By Dan Grunebaum
Toru Yonaha and Kinohachi
On two new albums, a sanshin and a shakuhachi player take
opposing tacks to tradition.
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
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 cant help but feeling that a better producer would
have toned down the reverb, delay and other effects and provided
a more effective counterpoint to Kinohachis inspired
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.
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