Ainu musician Oki brings the world to Hokkaido


With a Japanese mother and Ainu father, the appearance of Oki on “The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan” with his Oki Dub Ainu Band presents a rare glimpse of the multiracial underbelly that Japan seems reluctant to own up to. Despite being indigenous to Hokkaido, or Ezo as it is known to them, the Ainu suffered centuries of oppression and forced assimilation into Japan. Until June this year, the Diet had refused to officially recognize the Ainu as indigenous.

Based in a suburban town in Hokkaido that he describes as being like something out of the celebrated children’s animation “My Neighbor Totoro,” Oki totes his mixed heritage with a pride that is sometimes laid-back and occasionally fierce. But more importantly, his love for reggae and dub music and his time spent living in New York City from 1987 to 1992 have given his music a worldly seasoning. Playing the tonkori, a traditional Ainu instrument that resembles a stick-thin guitar, he laces sparse melodies with roomy reverb, backed by the dub bass lines of his band; or coaxes emotive rhythms from the instrument when playing alone.

I caught up with this thoughtful chap after one such solo performance to find out how music, culture and art come together in his unique world. The Ainu believe that their instruments have a soul. Do you believe that of your tonkori?

Ainu philosophy is that all things have a life. A dish, a bowl, tools, things in your everyday life. Tonkori as well; it’s shaped like a woman. The tuning pegs have a small hole for putting the strings through, and so the pegs are the ears. And it has shoulders, and the sound hole is the belly button. The strings nowadays are made of metal but they used to be made of seals’ skin, which is furry, so we say the strings are the hair. A guitar looks like a woman too, so it’s not only the Ainu who believe that. People, when they look at a stringed instrument, they feel a woman’s vibration.

A tonkori is a much skinnier woman than a guitar. . . . It also has just five (or sometimes six) strings and no frets, which means you just have five or six notes and no octaves. Is that limiting? Yeah. I’m struggling all the time. When a musician wants to change the key, piano is very easy. Guitar is easy. With a tonkori, I have to retune all the strings. And only five notes, it’s not good for melody making. But it’s good for rhythm making. Many people ask me how many melodies the tonkori can express, and it’s not the right question, because tonkori is a rhythm instrument. You have a drum kit with five drums, and when the drummer plays, there is infinite possibility. Tonkori is the same.

When did you start to play tonkori? When you were young? Much later. I was a sculptor before. I was always looking for my own original expression, but I couldn’t find it in art. When I found the tonkori, it was like my ancestors’ spirit, leading me to play tonkori. I was disappointed with the film productions and TV commercials I was working on in New York City. I had skill for fabricating models and fake f*cking McDonald’s things. It was a really commercial business, really frustrating. But one day a friend asked me to parachute with him, a tandem ride from a couple of thousand feet. It was a really massive, f*cking crazy experience for me. It was real. A real thing.

I had a couple of Native American friends there, and I was inspired a lot by them. I felt that one day Ainu culture would be part of my expression. In 1992, I got a job offer on a Japanese-American feature-film production and moved back to Japan. It didn’t work out, and they’d thrown me into the middle of Tokyo. I didn’t know anyone in Tokyo! So I went to Hokkaido to try to find something. I visited my cousin. He’s running his own Ainu museum, and we were drinking in the middle of the night when he went to another room and brought some long, skinny wood thing. That was my first encounter with tonkori. Then my days started.

Had you played music before? When I was a high-school student, I was really impressed by Paul McCartney’s bass technique, and I bought a bass. I really wanted to be a musician, but it didn’t happen, because I decided to study art instead of music.

My music taste moved toward black music — the blues. Albert King is my hero, and in those days, the late 1970s, they had reggae music in the record shops. Reggae is a teacher. What I learned from reggae music is how to look at society. And reggae talked about roots; that was very important. When I heard Aswad singing “Back to Africa,” I thought “Back to Ainu.” Was that why you decided to play dub with your band? Well, personally, I love it. Dub is not only about echo or reverb; dub is a symbol of changing a structure to a different thing, that’s why I like it. And also I like the tape-echo sound. Are there many people playing traditional Ainu music today? That’s a good question. Many of the good singers have already died, and we kind of lost the physical singing technique. The voice, the throat, you have to use your internal (physiology). Many people want to learn to play Ainu songs; they have have to ask their grandmother. But already many grandmothers don’t know how to sing. But some young, talented Ainu in their mid-’30s are studying the elders’ singing technique and practicing every day. One is a girl called Emi. She’s not famous, but maybe she will be in 10 years. I’m also producing a female group singing early traditional songs, four girls called Marewrew, which means “butterfly.” They’re good too. Are there many people singing in the Ainu language? It’s kind of a lost culture. If you want to conquer another people easily, just tell them not to speak in their own language. The Japanese government forced us to speak Japanese and not Ainu. But recently, many young Ainu are studying hard as serious language-speakers. Do you think the Japanese are tolerant of other cultures within Japan? Well, the people who are insecure want to attack other people. And sometimes people who work in education, work for the government, they are the worst. They look down on us, but if I mention that to them, they will be upset. “I’m not putting you down; I want to help you.” Help? Why do I need your help? Help means “Poor Ainu.” That means you put me down. That’s why I rarely play music at Ainu rights campaigns; because Ainu is normal. The whole Ainu vs. Japanese f*cking concept is totally outdated.

What do you think of the other bands on the “Rough Guide” CD? It’s a really good showcase I think, because the selection is very special. Sometimes you can understand your own culture better through how another country’s people see your culture. And Paul (Fisher — see the main story) knows a lot of music, and his flavor is in there too. It’s very interesting. Any favorites on there? “Um, actually, I listen to too much reggae music and don’t have those kind of CDs (by the artists on the compilation). So this is a chance for me to study Japanese pop-music history.

Oki plays at Za Ondekoza vs. Oki, a charity event organized by Amnesty International to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at Shinjuku Bunka Center’s Main Hall on Dec. 10 (6:30 p.m.; ¥4,500). Oki will play solo and in collaboration with Za Ondekoza, a taiko drum troupe.