The back streets of Naha were dark, making it more difficult to find Shima-Umui, a music club run by Okinawan folk singer Misako Oshiro. The torpid air and smell of papaya rinds from a nearby bin spoke of the subtropics. A small sign, barely visible from the street, directed customers to the basement venue.
It was clearly a quiet night at the club. A woman sat alone at the counter of the bar, nursing a glass of awamori, the signature liquor of these islands. The barman, wearing a loose Okinawan top, similar to the peasant smocks favored by Tolstoy, laid down the cloth he was using to dry glasses, walked to a small stage where a set of shima-daiko (Okinawan drums) and microphones stood, took down a stringed instrument from a rack, and began in a highly accomplished manner to play a set of Okinawan songs.
This doubling up of roles is quite common. At another club a few nights before, a venue owned by the great Okinawan musician and political activist Shokichi Kina, his sister, a regular member of his band and a gifted musician in her own right, was seen dispensing tickets for the evening’s performance. It recalled a small family circus seen in rural France, where the young woman collecting admission tickets later appeared in the ring as a fire-eater.
The solitary woman at the bar stood up, made her way to the table and introduced herself as the owner of the club. The ordered drink of awamori soon arrived in a ceramic carafe known as a kara kara. Oshiro, whom many consider to be Okinawa’s greatest living female singer, proceed to pour the drinks.
Born in 1936 in a working class district of Osaka, where a large number of Okinawan migrant families continue to live, Oshiro spent most of her childhood years in Henoko, a village in the northern part of Okinawa Island, where she showed an early aptitude for music. As a young woman she learned classical Ryukyu music and dance.
A meeting with songwriter Tsuneo Fukuhara when Oshiro was working in a restaurant was formative, the older, established performer urging her to take her music more seriously. “It was pure luck meeting him,” she recalls. “I knew his name, of course, but his visit to the restaurant was timely. It changed the direction of my life and career.” A well-received debut single, “Kataumui,” was released in 1962, and in 1973 she performed with the great Okinawan musician Rinsho Kadekaru. Numerous recordings and performances followed over the years.
A tradition of musical transmission in Okinawa — of one generation passing on the skills of another — benefits aspiring young players who can learn from seasoned performers. Oshiro studied under the late Shoei Kina, a colossal figure in Okinawan music, who assisted in the setting up of Minyo Kenkyukai (Minyo Study Group) in 1957. Oshiro would later study under the tutelage of the late Teihan China.
In her long career she has worked with some of the great names in Okinawan music, including the late Seijin Noborikawa, whom she describes, along with Rinsho Kadekaru, as “wonderful musicians to play and learn from. I was extremely lucky to have the chance to play with people who were masters of Okinawan folk music.” Oshiro has also performed and recorded with Sadao China, the son of Teihan China, and a major figure now in Okinawan music.
In more recent years she has collaborated with the young and extraordinarily gifted Toru Yonaha, whose father knew Oshiro. Paths inevitably cross in the small world of Okinawan minyo (folk music), facilitating the possibility of such collaborations. Oshiro’s most recent recording was the album “Uta Nu In” with Kanako Horiuchi, a young musician and former student of Oshiro, who also plays in the contemporary music band Ska Lovers. The collection of traditional songs, which celebrates Horiuchi’s years studying under Oshiro, is lean and without embellishments, the renderings clean and exact, with few trimmings.
Okinawan music has gained a degree of airing internationally, as its sounds have been inducted into the popular world music canon. The 2001 CD release of “The Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa,” with its extensive coverage of island genres, helped to give more exposure to the form. Needless to say, there is a track featuring Oshiro.
If the late Rinsho Kadekaru bears comparison with the deceased Cuban musician Compay Segundo, Oshiro might be likened to Havana’s Omara Portuondo. Both women, living on islands vibrant with music, have worked with only the finest musicians, creating a rich future legacy of work during their long and illustrious careers, and revitalizing their respective musical forms.
Anyone who writes about Okinawan music will invariably be beholden to John Potter, an Englishman who lives in Itoman, a little south of Naha. Potter, an authority on the genre, is the author of “The Power of Okinawa: Roots Music from the Ryukyus,” a work that can be consulted repeatedly without tiring of its contents. He first saw Oshiro perform at a concert in the 1990s in the city of Okinawa. Recalling the event later, he wrote that, without first knowing “her status and high regard in the world of Okinawan music, it was obvious that here was someone special. . . . Her phrasing and the clarity of singing were exceptional.”
Oshiro confesses to have considered, when times were hard and the work lean, the possibility of trying something else besides music. “It’s strange though,” she adds, her already large, expressive eyes distending with the sheer wonder of it, “how something always comes up. An offer to record, a tour or a chance to collaborate with musicians I admire. So I’ve kept going.”
Oshiro’s face may be familiar to cinema-goings from her appearance in the commercially successful film “Hotel Hibiscus,” where she had a small role. An earlier work in which Oshiro has a more prominent part is “Tsuru-Henry,” directed by Go Takamine. An experimental film on the theme of memory and Okinawan identity, the dialogue slips between Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese and English, a linguistic cocktail that reflects the island’s history and influences. Oshiro plays Tsuru, an Okinawan singer who conducts “guerilla” events on local radio stations, rigging up a transmitter and giving spontaneous performances.
Spontaneity is an element in the Okinawan music scene that appears to come naturally and, like these things, unannounced. In the middle of a conversation, Oshiro puts her glass down and declares that she will sing.
An instrument is placed in her hands, the strings adjusted and tuned up. When you own your own club there is no obligation to perform; it’s something you do when the spirit moves you.
When Oshiro begins, there is wear and tear in the vocal chords, but the voice remains strong, high and soulful, alternating between the plaintive and festive. It is a powerful, easily misinterpreted vocal, one that can sound to the uninitiated like a cross between joy and strangulation. The tonal structure of Okinawan music is quite different from that of mainland Japan, using half-step intervals and quite different variations on the pentatonic and hexatonic scales.
Oshiro starts with a song called “Imin Kouta,” which addresses the subject of emigration, the Okinawan diaspora to far away lands in South America and elsewhere. Although Okinawan minyo includes many songs of rejoicing, there is a strong element of social commentary, lyrics that touch on poverty, onerous levels of taxation, family problems and unrequited love, validating the often-made comparison between Okinawan folk music and blues. Some of these traditional works, expressing age-old grievances, would now be called political or protest songs.
Few places in Japan uphold their musical traditions quite like Okinawa. At times it seems there is music everywhere, accompanying the daily routines of life. Shima-uta, or island songs, pour out from the minyo clubs along Kokusai-dori, Naha’s main shopping and entertainment drag. Many of these clubs offer a digest of Okinawan music, arranged for tourists. Performances involve colorful native costumes, interludes for banter with the audience, and not infrequently, the use of recorded backing tracks to enlarge the music. Shima-Umui caters to more serious devotees of an authentic, more stripped-down music.
Oshiro is an accomplished sanshin player. Sometimes compared to a banjo, its sound, emotional range and depth are more akin to the lute or Arabic oud. Its provenance, like much else in Okinawa, is Chinese, deriving from the three-stringed lyre called a sanxian. Depending on the skill of the player, the sound can be fluid and lyrical, staccato and brittle, its notes flowing as mellifluously as a warm tropical current, or producing a scratchy vocal accompaniment akin to walking over amplified eggshells. Accompanying oneself on the instrument requires considerable skill.
This may be one reason that some younger aspiring musicians give up on the instrument. Asked about the interest among young people in Okinawan music, Oshiro opined that “more Okinawans are becoming interested in pop. They are not so close to the musical traditions of these islands, but musicians like my collaborator Kanako Horiuchi give me hope that the music will live on.”
Mainland Japanese have gravitated toward Okinawa in the hope of finding the practices, values and natural beauty of a pre-modern era. In this vision, there is something hopeful, almost redemptive about the islands, that they will satisfy a yearning for a less complicated time. This idealization invokes images of peasants singing in fields, sugar presses driven by oxen, water drawn from ancient wells, bucolic dishes, and red-tiled homes surrounded by coral walls and gardens of tropical luxuriance. It is a vision of innocence and plenitude, one that, if it ever existed, is at best elusive.
In Oshiro’s songs of love and regret, however, a body of work soaked in age and experience, the listener may quench a little of this longing to draw closer to the spirit of the islands.
Shima Umui is located in the Higashimachi district of Naha, not far from the main bus terminus. It is open daily from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. (098-866-0234/ www.shimaumui.net ). Misako Oshiro performs regularly, her tour schedule permitting.