World music: It’s Okinawa’s turn

Unique melodies float from every doorway along Naha's Kokusai-dori, Okinawa's main entertainment drag
  • Shokoichi Kina

There’s something about islands and music.

Jamaica and Cuba spring to mind.

Not as globally recognized, but every bit as interesting, is subtropical Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost littoral.

You can find music on the smallest of islets in the Okinawan chain, but Naha, the prefectural capital, remains the epicenter of musical activity.

At times, it feels as if melodies are escaping from every doorway along Kokusai-dori, Naha’s main tourist and entertainment strip.

Considered by many the greatest living female Okinawan signer, Misako Oshiro performs at her club, Shima Umui.

Clubs here cater to tourists looking for a night of drinking and carousing, but they also provide a useful initiation into shima-uta, the term for Okinawan music and its modern derivatives.

With its emphasis on half-step intervals and variations on pentatonic scales, the rhythms and phrasings in Okinawan music distinguish it from the folk music of mainland Japan.

More on CNN: Okinawa: Which island is for you? 

Embodying hints and tints of its Asian provenance, the music is played at festivals, to celebrate births and weddings, petition the gods for good harvests and even for social commentary and political protest.

An ever-evolving genre, successful collaborations between Okinawan performers and well known foreign musicians include those with pianist Geoffrey Keezer and guitar legend Ry Cooder.

Few places uphold local musical traditions like Okinawa, where tribute is paid to both past masters and new styles.

For an evening of authentic traditional music, Shima Umui, a cozy basement club owned by the great Okinawan singer Misako Oshiro, is the place to start.

On a good night, the music and awamori (Okinawan liquor) flow until the early hours of the morning.

More on CNN: Awamori: A guide to Okinawa’s tropical drink of choice

Experiencing Okinawa music

The Far Side Music website is one of the best places to shop for Okinawan sounds.

All-female band Nenes performs at Shimauta, a club along Kokusai-dori.John Potter’s book, “The Power of Okinawa: Roots music from the Ryukyus,” is a fine introduction to the subject.

Almost every island has a bar or two where live music is performed, but Naha is to Okinawan music what Nashville is to country.

Live performances usually start between 7 and 9 p.m.

Here are some of the best places to catch an Okinawan music concert. 

Chakra

This well known club is run by legendary singer-composer Kina Shokichi, who can be seen performing on weekends.

ChakraNaha-shi, Makishi 1-2-1, Mall Vie Bldg. 5/F; +81 098 869 0283

Shimauta

This one is overseen by Sadao China, an influential musician and producer who created the all-female group Nenes, who perform regularly here.

Shimauta, Naha-shi, Makishi 1-2-31, 3/F Okinawaya Honsha Bldg; +81 098 863 6040

Shima Umui

This small club is run by Okinawan signer Misako Oshiro.

Shima UmuiNaha-shi, Higashimachi 4-6; +81 098 866 0234 

Lyra

A good venue to see young performers and new acts. There are three evening sessions; you can stay for as many as you like.

Lyra, Naha-shi, Makishi, 2-1-1-BF1; +81 098 941 5003

Kalahaai

Located in Chatan, a little north of Naha, this is the base for the Rinken Band, one of the best-known Okinawan acts. Other artists perform here.

Kalahaai,  Nagagami-gun, Chatan-cho 8-11; +81 098 982 707

Bashofu

Run by seasoned musicians Takashi and Chiyoko Hatoma, a warm welcome awaits visitors who make it to Ishigaki, an island in the southern Yaeyama chain.

Bashofu, Ishigaki-shi, Misaki-cho 12-12; +81 0980 82 7765

More on CNN: Five must visit Okinawa castles 

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