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[58 Kumiodori (Go-Pachi Kumiodori)] along National Highway 58 in Naha City Invites You to Enjoy Kumiodori in a More Relaxed and Casual Setting
post : 2020.03.19 20:00
When we think of a traditional performance art that represents Okinawa, many would think of the Kumiodori. This world-class performance art was designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset of Japan in 1972, and in 2010, it was listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Last year, in 2019, Kumiodori marked its milestone year, celebrating its 300th anniversary since the very first performance, and many events were held throughout Okinawa. It was a year where people were given the wonderful opportunity to revisit and appreciate the allure of Kumiodori which has been passed down many generations throughout the islands.
There is a group of performers in Okinawa who hope to deliver to their audience a wide and diverse perspective of the Kumiodori, and their performances consist of new and unique ways to enjoy this unique musical theater. The core members of this group, called Uzashichi Labo, are Yoshimori Nakamine, a performer of classical Ryukyuan music, Ami Hiraoka, who is in charge of the stage planning and production, and Keisuke Ogawa. The year after the trio met in 2015, they started a study group focusing on Ryukyuan performance arts and met once a week, holding discussions on the potential and issues surrounding the field in Okinawa. At the same time, they began developing their own programs, with the concept that “there should be more ways to enjoy the arts!”
One of those programs was the Kumiodori Karuta, an Okinawan version of the Hyakunin Isshu.
“We thought it would be interesting and fun to play during the lunar New Year so we made a Ryuka (Ryukyuan poetry) version of the Hyakunin Isshu (which is originally in Waka or Japanese poetry),” says Hiraoka-san who came up with the idea. Kumiodori consists of three factors: words, music, and dance. And majority of the lines and music in the drama are formed with the Ryuka rhythm of San-Pachi-Roku (meaning, 8, 8, 8, and 6). With the Kumiodori Karuta, we classified them into Kamiku, to read out loud, and Shimoku, for the cards that the players try to get ahead of other players. They selected 100 different Ryuka from “Chokun-no Goban (the five great plays by Chokun)”, the plays written by Tamagusuku Chokun, the founder of Kumiodori.
Photo Courtesy of Uzashichi Labo
“One of the rules in playing the Kumiodori Karuta, is that all the players wear the Hachimachi, the hats worn by the performers of Ryukyuan classical music. If a player mistakenly picks up a wrong card, they take off the Hachimachi to indicate they have to sit out for the next round, where another card is read and players try to find the matching card (chuckles). For many people who aren’t familiar with Ryuka, the game can be hard at first, but we’ve had the opportunity to hold Kumiodori Karuta games at various venues, and in the end, adults and even kids really get into it.”
Another interesting program that they work on is their Ryuka Workshop. Yoshimori Nakamine-san explains.
“It all began when someone asked me, ‘how can we write a Ryuka?’ That inspired to me to hold a workshop so that anyone can write a Ryuka. In Kumiodori plays, it’s a traditional format for the characters in the play to introduce themselves when they appear on stage for the first time. So, we go along with that and use Ryuka to introduce ourselves, adding in our names in the song. Then, people choose whatever topic they like, and write their own Ryuka, to which they will say out loud in rhythm to a melody that I accompany them with. The program was formed so that more people can enjoy the Ryuka and become more familiar with the structure of this particular style of classical poetry.”
Like these programs, Uzashichi Labo presents new and creative ways, and one of their most popular events is the “58 (Go-Pachi) Kumiodori, a small concert where people can get together and enjoy Kumiodori in a casual way. The name is taken from National Route 58, the main arterial road that stretches north and south on the island, and amicably referred to by the locals as “Go-Pachi”, meaning “five-eight”. The 58 Kumiodori has been taking place once a month at the co-working space, OKINAWA Dialog, located along Route 58 in Kumoji, Naha City.
Most of the Kumiodori plays are shown at bigger stages like at the National Theatre Okinawa, where young performers rarely have the chance to show their skills at such grand venues. That said, the reality is that there are very few opportunities even at smaller venues. This led to the idea, “there should be more experimental venues to let the younger performers acquire experience”, and this led to the launch of 58 Kumiodori. Nakamine-san is presently involved in many of the shows at National Theatre Okinawa, but back when 58 Kumiodori was launched in 2017, he had just finished his induction course of Kumiodori.
“Because opportunities were rare for younger performers to take part in big showings, when I was given the occasional chance, I would get very nervous back then. So, it was a very important thing that I had a place where I could perform alone in front of an audience, singing and playing the sanshin, which gave me a chance to gain experience and grow. I really feel that 58 Kumiodori for me was a precious place of training.”
The concept of 58 Kumiodori is “to enjoy Kumiodori casually”. How different is it, then, from regular Kumiodori plays? To find out, I headed to their concert venue. First, Nakamine-san briefed me on the characteristics of 58 Kumiodori.
“Original Kumiodori plays are long, with about an hour for the whole play. I heard people saying that they found it tough to really concentrate from the beginning to the end of a play. And so here, we take one scene from a play for about a 10-minute show. It’s hard to understand what the story is about in such a compact presentation, so we created a “talk corner” where we give an outline of the story. For this talk, I’m joined by my two friends from high school who are now a comic duo called Kinpira Gobo. We offer easy to understand explanations even for first-time Kumiodori audiences, adding humor and encouraging rapport.”
The 10-minute show is presented with Nakamine-san playing the sanshin and giving a narrative in the style of Hitori-Gatari Kumiodori. Regular Kumiodori plays have actors who are called Tachikata, who recite the lines, and the Jikata who accompany them with music. At 58 Kumiodori, Nakamine-san does it all himself, speaking the lines and playing the music. He prepares his script all by hand for each show.
“Kumiodori has a distinct style where in important scenes, the movements of the performers stop or they face down to express their emotions, and accompanying these scenes is the clear sounds of music that flow from behind the actors. Kumiodori is known for this rich expression of music. I wanted to highlight that aspect and encourage people to not just see but to “hear Kumiodori” which led me to challenge myself in producing the Hitori-Gatari Kumiodori. This is truly another innovative style of 58 Kumiodori.”
On the day that I went, they were showing a scene from Mekaru-Shi, a story about a celestial maiden and the children she had while living on land. The scene where the mother returns to the heavens from atop a pine tree, and the scene where her children weep in sadness of separating from their mother as they see her off were presented in the show. The main scenes were portrayed in two parts in the Hitori-Gatari Kumiodori presented by Nakamine-san who created the scenes with his rich, emotional style.
There’s more that highlights the activities of 58 Kumiodori, and that’s their Karaoke Kumiodori! First, lines from a Kumiodori play is rehearsed together with the guests, and after that, the guests recite the words accompanied by song and sanshin by Nakamine-san for a live karaoke performance.
“One of the best parts of Kumiodori is the fading-in of songs and sanshin music as the performer is about to finish a line. This is an important technique. We came up with this joint performance so that our guests can experience this important and best part of a Kumiodori play. I think that by reciting the words together, it helps people to feel and experience the melodies and lines, more so than just simply watching the performance. If people can experience this before going to see a contemporary Kumiodori performance, it would really enhance the experience, I think.”
The last part of the program is their “Shime-no Ikkyoku (the final song)”, Nakamine-san selects a song from among the Ryukyuan classical pieces from a Kumiodori play, and gives a solo performance of song and sanshin. On that day, we were treated to his beautiful singing voice with the song, Nakafu Bushi from the Kumiodori play, Temizu-no En, a masterpiece written by Heshikiya Chobin.
Photo Courtesy of DaiTakano
At times, the group leaves the venue for their “Odekake (excursion) 58 Kumiodori” to hold their show at different locations. For their theater version of the show for their February 6, 2020 program, they held it at the Tenbusu Hall in Naha City. For this special showing of Temizu-no En, a sorrowful love story, they welcomed Hokuto Ikema, a Ryukyuan flute player, and Hitosa Kakazu, a historian of the Ryukyus, as special guests. The evening was rich with musicality through the beautiful performance on the flute and also very informative with explanations on the life of the writer, Heshikiya Chobin, and historical background of the Kumiodori, which added to a wider and deeper appreciation of the performance art. The chorus of the crowd gathered at the venue in Karaoke Kumiodori was also quite impressive.
Photo Courtesy of DaiTakano
At the end of the interview, Nakamine-san said, “Kumiodori has been handed down since the time of the Ryukyu Dynasty, and I think that it’s Okinawa’s identity, and also my own identity.”
“By continuing to perform Ryukyuan classical music, feel that I’m given the chance to understand the reason why I was born in Okinawa. Our 58 Kumiodori is a project that we’ve been steadily and persistently working on, and we just welcomed our 30th show. It would bring us much joy if more people could take advantage of this program to see that Okinawa has this wonderful and proud comprehensive art.”
Photo Courtesy of Dai Takano
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Venue: OKINAWA Dialog at 2-15-8 Kumoji, Naha City, Okinawa
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Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Norie Okabe