Island Voices: Koutoku Tsuha

At 83 years of age, Koutoku Tsuha is the oldest performing singer and sanshin player from the first generation of Okinawan recording artists. Born in 1927 in Yomitan on the main island of Okinawa, his father was a teacher of classical Ryukyu music, and his uncle was also a music teacher and a Ryukyu dancer. In his early teenage years, Koutoku enjoyed the Eisa festivals around the island where he would sing and play the sanshin. He also joined the infamous mo-ashibi events – the all night outdoor revelries which were eventually forbidden by the mid-20th century. Before the war he had moved to mainland Japan for a time because of the need for work and he lived in both Osaka and Nagasaki. After the war ended he returned to Okinawa and learned classical Ryukyu music from his father and minyo from Teihan China.

Koutoku Tsuha’s first record was a single entitled ‘Hijigwa Bushi’ which he made together with Setsuko Ishihara. The record became a big hit in the island minyo world. During this time he was working at a barber shop which he ran with his father but he was also becoming an established part of the boom in minyo radio and live shows on the island. He wrote songs too and the most famous of these is his 1950s song ‘Chibumi’ which has been recorded many times, most notably by Aiko Yohen.

At the turn of the new century he made an unexpected return to the recording studio to make a remarkable double album entitled Singapore Gwa (B/C Records). This project was directed by Kazuyoshi Kamiya with Bisekatsu as supervisor. The guests included Minoru Kinjo on sanshin and vocals, and Koutoku’s son Koei Tsuha (sanshin, taiko and hayashi), while other musicians provided electric guitar, drums, bass and saxophone. The songs were mainly traditional but many of them were performed in an unusual, playful and adventurous way under the guise of ‘Captain Koutoku and his Roochoo Magic Band’. The entire album is a major success.

In 2006 he released another album Satukui Chijuya (Campus Records). This was a more standard traditional set of songs sung together with Satoko Oshiro, a singer from Onna village in Okinawa who had been Tsuha’s pupil. In the same year he topped the bill at the annual Ryukyu Festival held in Osaka. Tsuha is somewhat frail nowadays and there are few chances to see him performing live, but he is still remembered affectionately as one of the important early recording artists alongside the likes of Rinsho Kadekaru and Shouei Kina.

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