Jul 26, 2012

Tradition and Progress: Contemporary Okinawan Folk Music

Last Sunday my wife and I went to the Ryukyu Festival 2012.

Ryukyu is the old name of Okinawa, which is the the southmost part of the Japanese archipelago. Before Okinawa was absorbed by the Japanese government in 1872, it was an independent country called Ryukyu kingdom, (it was occupied by the United State from 1945 to 1972.)

Okinawa has its own culture, which is different from that of mainland Japan. Their language is a dialect of Japanese, but I can't understand it at all. They call their own language "Uchinaguchi", which means our language, and the language of the mainland Japan "Yamatoguchi". "Yamato" is the old name of Japan.

Bali is famous for its performing art, such as gamelan music, and in the same way Okinawa is known for the islands of the performing art, especially music.

In the Ryukyu Festival, six groups of Okinawan musicians ranging from an Okinawan traditional folk musician to a rock band appeared. Their music has great variety.

At the end of the festival, Seijin Noborikawa came up to the stage. I wrote about him in my entry ""Umaku", a Naughty Boy, Seigua(誠小), His Songs and Life". He is the living legend of Okinawan folk music. I was as glad as when I saw a live performance of James Brown.

He is one of the greatest musicians in Okinawa, but his attitude was just natural and simple. When he appeared on the stage, he held his sanshin, an Okinawan instrument like a guitar, on his shoulder and walked lightly. He is a small old man, but he has a great presence. And he is so cute that he makes everyone that sees him happy.

He mainly plays Okinawan folk music, so called "Shimauta (島唄: island songs)". He said that Okinawan musician should play Okinawan folk music in "a proper way", yet he also said that Okinawan folk music wasn't necessarily traditional.

He's studied old Okinawan folk songs, and he plays them "in a proper way". In this sense, he is traditional. At the same time, in his long career, he created a lot of new styles of music. In this sense, he is also progressive. In his music, tradition and progress aren't conflicting, and more progress is based on tradition.

As I wrote, there was a very wide variety of Okinawan music in the Ryukyu festival, yet at the same time they also shared the Okinawan folk music tradition in the core of their music. At the end of the festival, all musicians came to the stage and, they sang and danced classical Okinawan folk songs.

It's quite important to carry on their asset of Okinawan folk music in "a proper way", but if they just performed songs the same way they have been performed in the past, Okinawan music would die. here are many examples of "traditional arts" that died because nothing new was able to be created.

In spite of that, I found that Okinawan music was still alive in the Ryukyu festival. After Seijin Noborikawa is gone, Okinawan music will surely survive.

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