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OKI - Tonkori In The Moonlight

OKI - Tonkori In The Moonlight

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Oki is a musician, singer and producer with a fascinating story. Hailing from Japan, he learned as a teenager that his father was part of the Ainu community which is spread between the islands of Hokkaido (Japan) and Sakhalin (the neighbouring and now Russian island which is where most of the Ainu community is based). Deeply immersed in dub and reggae at the time, he decided to go back to his roots and try to understand the culture of his ancestors. After a detour to Babylon in NYC, he definitely moved back to Hokkaido in the early 90s and recorded 11 studio albums, both solo and with his Dub Ainu Band, as well as many remixes and productions for other artists.


My introduction to Oki was thanks to Crosspoint, the great label run by my friend Juzu out of Tokyo, which in 2012 released two great tracks by Oki, ‘Minami to Kita’ and ‘Ranbushi’ which majestically created bridges between the cultures of the extreme north (Hokkaido) and the far south (Okinawa) of Japan, homes of unique and idiosyncratic folk cultures. Oki also produced Marewrew’s ‘Kane Ren Ren’, a unique fusion of dub and traditional folk delight which has been one of my secret weapons. Check also J.A.K.A.M.’s ’Rise Again’, on which Oki’s tonkori shines in a late night global electronic dub setting, as well as Keilichi Tanaka’s City of Aleppo, an Oki production which was recently included on Time Capsule’s excellent Island Sounds From Japan 2009 - 2016 alongside the dub version.


“I might travel on a Japanese passport but I am Ainu.”


Oki’s strength and originality lies in blending Ainu folk music with international influences, especially dub, throat singing and African drumming, an openness which has seen him revitalise the Aboriginal Ainu folk music and breathing new life into a musical culture that was on the verge of extinction. Tonkori in the Moonlight is an 11-track collection of mostly traditional songs revisited by Oki and his tonkori, the stringed instrument of the Ainu people that he taught himself to play (he says he has never seen a traditional tonkori player as “they were all dead when (he) started”).


Lyrics of all tracks bar one are in Ainu (only 300 people were believed to understand the Ainu language back in 2011), sung by a wide array of vocalists which include the late Umeko Ando, who was one of the eldest and most respected folk singers from the Ainu culture. Oki produced two of her later albums and she features on four tracks here, including Iso Kaari Irehte (Bear Trap Rhythm), a track which imitates the sound of a pacing bear’s nails scraping against the cage and would be heard at a bear ceremony, the original version of ‘Battaki (Grasshopper Dance)’, a track about a plague of crickets which was recently remixed in extraordinary fashion by Joe Claussell himself, and the irresistible Iuta Upopo (Pestle Song), a track which “mixes tonkori from Sakhalin (where the instrument is thought to have originated) with a song from Hokkaido plus a Tuva-style throat singing rhythm and Japanese players of African percussion”. This last one had already been reissued a few years ago on a 7” which has already become highly collectible. 


The whole collection flows beautifully, from the opener ‘Drum song’ which pairs an Ainu folk song on top of a Nyabinghi rhythm, to 'Yaykatekar Dub’, a really cool and dubby cover of a song by Ume Nishihira, one of the last generation of tonkori players from the 20th century, to the great and improvisations of ‘Tonkori In the Moonlight’ and ‘Afghan Herbal Garden’. Such a great and totally unique compilation, which reminded me of my own explorations into the wild and often pristine Hokkaido countryside, and especially a mighty swim in a remote lake surrounded by dense woods quite possibly roamed by the bears which are the subject of some of those traditional Ainu folk songs (the bear is the most sacred of all Kamuy spirits). Between tradition and modernity, this is truly revolutionary folk music.

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