Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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A night with the Nenez: Enjoying the sounds of Okinawa

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By Vicki L Beyer

Something about tropical islands inspires music. Okinawa is such a place.

Okinawa has a long history of distinctive folk music that has continued to this day, preserving traditional songs while also evolving modern variations that are often referred to as shima-uta (island songs).

Shima Uta is also the name of a Naha “live house” where, five nights a week (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), patrons can enjoy performances by the Nenez, a group of four talented musicians who perform various traditional and modern Okinawan folk songs.

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Nenez perform regularly at Shima Uta. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The Nenez began performing in 1990 under the name “Nenes”, meaning “sisters”. (They changed the name in their 2015 “reboot”.) The group was formed and is managed by Okinawan folk musician China Sadao. Over the group’s more than three decades of history, the members of the group have changed four times.

It’s not easy to become a member of the Nenez. Each woman has successfully passed a rigid screening process, confirming that her voice and vocal range blend well with those of the other group members and demonstrating her prowess with traditional Okinawan instruments.

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Each member of the Nenez is skilled at several traditional Okinawan musical instruments. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Okinawan music is usually accompanied by a number of traditional Okinawan musical instruments, the most important of which is the sanshin, a string instrument resembling a banjo. It has just three strings, which are plucked using a finger pick. The sanshin is believed to be a local Okinawan version of the Chinese sanxian, and an antecedent of the Japanese shamisen. The sanshin head is covered with snake skin which contributes to its distinctive sound. Surprisingly, the snake is not Okinawa’s indigenous poisonous habu (too small), but a non-endangered python native to parts of southeast Asia. This is a testament to Okinawa’s long history as the vibrant trading nation known as the Kingdom of the Ryukyus before it became part of Japan.

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Okinawan music is accompanied by a number of traditional Okinawan musical instruments, the most important of which is the sanshin. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

It seems everywhere one goes in Okinawa one meets locals who play the sanshin. It is said that at least one sanshin can be found in nearly every Okinawan household and many Okinawans learn to play as children. Apparently, it’s even taught in grade schools. There are also many popular local competitions judging both singing and songwriting involving the sanshin and other traditional instruments. With so much local talent, it’s easy to understand why it is competitive and difficult to become a member of the Nenez.

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Award-winning singer Tomori Hiroshi serenades tourists on an Ishigaki beach. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Over the years, the Nenez have recorded a dozen albums as well as contributing to other compilation albums and even performing as back up singers for Sakamoto Ryuichi. Still, the best way to enjoy their music is by spending an evening at Shima Uta.

Located on the third floor of the Haisei Okinawa Building on Naha’s famed Kokusai-dori, Shima Uta is a bit like a dinner theatre. As a virus prevention measure in these COVID times, all tables are arranged with seating on one side only, with everyone facing the stage. For a cover charge of 2,310 yen, patrons can enjoy three sets performed between 7 and 10 p.m. while also enjoying a number of traditional Okinawan dishes ordered from the club’s menu. Reservations are recommended to ensure good seats. Shima Uta’s website contains details, alas only in Japanese.

The Nenez perform in traditional Okinawan dress and hair style, with costume changes between sets adding to the visual appeal. But of course, it’s really all about the music. The plucked strings of the sanshin combined with the rhythmic beat of various traditional drums and other percussion instruments set the stage for the warbling vocals. In the evocative rhythms, one can hear splashing waves, crashing waves, fluttering palms and plodding water buffalo. Some numbers are performed in Japanese while others are in the Okinawan dialect. In some cases all four voices are in complete unison, while other songs feature complex harmonies. In still other songs one vocal takes the lead in a sort of call and response.

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The Nenez perform while urging the audience to join in. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The sounds are both charming and mesmerizing as each set highlights different styles and different rhythms. A night with the Nenez is the ultimate introduction to Okinawa’s traditional and modern folk music culture.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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