After decades in the music biz, Kinjo goes solo

by John Potter

Special To The Japan Times

Okinawa is known for its climate, beaches and distinct culture, but its real hidden treasures are its female vocalists.

Keiko Kinjo is one such treasure. It’s hard to stand out in such a crowded field, but she has been active for many years, performing and recording with many of the great musicians of Okinawan minyō (folk songs). At the age of 65 she is about to release her first solo album, “Umui.”

I meet Kinjo at the Otome bar where she performs regularly in Ginowan, located in the middle of Okinawa’s main island. It’s a blazing hot afternoon by the time I arrive and I’m 20 minutes early, but Kinjo is already standing in the doorway waiting for me. Unlike the Okinawan stereotype of the poor timekeeper, she’s also pleased I’m early.

“If you’re lazy about time then you become lazy about everything,” she says as she hands me a cold drink.

Kinjo says she was recently told her voice is now at its best and it was suggested that she finally make a solo album.

“I chose all the songs for the recordings, but the song ‘Umui’ is especially important and is a great song for me,” she says. “After 40 years people are still singing it. Without that song I couldn’t exist as a singer, so it inevitably became the title of the album.”

The song was composed by Matsuo Kawada, who also wrote two others on the album.

“I really appreciate him writing that song.” Kinjo says. “When I was a teenager I learned Ryukyu music from my teacher, Shizuko Oshiro, and (Kawada) was often there when I went to see her. One day, I was talking to him and he said that he had written a song that was suited to me. It was ‘Umui,’ and so I first recorded it in 1969.”

The album’s 16 tracks are a mixture of traditional songs and some well-known shimauta (island songs) by Okinawan songwriters. Among the traditional tracks, there are both wistful tales of longing and some livelier katcharsee tunes (Ryukyuan folk dance). Kinjo’s sanshin, a three-stringed instrument thought to be the predecessor of the shamisen, provides the main backdrop. She also plays shimadaiko (island drums). There is a koto (played by her sister, Kumiko Agena) and she is joined on some tracks by two veteran male singers, Seishin Taba and Seibun Tokuhara, as well as young singer Yoko Ishikawa. Generally, though, the album has a sparse and uncomplicated sound.

The running time is a generous 67 minutes, but Kinjo says she didn’t plan for it to be so long.

“When you get into the recording studio, people there just say ‘do this’ and ‘do that,’ so I was driven to play,” she says. “The result was great, though, and I was pleased with it. It’s my first solo album, but I’ve done a duet album and many other recordings with different people. Although I was very happy to make this album, I still found a few mistakes or some things I wasn’t entirely satisfied with when I listened to it again.”

Some of that dissatisfaction may come from the fact that Kinjo is known as a one-take singer who records quickly.

“If you wait and try again then it sometimes doesn’t come out so well and that makes me nervous, so I’d rather just do it quickly,” she says. “This album was the first time that I played sanshin all the way through on every song. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but everyone was very encouraging and in the end it turned out well. My father used to play sanshin and koto very well and I probably got my musical ability from him. He has passed away, but others in the minyō world know all about him.”

Critics often remark on Kinjo’s vocals as being “seductive,” but the artist points out that she has never tried to sing in a specific way.

“I think the voice isn’t something you can practice to make better, it’s just something that is naturally there all the time,” she says. “But because people have that image of me it was important for this album to also include both jouta (songs of sympathy or feeling) and some fast sanshin playing so that I could show that there are different sides to me. A good thing about Okinawan minyō is that when people are angry or annoyed about something, as soon as they hear this music they can forget their troubles and be happier.”

It’s not until our meeting is almost at an end that Kinjo mentions she has been suffering from a debilitating disease that has affected her eyesight and is apparently hereditary. There are no obvious signs of this throughout the interview, but she says the problem has gradually become worse. Despite this, she also says she tries to remain as cheerful as possible. There are no plans to do a release tour for the album, but she will perform in Chiba and Yokohama in September.

“Umui” will be released by Respect Records on Sept. 4. For more information, visit www.respect-record.co.jp.