From Okinawa, and they're singing the Japanese blues

by Paul Fisher

It’s somewhat ironic that after years of scouring the world for music, Japan’s very own “Mr. World Music,” Makoto Kubota, has ended up a bit closer to home than he ever imagined. “I never thought there was such a deep, rich folklore in my own country. It was a big surprise” he says.

For years, he has produced and recorded musicians from Indonesia to Brazil, Morocco to Madagascar. His latest discovery and recording project is a group of singing 80-something grandmothers from the Miyako Islands, part of the Ryukyu chain in Okinawa Prefecture, located in the deep south of Japan. These ladies, the eldest in their 90s, together with several others ranging in ages all the way down to 10, will be making their first appearance outside of Miyako when they perform in Tokyo on July 18 and 19.

For Kubota, the discovery was a revelation. “I went there about a year and a half ago and I thought, ‘Wow, this place has a different vibe and culture,’ and eventually I noticed they speak a different language. What Portugal is to Spain, Okinawa is to Miyako, so naturally, the music is different too.”

“This traditional type of music in Miyako is my type of music. It has serious folklore roots, being sung by real fishermen and farmers, not professionals. There’s no musical education, no authority, no committee, no school — not even music scores. They inherited the music by ear and by mouth. They never used to have the shamisen either. It was just hand claps, stamping on the ground and voices — real folklore. It’s vanishing quickly now though.”

Kubota believes he got there just in time. “If I hadn’t recorded this now, it could have disappeared. I met 10 to 15 old ladies who could sing. They had roles in local rituals, but most of them were hesitant. I kept asking, and eventually I got lucky. I met this lady, Takara Matsu, who is 93 years old, and she decided to sing, and others followed. They know it is a wonderful thing to carry on this tradition.”

At 93, Matsu is the oldest of the singers Kubota found, while the youngest is only 10, a singer and sanshin (small stringed instrument) player from Irabu Island, Yuta Fukushima.

“I found him on YouTube,” explains Kubota. “I went to Irabu and I asked at a little shop, and the guy there said he could be the grandchild of Hojo Fukushima, a folk-music maestro. He called straight away and spoke to the boy’s grandmother, who said her grandchild was living on the main island of Miyako. I got the number, called and spoke to him and his mother. He was 100 percent ready. They picked me up at my hotel, took me to their home and we started recording. That was the quickest demo I have ever made.”

I wondered what it was that made the music of Miyako so special.

“Miyako was left alone for a long long time, for 10 centuries or more, and the people, music and culture developed in its own way,” explains Kubota. “They don’t sing for tourists, they sing for themselves, to encourage themselves, because they had a harsh, heavy taxation for hundreds of years. They have a lot of reasons to sing the blues, just like black people did in the new continent.”

“In Miyako they have more spiritual songs than working songs, for praying to the gods. These songs are called kamiuta. All the words written in this kamiuta form are very close to the ancient Japanese of 16 or 17 centuries ago. It seems they have something we lost, and when they start singing those old songs, some five or 10 centuries old, you feel an ancient wind coming to you.”

Collectively, the singers say they are aiming “to sing their hearts out” in Tokyo because they realize this might be their last and only chance.

“The ladies are totally ready,” says Kubota. “Their reaction has been very cool. They sing to God, so if they sing for the local community or an audience in Tokyo it’s no different for them.

The folk guy, Hiroshi Norishima, 83 years old, is not even the No. 1 singer in his town, he’s No. 2. He was very surprised. He told me I must be crazy. You’re talking to the wrong person, ‘I’m not a professional. Go and talk to a professional.’ But he’s the only one. The others, the ladies, were like, ‘You’re late’! You’ve only just found us now?

Ultimately, Kubota believes this is “folk” music in its literal sense, music of the people, and it’s the special character of the people that gives the music its qualities.

In Miyako, the people are very straightforward. They tell you the story that they know. There are no gimmicks, there’s no cheating and they’re very spontaneous. You feel they are proud and have nothing to hide.

Then you hear it, this Miyako music sung by 80 or 90 year olds, it goes straight to your soul.

Kamiuta and Old Songs from the Miyako Islands takes place July 18 at 3 p.m. (doors open 2:30 p.m. — tickets only at door) and July 19 at 3 p.m. (doors open 2.30 p.m.) at Sogetsu Hall, Tokyo ([03] 3408-9113). For more info call Arion Ticket Center at [03] 5301-0750.

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