Okinawan sounds old and new resonate through the mainland

by Paul Fisher

For a reason that has so far confounded me, October and November usually herald a spate of Okinawan concerts and releases on the mainland, leading to unfortunate clashes of dates. This year is no exception: The Ryukyu Festival in Tokyo (previewed in this column) in early October unfortunately fell on the same day as two other excellent Okinawan performances elsewhere.

Misako Koja

Still, there is plenty left to enjoy. Top of my list is Misako Koja, the former lead singer of the female quartet Nenes. Since she left, about five years ago, the group has never really recovered.

When Koja left Nenes, their Osaka-born producer and keyboard player, Kazuya Sahara, who was largely responsible for shaping the Nenes sound, departed with her. Ever since the two have collaborated in live appearances, but their recordings have thus far been limited to two CD singles, sold only at their live shows. Now, finally, a full album is to be released: “Ama Kakeru Hashi (Bridges Over Heaven).” Again, at first it will be sold only at their concerts; it is split almost equally between traditional and original songs, penned by Sahara, with lyrics by Koja.

Misako Koja, 6 p.m. Nov. 3 at Bessie Hall in Sapporo, for information call Nakuni, (011) 210-4174; 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at Anne Hall in Kurume, for information call Blacca Blocco, (0942) 38-5111; 6:30 p.m. Nov. 11-12 at Pon Praza Hall in Fukuoka, for information call Kestrel, (092) 752-2200. All tickets 3,000 yen in advance, 3,500 yen at the door.

7 p.m. Nov. 14 at 2000 GTR in Kumamoto, for information call Kagari, (096) 354-3912; 6:30 p.m. Nov. 22 and 4 p.m. Nov. 23, at Kanda Panse Hall in Tokyo, for information call M&I, (03) 5453-8899; 5 p.m. Nov. 26 at Banana Hall in Osaka, for information call HIP, (06) 6362-7301. All tickets 4,000 yen in advance, 4,500 yen at the door, except Kumamoto, 3,500 yen in advance, 4,000 yen at the door.

6 p.m. Dec. 3 at Tokuzo in Nagoya, for information call Tokuzo, (052) 733-3709. Tickets 3,500 yen in advance, 4,000 yen at the door.

Yasukatsu Ohshima, 31, from Ishigaki Island, has fast been gaining a reputation as the finest of the younger generation of traditional musicians. Music was always a natural part of his everyday life, as he used to listen to his father and grandfather playing the sanshin and singing.

Ohshima didn’t play traditional music, however, let alone consider it as a career, until he moved to Tokyo when he was 20.

Yasukatsu Ohshima

“I was going to work in computers,” he says, “but my friends, such as Begin and Ara Yukito [fellow Ishigaki musicians] were all playing music, so I thought I would too.”

On his new album, “Baga Suima nu Uta (Songs of My Islands),” he performs totally solo, his sanshin playing accompanied by his slightly hoarse and vibrato-style vocals.

All the songs are traditional ones from the Yaeyama Islands, which were exploited by heavy taxation until 100 years ago. Many of these songs handed down through the generations have a tragic quality.

Yasukatsu Ohshima, 7:30 Dec. 1 at Tokyo Aoyama Mandala. Tickets 3,700 yen (includes one drink). For information call Mandala, (03) 5474-0411.

7 p.m. Dec. 4 at Taku Taku in Kyoto. Tickets 2,000 yen. For information call Taku Taku, (075) 841-1691.

8 p.m. Dec. 8 at Club-D-Set in Naha, Okinawa. Tickets 2,500 yen in advance, 2,800 yen at the door. 9 p.m. Dec. 12 at Live House Mod’s in Okinawa City, Okinawa. Tickets 2,000 yen. For information call Harvest Farm, (098) 898-4038.

One of the most respected elder Okinawan musicians, and a prolific songwriter, is Tsueno Fukuhara. His father, Choki Fukuhara, is considered to be the first major figure of modern shima uta (folk music) and established Okinawa’s most important local label, Marafuku, where his son later took the helm. Marafuku has given a first start to many of the island’s top musicians, from Rinsho Kadekaru to Shokichi Kina.

At the upcoming “World of Tsuneo Fukuhara” concert some of Marafuku’s most renowned artists will be performing. Four Sisters, a female vocal and sanshin quartet, were a kind of forerunner to Nenes. They had several local hits in Okinawa before disbanding in 1974. Although they got together again on one song on the youngest sister Chieko Iha’s solo album (they are indeed really sisters), this appearance is a long awaited reunion. Chieko Iha, who made her professional debut when she was 8, will also be performing solo.

Yuki Yamazato made her first record in 1960 with the “Godfather of Shima Uta,” Rinsho Kadekaru, who died in October last year. She has since recorded consistently for Marafuku records, and except for Misako Oshiro is probably the greatest living female vocalist of the elder generation.

Hoptones are a male vocal quartet who have been a local institution since 1966. The Hoptones sing pop-style versions of Okinawan songs, many composed by Tsuneo Fukuhara.

Marafuku Records has always had an “island mentality,” with little interest in selling their albums on the mainland, remaining content to sell a few hundred copies locally. It’s like a cottage industry, and the artists often help out with other business.

When I visited their studio and office about 10 years ago they were surprised, even mystified, to receive a foreign visitor; I was equally surprised that one of the Hoptones picked me up from my hotel, and I was greeted upon arrival by Chieko Iha, who also made the tea and is the company’s secretary.

While some Okinawan music has been adapted for mainland Japanese taste, this concert will be a chance to hear exactly what Okinawans listen to.

“Bashofu” — Fukuhara Tsuneo no Sekai, 5:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at Shinjuku Kosei Nenkin Kaikan, Tokyo. Tickets 3,000 yen in advance, 3,500 yen at the door. For information call Tokyo Ro-on, (03) 3204-9933.

Rikki Nakano is from Amami Island, in between the mainland and Okinawa. The local music reflects this geographical position, with a distinctive falsetto style of singing. Rikki, as she is usually known, still only 25, had a glittering child career as a min’yo (folk) singer. She took part in her first Japan min’yo competition when she was still just 5 years old, winning the competition the following year and for the next six years in a row.

Her albums mostly contain a mix of traditional songs and modern collaborations with Japanese musicians. These two sides of her work will be revealed on separate dates at her upcoming concerts.

Shinzo Tsukuji has performed with Rikki for many years, and is a well-respected Amami sanshin player and singer in his own right, while Aki Kuroda is a pianist.