Supercool Japanese minimalism The Observer
Like nothing youve ever heard before The Wire
Tender tonkori melodies, meditative dub excursions and Ainu folk songs combine on Tonkori in the Moonlight, an 11-track collection of mostly traditional songs performed by indigenous Ainu musician OKI.
Born on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1957, OKI is a contemporary of the likes of Haroumi Hosono and Midori Takada, yet as a musician who blends Ainu folk music with international influences his style is singular in the canon of Japanese music though he is quick to point out: I might travel on a Japanese passport but I am Ainu.
Embracing reggae, dub, Irish folk, throat singing, African drumming and music from Central Asia, it is OKIs openness to international influences that has seen him revitalise Ainu folk music - breathing new life into a musical culture that was on the verge of extinction. He is one of only a handful of musicians who play the tonkori, a five-stringed Ainu harp, which is both the pulse of this record and the force that unifies the disparate sounds he introduces: Ive never seen a traditional tonkori player, he says They were all dead when I started.
OKIs father was Bikki Sunazawa, a renowned Ainu wood sculptor, yet his parents divorced when he was four: My mum then married a Japanese man and decided to erase her past - she never told me I was Ainu. When I was 18 I received a strange phone call from a woman who said: Are you OKI? Do you know your father is not your real father? then hung up. A few years later I came across a book on Ainu culture and inside was a photo of a sculpture by my real father seeing his name triggered a flashback for me. I found his address, went to Hokkaido and met him.
For the young OKI, initial joy soon turned to confusion: I was listening to a lot of reggae music at this time which told me to go back to my roots so I moved to Hokkaido but it was tough as I didn't feel Ainu. My mum was also really upset and begged me to stop meeting my father.
In 1987 OKI fled to New York to live the Babylon life as a director of TV commercials: New York is love and hate. I saw great concerts Fela Kuti, Bunny Wailer, Grateful Dead yet I worked on TV commercials for McDonalds, Pizza Hut. I made lots of Native Indian friends though and visited the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I hung out with native Indian rude boys who were the same age as me, riding cars, smoking, shooting rifles, but when the sun went down they climbed the mountains to prey to their spirits. It got me thinking maybe I should go back to Hokkaido.
Once in Hokkaido a cousin gave him a tonkori which OKI taught himself to play - setting him on the path that would turn him into a folk music revolutionary and the worlds preeminent Ainu musician. I dont want this to sound mythical but when my cousin gave me a tonkori, I felt it was a sign. After returning to Japan he moved to Hokkiado and has lived there ever since. For a few years he had a role at the United Nations Committee for Human Rights, promoting indigenous culture, yet eventually decided to concentrate on music. OKIs debut album Kamuy Kor Nupurpe was released in 1996 and since then he has recorded 11 studio albums both solo and with his Dub Ainu Band, as well as producing two albums by Ainu elder singer Umeko Ando, all released on his own label Chikar Studio. He has toured internationally from WOMAD in the UK to the John F.Kennedy Center in Washington DC via festival appearances in Singapore, Australia and across Europe yet remains fully immersed in Ainu culture and now handcrafts tonkoris himself, helping pass the torch to the next generation of players.
Thought to have originated in the mid 19th Century on the island of Sakhalin, the tonkori arrived in what is now the main Ainu community of Hokkaido after Sakhalin was annexed by Russia after WWII. The Japanese government had previously passed an act labelling the Ainu as "former aborigines" and with Ainu culture outlawed the Ainu are now almost fully assimilated into Japanese society - in 2011 it was estimated only 300 people understood the Ainu language. What happened to the Ainu is similar to the Aboriginies in Australia and the Native Indians in America, says OKI My grandfather a bear hunter didnt teach Ainu culture to my father.
On the shore of the rippling lake, Kamui gather from near and far
And their mightiness draws us close (Kai Kai As To)
TRACK BY TRACK (all quotes from OKI)
Drum Song is the first track on OKIs debut album. Reggae music encouraged him to go back to his roots to Hokkaido, and so paring this Ainu folk song with Jamaicas Nyabinghi rhythm is his tribute to Jamaican culture.
Kai Kai As To (Rippling Lake) refers to a lake below the summit of Mount Poroshi in the Hidaka Mountain range, Kamui territory. Kamui are spirits the Ainu worship that can be bear, owl, killer whale, fire, water and sun. In the world of the Kamui everything is opposite - Ainu believe this lake is from the ocean, with walrus, ocean fish and seaweed.
Ainu elder musician Umeko Ando appears on four traditional songs. OKI produced two of her albums before she passed in 2004. The recording of Iuta Upopo was quick. First I served tea to Umeko and then asked her what we should sing. She did the song in one take and then left to make dinner for her grandchildren. I had a map in my head to mix tonkori from Sakhalin with a song from Hokkaido plus a Tuva-style throat singing rhythm and Japanese players of African percussion make a traditional Ainu song international
Cup Kamuy Ho is influenced by an eclipse - the Ainu thought the sun was dying - Umeko cries: God of Sun, dont die!. Iso Kaari Irehte (Bear Trap Rhythm) imitates the sound of a pacing bears nails scraping against the cage and would be heard at a bear ceremony (the bear is the most sacred of all Kamuy spirits): The church sing a song for Jesus, reggae sings a song for Jah, the Ainu sing a song for the bear. Battaki (Grasshopper Dance) is about a plague of crickets. Haroumi Hosono told me this song was interesting because Umekos singing is in one key and the tonkori in another. As a music academic he said couldnt make a song like this! When you listen to recording of old tonkori players, everything is out of tune, people, rhythm - its so free.
Yaykatekar Dub is OKIs adaptation of a song by Ume Nishihira, one of the last generation of tonkori players from the 20th century. Tonkori In the Moonlight and Afghan Herbal Garden are improvisations. Tonkori
was inspired by the full moon on the night of recording and the beautiful shadows the trees cast whilst Afghan
. was recorded on a four-track cassette using a really cheap rhythm machine and is a prayer for Afghanistan.
The collection closes with 2 international collaborations Oroho Raha Mokor Mokor (Sleep sleep) with Irish folk band Kila whom OKI met in Tokyo they then invited him to Ireland in 2005 to record the album this is taken from, and Wei Ne features vocals from Hanna Alemayehu, an Ethiopian woman he met at a festival in Australia.
1 OKI Drum Song (trad adapt) 1996. Percussion: OKI, Shinjiman, Noda Tin / vocals: Yayo Boo, Yumi Takiguchi
2 OKI Kai Kai As To (Rippling Lake) (OKI / Tatsujiro Kuzuno) 1996. Vocal + tonkori: OKI / chorus: Yayo Boo, Noda Tin / bass drum: Shinjiman / guitar: Noda Tin
3 OKI feat. Umeko Ando Iso Kaari Irehte (Bear Trap Rhythm) (trad adapt) 1999. Lead vocal + tonkori: OKI / vocals: Umeko Ando, Kiyomi / bass clarinet: Kazutoki Umezu / percussion: Kiyoshi Suzuki
4 OKI Yaykatekar Dub (Love Dub) (Ume Nishihira) 2004. Vocals: Rekpo / bass, tonkori, percussion: OKI / drums: Kiyoshi Suzuki
5 OKI Tonkori In the Moonlight (OKI) 2005. Tonkori: OKI
6 OKI Afghan Herbal Garden (OKI) all instruments: OKI (2004)
7 OKI feat. Umeko Ando Iuta Upopo (Pestle Song) (trad adapt) 2003. Vocals: Umeko Ando / chorus: Rekpo, Kapiw / tonkori: OKI / igil, throat singing: Masahiko Todoriki / percussion: Norihiko Yamakita, Masato Kimura (2003)
8 OKI feat. Umeko Ando Cup Kamuy Ho (Wake Up Sun)
(trad adapt) 2003. Vocals: Umeko Ando / percussion: OKI
9 OKI feat. Umeko Ando Battaki (Grasshopper Dance) (trad adapt) 1999. Vocals: Umeko Ando / chorus: Rekpo / tonkori: OKI / percussion: Kiyoshi Suzuki
10 Kila & OKI Oroho Raha Mokor Mokor (Sleep sleep) (trad adapt/lyrics Tatsujiro Kuzuno) 2006. Vocals, tonkori: OKI / fiddle: Dee Armstrong / chorus and percussion: Kila / recording, mix: Karl Odlum
11 OKI Wei Ne (OKI) 2002. Vocals: Hanna Alemayehu / tonkori: OKI