Dispatch from Okinawa

A more recent one for the Features Archive. This is my report of the 2016 Trans Asia Music Meeting in Okinawa. It was published in the UK magazine Songlines.

Dispatch from Okinawa

John Potter reports from the capital of the Japanese archipelago on the initiatives to showcase and promote Okinawan music to a wider audience

As a resident of Okinawa I’m used to the sticky, subtropical climate, so the unusually cold January weather comes as a surprise to all who attend the 2016 edition of the Trans Asia Music Meeting in the island’s capital, Naha. Okinawa is the largest of many islands in the archipelago which stretches from southern Japan to Taiwan. Once the independent Ryukyu kingdom, the islanders here have a distinct culture and music of their own, which they defend proudly.

This second annual music meeting is a two day international trade fair, conference and showcase of music from all over Okinawa’s Ryukyu Islands. Its purpose is to establish relationships with other Asian promoters and producers and to help expand Okinawan music around the world.

Okinawan music is mainly concerned with songs and singing. Traditionally these songs were sung about the everyday lives of the people and there co-exist plaintive love songs and earthy work songs as well as songs for dancing at all kinds of gatherings. The tribulations caused by war, invasions and typhoons also play their part in the singing culture.

Hirara

The instrument that most defines Okinawan music is the three-stringed snakeskin-covered lute known as the sanshin which is often likened to the banjo with its distinctive twang. It’s primarily an instrument to accompany singing and to fill in the spaces between the words. Originally introduced and adapted from the Chinese sanxian several centuries ago, it’s now ubiquitous with its sound seeping from bars, restaurants and houses wherever you go.

At the showcase that follows this year’s music meeting, the organisers are keen to promote not just traditional roots music but also some of the newer styles from around the islands, influenced by the champloo (mix) of history and culture here. The main venue is Sakurazaka Theatre, an arts centre in central Naha close to the tourist-packed entertainment street Kokusai-dori but there is also live music at another venue close by.

Impressive among the more roots-based contingent is Hirara, a singer and sanshin player from the Miyako Islands. The Ryukyu island chain contains a variety of songs each unique to its own island or island group. Miyako songs are especially rich in sad melodies but there are also a number of livelier tunes and Hirara ends her set with one of these, the well-known ‘Kuicha’ a song performed by groups in a circle as they danced at festivals and celebrations. She is joined on stage by two guitarists who also provide the joyous background yelps and vocal sounds known as hayashi.

In complete musical contrast the charismatic young poet and rapper Awich delivers a powerful set accompanied by a standard Western band line-up of electric guitar, bass and drums and sings her own songs in both Japanese and English. Awich maintains that her rapping is indeed Okinawan at its core in that it shares a base with the traditional Okinawan kuduchi which are songs delivered in a quick volley of spoken words to sanshin accompaniment.

MKR Project

The trio MKR Project stand out with their experimental blending of old and new. Their singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki composes her own songs to which bass and drums are added. The drummer is Rob Goodman an American resident on Okinawa. Aragaki also sings solo, is a sanshin teacher and has just collaborated on live shows as a duo with Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia. She is the focus of MKR Project’s music and the traditional Okinawan songs are given languid jazzy arrangements with her voice and sanshin to the fore. It’s a mix which is still evolving but is one of the most promising at the showcase.

The evening is rounded off by Kachimba4 who describe themselves as an Okinawan salsa band. Their music is almost entirely influenced by Cuba rather than Okinawa. The four members play accordion, guitar, double bass and lots of percussion and also bring out a trombone for some audience participation with an improvised dance around the auditorium. Their ‘Guantanamera’ is hardly going to spark an interest in Okinawan music but they frequently sing in the Okinawan language (which still thrives in the songs and is completely distinct from Japanese) thus adding a touch of Ryukyu island flavour but one that may be lost on overseas audiences.

The champloo mix of styles and genres highlights both the strength and the possible weakness of current music from Okinawa as people search for a way in; a point made at the meeting by keynote speaker Paul Fisher from the UK. But one thing nobody was denying is that these islands are still full of music.

+ ONLINE http://musicfromokinawa.com/

(Songlines Magazine, No.117, May 2016)

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