Japan from the inside out

Kina Shokichi: The man who put Japanese roots music on the map

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 12, 2007

YOSHIO WAS my first friend in Japan. He had hair down to his shoulders that he wore under a red, green, and gold Jamaican knit cap. He worked in a coffee shop that offered free refills, unlike most coffee shops in Japan at the time.

I would go to the shop, buy one coffee and get several free refills, practice my Japanese with the customers and staff, and hang out with Yoshio. We were both Bob Marley fans and hit it off right away.

One night, a few weeks after I met him, Yoshio had a suggestion. “You know, if you like Bob Marley so much, you’ll probably like this guy, too,” and handed me two LPs.

He was right. I did like that guy’s music and still do. The LPs were by one of the few naturally funky Japanese musicians I’ve ever heard, Okinawan Kina Shokichi.

Kina is the man who put Okinawa minyo on the map. The literal meaning of minyo is folk music, but it’s different from what Westerners usually call folk, the music produced by singer-songwriters or interpreters on acoustic guitar. (The Japanese call that fuo-ku.) Minyo is people music that’s been performed throughout Japan since at least the 16th century. The version played in the main islands, while still alive and well today, sometimes seems a bit stiff and cold to Western ears.

The fun-loving Okinawan version, however, is a different story. Like Jamaica, Okinawa is an island in the sun, and like the best of reggae, Okinawa has an infectious beat, an irrepressible bounce, and a grinning-from-ear-to-ear affability that will get you dancing on even the hottest summer day.

The main instruments used in the Okinawan variety include the sanshin, a three-stringed, plucked instrument whose body is covered with snake skin. It resembles the shamisen of the main islands (and probably shares a common ancestor with the banjo). They also use taiko drums of various sizes.

Kina was the son of a musician who played traditional Okinawan minyo (see photo with his family; Shokichi is on the left in the front row). His stroke of genius was to form an electric roots music band, with drums, bass, and electric sanshin. As a teenager he already was fronting the house band in a nightclub in the entertainment district adjoining the military bases on Okinawa. His first hit and signature song today, composed at the age of 16, was Haisai Ojisan (Hey, Mister!), which climbed the charts when he was in jail serving time for a pot bust. The song was about a bum who panhandled for sake in the street near Kina’s neighborhood.

He recorded four discs from 1977 to 1983: the first two were an eponymous (in Japan) debut, recorded live in his nightclub with his then-wife Tomoko sharing vocals, and Blood Line, with guest Ry Cooder adding slide guitar on some tracks. These were the discs Yoshio lent me. Kina followed them up with the slightly overproduced but still worthwhile Matsuri (Festival), and Hana (Flower),

After a seven-year drought with no releases, Kina came roaring back in 1990 with the excellent Nirai Kanai Paradise, the tough and funky Earth Spirit in 1991 (recorded partly in Europe), the superb departure In Love in 1992, and a greatest hits compilation in 1993.

If you like roots music reworked for the modern audience with electric instruments and drums, you won’t have any problem getting into Shokichi Kina. Broadly speaking, he belongs to the same overall tradition as people like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf in the 50s, Stax or reggae in the 60s, and other modern roots blends of the 60s and 70s in the Caribbean and Africa. Modern Japanese music tends to be synth-happy, but he avoids that trap for the most part, so you seldom hear any of the computers, drum machines, or the other digitalia that are a blight on pop music today.

The first (mostly) live album is essential with a capital E, and is in print in the West from a British label under the title Music Power of Okinawa. David Byrne also released a compilation album still in print called Peppermint Tea House on his Luaka Bop label. He unfortunately included some tracks from a collaboration with a guy who plays synthesizer. I don’t know why; Byrne displays a better roots sense on some of his other Luaka Bop compilations. Also, judging from the sound clips at an Internet merchant site, that’s also a studio version of Haisai Ojisan rather than the definitive live version.

Try these capsule reviews by Cliff Furnald on Rootsworld for an overview of his work except the discs of the latter 90s. I agree with most of his comments, with a few reservations: Nirai Kanai Paradise is good and includes several reggae-influenced tracks that work well, but I think he should have stuck to closer to his Okinawan roots on this disc. Sometimes even our favorite musicians record tunes that make us roll our eyes and groan. Furnald likes the tune Gaia, but I’m sorry–the English-language “Don’t cry Gaia” is one of the few times Kina makes me roll my eyes and groan.

Comparing the female background chorus in minyo to cheerleaders is a bit silly, even though they are more energetic than the ladies heard on the home island variety. Earth Spirit was recorded both in Tokyo and in Paris, and he used some African musicians for the latter sessions. Those are exceptionally solid tracks and as funky as the dickens. Unfortunately the Tokyo tracks don’t work as well for me, and you can immediately tell the difference. Furnald hears soukous guitar licks in In Love. I don’t, and I know soukous when I hear it. (There’s a nice soukous-influenced tune on Earth Spirit, however). It’s Furnald’s turn to roll his eyes with In Love, but I like the disc a lot. I think Kina displays a lot of originality here, despite the lame English lyrics on the title track.

Since these discs were recorded, Kina’s goofball tendencies have grown. He wanted to sail to the U.S. in a white ship (reversing the course of Commodore Perry’s black ships), but was refused permission to land. He also wanted to jam with Bill Clinton playing saxophone. And goofball or not, he was elected to the Upper House of Japan’s Diet a couple of years ago as a member of the main opposition party; that’s him in the photo attending his first Diet session in traditional Okinawan garb. He’s a strong advocate of Okinawan independence, but the trend amoung younger Okinawans is running against that idea.

He’s come a long way since doing time for reefer, running a Naha nightclub called the Chakra, and becoming the foremost roots musician in Japan. I wonder what Yoshio would think.

Update: Mr. Kina was bounced from office in the upper house election of 2010.

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