JAPAN: The Silence of Sakishima - The Sakishima Meeting
By creating original pop songs with a traditional flair, this Ryukyuan duo have managed to innovate while preserving culture
It can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing countries as culturally homogenous within themselves, when that is rarely, if ever, the case. Centuries or even millennia of conquest, colonialism, invasion, absorption, immigration, or emigration have shaped practically every country out there. Japan, the nation from which The Sakishima Meeting hail, is no exception. Many of you may have heard of Okinawa due to the pivotal battle there in WWII, but less may know it is part of the larger Ryukyu Island chain, which stretches from off the coast of Taiwan all the way to the south of Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu. Sakishima itself is a group of islands all the way to the south of the Ryukyu chain, which includes Ishigaki Island, where bandmember Yukito Ara comes from. His counterpart in this duo is Isamu Shimoji, a guitarist and singer from another Ryukyuan island, Miyako Island, also in the Sakishima group. The Ryukyu Islands have their own culture that is distinct from Japanese culture, and they have often fought hard to preserve it alongside their language. Ara and Shimoji were both well-known folk and pop musicians before they recorded this album, and it denotes a growing and thriving Ryukyuan arts scene, despite facing discrimination. Both musicians sing in their own languages as opposed to Japanese, and on their sophomore effort The Silence of Sakishima, they have created fascinating original melodies that entice the listener.
“The album has its value as a cultural document, but more than that, it is a genuinely enjoyable collection of songs.”
One thing that does strike the listener when first putting the album on is the very distinct style of playing the two musicians have. The sanshin, a kind of three-stringed Okinawan banjo, has a very distinctive sound, and it interplays with the guitar in a way that compliments both instruments. The album is comprised of original songs that prominently feature both sanshin and guitar, and as such feel like they could be old folk songs, but then you get a whiff of electric guitar, or perhaps a skiffle beat as is heard on the third track. This out-of-time feel to the album is initially jarring, but once one tunes into their manner of making music, it becomes rather enjoyable. The opening track is a good example of this, with the guitar being used almost like a bass to provide the rhythm section, while the sanshin takes centre stage. Ara and Shimoji are also keen on incorpotating elements of other genres into their music, and perhaps the best example on the album is the bossa nova aspects to the seventh tracks, where Shimoji’s guitar playing is akin to that of Antonio Carlos Jobim. The ninth track is very jazzy, featuring a fun walking bassline, while The World of EN is another very good song which takes on a samba-style beat to it.
The sixth song which translates as ‘flag wave’ is the most rock-oriented one on the album, and in an enjoyable twist, the song features a solo from the sanshin rather than the guitar. The vocals on that track are particularly excellent, recalling both min’yo singers as well as the leonine roar of many a rock ’n’ roller. Both of the bandmembers are good singers, but I think it would be fair to say the main attraction of the album is the unusual confluence of guitar and sanshin, so the occasional moments where the vocals really shine are nice to hear. The album has its value as a cultural document, but more than that, it is a genuinely enjoyable collection of songs. The album title itself is rather ironic, as unless you’re listening to American funk band Vulfpeck’s album Sleepify, albums are not silent. Instead, I view the album title as referring to the ‘silence’ of their islands native culture and music in relation to its larger and more populous neighbours. With this album, Ara and Shimoji have certainly broken that silence.