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Music From Japan: Festival 2014 presents music of Okinawa in NYC & DC (Feb 22-26)

Music From Japan (MFJ) and its Artistic Director, Naoyuki Miura, are thrilled to announce Festival 2014: a weekend of events in New York City’s Baruch Performing Arts Center (Feb 22 & 23) and a concert at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC (Feb 26). This marks the first time in MFJ’s 39-year history that the festival will present the music and musicians of Okinawa, the island chain that makes up the southernmost region of Japan, which enjoys a blend of cultural influences unlike any other. Festival 2014’s two programs – “Songs of Okinawa: Tradition and Today” and “New Songs of Okinawa” – offer a quintessentially Okinawan fusion of traditional folk sounds with American popular music. Performed by The Ryukyuans, a four-piece Okinawan band making its North American debut, both programs showcase Okinawa’s indigenous instrument, the three-stringed sanshin.

To introduce New Yorkers and Washingtonians to the inimitable sounds of Okinawa, Music From Japan could not have invited a finer group than The Ryukyuans, whose members are all celebrated performers of Okinawan music. Fronting the group are Yukito Ara and Isamu Shimoji, household names in their homeland and regular collaborators. Singing to their own accompaniment – Shimoji on guitar, and both men on sanshin – they will be joined by Shinobu Matsuda, also on vocals and sanshin, and supported by Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone on percussion instruments that include the shima-daiko, an Okinawan drum. The upcoming performances mark not only the group’s North American debut but also the first time that any of its members will have appeared as featured artists in the United States.
“Songs of Okinawa: Tradition and Today” opens Music From Japan’s 39th season at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City on Saturday, February 22, with folksongs from several of the regions that make up Okinawa’s extensive island chain. The Ryukyuan folk tradition is a living one, and while some songs retain the form in which they have been handed down for generations, others are still evolving, and bear the imprint of their modern interpreters. Stylistically the program will range from the haunting, meditative chants of the Yaeyama Islands to the full-ensemble, foot-stomping fun of Kaa chi pai (“Summer Solstice, Southerly Wind”), an original composition from The Ryukyuans’ own Shimoji and Ara. All four musicians will take part in an illuminating lecture-demonstration before the concert.
Festival 2014 continues at New York’s Baruch Performing Arts Center on Sunday, February 23 with “New Songs of Okinawa,” a selection of contemporary Okinawan compositions and folksong arrangements. These include arrangements by Choki Fukuhara, recognized as the father of modern Okinawan folksong, and original compositions from the song-writing team of Shimoji and Ara, such as the up-tempo Jazzy Myahk, and Tome Dome, their hit theme song to the award-winning Canadian-Japanese film Kara Kara (“The Empty Sake Pot”). An open forum with the performers will follow the concert.
The Ryukyuans will give a repeat performance of “Songs of Okinawa: Tradition and Today” at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington’s Smithsonian Institution on Wednesday, February 26.
About Okinawa
Okinawa’s cultural heritage is unique. Composed of hundreds of islands spread in a chain over 620 miles long, the archipelago extends southwest from the Amami Islands, those closest in the group to Kyushu (the southwestern-most of Japan’s four main islands), through the Okinawa Islands, to the Miyako Islands and Yaeyama Islands, which lie nearer Taiwan. Within this vast expanse are found a variety of distinct languages, dialects, and cultural traditions.
Comprised largely of what was once the prosperous and independent Ryukyu Kingdom, a key player in early-modern maritime trade, the archipelago’s local culture bears the influence of such former trading partners as China, Thailand, and Austronesia. Furthermore, the past century has added an unmistakably American flavor to the Okinawan mix, for the islands were under U.S. administration for 27 years after the end of World War II and remain home to a number of U.S. military bases.
It is characteristic that karate – perhaps Okinawa’s most famous cultural export – represents a synthesis of the islands’ own martial arts tradition with that of Chinese kung fu. Similarly, Okinawa’s indigenous instrument, the sanshin (literally “three strings”), is believed to derive from China’s sanxian; often likened to a banjo, the sanshin consists of a snakeskin-covered body with a neck and three strings, and is the precursor to the Japanese shamisen. And just as Okinawans speak languages and dialects that differ from those of Japan’s main islands, traditional Ryukyuan music – despite being, like most Japanese folk music, pentatonic in nature – has its own distinctive sound. This owes in part to the half-steps that permeate Ryukyuan pentatones, since these are seldom heard in those of Japan’s main islands.
About The Ryukyuans
Born in Ishigaki City, Okinawa, in 1967, Yukito ARA (The Ryukyuans leader, vocals, sanshin, lyrics) studied under his musician father, learning to sing the folk songs of the Yaeyama Islands and to play the sanshin. At 17, he took first prize at the 1985 Yaeyama Traditional Music Competition, becoming the award’s youngest recipient at that time. The following year he relocated to Naha City, the Okinawan capital, to attend college, and has lived there ever since. His wide-ranging musical activities include serving as lead singer with Parsha Club and Acoustic Parsha; playing duos with Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone, Parsha Club’s percussionist; and performing with Isamu Shimoji, of Okinawa’s Miyako-jima, as the duo known as Sakishima Meeting. In 2003, Ara’s first solo album with Sunday, Gekkou (“Moon Rainbow”), was released; his second disc, Jouya (“Transfigured Night”), was produced in collaboration with jazz pianist Yuuko Sato and issued in 2011 by Teichiku Entertainment. Ara has also participated on other artists’ recordings, including those of Toshiki Kadomatsu and Rimi Natsukawa. In 2008, Ara received the Choho Miyara Music Award’s Special Prize for recent achievements in Okinawan music. He served as music director for the Canadian-Japanese film Kara Kara (“The Empty Sake Pot”), which won two awards at the 2012 Montreal International Film Festival. He has appeared on tour in China, Mexico, Jamaica, and Cuba.
Isamu SHIMOJI (vocals, guitar, sanshin, composition) was born on Miyako Island, Okinawa in 1969. He moved to Tokyo after high school and then to Naha, Okinawa at the age of 25. Five years later, he began creating songs in Myaakufutsu, one of the six Ryukyuan languages of Okinawa. His musical compositions serve as a cultural repository of his people’s heritage, and in 2006 he received the Choho Miyara Music Award’s Special Prize for recent achievements in Okinawan music. Over the past twelve years, Shimoji has released ten CDs, which include the single The Island We Were Born On and his album tin, both issued in 2002. He performs with Yukito Ara as the duo Sakishima Meeting, records with guitarist Masaru Shimabukuro, and has composed songs for a variety of singers, such as Hiromi Iwasaki and Rimi Natsukawa. Besides performing in Japan, he has appeared in Taiwan, Korea, Mexico, Jamaica, and Cuba.
Born into a family of musicians in Kitatani Village, on the main island of Okinawa Prefecture, Shinobu MATSUDA (vocals, sanshin) grew up listening to the sound of professional sanshin, as played by her famous father, Hirokazu Matsuda. She received the Ryukyu Folk Song Association’s New Face Award in 1990 and its Excellence Award in 2001, before being honored with the Ryukyu Music Association’s top prize in the same year. Her first CD, Hariyoi Miyarabi (“O Beautiful Girl”), was released in 2002, followed by Tsuki Sayaka (“The Moon is Bright”) in 2010. Matsuda has made multiple appearances with Toshiki Kadomatsu and toured with Sakishima Meeting in 2011. With two additional female singers, she founded the vocal group Tsuku•Ti-da・☆ (“Moon, Sun, Star”), which released its first CD, Kanaganato (“Lovingly”), in 2012.
Born in Osaka in 1970, Satoshi “Sunday” NAKASONE (percussion: shima-daiko, hayashi) moved to his parents’ hometown on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, as a child. Much in demand for the distinctive flavor he brings to traditional styles, he performs on shima-daiko as a member of Parsha Club and in concert with Yukito Ara, as well as playing percussion with a number of other musicians, who include Yasukatsu Oshima and Rimi Natsukawa. He has taken part in Japan Foundation tours of China, Mongolia, the Middle East, and Central America.
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Founded in 1975 by Artistic Director Naoyuki Miura, Music From Japan is the leading presenter of Japanese contemporary and traditional music in the U.S. and worldwide. To date, the organization has presented approximately 450 works, including 83 world premieres, 72 new commissions, and a wealth of traditional music, and showcased around 170 Japanese composers, on tours of North and South America, Central Asia, and Japan. MFJ’s achievements were recognized with the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendation in July 2007.
In February 2013, Music From Japan’s 38th season explored Japanese rhythm and timbre through presentations of “Kenny Endo and Kaoru Watanabe: Taiko and Fue – Rhythms of Japanese Drums and Flutes” and “Japanese Tone Colors on Western Instruments” in New York and Washington, DC.
Since opening in 1994, the Resource Center for Japanese Music has offered composers, performers, scholars, and the general public the opportunity to access its custom-designed Music From Japan Composer Database and a library of scores, books, magazines, compact discs, etc. of Japanese music. The organization is a rich resource of information in English to people around the world, providing information on its web site and helping with further access to, or details about, specific works and composers.
Music From Japan, Festival 2014
The Ryukyuans
Yukito Ara (leader, vocals, sanshin, lyrics)
Isamu Shimoji (vocals, guitar, sanshin, composition)
Shinobu Matsuda (vocals, sanshin)
Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone (percussion: shima-daiko, and hayashi)
Sat, Feb 22; New York City
Baruch Performing Arts Center, Baruch College (Engelman Recital Hall)
7pm        Pre-concert lecture-demonstration
8pm        Concert – Songs of Okinawa: Tradition and Today
Miyako folksongs:
Tarama Shunkani
Irabu Togani
Okinawa folksongs:
Naakuni/Yanbaru Timatu
Moashibi Chijuya
[with supplementary lyrics and music by Hirokazu Matsuda]Tinsagu nu Hana (“The Balsam Flowers”)
Yaeyama folksongs:
Tsuku nu Kaisha (“The Moon is Beautiful”)
Aya Habiru (“Twill Butterfly”)
Ryukyu dance song:
Kaa chi pai (“Summer Solstice, Southerly Wind”)
[Yukito Ara, lyrics; Isamu Shimoji, music] 
Ryukyu folk song
Honen Ondo (“Harvest Song”)
Sun, Feb 23; New York City
Baruch Performing Arts Center, Baruch College (Engelman Recital Hall)
2pm        Concert – New Songs of Okinawa
4pm        Post-concert open forum with performers
Hanta Baru
[Okinawan folk song arrangements by Choki Fukuhara]Last Waltz                            
[Isamu Shimoji, lyrics and music]Jazzy Myahk
[Isamu Shimoji, lyrics and music]That Summer Day
[Isamu Shimoji, lyrics and music]Famureuta (“Lullaby”)
[Yukito Ara, lyrics; Masaaki Uechi, music]Tome Dome
[Yukito Ara, lyrics; Isamu Shimoji, music]Asadoya Yunta
[Katsu Hoshi, lyrics; Choho Miyara, music, based on Yaeyama folk song] 
Wed, Feb 26; Washington, DC
Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
7:30pm     Concert – Songs of Okinawa: Tradition and Today
     (same program as Feb 22 – see above)
All programs and artists are subject to change.
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© 21C Media Group, December 2013



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