Okinawan musician Shouei Kina, London: fRoots Magazine No.240, June 2003.
Shouei Kina, Okinawan roots music icon and father of famous musician Shoukichi Kina, was interviewed at the age of 83 by John Potter.
He is father to 11 children, has 33 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. But it's not for his great services to increasing the population of the Ryukyu Islands that Shouei Kina is famous. It's for being one of the most important figures in the history of Okinawan music. He's recorded over 500 tracks in his career, is a maker and teacher of the ubiquitous three-stringed sanshin, devised the method of writing music for the instrument, and singlehandedly introduced and popularized another instrument, the sanba, now an essential ingredient of Okinawan music. And the 83 year old is still singing and playing sanshin almost every night in Naha, Okinawa with his own Shouei Kina Minyo Group.
The subtropical Ryukyu Islands have their own unique culture and music which is far removed from that of mainland Japan. As many have already discovered, the islands' laid -back lifestyle and its vibrant music is an intoxicating brew. Okinawans also have the longest life expectancy in the world and studies completed on why this is so usually focus on the relaxed lifestyle, as well as its renowned healthy food and sunny climate. In the Ryukyu Islands a special 'kajimaya' celebration is held on the attainment of your 97th birthday, so by these standards Shouei Kina is still an adolescent.
But if the name Kina sounds familiar it's probably because of Shouei Kina's even more famous son. The best known of all Okinawan musicians, Shoukichi Kina's very name elicits both widespread adoration and controversy in almost equal measure. Together with his band Champloose, the charismatic Shoukichi Kina first attracted attention for his early embracing of reggae and rock, and latterly as a self-styled 'musical activist' with various projects to spread his message of borderless peace and love. In addition to Shouei's most famous musical offspring, there is also son Masahiro who was Champloose bassist for several years, while daughters Keiko and Sachiko are still members of the band.
The high profile of Shoukichi Kina and the success of Champloose, as well as their occasional feuds with other Okinawan musicians, has obscured the fact that without Shouei Kina none of them would exist - not just literally but because the influence of their father on their own musical development has been enormous. Listen to any Shoukichi Kina album and then go back and listen to Shouei Kina and you might be forgiven for thinking it's the same singer at different stages of his career. The phrasing and intonation is uncannily similar, and as well as the obvious similarity of their voices there's the fact that large chunks of the children's repertoire were learned from their father. But while Shoukichi has attracted most of the attention and has been happy to court the famous and influential, his father Shouei could hardly be more different.
Shouei's reticence is somewhat unavoidable these days. Throat surgery has weakened his voice and his ears are not as sharp as they used to be. Nevertheless, for the past ten years the Shouei Kina Minyo Group has been performing twice nightly at his son's club Chakra on Kokusai-dori, the main street and entertainment district of Naha, Okinawa's capital. On my most recent visit to the club I decided to sit him down and pop a few questions about his eventful life.
A tiny man - he must be little more than 5 feet - he is quiet but friendly and with a natural modesty. Despite previous health problems, Shouei is still a sprightly character and takes it upon himself to jump up and fill my glass with draught beer whenever he feels it's due for a top up. At one point he almost overbalances while stretching his small frame over the bar counter to get me another refill. His wife Chiyo is also his manager and like many Okinawan women she seems in complete control. "Let Chiyo tell you, she knows everything about me", says Shouei. In the Okinawan native religion only women can become priests and they also perform the important tasks of fortune telling and giving advice. It's certainly true that in the Kina clan the women are a driving force alongside their men. Chiyo loves to talk and with the tape running it's several minutes before Shouei gets a word in, but eventually his story unfolds.
He was born in 1920 in Kitanakagusuku village in the middle of the main island. "When I was eleven I started to learn the sanshin and then I played children's Eisa in the local village." Eisa is the dancing and drumming usually performed at summer festivals in the Ryukyus. "I left school at 15 and began playing in the local village theatre group because I originally wanted to be an actor. But at that time people thought that being an actor meant you were lazy and everyone was against the idea of my becoming one. So then I moved alone to Osaka to work in an iron factory. But even while in Osaka I never stopped playing the sanshin."
Then I came back to Okinawa to work. During the day you worked hard and then in the evening you did mo-ashibi." (The all-night outdoor partying and revelry finally outlawed during the 2nd World War). "Everyone was singing and dancing, more like a disco today. In mo-ashibi some people put a hood over their face to disguise themselves and young people dressed up in various different ways. Some men were chasing after women and then fell down in the field and found they'd caught their own sister! It was fun to hide your own face to play. I think a lot of good singers and artists were produced in this area because we had such an environment."
Just after the war I played kankara sanshin (a makeshift sanshin made with tin cans) when I was a prisoner of war in the camp at Yaka, Okinawa. I'd been a member of the defence army, and I was captured by the Americans. I played both classical Okinawan music and minyo (folk song) with sanshin there for the other prisoners."
After release from the camp I joined the police school and became a policeman. It was while working in Koza at this time that I met Chiyo. She was living as a lodger with Shuei Kohama, and because of this Kohama became my mentor and I learned minyo from him. Chiyo and I got married in 1948." This was in fact his second marriage - a first marriage when he was 21 had produced six children, and Chiyo was to bring up these children alongside five of her own.
My uncle had emigrated to Hawaii and then came back to Okinawa after the war. He showed me a photo of a percussion instrument, made of bamboo. So I made a smaller version of that. There was no information about how to use it so I started to make smaller versions and devised a unique way of playing it using all the fingers." Thus began the castanet-like sanba, now an ever-present feature of modern Okinawan music.
After Shoukichi was born, he gave up his job as a policeman and became a carpenter. Chiyo looked after all the children while growing vegetables and doing a kind of fishing, just diving into the sea to catch food. Then when Shouei was 29 he started learning Ryukyuan classical music but soon after opted for the minyo world of folk song. Adds Chiyo: "He was learning Ryukyuan classical music but he changed to minyo because he couldn't make money at that time. You need money to live and bring up eleven children. I was prepared to do any jobs to help him. The thing he wanted to do most was music. He lost his father when he was seven and then was with his mother who suffered from asthma. He stopped going to school and helped his mother work in the sugar cane field. Just before his mother died she asked me to let him do his music. Not only that but I knew that this was what he really wanted to do. I became more like his mother and was concerned about his sanshin playing so I wouldn't let him do any hard labour. Instead I did it."
He learned very quickly and began teaching others to play the sanshin. Shouei soon became the first minyo musician to sing on the radio, impressing all with his singing and fast sanshin technique. Even his mentor Shuei Kohama was surprised, and Kohama asked him to go on the same stage together to play the song 'Achamegwa'. Numerous song contests and awards followed.
Shouei's modesty sometimes intervenes when he feels the story is becoming too grand.
Chiyo: "Shouei was the first one to form a Minyo Kenkyujo (Study Centre), with people like Chosho Maekawa and Shuei Kohama."
Shouei: "No, that's not right. Koutoku Tsuha started one before me."
Chiyo: "Oh, Tsuha just had a small sign outside his house. Ours was bigger."
In 1957 he helped found the Marufuku Records Minyo Kenkyukai. (Folk song study group). This included many of the later stars of minyo, such as Rinsho Kadekaru, Seijin Noborikawa, and Shuei Kohama. "Sadao China, at that time a junior high school student, used to come to the Minyo Kenkyukai to learn minyo from me. I had a lot of pupils such as Aiko Yohen, Yukiko Yamazato and Misako Oshiro, who all became important in Okinawan music. Many of my pupils are now playing in clubs and I still go to see them with Chiyo. I'm very pleased about that. They always treat us very well."
This was a great time for minyo. His meeting with Marufuku Records founder Choki Fukuhara led to his first recordings the next year for them and to 1959's big hit 'Kayoibune' ('The Returning Ship'), which was written by Fukuhara and is still included in Shouei Kina Minyo Group performances. At that time every port played this song when a ship left to go to mainland Japan. This big hit led him to have a contract to play regularly at a club in Urasoe which usually had jazz and pop bands. This was quite a sensation and led to the spread of a lot of clubs including minyo, and eventually to today's minyo 'live houses'.
The next big project was with his pupil Kosei Takihara, to devise 'kunkunshi' - the first musical notation of minyo for sanshin. The first volume of minyo using kunkunshi was published, eventually running to ten volumes and covering 579 songs. This spread minyo to more people and helped greatly in the development of the people's art.
Shortly after this time Shouei went to Columbia recording studios to record over 200 songs in a week along with Rinsho Kadekaru, Sadao China and others. The cream of Shouei's recordings from this time, but still only the tip of the iceberg, were finally released on two CDs in 2001 on the Kina family's own Mu Paradise label.
Problems with his voice in the mid 1970s forced him to temporarily gave up singing and he opened a sanshin shop, turning his attentions to the making of sanshins. There followed a successful operation for a throat tumour and then his voice miraculously became better. "I'd only expected to be able to play sanshin, so I was surprised that I could sing again too." Further appearances with Champloose came and a cameo role on their album 'Niraikanai Paradise'. When the club Chakra opened in December 1993, the Shouei Kina Minyo Group began residency there and have been playing solidly for the past decade. Shouei features strongly on his son's last great return-to-the-roots album 'Akainko'.
Health has been a concern and a heart problem has led to two operations, both successful. Even worse followed five years ago when tongue cancer was diagnosed, and doctors recommended removal of part of the tongue, an operation that could have literally left him speechless. But because of his passion for music and his family's support he was on stage singing again a few months after the operation.
The list of achievements goes on. He was the first Okinawan roots musician to play with an orchestra, and the first to use a variety of new instruments on stage: violin, mandolin, woodblock, sanba, as well as sanshin were added to the mix in his minyo group. He even played electric guitar on stage at one time but Chiyo says: "He looked terrible so I told him he should stop!" Many of his songs were on the first jukeboxes which were introduced to Okinawa by the Americans after the war. His family think he should be made a national treasure.
If I had an award like that I'd probably die very soon. My children are successful so I don't want anything. This is enough. Every night playing at Chakra is the secret of why I'm fine. I enjoy singing with my children."
With these words Shouei gets up to prepare for tonight's first show. Earlier in the day he had been to the funeral of his mentor Shuei Kohama, who by unhappy coincidence had died suddenly a couple of days before our talk. His great contemporary Rinsho Kadekaru also passed on in recent times. Shouei Kina's eyes fill with tears as he remembers, but he soon recovers and is off to the bar to bring another glass for his guest.
Many thanks to Shouei Kina and to all the Kina family for their help and hospitality. Thanks also to Midori Potter for assistance with translations.
This article originally appeared in fRoots Magazine No.240, June 2003. Shouei Kina died in December 2009.