Shimauta King – Sadao China

In 2010 I did a lengthy interview with Sadao China at his home in Okinawa. Below is the feature that came out of it which was published in the UK by fRoots. Less than two years later China announced his retirement from singing because of problems with his voice but has since recovered and is performing once again.

Shimauta King

Sanshin player, singer and producer Sadao China has a special place in modern Okinawan music. John Potter enjoys his hospitality.

It’s a sizzling hot Wednesday afternoon in August on the subtropical Ryukyu island of Okinawa and at last I’ve caught up with singer, sanshin player, songwriter and producer Sadao China. In fact, I’m sitting in the living room of his home, a spacious house in Kitanakagusuku only a stone’s throw from the radiant blue Pacific Ocean.

Probably best known overseas as producer of the four-woman group Nenes, China himself is something of a legend in the Ryukyu Islands as a performer and last year won a national record award in Japan for his 6 CD box set Shimauta Hyakkei, a magnum opus comprising 101 traditional songs. I’ve been trying to arrange this meeting for a couple of months but China’s son Sadanori, who runs his father’s Dig Promotions music company, was under strict instructions not to make any appointments while Sadao was busy producing a new album for the latest line-up of his protégées Nenes. Well, the album is finished now and Sadao China has suggested we meet at his home. We’ve come across each other a few times before but always on neutral ground so I feel privileged to be invited into the family home. The entrance and several rooms are decorated with framed photos and posters, not just of China’s achievements but also of his own father, the late minyo (traditional song) singer Teihan China.

Sadao China’s wife keeps us well refreshed with coffee and then the island’s popular jasmine tea while her husband relaxes into the sofa next to the open windows where we try to get a cooling breeze. China is certainly a busy man. He runs his own music club or ‘live house’, known as Shimauta, on the main entertainment street Kokusai-dori in the island’s capital Naha, and he has produced a number of albums for other artists on his Dig label. He has also helped organize the annual Ryukyu Festivals held in Osaka and other venues around Japan. This has meant that his own recording has not been as prolific as it might have been. It picked up a bit over the past decade with the release of a duet album with Seijin Noborikawa and then a solo album Utamai in 2005. Nevertheless it was a great surprise when he suddenly came up with the Shimauta Hyakkei 6 CD box set at the end of last year. At first I thought it must be a collection of older recordings or re-releases, but not so, these are all brand new recordings.

China explains: “This plan had been going on for quite a long time and we had many discussions about it. Manabu Oshiro, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus, had been saying that he wanted me to do a big compilation album. The idea began about ten years ago but then there were some difficulties. For example, one of the directors of King Records, who released the album, became ill and there were various other problems. But Oshiro strongly wanted to have my songs recorded for posterity. I was a little unsure at first because I feel that I’m still a singer and my career is still going on so I haven’t finished yet! Anyway, I did this project in the end to show my thanks and appreciation to everyone such as the great older artists who inspired me, including those who are dead, and also to say thanks to other singers and friends. It’s because of them I’m still singing and doing this work.”

With such a large project it must have been difficult to choose the songs to be recorded. The songs are grouped by theme and so there are songs of celebration, songs of play and didacticism, immigration and travel, songs from plays and drama, songs about the islands, and finally two CDs of love songs. A single album was also released, entitled Utadamashi, which includes selections from the major work.

“In making the choices, I just recorded the songs I wanted to sing one after the after. Manabu Oshiro then sorted out the songs into each of the themes. I didn’t think about which song was from which particular island, it was more like doing a live performance in the studio. Almost all of the songs were recorded in one take. There were only two songs which took longer. I just sang and played the sanshin and the whole thing (apart from mixing) was finished in only four days. After that it took a week to do the overdubbing and other things.”

Although the album is mainly a solo project featuring just China’s voice and sanshin there is also some use of other accompaniment and he is also joined on some songs by a roll call of famous female island singers: Misako Oshiro, Yoriko Ganeko, Katsuko Yohen, Keiko Kinjo, Yasuko Yoshida, and Kanako Hatoma. I wondered how this was organized. China replies: “I carefully chose which song is better for which singer and thought about the whole thing a lot beforehand. For example, I can’t sing a duet on my own so I thought a lot about who to sing those songs with. I also thought about the key of the singers’ voices and which songs were more suitable for each singer. There are 101 songs altogether. I’ve never counted but possibly I know about three or four times the amount of songs on these CDs. That’s just minyo (traditional) or shimauta (island songs). If you add classical Ryukyu music then I must know about another 300 songs.”

The prestigious Nihon Record Taisho Kikaku Sho was awarded in late 2009. Getting a national award then must have been, well, very rewarding? “I was very surprised to get the award. It was a revolutionary thing even to be nominated for an award in Japan as an Okinawan musician. And then I actually won the award so I was very pleased. Also, I think this will encourage young musicians in Okinawa. I won a national arts award some time ago but I don’t rate it so highly because it’s just an academic thing, but a record award is a people’s thing. The record company recommended me to the committee without telling me. When we were recording and having a drink we sometimes made jokes about how this should be getting a record award, but I never thought it would really happen.”

China was not born in Okinawa but spent his first few years in Osaka in the Kansai area of mainland Japan where a large number of exiled Okinawans still live. His father Teihan China was one of the first generation of Okinawan recording artists along with the likes of Shouei Kina, Koutoku Tsuha and Rinsho Kadekaru. The young Sadao made his debut as a singer at the age of 12 and recordings of him at that age still exist. His high pitched vocals are in complete contrast to the deep resonance of his singing voice today at the age of 65. China, who seems to be a keen smoker, lights a cigarette and then reveals something I hadn’t known at all – he didn’t even want to be involved in Okinawan music in those early days.

“I began to sing when I was about five or six years old. I learned hardly any songs from my father. He used to teach classical Ryukyu music and I just used to listen. I hated music at that time, especially Ryukyu music. I didn’t even want people to recognize me as an Uchinanchu (Okinawan person). I was living in Kansai then and there was so much discrimination against Uchinanchu in Japan. It was the time of the Korean War and it was a very rough period for everyone and especially for minorities like us. My father used to say there will be a time in the future when Okinawan music is going to be written down and so there’s no need to grab someone like me to force them to learn, because they can learn in the future.”

When did he change his thinking about music? “I seriously thought about doing music after I was 20 years old. I had already been playing music before that, but very reluctantly, and when I became a pupil of Seijin Noborikawa at the age of 12 I really didn’t want to do it. I never thought it was fun to record when I was very young. I started playing Western classical music when I was about 16 on classical guitar. I did it because it was a good way to make myself popular with the girls. The sanshin wasn’t fashionable and girls wouldn’t fancy you if you played one because they had a bad image about it. Then one day I just played some Ryukyu minyo on my classical guitar and I felt that it sounded quite good. From that time I began to get more interested in Ryukyu music and I began to think that maybe we should be proud and show this music to people in the outside world.”

“That happened after I had moved to Okinawa from Osaka. I was discriminated against by Okinawans who said I spoke more like a Japanese but that was nothing compared to the discrimination I had suffered in Osaka. The difference was that Okinawans wanted you to be part of them in the end. They were just testing me and I had fights with several of them, but in the end they wanted me to be a part of the community. In Osaka they didn’t want me to be one of them at all. This also made me start to learn Okinawan dialect very hard. My parents spoke Okinawan but I only understood a little, rather like young Okinawans nowadays. People spoke Uchinaguchi (Okinawan) in daily life and they only spoke Japanese at school because they were forced to.”

In the 1970s China made his breakthrough Akabana album, but this was revolutionary in itself because it contained Okinawan-sounding songs written by China, some with traditional melodies and an overlay of rock and reggae. “People in Okinawa reacted with outrage and said these songs are rubbish because I already had the reputation of being a talented young minyo singer and was a great hope for the future of traditional song. They thought I was leaving the minyo world because of this album. This was about four or five years after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan and many young people wanted to leave for Tokyo or the mainland. They had the idea that things in Japan were better. I felt worried about this. So it had a big meaning for me to release this in Tokyo in order to protest and show Okinawan people their own music in a modern way and make them proud of it. That album was satisfying because I had a lot of feedback from people who said it made them happy as well. After that I just carried on with my music career on a small scale. But through these activities I met quite a few Japanese musicians who were interested in Okinawan music, such as Ryudo Uzaki, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Tokiko Kato. As you know, Okinawan music then became more recognized in Japan.”

So does he see himself primarily as a performer or a producer? “I learned so much from old singers of the past that this is why I am still a minyo singer today. I think I have a duty to hand down these songs to future generations. On the other hand, I’m also producing young people because I want to do so many other things apart from singing minyo. I produce Nenes, Kanako Hatoma, and The Fere, and I have to say that this is a good way to do things because they can sing on my behalf. I’m well over 60 now and if you think about me as someone with important responsibilities in the minyo world then it’s difficult for me to sing and perform like they do. Also, I really enjoy producing Nenes because when I write songs for them I really like writing in a subjective way and then producing the results objectively. But I never tell Nenes that you must sing in a certain way. So possibly being a producer is more fun.”

The original Nenes

The new Nenes are much changed from the four women led by Misako Koja who rocked the world of Okinawan music back in the early 90s. Quite apart from the completely new personnel, it has to be said that up to now these young women sound much less vital and charismatic than their famous forerunners. China’s productions also seem not to have developed much and follow the same formula. I approach the subject with caution when I ask how things went with the new album: “The recording is over but we have to do the mixing. Nenes are young and they like many different kinds of music such as rock, jazz, pop, and shimauta, so my aim is to make an album they will be satisfied with. So there will be different kinds of arrangements with elements of rock and Dixieland jazz. There are 13 jazz musicians involved on some of the album. We also use Okinawan instruments but in a very poppy way. The songs are all original except for two.”

“There’s no pressure whatsoever in producing the present Nenes, but the first Nenes were much more difficult. The original Nenes were four very strong characters and there was more pressure on me. I thought after the great first Nenes finished that I should change their name. But then I realized the original meaning of Nenes itself is a project to bring up new singers and so I thought maybe I shouldn’t change the name.”

“I think many young musicians in Okinawa have good sense and originality so the future will settle quite brightly and there will be a stable future for Okinawan music in general. The only thing I worry about is there are quite a few musicians who instead of sticking to shimauta, become professional and want to do too many original songs. Some even say they aren’t going to sing minyo or shimauta for a while. I think this is wrong. They probably think if they don’t do original songs they can’t be popular. I want them to learn more minyo because they are singing with a sanshin. If you are singing with a sanshin then you should study more music for sanshin. However, there are many good middle-aged singers and sanshin players who know about minyo. This is the reason why I think the future is good.”

While China has giant stature on the Okinawan minyo scene I feel that he, like many other Okinawan musicians, is welcoming to outside influences but is not so good at going outside the islands in search of new music and ideas. China is a great enthusiast of the excellent Okinawan singer Yasukatsu Oshima but is typically less enthralled with his recent successful collaboration with American jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer, who has also recorded China’s own work: “Oshima has a great attitude and his singing is wonderful. He actually bought my Shimauta Hyakkei box set and told me that because of it his repertoire is going to be much bigger. He always wants to know about the old musicians. I understand that Geoffrey Keezer is a great musician too but I couldn’t really understand that album they made. Why couldn’t they do it a bit more simply?”

I hesitate to say that if China himself had been as ambitious and adventurous with his own recent productions he might have achieved better results. Instead I turn the subject to the topic of world music in general and wonder whether China would include his own minyo and shimauta under this broad umbrella.

“I never thought about world music. It’s fine if people think Okinawan music is world music…or not. I don’t mind at all. Once you put music into the public eye it’s going to go on its own and it’s no longer in your hands. In that sense, anybody can call music anything they like. I know when Nenes became popular in the early 1990s everyone was talking about world music. Before that, when I produced Akabana my music was called ‘island music’. It’s up to the listener. I don’t really try hard to find out a lot about other kinds of music. I listen to music depending on how I feel. Every day is different. Sometimes I listen to rock music, and sometimes to chanson.”

On these islands – though always friendly and welcoming to outsiders – traditional musicians are often unaware of what is going on in the world of roots music worldwide. China is even mystified by Oshima and Keezer’s jazz experiments, and I get the impression he wouldn’t know a Portuguese fado from a Congolese rumba. But get him back onto the solid ground of Okinawan minyo and nobody has more knowledge and understanding. There can also be little doubt that at the present time China is the greatest living male singer of Okinawan songs. He is still at the peak of his powers and has now surpassed even his mentor Seijin Noborikawa as a live performer. I tell him so and he thanks me without embarrassment. He signs my copy of Shimauta Hyakkei and says he wishes he could understand English better so that he could read this article in fRoots. And he adds a request. “Please let me play in England!”

Many thanks to Sadao China and his family, and to Midori Potter for help with translations.

(fRoots Magazine No.328, October 2010)

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