The traditional folk music of Okinawa isn’t exactly commonplace in American concert halls — you might have an easier time finding Tuvan throat singing or a recital of Namibian hunting chants. But in a rare and fascinating program at the Freer Gallery on Wednesday night, a quartet of Okinawan musicians known as the Ryukyuans presented an evening of songs from the islands of southern Japan that were absolutely stunning in their spare, evocative and often plaintive beauty.
The concert (part of the Freer’s ongoing Music From Japan Festival) included both ancient music and newer, pop-oriented songs, and the connection between them was almost seamless. That may partly be due to the sanshin — a traditional three-stringed instrument known as “the voice of Okinawa” — that was used in every song, but also to the simple and direct expressiveness of all the music, its distinctive flavor and lack of any artifice or pretension.
From the melancholy “Yunta Shora” that opened the program (beautifully sung by Yukito Ara in a clear, sweet voice) to 19th-century love songs such as “Irabu Togani” (given a sense of yearning by singer Isamu Shimoji) and the driving rhythms of traditional dance songs (“Moashibi Chijuya,” sung by Shinobu Matsuda in an eye-popping pink kimono, with Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone on percussion), the Ryukyuans made a convincing case that this music deserves a much wider audience.
But it was newer songs on the program — written largely by Ara and Shimoji themselves — that may win the most new converts. Light, upbeat, and full of catchy melodies, they blended the direct power of traditional music with the open-hearted charm of pop.
Brookes is a freelance writer.