Island Voices: Rinsho Kadekaru

Towards the end of 2007 I was asked to write a regular page on Okinawan music for a new quarterly magazine ‘The Okinawan’. This became a column called ‘Sounds of Okinawa’. Sadly ‘The Okinawan’ ceased publication last year, presumably a victim of the economic squeeze. The second of my columns featured Rinsho Kadekaru and is reprinted below. It seems a good idea (to me anyway) to continue with short profiles of Okinawan singers and musicians here in an occasional series which I will call ‘Island Voices’. Much of the information in this Kadekaru article is also available in expanded form in ‘The Power of Okinawa’ book, and an excerpt is already on the website, but it seems fitting to begin with a profile of the person who many regard as the greatest singer of the old songs…  

Ask fans of Okinawan traditional song who is the greatest singer and sanshin player in the music’s history and the likely answer will be Rinsho Kadekaru. As both a live performer and a recording artist Kadekaru enjoyed a long career right up until his death in 1999 at the age of 79. Since then record companies have been re-packaging and releasing recordings of his on CD almost as if he was still with us.

Kadekaru was born near Koza on 4 July 1920 and began playing sanshin at the age of seven. As a teenager he went to mainland Japan and worked at a factory in Osaka while singing and playing sanshin in his free time. At 19 he returned to Okinawa and to enforced military service. He was then sent back to the mainland for two years during the war, which he detested. After the war ended he travelled around the Micronesian islands, eventually returning to an Okinawa still devastated by battle.

From the 1950s he travelled throughout the Ryukyus where he played and sang in all kinds of events, from theatrical performances to local rituals and celebrations. Discovered by the musician and entrepreneur Choki Fukuhara, he went on to make around 250 recordings for Fukuhara’s Marufuku record company and other labels. A total of 82 singles were released – 40 on Marufuku, 15 for Maruteru Records, and various others for different labels. In all there were 23 albums and countless other recordings on compilations. In 1969 Kadekaru started appearing regularly at the singer Aiko Yohen’s minyo club Nantahama, in Koza. He was to perform there for the next 26 years, becoming established as the outstanding singer of his generation.

The Umi Koi Ikusa box set contains 4 CDs of studio recordings and 4 CDs of live recordings

Why is he so popular? Kadekaru’s voice sounds weak on first listening and may be an acquired taste but his performance of such songs as the classic ‘Nakuni’ sets the standard for others to follow. A master interpreter of the old songs, he also enjoyed making up his own words and setting them to traditional melodies. He recorded all the important minyo that everyone else does nowadays as well as many other lesser-known songs. In fact, part of the reason for his fame rests on this eclecticism and the fact that he was willing to try everything and make so many recordings. The Okinawan film director Go Takamine made a video documentary about him which also features Misako Oshiro, his most frequent female singing partner. In the year of his death the Ryukyu Minyo Association awarded him the title Minyo Meijin – Master of Minyo. In later years he was a somewhat reticent figure on stage, but also a lifelong smoker who for relaxation liked a day’s gambling at the pachinko parlour.

With most of his recordings now available on CD it is impossible to recommend a definitive album, but two Victor releases from 2000 – Hukyokajin: The Best of Rinsho Kadekaru, and Jiru: Rare Tracks of Rinsho Kadekaru – are essential. Uta Awase, on B/C Records, a joint album with Yaeyama singer Yukichi Yamazato made only a year before Kadekaru’s death, finds him still in superb form. And if you can afford it, Umi Koi Ikusa is Victor’s magnificent 8 CD set of studio and live recordings.

Of today’s artists, his former ‘pupil’ Seijin Noborikawa has taken over the role of Okinawa’s outstanding veteran performer. But a much younger generation reveres Kadekaru too. Yasukatsu Oshima has even written and recorded a song, ‘Ryusei’, which is dedicated to him. Kadekaru’s own son, Rinji, who sometimes accompanied his father on violin, has also recorded his own album My Sweet Home Koza.

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