ASAHIKAWA, Hokkaido – Ainu musician Oki leads a band with a five-string zither and plays in Hokkaido and other parts of Japan in an effort to keep the music of the indigenous minority alive.
Oki, 45, whose full name is Oki Kano, became acquainted with the “tonkori,” the Ainu version of the zither, 10 years ago. He said the encounter inspired him to play the traditional instrument associated with the Ainu.
There were no tonkori players left and Oki had to study Ainu music by relying on what few audio sources were available.
There is virtually no Ainu language still in everyday use except for phrases spoken by the elderly.
Every year, Oki makes one or two of the instruments, using wood from such trees as the Japanese yew.
The Ainu lived in northern Japan and on Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands and the arc of Kamtchatka islands stretching about 1,000 km from the Kurils and Hokkaido. They suffered severe persecution in Hokkaido under the Tokugawa shogunate and the assimilation policy of the subsequent Meiji government.
Born and reared in the Shonan seaside of Kanagawa Prefecture, Oki attended Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. His father was a well-known Ainu sculptor who hailed from Asahikawa, Hokkaido.
Oki’s wife, Rekpo, 33, sings Ainu “upopo” festival songs with his band, whose lively performances often inspire spirited audience participation.
In recent years, Oki has been performing with Umeko Ando, 69, a specialist in the oral tradition of Ainu culture from the city of Obihiro, Hokkaido.
Ando is a master player of “mukkukri,” a kind of jew’s-harp. But when Oki found out she is also a good singer, he decided to produce an upopo solo album featuring her.
“The songs I asked my mother every night to sing for me many years ago are still in my ear,” Ando said of the album.
“I put in my recording the songs I liked. I sang them freely without any rehearsal. As Ainu culture (such as songs) is relayed to people by word of mouth, (songs) won’t remain unless many people listen to them.”
Oki visited Kunashiri, one of the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido claimed by Japan, last summer and performed in a plaza near the Japan-Russian friendship house on Kunashiri, popularly known as “Muneo House” because of its dubious connection with scandal-tainted House of Representative member Muneo Suzuki, who is on trial for bribery.
Holding his favorite tonkori, he told the crowd: “The Ainu people lived in Hokkaido long before the Japanese came. The Ainu also lived on Kunashiri and Sakhalin. That’s why I am really happy to play Ainu music.”
A videotape of his visit shows a Russian interpreter helping him and a tall Russian who appeared to be a fisherman shaking Oki’s hand. The Russian left but came back and gave Oki an arrowhead his son had found that he speculated may have been made by Ainu.
Oki said he admired the natural beauty on Kunashiri that the Ainu still revere. “Depending on how you look at it . . . (Kunashiri) may perhaps be a poor place with no infrastructure. But because the power of nature was so overwhelming, people there seemed to me to be flowers in the wilderness.
“I wish that that balance will remain intact. There no longer is untouched nature in Hokkaido.”
Oki’s third album is titled “No One’s Land” and includes a session with Siberian minority singer Olga. He first met her at a U.N. working session of the world’s indigenous peoples. The title refers to land seized from indigenous people by major powers in the course of history.
Critics have praised Oki for producing sounds that express people’s desire for a world without borders.
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