|Sadao China (r) with
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.
Chinas 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.
Chinas 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
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