PLAYING WITH CHIMU (Heart/Soul): Reclaiming cultural identity with the Okinawan sanshin

Wesley Ueunten photo by Scott Nakajima / Nakajima Photography

Chances are, if you hear Okinawan music in the Bay Area, there’s a good bet that Wesley Ueunten and his Berkeley Genyukai have something to do with it. Since 2000, Ueunten and Berkeley Genyukai have been omnipresent throughout the region, helping to showcase Okinawan music to a larger audience at various events, including the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival.

An epitome of community service — Ueunten, an associate professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, also serves on the board of directors of community-based nonprofit organizations such as the National Japanese American Historical Society, the Japanese American National Museum and the Nichi Bei Foundation — the third-generation Okinawan American from the island of Kaua‘i in Hawai‘i, currently serves as president of the Okinawan Kenjinkai of San Francisco.

Ueunten, who spent a total of nine years in Okinawa and Japan learning Japanese and Okinawan languages, talks about the Okinawan sanshin, and how he has used the instrument to reclaim a sense of Okinawan identity.

Nichi Bei Weekly: When did you first start to learn how to play the sanshin?
Wesley Ueunten: I began when I was a student at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa back in 1984.

NBW: What about the sanshin appealed to you?
WU: Ever since I can remember, whenever I heard the sound of the sanshin and the singing, my ears would perk up like a dog hearing someone opening up a can of dog food. It’s probably because my mother learned Okinawan dance when she was pregnant with me.

NBW: Have you received any formal training on the sanshin? What about singing?
WU: Yes, when I was at the U of R, I was introduced to a koten (classical) sanshin teacher. He told me that me singing had priority over the sanshin. Like many other Nikkei, I was quite self-conscious about singing in front of other people, but he said that if I didn’t sing, it made no sense to learn sanshin. Once I began singing, however, I found that it felt good.

NBW: What are the origins of the sanshin?
WU: From what I know from my sanshin sensei and from reading, the sanshin has its origins in the Chinese san hsien 三線, which came to the Ryukyus in the 14th century. According to my friend Charlie Chin, the san hsien came to China through the Silk Road and has roots in Africa. In fact, it is a relative of the banjo, which was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans.

NBW: How does the sanshin differ from the shamisen?
WU: The sanshin is a little shorter than the shamisen. The body of the sanshin was traditionally covered with python skin or other materials. The shamisen body is covered with cat skin and other materials. The pick for the sanshin is comma-shaped and resembles a large fingernail. The shamisen pick is larger and triangular-shaped. With sanshin, there seems to be more emphasis is on singing and that’s why we often say “uta-sanshin,” which means “song-sanshin.” It might be because there was a long tradition of women priestesses singing prayers and history before the sanshin was introduced into the Ryukyus. Singing was and still is holy and sacred in Ryukyuan culture.

NBW: Are there any differences in the sound of the two?
WU: From my limited understanding, the sanshin is tuned lower than the shamisen and has a bit of a mellower tone. The shamisen has a higher pitch with a little more vibration.

NBW: The Tsugaru shamisen has been used in some jazz settings, as witnessed by the Yoshida Brothers and others. Have you ever seen the sanshin used in such modern settings?
WU: Yes, Kina Shokichi used sanshin with the electric guitar in a pop song called “Haisai Ojisan” back in the 1970s. It became a hit in Japan. Other groups from Okinawa, such as Rinken Band, Parsha Club, and Begin mixed sanshin (and) did similar music from the 1990s. Also in the 1990s, The Boom did “Shima Uta” using the sanshin. It became a huge hit in Japan and even in Argentina. I sometimes play sanshin with accomplished musicians such as Francis Wong on saxophone, Masaru Koga and his samba-drumming group Sambasia, Naohiro Matsuzawa on guitar, John Carlos Perea on bass, and others.

NBW: Where and how often do you teach the sanshin?
WU: Ryoji Arakaki, the owner/chef of Sushi California … in Berkeley graciously lets us practice at his restaurant on Sunday mornings.

NBW: How important is teaching and playing the sanshin to your sense of cultural identity?
WU: My mother, who was a Nisei from Hawai‘i, told me that being Okinawan gave her a sense of shame as Okinawans were seen as backwards, uncouth, uncivilized and inferior. Many other Okinawan Nisei felt the same and so Okinawan culture was somewhat repressed in Hawai‘i. In my young adult years, however, I was inspired by the movements of the 1960s and 70s — especially the movement for Ethnic Studies at SF State — which encouraged many like me to appreciate my own cultural identity. Uta-sanshin has been a way for me to recover my cultural identity. However, because uta-sanshin requires me to sing from the heart, my heart seems to have gradually been softened to where I appreciate all people’s struggles to reclaim their cultural identity. Ironically, my efforts to recover my narrow Okinawan cultural identity have actually led me to a broader appreciation of other’s cultural identity.

NBW: What do you hope the public gets out of a performance of Berkeley Genyukai?
WU: Chimu (heart/soul).

NBW: Okinawa has such a rich traditional culture, including karate, Okinawan dance and sanshin music. Do you feel that Okinawan culture is a subset of Japanese culture, or is it distinct within itself?
WU: I like to think of Okinawan culture as neither separate from Japanese culture nor a subset of Japanese culture. Instead, I rather think of Okinawa culture as being interconnected with Japanese culture and all other cultures. The sanshin has roots in Africa and came to Okinawa via China. From Okinawa it was introduced to Japan. In Japan, a distinctive shamisen playing style developed and interacted with Okinawan sanshin playing styles. The point is that cutting cultures into different pieces is like trying to cut water and air, heart and soul.

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