This article originally appeared in fRoots Magazine Nos.328/329, Aug/Sept 2011.
Born in Peru, she’s returned to her ancestral Okinawan home for the music. John Potter gets a house concert.
Most of the interviews I’ve done have been on neutral ground, often at a concert venue, and very occasionally at the musician’s home. Well, today is a real exception. Okinawan-Peruvian singer and sanshin player Lucy has actually turned up at my house here on the south coast of Okinawa for our talk. She arrives with her fellow musician Nao who played on Lucy’s recent first album. Some months ago I discovered that Nao is a neighbour of mine and it was her suggestion for Lucy to come to my home. The two women arrive bearing a gift of apple pie. I note that Lucy is also carrying her sanshin and she is happy to serenade us later with some traditional songs from the Ryukyu Islands. When finalizing the arrangements for this meeting a couple of days ago, I hadn’t expected Lucy to be performing in my own living room!
Now known just as Lucy, she was born Lucy Nagamine in Lima, a third generation child of Okinawan immigrants to Peru: “I used to come to Okinawa with my grandmother when I was a child” she says. “When I grew up I came back to Okinawa in 1993 for an international karaoke competition which I won. Then I heard minyo (traditional folk songs) in Okinawa and it reminded me of my mother and grandmother, who are both dead now, and it made me think about doing minyo again and staying in Okinawa. I wanted to learn minyo properly.”
Lucy eventually moved to Okinawa and has stayed on this island ever since with occasional trips back to Peru. She now has a base in the island’s capital Naha, she has appeared on Okinawan television, and is also the resident singer at an Okinawan restaurant on the island. A meeting with well-known producer Kenji Yano (Surf Champlers, Sanshin Café Orchestra) led to the release of a debut album Ninufabushi (reviewed in fRoots 335) which was arranged and mixed by Yano at his studio.
So why such a long wait for an album? “My cousin and her friend persuaded me to make a CD. They said I’d been doing minyo for 16 years so it was about time I made an album and so I was introduced to Kenji Yano by Nao.”
The album contains some beautifully sung, played and arranged versions of modern Okinawan songs such as Shoukichi Kina’s Hana and Sadao China’s Umukaji, alongside traditional fare such as the Yaeyama classic Tubarama and the much loved children’s song Tinsagu Nu Hana. Lucy’s sanshin is joined on many songs by guitar and ukulele, and she sings in Uchinaguchi (the Okinawan language) as well as in Japanese and Spanish.
“Originally I had studied Ryukyu classical music so this new project was very different and interesting for me. The first time I heard Yano’s arrangements for my album was at his studio and I thought they were very exciting. The idea to sing part of Tinsagu Nu Hana in Spanish actually came from a friend. I translated it into Spanish from Uchinaguchi which was quite difficult to do, to find the right words. On my recent trip back to Peru I realised that first and second generation Okinawan-Peruvians were very impressed to hear that song in Spanish. It made me think that I want to sing some more minyo in Spanish if I can in the future.”
“On this trip to Peru, apart from a live show on television, I went to sing at the Okinawa Kenjikai event. This is an association of Okinawans in Peru. Also, I sang every day at a day care centre for the elderly. It’s the only one in Peru which is run especially for Okinawan-Peruvians. I was moved to see my grandmother’s friends there and so happy that they remembered me. Peru has the second biggest Japanese community in South America after Brazil. They celebrated the centenary of the first immigrants going to Peru recently. If I can, I hope to continue living in Okinawa and making trips back and forth to Peru.”
“I’m already thinking about the next album but haven’t done anything definite yet. I’d like to work with Kenji Yano again. Generally, I like to sing sad songs. My teacher Shizuko Oshiro often asked me to play the sanshin fast but, in fact, it’s the slow songs that I really like best.”
Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands are famed for their outstanding female singers and I wondered if Lucy doesn’t feel a bit daunted to be competing in a world populated by the likes of Misako Oshiro, Yuki Yamazato, Yoriko Ganeko, and Misako Koja. “I never feel any competition or anything like that from the great Okinawan female singers. This is important because in order to be a good minyo singer I need to listen and learn from them. Also, I’m friends with some of them such as Misako Koja and Yuki Yamazato, and they have all been very kind to me.
Throughout our meeting Lucy speaks very gently in Japanese and she frequently breaks into an endearing smile. But she has an underlying strength too, and not just as a minyo singer for she can also sing a wide variety of modern island songs and can sing in different languages. As we tuck into the apple pie she concludes: “My aim is to sing the minyo I learned in Okinawa in Spanish for people overseas in order for them to enjoy these songs in a new way. I want to be a singer beyond generations or borders.”