Here’s another one for the archive. In 2008 I wrote an article on Okinawa for the UK world music magazine Songlines. It focuses on two singers from different generations – Chihiro Kamiya and Yuki Yamazato. Both singers are still going strong. In fact, Kamiya went on to make her best album to date, Utaui, a few years later and also performed at the Trans Asia Music Meeting showcase last year. The photo of Yuki Yamazato I’ve included was not from the original feature but is a later one I took of her in 2011.
Postcard from Okinawa
Despite a large American presence, Okinawa’s traditions survive through its music, as John Potter discovers
Chihiro Kamiya is singing tonight at Mod’s in the seaside town of Chatan, Okinawa. She comes from the tiny island of Tsuken off the Okinawan coast. Now 25, she has been singing since the age of three, and her father runs a minshuku (guest house) on their island. Her uncle and cousin are both singers too, not unusual in these islands where – unlike mainland Japan – the music is still very much a living thing.
The American presence on Okinawa is evident everywhere but especially so in Chatan. Around 20% of the subtropical island is occupied by American military bases. Chatan, in the west, is a mix of old Okinawan buildings, a large flea market, and a shopping centre called ‘American Village’, all overlooked by a large ferris wheel. Mod’s is a small live music venue up a flight of steps in the midst of all the shops. Young Okinawan musicians play here regularly in front of small, enthusiastic audiences of around 100 people and tonight it is Chihiro Kamiya’s turn. The audience is exclusively Okinawan or Japanese (except for me) and a mixture of all ages.
Kamiya sings beautifully and plays the sanshin, the ubiquitous three stringed banjo-like instrument ever present in Okinawan music. But she’s a modern girl too and she introduces a small group of male musicians to accompany her on guitar, keyboards and percussion. This works best of all on ‘Tinjara’ the title song of her second and most recent album. If the songs are not exactly traditionally Okinawan they are definitely tinged with island spirit and make superior pop to rank with the best that mainland Japan has to offer.
But I’m in a hurry because it’s already ten o’clock as her performance ends and the night is just beginning on the island. A short drive north-east from Chatan brings us to the inland city known as Koza to the locals (officially Okinawa City), a shabby run down place which is the second city of Okinawa. Here there are many minyo (folk song) ‘live houses’ where the music doesn’t get under way until late and goes on for most of the night. My destination is slightly different though.
Yuki Yamazato is one of the top living Okinawan women singers. At her small bar Doushibi (which means ‘friends’), she serves drinks and snacks to regulars and is helped by another well-known singer of the old songs, Katsuko Yohen. Both women have recorded a number of albums, and recently made a joint CD – also entitled Doushibi – with another female singer, Keiko Kinjo. Yuki Yamazato, the eldest, is still a remarkably youthful looking 70-year-old. While Yamazato and Yohen serve the drinks, customers can sing their own versions of the island songs to a karaoke machine, but this is stopped when one or other of the women is asked to perform. Then out comes the familiar sanshin and the most exquisite songs are played just inches in front of our faces.
Yamazato, who owns the bar with Yohen, used to have a more usual minyo place but found it was no fun having to perform on stage every night. Doushibi is an excellent compromise as she sings only when she feels like it, and takes requests from the small clientele of true Okinawan music enthusiasts. As a foreigner I’m lucky to have found the place at all.
I request the song ‘Umi No Chinbora’ which she sings standing behind the bar with her sanshin. (A customer objects at first to my request as not being a good enough song for such a great singer as Yamazato!). Katsuko Yohen then treats the handful of customers to ‘Himeyuri No Uta’, a song which tells of the Battle of Okinawa and the island’s terrible wartime past. Later, Yamazato offers me her sanshin to play, but I’m rather overawed by the whole occasion and instead we all end up doing the katcharsee, Okinawa’s arm-flinging dance of celebration.
(Songlines Magazine No. 51, April/May 2008)