Chimugukuru: Okinawan musician Hidekatsu brings tsunami relief to Canada

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Music by Hidekatsu, Wakatida and the Vancouver Taiko Society

As the crimson curtains at Burnaby's Michael J. Fox theatre rolled back, Okinawan musician Hidekatsu appeared on stage with his crew of young eisa drummers. His raspy singing and hypnotic drum beat transported audience to a faraway place and time.

Chimugukuru, a Japan earthquake and tsunami relief concert, was a nothing short of a dream come true for many audience members who drove through the rain to see Hidekatsu, his daughter Mion, youth drum group Chijinshyu Wakatiida and the beloved local Vancouver Taiko.

"Chimugukuru", which translates as "compassion" in the Okinawan dialect, was an apt word for the concert, which gave all proceeds to benefit orphans and children who were devastated by last year's quake in Japan. The lively benefit included performances by well-known faces like Kozue Matsumoto, a zither player and tireless tsunami relief campaigner who has written about her experiences in The Vancouver Observer.

 

Kozue Matsumoto on the koto, or Japanese zither, at the Chimugukuru concert. Video by Jenny Uechi.  

Okinawan music revived

Okinawa, a group of tropical islands to the south of Japan, has produced more emigrants since before World War II than any prefecture aside from Hiroshima. 

Over the decades, people have held tightly to their language (the Uchinaguchi language is virtually unintelligible to Japanese speakers), arts and culture. Second and third-generation youth absorb their heritage through the potpourri of items around the house, ranging from the vividly dyed bingata fabric to vintage photos of white-sand beaches to the laid-back music played by the sanshina three-stringed instrument resembling a bluegrass banjo.

For many recent immigrants, the songs of Hidekatsu has been a vital part of passing Okinawan culture down to the next generation. Postwar icons like Shokichi Kina and the Champloose remain revered for their danceable songs and devastating lyrics, but theirs a the sound that has to be heard in live music houses in Okinawa to be fully appreciated: something not everyone can experience.    

Hidekatsu's dreamy, synthesized modern riffs on traditional folk music, meanwhile, gave people songs of a homeland that could exist in the imagination, rather than memory. For a lot of second, third and fourth generation Okinawans around the world, his music helped people visualize a homeland and history that they had rarely—if ever—seen with their own eyes. 

Highlights in the evening included Hidekatsu's signature"Mirukumunari" the spirited drumming performance by Vancouver Taiko youth, and the appearance of lion dancers whose fluid, cat-like movements (rolling around, leaping, and stretching their forearms) was more lifelike than anything I'd ever seen.  

Photos by Shiki-87 from "Vancouver de eigo-seikatsu" blog

At the last song of the evening, MC Masami Hanashiro (of the Vancouver Okinawa Yuaikai association) showed audiences the basic moves of Kachashi, a folk dance that is performed a the end of any celebration event, be it a wedding or graduation ceremony. "You're not leaving this room until everyone is dancing the Kachashi!" she threatened jokingly, flashing a smile.

Hanashiro needn't have worried about low audience participation: as soon as the sanshin music started, everyone rose from their seats and started waving their hands and stepping the Kachashi. Within seconds, a stream of people—old, young, of various backgrounds—got up from their seats and climbed up to the stage to show off their new moves. By the end of the song, around half of the Michael J. Fox theatre had flowed onto the stage, dancing under the glare of the limelight.  

It might have seemed rather bold for such a shy-looking audience climbing to the stage, but for Okinawans, it's customary for wedding guests to bum rush the stage and dance Kachashi with family and friends. No one seemed self-conscious that evening; everyone was just dancing freely, broad grins on their faces and hands in the air, as if to celebrate the bonds between the different cultures that shared the space that evening. 

Vancouver Taiko puts on a lively show

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