Saturday, April 18, 2009

Okinawan music

As soon as you step foot on Okinawa, a unique sound greets you. It is the lively rhythm of a stringed instrument called a jabisen, or sanshin in the local dialect. The sanshin is like the shamisen except that the body is covered with the snake skin of the habu (shamisen is made from cat skin!). I guess you can call it a Japanese banjo.

There is something about island culture and music. The locals in Okinawa gather together to play sanshin and sing old folk songs (and drink awamori!). During a party, people will get up and dance. The dance is called kachashi; they wave their arms back and forth and step up and down to the rhythm. At a festival, people dance to the sanshin and taiko. The largest festival is called Eisa Matsuri that takes place throughout the island in August. They wear colorful costumes that conjure up images of when the island was called the Ryukyu Kingdom, but what you really feel is the Uchinanchu spirit -- Uchinanchu is the name the Okinawan people call themselves.

Eisa Matsuri dancing (youtube)

Traditional Okinawan folk music is not lost among the young people on this island. In the 80s musicians like Rinken Band added a rock back beat to the sound of the sanshin to created a fusion of folk music with a modern sound. Today, other musicians continue to create and perform. On Saturday I went to Kokusai Dori -- a lively shopping street in the main city of Naha -- to meet a friend and stumbled across a music stage set up in front of a department store. I stopped to listen to a girl with a violin backed by a sanshin and acoustic guitar. I wanted to buy her CD right there except that I promised myself not to buy anymore CDs! (Digital download only from now on!!) She is called Aria Asia.

Aria Asia (my video)

I met my friend and she told me that Rinken Band opened up a place in Chatan where you could watch live music. Really! I had to go! As luck would have it, I was having dinner with my aunt's friend that night near the live house. So I dropped a friendly suggestion and it was decided we would go! Ironically, the venue is located in a new development called American Village - an American style entertainment megaplex with a movie theater, shopping, restaurants and a giant ferris wheel located right next to an artificial beach.

The venue is called Kalahaai. It is a stage with table seating in front. It cost about $15 for the cover and you can order drinks (Orion beer!) and traditional Okinawan food (pig ear!) The hour-long show featured three acts, Tink Tink, Isa Yumi and churaku. At the end everyone got up and danced kachashi! Shows are nightly and start at 7 and 8:30. If you visit Okinawa and would like to see a live music performance, make sure you check out the Kalahaai live house in American Village!

Rinken Band (youtube)

How to Kachashi (youtube)

Huge Kachashi (youtube)

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