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Sadao China

Sadao China (r) with Seijin Noborikawa

A musician, producer, singer, teacher, bar owner and festival organizer, Sadao China is perhaps best described as a local legend in his native Okinawa. The 49-year-old took up the sanshin, a banjo-like instrument similar to the Japanese shamisen, 37 years ago. His teacher was, and still is, Seijin Noborikawa. Often described as the Jimi Hendrix of the sanshin, Noborikawa has had a prolific recording career spanning over five decades. He has also seen his fame spread throughout Japan, starring in two movies in the ’90s.

The two living legends of Okinawan minyo (traditional music) have withstood the test of time in the Okinawan music scene. Their first joint recording comes at a time when popular Okinawan music has come under the spotlight with young artists such as Rimi Natsukawa and Chitose Hajime offering something unique in the otherwise derivative J-Pop market.

China’s 1977 debut, Akabana (Red Flowers), enjoyed moderate success, blending the seemingly juxtaposed genres of Okinawan minyo and pop. “Akabana was released at a time when Okinawan youth were looking to the then fashionable Tokyo for inspiration,” China explains in a recent interview. “I felt that Okinawan music was in peril. Mixing pop and Okinawan folk music was my attempt to preserve it.”

But this mix sat uncomfortably with China and he soon decided to focus solely on traditional music. A return to his roots seemed to be the most authentic way to achieve his dual goals of cultural and musical preservation.

China’s involvement with the acclaimed Okinawan folk pop group Nenes built on this theory. He formed, produced, wrote and played with the group, which performed sell-out shows in Japan and at renowned international festivals such as WOMAD.

Nenes may have disbanded, but the music continues for China. The collaboration with Noborikawa has significance that goes beyond music. “This album has special meaning for me,” he says. “I betrayed him many times. He often criticized me too. But our problems were resolved on this album.”

The album also ushers in a new era of Okinawan minyo. Noborikawa, now 74, has symbolically recognized China as the new leading figure of Okinawan music, as is custom when a traditional musician becomes too old or ceases playing.

†Customs, cultural preservation and morality are themes that resonate throughout the album. One track, “Shin Densa Bushi” is a Noborikawa composition that stresses the importance of respect and traveling on the right path. China has taken this track to heart and is intent on doing the right thing by his mentor and culture.

Asked what the future holds now that he bears such responsibility, China chuckles and says, “I have to practice a lot harder!”
Noborikawa Seijin & China Sadao is out now on Respect Record.

By John Wood

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