Five Ainu Artists Revitalize Native Japanese Music
By Shy Thompson Art by Nori Okawa June 14, 2022
The first settlers of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the native Ainu – a name derived from the word meaning “human” in their native language – are thought to have made their home there in the 12th or 13th century. They led a quiet life of hunters and gatherers, communing closely with nature, guided by the belief that everything natural – human beings, flora and fauna, even the elements – has a kamuy, or divine spirit; there are ceremonies and rituals to honor each deity. Music is essential in their culture; they have songs for working, playing, sharing stories and settling arguments. In fact, it’s so ingrained in the Ainu way of life that their broad descriptions of sound include “musical” among “non-musical” without any particular distinction. The term hawthorn (meaning “voice”) includes the vocalizations of humans and animals alongside the sound of instruments, and um (meaning “sound” or “feeling”) could refer to the percussive sound of drums or the roar of a raging river. For the Ainu, music is as natural as breathing.
In the 19th century, their peaceful harmony with nature would be interrupted by the same destructive force that has plagued indigenous groups everywhere: colonial expansion. After the Meiji Restoration, which consolidated Japan’s disparate political factions under the banner of a single emperor, the nation turned its attention to military might and expansion. Before long, they colonized Hokkaido, displacing the Ainu people from their ancestral lands. The Ainu were forced to become Japanese citizens and the use of their language was banned along with their cultural practices. The 1899 law that disenfranchised them was not officially repealed until 1996, although parts of it have been removed over time through tireless advocacy. Nevertheless, the government’s attempts at cultural erasure have proven to be mostly successful; most people of Ainu descent had fully assimilated into Japanese culture, many of whom were unaware of their heritage. Today, the number of people practicing “pure” Ainu culture is estimated at several hundred; the number of people fluent in the language may be less than ten.
However, the Ainu have proven resilient. The elders have firmly preserved their knowledge, transmitting it through oral tradition. Interest in cultural preservation has increased significantly as archival efforts intensify and universities and museums make scientific documentation more accessible to the general public. In 2019, the Japanese government finally took steps to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people by passing a bill which aims to make society more inclusive for them. While the law isn’t perfect – notably, it lacks an excuse for generations of abuse, which campaigners have criticized – it shows the tide continues to change.
More importantly, the Ainu people are adaptable. As their culture continues to gain visibility, more and more Ainu are embracing their heritage and showing that it still deserves a place in the world. Here are some modern Ainu artists who honor their past while paving the way for their future.
Born and raised in Hokkaido, Oki Kano (commonly referred to simply as OKI) did not learn of his Ainu lineage until he was old. When he finally met his father, the famous woodcarver Bikki Sunazawa, who brought awareness to the Ainu tradition through his art – he felt a deep fascination and wanted to know more. Although some Ainu rejected him for growing up outside their community, the experience was nonetheless formative.
Frustrated and feeling alienated from both Ainu and Japanese culture, Kano decamped to New York City in the late 1980s. There he befriended several Native Americans at a time when there was a strong dynamic behind a movement for the recognition of their rights. It was another pivotal moment for Kano, and it inspired him to make a stronger effort to connect with his heritage. After returning to Japan in 1993, he began to learn the tonkori, a zither-like stringed instrument that has long been considered an old-fashioned aspect of Ainu culture. There was no tonkori teachers to show him the ropes, so he taught himself by listening to old tapes. When his friend, Navajo flautist R. Carlos Nakaivisited Japan later that year, Kano played the tonkori for the first time in a recording of his album island of bows.
Since then, Kano has become an ambassador for Ainu culture in much the same way as his father, introducing long-forgotten sounds to new audiences. Although he is passionate about the preservation and proliferation of Ainu music, he is not a staunch traditionalist. In this career-spanning retrospective, he performs traditional songs alongside other indigenous music, reggae and even a Celtic folk ensemble. It’s an apt statement about the place of Ainu music – floating amidst a sea of disparate cultures, vying for its place.
Kano’s commitment to preservation extends far beyond his own music. In the late 90s, he bonded with the Ainu elder Umeko Andōexpert singer and performer mukkuri, an idiophonic instrument similar to the jew’s harp. His appearance on the 1998 album OKI Hankapuy brought increased attention to Ainu singing and they decided to record an album under the name Ando. Ando’s delicate, undulating vocals clearly show she’s getting old, but she delivers a beautiful rendition of the traditional songs she’s spent her life perfecting with the accompaniment of Kano. tonkori.
The album was a learning experience for both musicians. Kano put the brakes on his game, slowing him down and following Ando’s lead. Ando fully submitted to the studio recording process, something very few seniors had done at that time. “Many Ainu are reluctant to break with tradition,” Kano said of the sessions. “If Umeko hadn’t been so flexible in working with the younger generation and recording technology, this album would never have happened.” Ando would pass away soon after due to a battle with cancer in 2004, but his mastery of the Ainu vocal style was immortalized in these recordings.
Following his work with Umeko Ando, Kano would use his reach to produce albums for some younger artists. MAREWREW, a group made up of Ainu singers and musicians from the Amami Islands, will be his first protege. They perform a type of voice called upopo, which are group songs performed at festive gatherings. Each song consists of a short melodic germ that repeats itself. Most are performed a cappella, but some incorporate rhythmic elements like clapping or stomping. Some songs are meant to accompany dances or games, and you can feel the exuberance emanating from them – in the final seconds of “muysoka hanene” the band burst into infectious laughter.
Kapiw and Apappo (Ainu run names meaning “seagull” and “flower” respectively) are a pair of sisters who learned the songs of their people from their grandmother while growing up in the lakeside village of Ainu Kotan. They also perform upopo, but in a significantly different style from MAREWREW, due to regional differences. Here the songs have a more sustained rhythm and are more spacious, with the occasional accompaniment of tonkori and mukkuri. In a surprising twist, there are even modern amenities like a synthesizer and field recordings built into a few tracks.
Oki Dub Ainu Group
rock of sakhalin
In 2005, Kano formed the Oki Ainu Dub Band synthesize his two greatest passions: Ainu music and reggae. Growing up near Tokyo, where reggae music was extremely popular when he was young, it became his first musical obsession and it taught him the power of expressing his politics through music. “Bob Marley sang that people who forget their ancestors are like a tree without roots,” Kano said. CNN in 2019. “I checked out the lyrics as a teenager, though they became more meaningful to me as I matured.” Kano plays his faithful tonkori against a background of guitar, bass, drums and keyboard with Western influences, transforming upopo songs of old in heavy dub jams. It’s a public educational service and a benchmark for the future of Ainu sounds, of course it’s also just the music he loves. By finding a way to reconcile these two parts of who he is, it seems that Kano has finally put down his roots.