An interview with Kirk King
Kirk King is an ethnomusicologist from Vancouver, Canada who has a great interest in Okinawan music. After several years living in Nagano in mainland Japan, Kirk is currently engaged on doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia as a member of their Public Scholars Initiative and is spending some time in Okinawa to do research for his dissertation which will be a study of the great Okinawan musician Rinsho Kadekaru (1920~1999).
I first met Kirk about three years ago when he was on another visit to Okinawa and at that time he came to my home to talk to me about my book The Power of Okinawa. This time I managed to turn the tables and sat him down to answer some questions of my own. Kirk is enormously knowledgeable about music but is always eager to find out more and he has a genuine love of traditional music in Okinawa. We could have talked all night and in the end we almost did. What follows are some of my questions along with Kirk’s thoughtful answers.
(JP): How did your interest in Okinawa and its music begin?
(KK): I lived in Nagano Prefecture for ten years and participated in traditional music there. I performed the accompanying music for lion dancing in my local community, and I wrote my Master’s thesis on that topic. At that point I was really looking to branch out and try a different area of research but still within Japan. As fate would have it, a good friend of mine introduced me to a lot of Okinawan music and lent me a stack of CDs which included a couple by Kadekaru Rinsho which I listened to and was extremely moved by. It was just something about his sound that really grabbed me so I started reading about Kadekaru and his life. I thought it would make an excellent biographical study to look at his life in connection with the music that he made and his particular style of singing and playing. That’s where it all started.
Did you find that Okinawan music was very different from Japanese music?
Yes, I think it’s very different. Not just the music itself and the elements of composition but more than that what strikes me as the greatest difference is the cultural context. I always think of Okinawan music as a living tradition but I think in the Japanese mainland some of the traditional arts kind of exist in the past and are trapped in time. However, in Okinawa it’s still very much alive and is very much a part of everyday life.
How did you become interested in music to begin with?
I always loved music ever since I was a kid and studied piano and guitar. But what really aroused my interest in ‘world music’ was that when I was 15 I lived in Indonesia for a year with my parents in West Timor. I started learning a traditional instrument there called the sasando and listened to a lot of gamelan music at a young age. Ever since that time I had an interest in world music and did my undergraduate degree in Music History and then my Master’s in Ethnomusicology.
What do you focus on in your dissertation on Kadekaru?
My research is a biographical study of Kadekaru which looks at key events and experiences in his life and how they shaped his musical output. I’m not so interested in a complete life history which I think is extremely difficult to do regarding Kadekaru and also I’m not sure it’s particularly suited to an ethnomusicology study. But what I am interested in is collecting as many stories as possible about Kadekaru from people who have something to say about him, or some impression.
I’m also very interested in the legend of Kadekaru and how he’s remembered today in Okinawa. I’m also interested in the networks that surround a great artist like him because I believe that to become a person of prominence in a musical world it takes much more than talent. There are other reasons, there are certain circumstances that bring them to that position and there are people that surround a person who validate them as a musician and raise them to a position of prominence. Since he has been such a great influence on musicians, even today, I wondered to what extent he also helped to shape the sense of Okinawan identity which is so closely tied to music and the sanshin.
Did you ever see Kadekaru when he was performing?
Unfortunately I didn’t. I wish I could have. But I’m fortunate enough to talk to a lot of the people who knew him and they’ve been very cooperative and this is an important part of my research. I’m a member of the University of British Columbia’s Public Scholars Initiative (PSI) which was created last year by the Faculty of Postgraduate and Doctoral Studies. The objective of the PSI is to support scholarship that bridges a gap between academia and the public. It also encourages people to re-imagine the dissertation not as a document that is going to sit on a shelf collecting dust but as something that has impact in the community.
For me public scholarship means looking at these people who contribute to my research not as research informants but rather as participants. So I don’t come in as an anthropologist or a musicologist and collect data and leave. I’m really interested in developing relationships and letting their voices come through to tell the story of Kadekaru. In this way I see them also as public scholars in a sense because of their great knowledge and experience.
When you are not studying or listening to Okinawan music what other kinds of music do you particularly like?
I like all kinds of music. I’m a big fan of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and have been listening to that lately. I also listen to jazz, especially early New Orleans jazz. I like classic rock and I’ve been listening a lot to David Bowie lately since he passed away because he has been a huge influence on my life in general.
Are you playing music yourself nowadays?
A little bit, when I have time for it. I started taking sanshin lessons in Nagano out of a research interest to try and understand the instrument better. As much as I like listening to it I find that when I play sanshin it carries me away on a wave for a while. When I come back I feel rejuvenated so I really enjoy it even though I know only about five songs right now. I’m not taking lessons now but I’ve been playing in Vancouver where we have an Okinawa Kenjinkai and an Eisa group.
How about your own future? Do you see yourself in Japan or Okinawa or Canada?
Well, it’s hard to say at this point. I’m open to the idea of living in Japan and definitely Okinawa would be nice if I can work here. I would like to take a position in academia because I really like teaching and I like working with people. If I could do it with something I really love then that would be the perfect work for me. As an ethnomusicologist, the connections I’ve established with people are very important because that’s how I do my work so I’d like to just continue meeting new people and finding new opportunities.
Kirk has his own page on the UBC Public Scholars Initiative website where you can read more about his research: