Mon, Jan 02, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Ancient Ainu sounds lull Taiwanese ears

The Ainu musician Oki, from Japan, has released an album that features a stringed instrument called the 'tonkori'

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Over the past decade Oki has brought the sound of the tonkori to the mainstream Japanese scene music.

PHOTO: GAVIN PHIPPS, TAIPEI TIMES

While Japan's music industry has long been more progressive than Taiwan's in regard embracing different forms and styles of music, the music of Japan's indigenous people has largely been ignored.

Japanese musician Oki aims to change all this. With half a dozen albums and appearances at several world music festivals, including Womad, under his belt, his revamped and hybrid tonkori-driven Ainu music has recently been made available in Taiwan.

Released last week, Here Comes the Bear is a compilation album featuring a mixed bag of old and new material.

"We'd been talking about releasing an album here for several years, but we never really knew how audiences in Taiwan would take to it," he says. "A couple of other Japanese folk artists have enjoyed a modicum of success here recently and although their music is different, TCM [Taiwan Colors Music, a local record company] figured that local audiences are now in a better position to appreciate my music."

Over the past decade Oki has released tonkori music by appearing on what he calls "shit 7-Eleven music albums."

It was his collaborations with Native American flutist R Carlos Nakai, Australian Aboriginal combo Waak Waak Jungi and East Timorese poet Abe Barreto Soares, however, that brought him to the attention of world music fans around the globe.

"It's always good to be introduced to new musicians who are open to the idea of collaborating on projects. The album has only just been released so it's early days still, but I hope that it will open new doors to me in Taiwan, where indigenous music is an accepted and important part of the general music scene."

Born to a Japanese mother and an Ainu father, Oki didn't pay much attention to his cultural heritage until he returned to Japan in 1992 after a five-year stint living and working in New York.

"I knew my father was of the Ainu tribe, but living in cities both at home and abroad I really had no cultural identity. Whether I was in New York or Tokyo I was simply another Japanese," he says.

Indigenous to Hokkaido, the northern part of Honshu, the Kuril Islands, much of Sakhalin and the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula, the Ainu were once known as Japan's "noble savages."

The Japanese government began assimilating the Ainu into mainstream Japanese society during the Meiji Restoration Period (1868 to 1912), which was aimed at "unifying the Japanese national character under the auspices of the Emperor."

"The Ainu were forced to hide their identity. We were persecuted and treated like second class citizens," Oki says. "We'd lost nearly every vestige of our cultural identity and the use of our native language had all but died out."

Having suffered almost a century of discrimination the Japanese government joined forces with Ainu elders 10 years ago in the hope of revitalizing and promoting Ainu culture and heritage.

"Obviously the government can't give us back our homeland because [Sakhalin] was ceded to [the Soviet Union] after World War II," Oki says. "It's certainly not going to cause an international incident and demand that Russia return the island simply to give the small number of Ainu who have survived a place to live."

While no actual figures exist, it is estimated that today there are roughly 150,000 Ainu living in Japan and they are concentrated mainly on the southern and eastern coasts of the island of Hokkaido.

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