Oshiro & Horiuchi

This is an interview I did with Misako Oshiro and Kanako Horiuchi after they released an album together in 2011. The feature was published in the UK’s fRoots Magazine. Misako Oshiro is regarded by many as the greatest female singer of traditional Okinawan songs. She continues to be active in her 80s and a double album compilation of some of her best work came out in 2012. A new album was released last year.

This was also my first meeting with Kanako Horiuchi who I’ve since met many times through her tireless involvement in numerous music projects. Last year I was asked to give a joint presentation with her at Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum. She travelled to Senegal to play and record an album in 2015 and has subsequently performed in Europe and Brazil as well as in various solo and joint projects around the Ryukyu Islands.

Oshiro & Horiuchi

Two generations of Okinawan minyo singers and sanshin players talk to John Potter.

I’m in Okinawa’s capital Naha with Misako Oshiro, widely regarded as the greatest living female singer of minyo (traditional songs) from the Ryukyu Islands. But this is a double meeting because I’m also talking with Kanako Horiuchi, more than 40 years Oshiro’s junior. The two women have just made an album together, Uta Nu In, released on Tokyo’s Respect label, and they are busy doing interviews and promotion.

Now 75, Misako Oshiro was brought up on the main Ryukyu island of Okinawa in the village of Henoko. She was a pupil of Teihan China (father of Sadao China) and made her debut single in 1962 with a recording of Teihan’s song Kataumui. In the 1970s she began playing with Okinawa’s best loved singer, the late Rinsho Kadekaru and their duets produced some of the greatest ever moments of Okinawan traditional song. In 1998 she also branched out into acting and played the leading role in the film Tsuru-Henry, though she claims in our meeting that she can’t really act and only plays herself.

Kanako Horiuchi’s background is very different. She’s not from the Ryukyu Islands at all but from Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. For the past decade she has been a pupil of Oshiro, learning minyo from her while working as a singer and musician at Oshiro’s club Shima Umui, and our meeting takes place here early one evening before the first customers arrive. The two women sit next to each other at one of the club’s tables and we sip the island’s popular jasmine tea (though Oshiro’s glass looks suspiciously as if it might contain awamori, the island liquor). Both women are happy to answer my questions and Horiuchi usually takes the initiative, behaving in a very friendly and natural way in the company of her distinguished mentor. The two obviously get on well. I ask Horiuchi how she came to be in Okinawa.

“I left Hokkaido when I was still very young and worked as a set designer in Tokyo for an advertising company. That was the first time I saw a sanshin being played or listened to Okinawan music and it was for a commercial by Seijin Noborikawa. I immediately wanted to play sanshin myself. My image of traditional music was that it’s rather stiff. The closest thing to minyo where I come from is the Tsugaru shamisen in which the musicians always play with very serious expressions on their faces. In Okinawa it’s different – the musicians encourage everyone to dance and the atmosphere is much friendlier. Moving to Okinawa was a big decision but I didn’t think all that deeply about it because I was only 22 at the time. I just felt strongly that I wanted to go there to play music.”

Soon after moving to Okinawa she was introduced to Misako Oshiro and began learning minyo from her, culminating in the new joint album, which was Horiuchi’s idea as a celebration of her decade of learning from Oshiro.

“I wrote down the songs I wanted to try on the album, and then gave the list to her. She went through them and suggested which ones were good or not for me. I did her famous song Kataumui. At first I thought maybe it wasn’t a good time to sing this song and that I should do it in the future, but then I thought, well, why not sing it now. Then she told me just to go ahead and sing it. Now I’d love to do a solo album…but maybe it will be in another ten years time!”

Oshiro & Horiuchi at Shima Umui

Apart from her love of minyo she is also involved with a project called Ska Lovers, a band playing ska versions of Okinawan and Japanese pop songs. Horiuchi is the vocalist and sanshin player and they have released two successful albums. It’s a world away from minyo but has ironically helped Horiuchi to understand that Okinawan traditional song is what she really loves most. She has also taken a break from the island to travel extensively, playing Okinawan music in England, France, Germany, the USA, Senegal and Brazil.

Misako Oshiro adds: “I don’t understand ska or any other music. I only know Okinawan minyo and I’ve just enjoyed making this album with Kanako. I’ve also enjoyed other duets I’ve done, most recently with Toru Yonaha, and of course most of all with Rinsho Kadekaru. The Ainu musician Oki is also interested in doing something with me and he came here the other day to talk about it. Apart from this, I just want to carry on the same as now at Shima Umui. I have no special plans or projects for the future.”

The album the two women have made is recorded very simply with mainly sanshin accompaniment and straightforward singing and playing. Toru Yonaha joins on four tracks but there are no other embellishments. “We thought about adding koto” says Horiuchi, “but in the end we didn’t because we decided there was probably no need for it. The title Uta Nu In also implies that the songs are more important than the singers or arrangements.”

Oshiro: “I was brought up listening to minyo so making the album was no problem for me but when I had to sing the two new songs it was a bit difficult at first.” On minyo in general she reflects: “The minyo world used to be more lively in Okinawa. Nowadays young people start playing minyo but they often don’t continue with it. A lot of them go into pop music. This makes me feel that it’s very important for me to carry on singing these songs in order to pass them on to the next generation.”

The collaboration with Kanako Horiuchi is a fine way to make sure this aim is achieved.

Uta Nu In is available through www.farsidemusic.com

Misako Oshiro’s Shima Umui website (in Japanese) is at www.shimaumui.net

(fRoots Magazine, Nos.343/344, Jan/Feb 2012)

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