Amami Island music (Japan)

In the Amami islands of southern Japan, there is a local folk/vernacular song forms called shima-uta. Drawing on prior research on the topic, the chief investigators’ fieldwork in the area over the last decade, and a series of interviews and information collation conducted as part of the Sustainable Futures project, we identify and discuss issues relating to concepts of sustainability with regard to musical style, repertoire, cultural function and contemporary mediation. These discussions are framed within an awareness of broader issues concerning the sustainability of Amamian culture more generally.

As a form of traditional vernacular music that circulated in a predominantly oral culture prior to the modernisation of Amami from the early 1950s on, shima-uta repertoire and performance skills were communicated through processes of performance, familiarisation, imitation and feedback (between performers and between performers and listeners) in social/familial contexts. Developments of the form emerge from subsequent performer refinement, embellishment and/or innovation. While written accounts documenting the social practice of music-making in the pre-War era are minimal, semi-formal tutelage appears to have occurred in either (extended) family contexts and/or between accomplished and promising aspirant performers. There is no evidence that such tutelage was in any way systematised, nor that any forms of notation were used to transmit repertoire and styles and techniques of performance. Rote learning and subsequent personal interpretation and embellishment appear to have been prevalent. Due to the difficult nature of internal mobility in Amami (outlined above), pre-War performers tended to be confined to particular localities and to have performed highly localised repertoires. This situation changed significant due to the impact of the War years, US occupation and Japanese modernisation.

So, while traditionally shima-uta performance skills and repertoire were transmitted and developed in local community contexts, in recent decades this pattern has been replaced almost entirely by formal educational operations ranging from voluntary tuition, in (some) local contexts, to prestigious private training operations based in metropolitan centres run by renown (and usually veteran) performers. This has led to a degree of standardization of musical approaches and repertoire which has significantly shifted the eco-system, supporting a less fluid and diverse set of musical practices.

Since the 1950s, when first external and then local folklorists began to collect the local vernacular songs of particular areas, there developed a perception that these examples of shima-uta (‘island/local songs’) collectively constituted a corpus of pre-modern vernacular song materials that a) could be collectively identified as shima-uta; and that b) comprised a distinct cultural heritage asset for the islands. As with many bodies of vernacular song primarily communicated through oral transmission, the materials within such a corpus are of varying ages and share differing degrees of linkage with other songs (spanning single, unique songs and ones that either exist in multiple variants and/or can be seen to belong to song ‘families’). Songs are typically of two- to four minute duration (although some are considerably longer) and there is some flexibility for singers to select verses they wish to perform (often omitting verses to compress song duration. The location of the origins of particular songs is often clearly indicated in the particular dialect terms and/or topical or circumstantial references within song lyrics. Since collecting began, Amami shima-uta has been observed to be a song form that is habitually accompanied by rhythmic melodic motifs plucked on the three string, banjo-like sanshin. The singer often accompanies themselves on sanshin and may on occasion be accompanied by a hayashi (vocal harmonist), most often of the opposite gender. As discussed below, duetting and multiple vocal performances also occur in particular contexts. Musicologist Henry Johnson has provided a concise summary of Amami shima-uta in comparison to its sister song form in Okinawa:

The vocal qualities frequently range from a very low voice to falsetto. While the syllable structure of shima-uta is often thought of as having a Ryūkyūan influence from ryūka (ancient Ryūkyūan poetry), with its 8-8-8-6 classical form, shima-uta in Amami do not generally follow this structure, and instead have much more freedom. In terms of the scales used in Amami shima-uta, rather than using the Ryūkyūan (Okinawan) scale, songs tend to include other Japanese scales such as ritsu or miyakobushi (see further Koizumi, 1977 and Yamamoto, 1980). (personal communication June 2013)

Prior to the US occupation of Amami in 1945-53, and the disruptions the War years and subsequent administration caused to established patterns of social interaction and community autonomy, shima-uta singers were largely socially embedded within particular locales and exercised their musical skills as separate activity from their means of generating livelihood (through subsistence activities and/or engagement in commerce). Shima-uta performance brought prestige to individuals, families and communities. While this prestige could be used as leverage in particular social/familial circumstances it was not remunerative in the contemporary sense of that term. This situation began to shift in the post-War years. The pioneers of a switch to both earning money from performance and securing audiences outside of Amami were Fujie Kan’mura and Masagoro Minami, from Kasari-chō (in northern Amami Ōshima) who built a reputation as accomplished utasha by touring around the Amami islands during the period of US military occupation, a time of poverty and austerity when entertainment options were limited. Minami, in particular, attracted attention by performing shima-uta in Okinawa and was invited to the Japanese National Folk Performing Art Festival organised by the Ministry of Education in 1961.

Since the 1960s, a number of performers have begun to secure some income from performing, teaching and/or recording activities but the earning opportunities are limited and unpredictable and other professional careers offer far more reliable avenues for financial security and advancement. Shima-uta skills acquisition and performance retains much of the sense of a vocational calling within a strong sense of regional heritage evident in the pre-War era and continues to carry a cultural cachet that is reinforced by contemporary media coverage and the modern inscriptions of success represented by song contest awards and recording contracts. Shima-uta music doesn’t so much comprise a career choice as the opportunity to be a tradition bearer, albeit one in new and diversifying contexts.

Shima-uta song contests have come to perform an important social function in creating a combined forum and network for Amamian amateur performers in various regions of Japan and their associate family and social circles who take an interest in the contest and particular performers progress in these. The song contests comprise a mechanism through which community-based shima-uta education and performance can be presented and adjudged through a system of evaluation and awards essentially similar to that of the Western Eisteddfod. The first formal song contest appears to have been the Jikkyo Rokuon Amami Min’yō Taikai (‘Live Recording Amami Folksong Contest’), which was organized by Central Gakki together with a local newspaper company (Nankai Nichi-nichi Shinbun) in September 1972 to identify new performing talent. This contest discovered Yutaka Tsuboyama, a 42 year old ship’s carpenter from Uken village, who was a talented and versatile interpreter of traditional repertoire and who also went on to become Amami’s most influential contemporary songwriter.

Shima-uta exists in several performance contexts:

  • Uta ashibi – a traditional practice that comprises everyday singing, in family, social and/or festival contexts. This can involve individuals singing shima-uta in company (sometimes with extemporaneous accompaniment in the form of singing along on choruses and/or cherished passages and impromptu percussion and/or whistling). There are also occasions on which two or more vocalists are deliberately involved in performance. This is referred to as uta-gake, a term that describes vocal performance of shima-uta in which singers are involved in kakeai (essentially, ‘dialogue’). Uta-gake involves two or more vocalists improvising lyrics around lyrical and melodic motifs present in established shima-uta There are two main subsets of this, the first is a dialogue between male and female vocalists, which is often humorous and/or flirtatious, and the second involves larger groups of vocalists. The latter form is traditionally performed by a group of singers sitting around in a circle with stanzas being ‘passed around’ the group in semi-formal order. (A third form also exists, but which is only performed occasionally, a group-to-group variant in which a group of men and a group of women sing by turns, a practice that is traditionally a feature of annual hachigatsu-odori ancestral veneration festivities.) Uta-gake performances can be far more protracted than standard performances of shima-uta songs (which usually – at least, in the post-War era – last 3-4 minutes), depending on the success of the singers in ‘sparking off’ each other and thereby being motivated to continue the improvised dialogue.
  • Formal performance – a more modern practice that usually involves a single singer performing a set in a concert context, either at a live music venue, as part of a festival in which performers appear on-stage or as part of shima-uta performance contests.
  • Recorded performance – shima-uta repertoire has been recorded in substantial volume since the 1950s and songs are widely played in social and commercial contexts in Amami and amongst Amami communities in main island Japan. The overwhelming majority of albums are recorded by single singer/sanshin players.
  • Karaoke performance – a number of shima-uta have been produced in karaoke versions and are performed (along with other established Japanese song genres such as enka, J-Pop and western pop-rock and balladry) in karaoke parlours. A variety of performance practices exist in parlours but the standard karaoke set-up whereby singers sing along to lyrics on-screen produce relatively uniform renditions of songs (unless singers deviate from the lyrics printed and/or have impromptu accompanists).

In the relative plethora of contexts detailed above shima-uta performance is, overwhelmingly, neo-traditional in form in that it uses traditional instrumentation, arrangements and performance styles. This is deliberate in that many enthusiasts, adherents and/or ‘heritage bearers’ of the form prize authenticity (ie perceived resemblance to a remembered earlier socio—culturally ‘organic’ music style and form) as a key element. Modernisation is actively discouraged by key individuals and institutions, who largely discount the value of mediating traditional shima-uta in order to attract younger people to the genre. Interviewed by the authors in 2007, for instance, Masaki Ibusuki, head of Central Gakki Records, stated that his label was not interested in assisting the production of and/or releasing modernised/fusion projects involving shima-uta material (a policy that still persists in the company). Those Amami artists who have initiated such modernisations have met with mixed success.

Overall, the continued local disdain for innovations in the musical accompaniment for shima-uta is notable. Whereas adaptation and modernization are often seen as useful devices through which the appeal of traditional forms can be refreshed and enhanced; the opposite applies within Amami. In this regard, the community has determined a cultural context for the form where close similarity to tradition is prioritized. At the same time, metropolitan Japan has provided a context for Amami performers to experiment with musical fusion and innovation, often to the acclaim of local audiences (particularly younger demographics). This duality of interior conservatism and external experimentation is relatively unusual, in international contexts, but appears to work for all concerned.

Each of the five main contexts of shima-uta – social, commercial entertainment, concerts, festival and song contests – have distinct infrastructural aspects. Social music making exists in informal contexts that do not require amplification or purpose built stages or venues. Its infrastructural elements, such as they are, are provided by domestic and public spaces utilised for impromptu or pre-planned performances. There is an overlap between these and shima-uta performances at local cafes or bars, although larger bars and restaurants (such as the Arahobana in Amami’s capital) are distinct by virtue of having designed stage spaces and p.a. systems. Investment in these facilities is part of the business strategy of venue owners attempting to gain a market advantage in attracting customers from businesses that do not offer live music.

The only specifically established music venue in Amami is the Asivi live house in Naze, which is set up as a performance venue at which alcohol and snacks are also available (rather than the reverse case). Asivi’s venue is part of a small complex that also includes recording and rehearsal spaces and the local radio station Amami FM (discussed below). Asivi was established by Kengo Fumoto, who was born and attended school in Naze before working in Tokyo in the mid-1980s, when he became familiar with main island Japanese live houses and their operation. Trained as a carpenter-builder he built Asivi with friends as Naze’s first modern music venue. Asivi showcases local shima-uta performers and other visiting acts and provides a relaxed and lively environment for music patrons.

Formal concerts at venues not providing food and beverages are held occasionally but are a minor form compared to annual festivals (such as Summer bon festivals) and village fairs, at which refreshments are also available. Depending on the size of the latter, formal stage spaces and/or amplification may be provided. Larger scale festivals, held outdoor on formal stages with p.a. and lighting systems are few in number but notable ones in recent years have included the Hana Hana festivals held in 2005-2007. These merit discussion here as they provide a particularly ambitious presentation of local music. The festivals were held in Hana Hana West, a large and versatile space spanning two coves and adjacent land outside Yamato village, on Amami’s northwestern coast, which opened in May 2005 as a community resource for young Amamians supported by commercial sponsorship. Three music festivals were held in the venue, one in 2006 and two in 2007. These were significant large-scale events that attracted audiences to a mixture of shima-uta performers and retro and contemporary J-Pop acts in comfortable, outdoor beachside locations. The second festival, held in July 2007, was notable for featuring an uta ashibi event on the northern cove that included uta-gake performances by a group of veteran performers seated on stage in a semi-circle facing the audience and culminated in traditional ensemble dancing. But however successful the event was at showcasing a traditional form in a well-facilitated and modern outdoor context, the high levels of sponsorship required and complex logistical issues contributed to the festivals’ discontinuance after 2007.

Music recording in Amami began in 1928, when Otojo Nakayama, a female uta-sha from Uken village in southwestern Amami Ōshima was recorded with accompaniment by Denjiro Sunao on sanshin by a recording company in Kansai, which was commissioned by the owner of the Yamaji souvenir store in Naze. Local music recording took off in a more concerted manner in the immediate post-War period when Yonezo Yamada from Uken made a number of tape recordings of uta-sha, some of which were issued on vinyl. In 1951 Naze general store operator Takeo Tokuyama financed the recording and pressing of thirteen shima-uta records by performers such as Fujie Kanemura and Masagoro Minami. These were bought en masse by the Central Gakki music store in Naze (which had opened in 1949), a business run by Tokunoshima-born entrepreneur Yoshihiko Ibusuki, whose main activity was selling dancehall records (imported from main island Japan) and musical instruments.

In addition to the profile accorded to the form by shima-uta contests, local exposure to shima-uta has been boosted in recent years by the introduction of Amami FM in 2007, an initiative formulated by Kengo Fumoto that grew out of the Asivi live house’s performance and recording activities. The radio service offers a combination of community news, weather and sports reports and a number of cultural programs. The station has a number of programs that include spoken items in various Amami dialects and shima-uta tracks are widely played, usually in the form of song from commercially available CDs but also from in-concert recordings made at the Asivi live house located adjacent to the station. The FM station has a limited range, covering Naze and its immediate surrounds but since 2012 has been complemented by another local-radius FM station established by Fumoto, Setouchi Town FM, serving the far south of Amami Ōshima (with some signal coverage in Kakeroma), providing a similar schedule of material. As in other locations, the Internet has become an increasingly important medium for exposure to music and Amami FM’s web site also provides various items and links including musical ones.

In summary, the Amami music industry is a small-scale one heavily based on a single company, Central Gakki, which operates with a particular cultural agenda. Although a commercial entity, the company forms an enduring, nurturing and supportive core to the local music scene. While reliance on a single entity is necessarily risky, prudent management has maintained the company as an enduring local institution. More recent ventures provide useful extensions and diversifications that, nevertheless, complement this orientation.

In one sense we can observe that shima-uta, rendered in the manner described above has taken on many of the characteristics of those western forms of ‘folk music’, transcribed, (usually) edited and published by collectors in the 19th and early 20th Century and now predominantly known by regional communities through performed and versions that have utilised the collected versions (albeit at second or third hand) as their reference source. But there is a marked linguistic difference as many of the western folk songs referred to above were collected in a form of national language fairly intelligible to contemporary performers. Shima-uta material, written in dialect forms of Amami language (which is, itself little spoken within Amami today) invites comparison to other song repertoires sung in archaic languages. In another sense we might perceive shima-uta to have become a form of ‘art song’, recontextualised from a vernacular context to one in which it is fixed, canonized and appraised by various stakeholders who exert influence over (their perceptions of) its ‘proper’ performance. .

Transformation of the kind described above necessarily diminishes one level of textual signification – that is, the lyric’s denotative and connotative linguistic function – prioritising traditions of musical rendition that may have been informed by lyrical content but which are increasingly distant from (and unable to access) those linguistic cues for vocal interpretation. In this regard we can see something of a generational rupture between the elder generation of shima-uta performers (born before the reversion to Japan in 1952), many of who are still teaching and performing, and younger performers. But acknowledgement of this does not amount to a definitive critique of the contemporary form of shima-uta as a ‘pale shadow’ of previous song forms but rather notes the difference of the contemporary form from its predecessors.

Shima-uta performance and teaching has proved resilient – and, in many ways, resurgent – in Amami over the last three decades, supported by a network of performers, teachers, facilitators, advocates and audiences within Amami itself (and extending to centres of Amamian expatriates in main island Japan). In this manner, its sustainability has been organic to the community rather than being substantially dependent on external initiatives. At the same time, the nature of shima-uta performance, education and promotion has shifted and occurs within a regional space – rather than within Amami’s individual shimas – in which voluntary organisations and commercial operations have taken on a promotional role that was not necessary at its previous grass-roots level of operation. Similarly, exposure to and consumption of shima-uta material is increasingly technologically mediated (via recordings, broadcast and/or digital media) rather than forming part of the vernacular soundscape of individual shima. These contextual changes have also affected the nature of song texts, performance practices, evaluations of performer competence and consumption of shima-uta material.


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