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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Shima-uta singer takes listeners on sonic journey

Life goes on in island songs

Staff writer

Yasukatsu Oshima, a native of the Yaeyama Islands, southwest of Okinawa's main island, is a stubborn man. Since emerging as a solo artist in the early 1990s, he has recorded and performed only songs known as shima-uta (island folk songs). However, Oshima is not a tradition-bound purist. His latest album, titled "Island Journey," which was released in April, showcases not only his talents as an inheritor of the centuries-old shima-uta tradition, but also as a creator of contemporary shima-uta.

News photo
Okinawan musician Yasukatsu Oshima

This reworking of the ancient art form can heard in the opening track, "Kaisare," on which Oshima sings in Okinawan dialect and plays the sanshin, a traditional three-stringed musical instrument, while his friend Ayano Kinjo, of the pop duo Kiroro, provides a piano accompaniment. The sanshin's buoyant twang gives the song an unmistakable island sound, but his reinterpretation of this Okinawan standard, which slows down the old song's original tempo, gives it a new, mellow flavor.

"This album is composed mainly of old Okinawan folk songs," Oshima told The Japan Times, "but this time I invited several guest musicians so that I could perform the songs in a contemporary vein."

In addition to two original pieces, Oshima recorded 10 traditional Okinawan folk songs from the main island, the Yaeyama Islands and the more the southerly Miyako Islands for this album.

While all of the songs on the album are shima-uta, Oshima said the sound varies considerably from island to island. Hence the album title "Island Journey."

"Old Okinawan words live in these songs," Oshima explained. "We can learn a lot about Okinawa by singing the songs, though sometimes it might be difficult to understand their meaning."

In fact, Okinawans have the proverb "uta hangaku," which means if you understand the meaning of the thousands of shima-uta, you can acquire half of the knowledge you need to know to live. Likewise, Oshima added, "In the Yaeyama Islands, they say if you know all the songs there, you will learn half of the islands' history."

Oshima not only has a strong sentimental attachment to these songs but also a deep respect for them.

"I like old folk songs very much. During my childhood, I heard the sound of sanshin almost every day. Shima-uta were always a part of my daily life." And now, as a musician, he admires their ability to endure. "Over time, these songs have evolved so much. They are highly refined as musical pieces. They inspire me."

Oshima believes that by faithfully singing these old songs while creating his own shim-uta, he can help the tradition to develop and survive. "I write new shima-uta hoping that my songs -- just one would do -- will eventually be included in the canon of folk songs one day. I want to create a song that will last for generations, a shima-uta that will last for 10 years, 20 years, 100 years."

His desire to extend the tradition's potential can be heard in the album's closing track, his original shima-uta titled "Irayoi Tsukiyahama," on which he collaborated with members of the Irish traditional band Altan. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh contributed vocals and fiddle, and Dermot Byrne played accordion.

Oshima was inspired to branch out internationally after performing in Belgium, England and Ireland in 2001. He said he was impressed with Europeans' "straightforward appreciation" of his music, and in Ireland, especially, he felt a strong spiritual link.

"The history of Ireland-England relations reminded me of Okinawa-Yamato [mainland] relations. The music of Okinawa and that of Ireland share something, probably something that was born out of hardship," he said. "Also, the way they drink, sing and dance in Ireland is similar to the way people do it in Okinawa."

But Oshima said he has made a conscious effort not to "mix" the music of different musicians. Instead, he asked guest musicians, including J-pop singer UA and guitarist Kenji Kondo, to perform in their usual styles, while he accompanied them on his sanshin.

Through his regular concerts in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, Oshima has seen people showing more interest in Okinawa, where music is an integral part of people's day-to-day existence. "Music is a living part of people's lives in Okinawa and audiences seem to long for such a lifestyle," he said. "I hope that Okinawa retains this quality and that it remains a place where songs are born."

Yasukatsu Oshima performs at the Cotton Club in Ishigaki, June 28 ([098]082-7865); Sakurazaka Gekijyo in Okinawa, July 3 ([098] 890-7555 www.harvest-f.com); Banana Hall in Osaka, July 10 ([06] 6361-6821 www.bananahall.co.jp); Tokuzo in Nagoya, July 16 ([052] 733-3709 www.tokuzo.com); Setagaya Public Theater in Tokyo, July 18 ([03] 5280-9996; www.conversation.co.jp)

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