Tag Archives: sanshin

My Hapa Story

5 Aug


Last week our gamelan ensemble from the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C., performed a wayang kulit (shadow puppet play) with guest artists from Java. After our first rehearsal together, their director—realizing I couldn’t converse with him in Bahasa—asked me where I am from.

“Philippines,” my director answered for me.

“No!” I argued, surprising both of them and myself. “I’m from California!”

I’ve never really identified as Filipino, even though it’s half my blood. I’ve never identified with the quarter of English or the eighth of Irish. Maybe I accidentally embraced my eighth of mystery ethnicity.

I’ve never felt strongly like an American. I didn’t feel like a Sacramentan until I moved to Los Angeles, and I didn’t feel like a Californian until I moved to the East Coast. Davis was the only place where I truly felt like a member of a community, and even then I knew I couldn’t stay in such a small town.

My mom with me (the baby) and my brother Allan, I think on Maui, 1986
My mom felt the same way. Full-blooded Filipino but a dual citizen, born in the Philippines on an American military base, raised back and forth between Okinawa and all over the United States, drawn alternately to the Bay Area and Tokyo, she told me once that she never felt like she belonged to any one place. As an army brat, it was very weird for her to live in Sacramento—in just one house, no less—continuously for 24 years.

As a result of my mom’s immigrant identity crisis, I know little of Filipino culture. Since her parents wanted to raise Americans, didn’t teach the kids Tagalog or their respective dialects, my generation is left with only a few traditional recipes, the word for fart (utot), and a giant fork and spoon in the kitchen.

Instead, my mom filled our house and her childhood anecdotes with pieces of Japanese and especially Okinawan culture. I’ve been far more interested in learning about and visiting Okinawa than I have ever been in the Philippines.


Working at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where we celebrate the diversity of cultures in the world and help communities sustain their traditions and assert their cultural identities, I think about this issue a lot—how I don’t really do these things for myself.

But maybe through learning Okinawan music, adopting Indonesian culture through playing gamelan, and immersing myself in Peruvian or Kenyan or Chinese cultures at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I at least carry on my mom’s identity as a cultural wanderer.

This post is a submission for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s #myhapastory project.

Songs of Okinawa

31 Mar

elisa with shinobu matsuda
This never ending winter has been punctuated by a few amazing musical experiences, and at the top of that list is a free concert at the Freer Gallery of Art last month, Songs of Okinawa featuring The Ryukyuans.

The four musicians played traditional folk songs from their native Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa, Yaeyama and Miyako) on the standard sanshin fiddle and shima-daiko drums, plus original songs adding acoustic guitar.

Every song seemed so familiar, brought me right back to adventuring in Okinawa with my family, brought a tear to my eye!

The one woman in the group, Shinobu Matsuda, performed a few songs alone with only drum accompaniment. Each one was captivating. Her sanshin (above) has been in her family for over 100 years, passed down from her grandfather to father to her, and she introduced this “pop” song as her father’s favorite:

“Moashibi Chijuya” (as you can hear, she’s a badass)

They did a song I featured once before, when I complained I couldn’t translate the lyrics. Luckily singer Isamu Shimoji prefaced with an explanation: “I love you, I need you, I want you/ Hold me tight/ Love. Very, very simple song.”

“Kanayo / Amakaa”

They closed with a contemporary song that got everyone on their feet dancing and some finger-whistling along. Isamu began saying the title translates to “Summer Solstice, Southerly Wind.” “I don’t know why.” (Haha, and I’m just now noticing that he’s the composer).

“Kaa chi pai” (cut off due to dead battery)

If you want to read more about the concert and some history of Okinawa and its folk music, I wrote a short article for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival blog.

oki yo! 沖縄よ!The Album

11 Feb

jojo and elisa in okinawaFour years ago today I got up at like 5 a.m. and flew to Okinawa, Japan. (I was pretty sure I remembered the date, but I double-checked my Google Calendar, and sure enough I had February 11, 2010, labeled “HOLY SHIT.”)

Our 12-week trip was part vacation with my family, part English-teaching internship with my cousin, and part musical traditions study in an oceanic cultural crossroads. It’s the reason I bought a portable recorder, the place I started recording live music and found sounds. It was the greatest adventure I’ve ever had, and it opened my heart to ethnomusicological research. You can read all about it on our travel/music blog: oki yo!

It took me over a year to synthesize all my recordings, photos and stories into one compilation album, which was my goal all along. After many hours drudging through audio content and getting frustrated at Kinko’s, I had this neat little CD package, an oki yo! time capsule in four chapters: traditional concerts, private performances, adventures, and originals.

Each of these songs has a story on oki yo! if you want to search around or in the liner notes if you want to order the album!

Okinawa on Wax

13 Oct

Okinawa City

Today marks the beginning of the Uchinanchu Festival in Okinawa, Japan, when thousands of people from all over the world return to the tiny southern island. The four-day festival happens every five years as a celebration of Okinawan roots, either hereditary or cultural, welcoming home the “Okinawan diaspora.”

There’s a big parade where everyone marches in groups of the countries they moved to or from. My aunt Jane will be marching with Kubasaki High School, a school in Camp Foster, one of the American military bases on the island.

It’s pretty amazing, I think, that the native Okinawans wholeheartedly welcome these groups that were there as a direct result of the island getting destroyed in World War II. I felt welcomed when I was there, when I would try to say in broken Japanese that I’m not Okinawan blood, but Okinawan heart.

And that’s just how Okinawans live, showing acceptance and generosity toward everyone. There’s an Okinawan proverb, ichariba chode: Once we meet, we are brothers and sisters. I wish I could be there, with my real and my island family.

Instead, I’ll share something off this Okinawan folk 10-inch I found at the Hollywood Amoeba, Kuroshio no Uta “Minyoo Okinawa” from King Record Co. in Japan. The song is called “Kana Yoo,” but it’s in the Okinawan dialect so I can’t figure out what it means!

Kuroshio no Uta "Minyo Okinawa" King Record Co.

Okinawa Remix

30 Mar

I collected a lot of sounds in Okinawa, and this remix (my first! I guess…) combines some of my favorite parts of the island.

The original artist is Wataru Kousaka, who I found on MySpace even before I went to Okinawa. First I met Kengo Sakamoto, one of his bandmates in the Gender Sanshin Trio, who led me to Wataru, who then led me to the Okinawan gamelan ensemble. The birds were recorded while I was getting the worst sunburn of my life.

“Sisimai” – Gender Sanshin Trio (Electropica mix / エリサ ロケット mix)