A Conversation with Kirk

I sometimes wonder why it is that I was so immediately enraptured by Okinawan music as soon as I first listened to it almost 30 years ago. There is also the question of why I have a similar fascination with music from the Basque Country. This has led me to many other questions such as the aesthetic value of different kinds of music and how, or even if, they can be compared or judged.

Not being an ethnomusicologist – nor having any academic background in music – I did the obvious thing and got in touch with my Canadian friend Kirk King who lives in Nagano. As well as being an ethnomusicologist he is an aficionado of Okinawan music with a special interest in Rinsho Kadekaru. (My earlier talk with Kirk about his studies is still available to read in the Interviews category of this blog). My questions became an email conversation that went on for some time. Even the much edited version here is a good deal longer than usual posts on this blog so it will be published in two parts (so as not to exhaust readers!).

Here is the first part. The second will follow in a day or two. Kirk begins by addressing my initial question about our attraction to the music of Okinawa.

Kirk K: John, it was the same for me — in my case after hearing Kadekaru. I was literally in tears, I was so moved. Yet, of course I had no idea what he was singing, and I knew very little about Okinawa. Okinawan music definitely has some kind of power, doesn’t it? It led you to move to Okinawa and devote much of your time and attention to its music. It led me to pursue minyo as a field of research. Ultimately, it brought you and me together, too!

John P:  It’s interesting (and rather reassuring) that you felt the same way when first hearing Okinawan music, in your case Kadekaru. In my case it was Shoukichi Kina and only a bit later that I came to appreciate the more sparse traditional songs, though Kina’s music is also steeped in Okinawan roots of course.

Kirk King: ethnomusicologist with sanshin

KK: Regardless of the fact that your connection with Okinawa was very slight at the time, your attraction to its music might still have something to do with your location, your environment, and what this music represented for you. For me, for example, I had been researching a local music tradition in Nagano for some nine years, and it was the topic of my MA dissertation. Those nine years were somewhat of an emotional roller coaster, though, in that despite all the good that came with my research, I also faced enough discrimination and ‘othering’ that it led to somewhat of a personal identity crisis. I became bitter and resentful toward the tradition and some of the people involved. I was also very dissatisfied with my job at the time, and it caused me to resent Japanese society in general. I became depressed and bitter, and I focused on the negative aspects of Japanese society. Okinawan music represented something new and liberating for me. I felt somewhat of a kinship with Okinawa, which had also been discriminated against and treated horribly by Japan. (Of course, my problems aren’t comparable with those of the Okinawa/Japan relationship, but still, somehow the music spoke to me). So even though I and my location were far removed from Okinawa, it was, on the other hand, this very distance that drew me closer to Okinawa and its music. Does this make sense, and if so, might something like this have been true for you?

JP: Your answer makes complete sense to me but I’ll come to that in a bit. First I’d say that I had probably never even heard of Okinawa when I came to live in Kobe, Japan. I’m not sure. Anyway, the proximity to Okinawa once I was there obviously led to my discovery of its music. I listened to a couple of tapes of Kina’s music and that was the moment of revelation for me. If I had stayed in England I would almost certainly never have made this discovery.

Your nine year emotional roller coaster in Nagano is something I can understand. I didn’t have such negative experiences as you but when I think about it now there was often a sense of frustration when I lived in mainland Japan and when I first moved there it was much more unusual for a foreigner to be living and working there, even in a so-called ‘international’ city such as Kobe. When I eventually became full-time professor at Kogakkan University in Mie I was employed by a very traditional and conservative Shinto university whose fundamental ethos and values are very different from mine with my background in radical alternative education. This didn’t cause any obvious problems at the university but almost certainly increased my radical views and support for the underdog – such as Okinawa. I became very keen to explore more about the culture and history of Okinawa and its music and came to see Okinawa as a colonial outpost of Japan that has been treated shamefully by successive Japanese governments ever since the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom. So in a way something of your experience is also present in mine.

As for the revelation with Basque music, this came through listening to a track on a compilation CD. It was a triki-pop song by Maixa ta Ixia an all woman band who mixed traditional trikitixa (accordion and tambourine music) with guitar, bass and drums. This was very popular in the 1990s and in a way they were doing what Kina was doing with Okinawan music. I just came to identify with the Basques as I had with the Okinawans because, perhaps, they are also underdogs who have their own culture, music and language but no nation of their own. I think that it’s easy to see my interest in terms of supporting minorities but it still doesn’t explain why I liked the music so much in the first place.

Rinsho Kadekaru: the Okinawan godfather of song can reduce us to tears

KK: It seems that at least to some degree your appreciation of a certain culture’s music is heightened by your sympathy for their political/social/economic plight. I think this is a common phenomenon. Still, as you suggest, this reason doesn’t explain everything.

I’d like to ask: are there any clear similarities among the kinds of music you like? Difficult question, perhaps. For example, going back to what the music/musicians represent socially, it seems that you might prefer musicians that are somewhat more modest or understated. That is, the likes of Dylan and Kadekaru. Perhaps you are turned off by music with a lot of bravado or machismo, such as some forms of South American music or hip-hop music. What do you think?

JP: I can’t really see any particular similarities. It’s true that to some extent I prefer the understated, as you say, in that I like Dylan and Kadekaru. I also like many other Western songwriters who maybe fit that profile such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Elvis Costello. The similarity here would be that they are all expert at their craft and write very good lyrics. So it might seem that words are very important to me. But if I was asked what is most important to me in music I’d probably say strong melodies. I’m very happy to listen to songs sung in languages that I don’t understand as long as the singing and especially the tunes and melodies move me emotionally. Having great words too is just a very good bonus.

As for the bravado, machismo thing being a turn-off for me, that’s a very interesting point that I hadn’t thought about. However, once again I don’t fit easily into this theory either because while I’m not keen on South American music in general, I have no such problem with hip-hop. I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop, and might not like it so much if I did, but I do like Kendrick Lamar and I’m a huge fan of Macklemore whose album The Heist (with Ryan Lewis) was one of the best discoveries I’ve made in the past few years. I even bought an expensive ticket to go and see them in Osaka and was devastated when I couldn’t go in the end because I broke my leg! But Macklemore is not regarded highly in some hip-hop circles because, well, he’s white not black and also his music is as much to do with pop as it is hip-hop. For me, this makes it more appealing not less. So maybe I can only really like hip-hop when it’s served up in a pop format. Nothing wrong with that as I think pop music is far too easily dismissed as lightweight when it’s not.

KK: Also, are there any similarities in the elements of the music itself?  That is, elements such as modality, instrumentation (large groups versus small ensembles or solo instrument accompaniment), lyrical themes (the stories they tell), ‘relaxing’ versus ‘edgy’ music (for many years I had a hard time listening to ‘dark’ music such as that of Nick Cave, whom I now like very much).

JP: I can’t really say there are any clear similarities in the elements of the music that I like. I was brought up on the English folk club scene of the 1960s as I knew people who ran a folk club in my hometown Norwich and so I started going there regularly when I was seventeen. Before that I listened only to pop music but was then exposed to a lot of British and American folk and traditional music that I still like very much and so I suppose I am likely to be drawn to that kind of thing. But I also liked punk in the ‘70s and then synth-pop in the ‘80s.

KK: Perhaps I could also ask why you dislike enka? Can you point to any specific characteristics of the music that turn you off?

JP: I dislike enka first of all because it’s so formulaic. Every song seems to have the same beginning and to me the songs all reek of over-sentimentality and melodramatic emotion which I find hard to take seriously. The singers all dress up in formal outfits too which doesn’t help. I never listen properly to the words but the themes are nearly always male-centred and very conservative which is another reason not to like it. But then what do I know? When I mentioned enka to the Okinawan musician Mutsumi Aragaki, who I interviewed last year, she said she liked it a lot.

Tom Waits; dishevelled songwriter with gravelly voice and a way with words

KK: I think your comments on enka are very accurate. The thing is, I’ve always felt that enka was intended to be all the things you described it as: predictable, melodramatic, male-centred. I’ve always felt it is the ultimate karaoke music; as if karaoke were made expressly for enka. I think I just love the atmosphere of a dingy little Japanese snack bar with some salaryman getting in his fifteen (well, perhaps three and a half) minutes of fame — showing off his juuhachiban (in karaoke, one’s signature song). It’s like a moment when he can shed his stoic businessman outer layer and let his emotions pour out — with the help of some shochu, of course. There are also some really nice melodies in enka.

Predictability in music is an interesting topic. A friend who loves hard rock and metal once commented that she doesn’t like AC/DC because they are too predictable, that all of their songs sound the same. I suggested that this is precisely why they have been so successful — their fans always know what to expect. Perhaps throughout the ups and downs of this ever-changing world, it’s nice to have something that you know will never change. I’m not sure. But in fact, AC/DC is not so repetitive as she might think; it’s the variations they do within the standard formula (their formula) that make each new album they release interesting for fans: a bit different, but not too different. I think the blues is similar in this way: the twelve-bar blues pattern probably makes it the most formulaic of all music genres, but blues fans appreciate what a good blues musician can do within this pattern to create his/her own unique sound. This is what made Hendrix great, as Stevie Ray Vaughan once pointed out.

Enka, too, is a genre in which predictability and adherence to formulae are valued both in composition and performance. This is seen in the point-scoring system that accompanies many karaoke systems — the more idiomatic a singer performs, the more points received. Then again, some variation from the norm, in a stylistically appropriate way, is also valued.

I’d like to go back to two comments you made in your first email — two really juicy ones that I’ve been saving! You wrote: “Do you think musical taste is something that is individual to each person and formed by their environment, what they’re exposed to, or by some predisposition in the brain. Or, can it actually be said that some kinds of music are more likely to be popular than others because they really are better and not everyone has understood it yet?” 

In response to the first question, I think it is — and there have been some studies done on this — a combination of both nature and nurture, so to speak. I’m going to try to think of some sources in which I’ve read about this. I think though, that more than one’s nature, it has to do with environmental conditioning — but tracing that exactly would be very difficult. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot – why do I like what I like? I was once thinking, for example, why do I like blue and green? Then suddenly I had this memory of being five years old in my kindergarten class. At nap time, different coloured pillows were provided for the kids, and all the boys would run to grab one of the highly coveted blue pillows, of which there were only two. I suppose the fact that there were only two is what made them so desirable. I think in my whole kindergarten career I only managed to get the blue pillow once. (It was one of the happiest moments of my childhood.) I was not a very sporty young fella, so a little slow to get the blue pillow. I usually opted for the green pillow, which I thought was also quite nice. They were always the next to go, after the blue. Eventually I gave up on trying to get a blue pillow and went straight for the green — problem solved! Is this why I like blue and green? Who knows…

Your second question, if asked at a meeting of ethnomusicologists, might very well lead to a brawl. It’s a very contentious question in the field, and one that I find very interesting. The problem, though, has to do with relativism. I once led a discussion in a class of master-level classical music students, asking them to try to prove to me that Beethoven is better than Lady Gaga. They had a hard time doing this. Questions raised included: Well, what do we mean by ‘better?’ Is complexity better? Personally, I believe that music always serves a function. Nicki Minaj’s music speaks to my teenage niece, but classical and jazz music do nothing for her…yet. As you suggested, maybe she just has not yet come to ‘understand’ classical and jazz music. Then again, I could never understand Nicki Minaj the way she does, and can she ever understand jazz the way I do? John, you and I both love Okinawan music, but we likely understand it in different ways; that is, it means different things to each of us, strikes different chords within us (at least to some degree… there are obviously similarities, too). To sum up, if we believe that some kinds of music are better than others, then automatically we must introduce criteria by which to rate them. Where do we start with this? I think the problems that might arise are self-evident. That said, I would very much like to hear your opinion on this.

(Incidentally, I prefer Beethoven to Lady Gaga — especially after that cringe-worthy Bowie medley.)

Explore posts in the same categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

3 Comments on “A Conversation with Kirk”

  1. A good read. It makes me want to come back to Okinawa.

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