Sunday, May 16, 2010

Snakeskin Banjo

One thing you can say about Okinawa is that people here love the sanshin. In the United States we worry about drivers texting on their cell phones in traffic, but here the problem is playing the sanshin while driving.  This was demonstrated on our trip from Naha airport to the hotel Thursday. The taxi driver in question keeps his instrument wedged between the two front seats of his cab, itching to pluck and sing at the first opportunity,

The sanshin is a cousin of the three-string  shamisen, the classical Japanese banjo most famously played by elegantly seductive geisha when they dance and entertain intoxicated male patrons in tea houses. The shamisen is an instrument associated with classical music and high art in Japan, but the Okinawan sanshin is the people’s instrument. Its soundboard is stretched with snakeskin, making it unmistakably unique to Okinawa. Instead of sounding haughty and overly refined the sanshin produces a raw and gutsy range of moods from melancholy to joyful. It makes you want to dance rather than sit and listen politely.

Okinawa’s folk music has become very popular in recent years, not just in mainlnd Japan but also in the World Music genre consumed by Westerners who like its jumpy island beat. Okinawans are proud of their history and culture and leap at every chance to distinguish themselves from ordinary Japanese. The sanshin is one of the greatest symbols of their Ryukyu cultural identity, along with a locally brewed rocket fuel they drink called awamori. More on that later.

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