NAHA – Seventy-five-year-old Misako Oshiro is widely regarded as Okinawa’s greatest living singer of minyō (traditional folk song). In the 1970s her recordings with the late great Rinsho Kadekaru produced some of the finest moments of Okinawan music, and she continues to sing and record — and runs her own minyō bar, Shima Umui, in the island’s capital, Naha. Her latest project is the release of a duet album, “Uta Nu In,” with Kanako Horiuchi who is more than 40 years her junior.
Horiuchi’s background is very different from Oshiro’s. She’s from Hokkaido in the far north of Japan but for the past decade has been living in Okinawa and learning minyō from Oshiro while working as a singer and musician at Shima Umui — and that was where I recently met up with both women.
I asked Horiuchi how she came to be in Okinawa in the first place. She says, “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 (a three-stringed lute) being played, or listened to Okinawan music, and it was for a commercial by the musician Seijin Noborikawa. I immediately wanted to play sanshin myself. My image of traditional music was that it’s rather stiff. The closest thing to minyō where I come from is the Tsugaru shamisen, which the musicians always play with very serious expressions on their faces. In Okinawa it’s very 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 Oshiro and began learning Okinawan songs from her and how to sing and play the sanshin, the instrument used to accompany almost all Okinawan folk songs. This culminated in the new album, which was Horiuchi’s idea as a celebration of her decade of learning from Oshiro.
Horiuchi is also the singer and sanshin player in a band called Ska Lovers who play ska versions of Okinawan and Japanese pop songs, and they have already released two albums. She has also taken a break from the island to travel extensively as a solo musician playing Okinawan music in England, France, Germany, the United States, Senegal and Brazil.
“I don’t understand ska,” Oshiro adds. “I only know Okinawan music and I’ve just enjoyed making this album with Kanako. I was brought up listening to minyō so making the album was no problem for me, but when I had to sing two new songs on the CD it was a bit difficult at first. In the end it was okay.”
The album is recorded very simply with mainly sanshin accompaniment and few 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.”
Don’t expect any major tours to accompany the album. While the musicians will play shows in Tokyo (Nov. 6 at Cay) and in Naha (Nov. 18 at Sakurazaka Theater), Oshiro doesn’t have any special plans for the future. But she does think about the general state of minyō in Japan.
“The minyō world used to be more lively in Okinawa,” she says. “Nowadays young people start playing traditional music 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 Horiuchi is a fine way to make sure this aim is achieved.
“Uta Nu In” is released by Respect Records. For more information, visit www.respectrecord.co.jp.