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By Dan Grunebaum

Toru Yonaha and Kinohachi

On two new albums, a sanshin and a shakuhachi player take opposing tacks to tradition.

Kinohachi
credit: Nihon Soft Service Inc.

Amid the ongoing resurgence of interest among young musicians in traditional Japanese music, a range of approaches can be observed. Many, like popular young shimauta (island music) singer Chitose Hajime and gagaku (court music) star Hideki Togi, update time-honored forms by placing them in a pop music context; others take a more orthodox approach.

28-year-old Okinawan minyo folk music sensation Toru Yonaha can play Western instruments such as the guitar and keyboards, but on his new album, Toru Yonaha Presents...Kachashi a Go Go, he sticks to unadorned sanshin (three-stringed Japanese banjo) and vocal numbers taken from the repertoire of Okinawan kachashi dance tunes.

Kachashi are integral to celebrations on Okinawa, and are typified by fleet sanshin playing, accompanied by Okinawan drums, castanets and whistling. Intended as the soundtrack for a kind of exuberant hands-in-the-air folk dance, kachashi originate in the revelries of prewar Okinawan village and beach life.

Toru Yonaha
credit: Respect Records

Yonaha, who has also released albums with Sony, chose to work with boutique label Respect for the first album dedicated entirely to kachashi in over three decades. The songs are arranged in an orthodox style and recorded with a dry production that brings out the tangy timbre of the sanshin and the reedy quality of the vocals of Yoneha and guest singer Mika Uchizato. Both Yoneha and Uchizato come from the Chatan area of Okinawa City, and are steeped in the atmosphere of the local music scene. Kachashi also includes tracks by top composer Tsueo Fukuhara and legendary Okinawan group Nenes, and climaxes with a rousing version of the standard “Toshin Doi,” featuring no less than eight vocalists.

Where Yoneha takes a purist approach to tradition, shakuhachi (bamboo flute) virtuoso Kinohachi seeks to break down the wall between Eastern and Western cultures by situating himself in the context of contemporary electronica. His approach on the new album Iki (Nihon Soft Service) is to steep the exotic Asian flavor of the shakuhachi amid ambient, breakbeats, and trance-flavored rhythm tracks.

This is sometimes successful, in particular on more propulsive tracks such as the breakbeats-driven “Akita Magouta.” But the quality of the production sometimes has a hackneyed, ’90s sound that leaves an impression of New Age aimlessness. One can’t help but feeling that a better producer would have toned down the reverb, delay and other effects and provided a more effective counterpoint to Kinohachi’s inspired improvisations.

Tokyo-born Kinohachi takes his name from his master, Kifu Mitsuhashi, an avant-garde shakuhachi player in the ’60s and ‘70s. Mitsuhashi was one of the first to explore horizons beyond tradition, playing with groups like the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Since his own debut in the early ’90s, the 33-year-old Kinohachi has himself been on a long quest to explore avenues in contemporary music, playing with the rock band Musashi since 1994.

Kinohachi has been a virtual emissary for the shakuhachi, touring South America, playing at the internationally flavored Fuji Rock Festival, and earlier this year completing a circuit of England that included an appearance at the well-known Notting Hill Arts Centre alongside the Sugababes guitarist.

Some may prefer an orthodox approach to tradition, whereas others might like their tradition updated with a heavy dose of contemporary electronica. The mere fact that one can choose indicates that there is still a healthy future for Japanese music forms and instruments with thousands of years of history.

Toru Yonaha plays Aoyama Cay on Dec 26. Kinohachi plays Shibuya O-West on Jan 30. See concert listings for details.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.

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