage picture at Todai-ji with a somewhat less than enthusiastic looking Bob Dylan. At a reception party for the musicians Kina was also snapped with both Joni Mitchell and Jon Bon Jovi. (Kina’s publicity material over the years has also featured glowing testimonials from Bob Marley, David Bowie and David Byrne to mention a few).
But let’s give him some credit too. His performance with Champloose members and Ry Cooder (plus a contribution from Ireland’s The Chieftains) was one of the really successful meetings of East and West. A few of the other musicians were content to run through their hits without much attempt at reaching out and embracing the spirit of cross-cultural collaboration. The overseas music media generally didn’t pay too much attention to the GME (as it was called) but an exception was Britain’s Q Magazine whose comprehensive report acclaimed Kina as one of its big successes.
Another star was Dylan himself whose live shows (recordings too) were notoriously erratic. Bob excelled himself this time by appearing on stage with the Tokyo New Philharmonic Orchestra and sang a moving and beautifully arranged ‘Ring Them Bells’. I was in the all-standing crowd near the front. Unfortunately this meant I was surrounded by loyal fans of metal rock band X Japan who had probably never heard of Dylan and only had eyes for their own heroes. It was a strange experience.
The finale finally brought Shoukichi Kina and Bob Dylan together on stage along with all the other musicians. No, they didn’t sing Shoukichi’s ‘Hana’ as might have been the case in Okinawa. That would be asking too much. Instead they sang Bob’s ‘I Shall Be Released’.
The logistics of organising the GME must all have been a bit too much and there was never another one. I never bought the pricey souvenir programme either and decided instead to spend the money more usefully on cans of beer which I consumed on the way home. The next evening I watched the whole thing again, or at least the third and final concert which was televised live to the world and broadcast by NHK on their satellite channel.