Island Voices: Tomoko Uehara

Here is the last in this occasional series of Island Voices.

Tomoko Uehara is best known as the leading voice of Okinawa’s Rinken Band, who famously popularized Okinawan roots music to wide audiences by mixing it with a large dose of pop music and making a bright, danceable show. Uehara is the focus of the band, especially when she sings the slower songs in her inimitable and immediately recognizable voice which stretches and lengthens the words she sings in a unique way.  The band was formed by her husband Rinken Teruya back in the late 70s and it was greatly strengthened when Tomoko joined them in 1988 as a singer and shimadaiko (island drum) player.

But Tomoko Uehara is not just a member of a successful band and she already had a lengthy career in music which began at a young age. She was born in 1958 in Itoman on the south coast of Okinawa and started singing at the age of six, later joining her family’s own band which was named Itoman Yakaras. Since joining Rinken Band and making numerous CDs with them she has also made five solo albums. She is an accomplished singer and sanshin player in her own right too who has sometimes performed traditional songs as a solo performer.

She recorded her first solo album Zan in 1997 on the Sony label and it has since been re-released by Rinken Records. It was a landmark album and still stands up as her finest achievement. Produced by husband Teruya, it’s an adventurous collection which includes some unusual arrangements and guest musicians such as African guitarist Mamadou Doumbia and Irish fiddler Nollaig Casey. The following year she made Voyage which jointly credits her and Teruya as featured artists. Her 3rd album Kunachi comprised Okinawan songs with simple acoustic guitar backings which worked unusually well. A 4th album Umachi was released in 2004 and her latest album is the simple Takouyama (2009) – a back to the roots collection with only sanshin accompaniment. She has also appeared on several DVDs including the excellent film Tink Tink and a documentary focusing on her life, Ajima no Uta.

Tomoko Uehara’s work with Rinken Band has taken her overseas to many parts of the world on numerous tours but she still finds time to personally make all the colourful outfits worn by herself and the other band members. She often appears on stage as a member of Rinken Band at the club they run in Chatan called Kalahaai.

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