Genji Kuniyoshi

The Miyako Islands are home to some of the greatest songs from the Ryukyus, full of melody and sadness, at least in part the result of their long history of harsh taxation from Shuri during the Ryukyu Kingdom period, not to mention the devastation and troubles caused by frequent typhoons. Genji Kuniyoshi, a native of Miyako, has for a long time been the leading exponent of these old Miyako songs. Uncompromising and sparse, Kuniyoshi’s recordings feature mostly just his voice and sanshin, but there’s no-one quite like him.

Now 80, his career as a performer obviously doesn’t have much longer to go but I was lucky enough to see him recently when he came to the annual ‘Sanshin no hi’ (Sanshin Day) event on March 4th – an all day series of concerts with free admission held in Yomitan on the main island of Okinawa. In fact, I almost bumped into the diminutive Kuniyoshi as he was arriving to prepare for the show. Now somewhat frail, his appearances are very infrequent these days and he performed just one song. This was ‘Kuicha’ which is perhaps the most familiar of all Miyako dance tunes. He took this at a thrilling pace and was joined not just by a circle of Miyako dancers, but by members of the audience who clambered onto the stage – Kuniyoshi being the first musician of the day to get people on their feet. Sadly, it was all too brief but Kuniyoshi was the highlight of the whole day for me. And that’s saying something, for we were treated to a galaxy of Okinawan music stars including Four Sisters, Seijin Noborikawa, Tetsuhiro Daiku, and Misako Koja, to name only a few. Another good Miyako singer, Yutaka Nakasone,  also put in an appearance. For those unable to attend, the concerts were broadcast live on radio throughout the day. I must have been one of the few who actually saw every performance and was there from the morning session which began at 11:45 right up until 9 p.m. when the feast of Okinawan music finally ended.

Genji Kuniyoshi’s albums ‘Irabu Togani’ and ‘Hatsukoi’

Genji Kuniyoshi was re-discovered by the big record companies in the 1990s. He has two albums available on CD which are both well worth searching out. His ‘Hatsukoi’ album on Toshiba EMI includes a version of ‘Kuicha’. Better still is his latest recording ‘Irabu Togani’ on the Victor label from 2002. These are probably his final appearances in the recording studio.

Last year the Japanese musician and producer Makoto Kubota discovered the music of the Miyako Islands when he recorded an album of Miyako songs with electric guitar, keyboards and beats, for his project Blue Asia, and he is apparently thinking of going back for more. The album ‘Sketches of Myahk’ was generally a success and has received a fair bit of attention outside Japan. It will be an even bigger success if it leads to an audience outside these islands discovering, listening to, and appreciating the Miyako Islands’ greatest traditional recording artist Genji Kuniyoshi.

Explore posts in the same categories: Live in Okinawa, Okinawan Albums

2 Comments on “Genji Kuniyoshi”

  1. Izumi Says:

    It is a happy surprise that you started your blog with Kuniyoshi Genji, as he has been my favorite singer in Okinawa. Note that I did not put the plural ‘s’ after ‘singer’, which means he is to me the best of the best singers. I envy you having seen and listened to him live, and almost bumping into him; I’ve never listened to him live.
    Almost 20 years ago, I invited Daiku Tetsuhiro to Okinawa University (the place I work at) and he sang several marvelous songs on the stage, fairly classical pieces out of his repertoire, followed by the good discussion session with two more guest-panelists joined on the stage.
    I declared after finishing this event that the next person to be invited should be Kuniyoshi Genji, which promise has not been realized yet.
    I repeat: I am so glad that you started the blog telling us about this genius.

  2. Izumi Says:

    Just a note. I mistakenly assumed that this was your first message on the blog when writing the above comment. This blog, like other most blogs, employs the push-down system; the latest message comes first, the oldest one last.

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