The bouncy twang of the jamisen and the heartfelt bleat of traditional folk songs are the essence of Okinawan music. Shokichi Kina, an Okinawan legend, transforms that incomparable sound into a rocking frenzy of color, dance, and pleas for peace and earth conservation.
On almost any night in Naha, Okinawa’s capital city, you can stop into Chakura, Kina’s own "live house" venue, and groove to the definitive sounds of his band, Champloose. If you’re lucky, Kina himself will be performing.
In the club’s entryway, a photo wall boasts glossies of Kina posing with kindred musical spirits, from Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to Jon Bon Jovi. Even the late Bob Marley was a friend. A large collection of Kina/Champloose CDs are for sale, as well as eco-friendly merchandise, ethnic goods from around the world, and Native American-inspired items such as "Free Leonard Peltier" buttons and dreamcatchers.
Several songs catapulted Kina and Champloose to fame, including the now classic "Subete no hito no kokoro no naka ni hana o" ("A Flower for Everyone’s Heart). In the early 1980s, he committed to Zen meditation and established ties with the Osho Commune in India, aiming to resurrect the true practice of Buddhist meditation in Japan. In 1996, Champloose was the first foreign musical group to perform on China’s Great Wall. They also represented Asia at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. His real mission, he said, was to tell the Pentagon to stop producing weapons and make musical instruments instead.
By nine o’clock, the intimate lounge fills with guests as Champloose’s female vocalists warm things up with soulful Okinawan ballads. Large, funky metallic letters posted on the wall behind the stage read in English: "Blooming flowers in the hearts of all people."
Between sets, a large screen shows video clips from interviews with Kina and others. By ten o’clock, the entire Champloose entourage, headed by Kina’s performing companion and wife on the jamisen, is jamming so hard even reserved Japanese are busting an Okinawan bounce. Half of the waitstaff are band members. Those who aren’t on stage are dressed in eisa (traditional Okinawan dance) costumes, clapping and riling up the audience with the signature squeal: "A-haiya!"
On my way out, I’m greeted by Kina’s son, Masatetsu Kina. "Call me Macchu," he says, "As in ‘Nice to Macchu’." The 20-year-old aspiring musician explains that his father is in New Guinea, engaged in peace work. Over coffee and karaoke, we talk about music and Macchu proudly announces that he’ll be making his own debut at Chakura in November. Too bad Shokichi Kina won’t be around for that, but the date coincides with his upcoming White Ship of Peace tour to the US.
Kina’s long (and somewhat rebellious) history of peace and environmental activism has taken him around the world to form alliances with oppressed peoples and those working for an environmentally-safe future. His latest effort involves a roundup of Okinawans and Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu. They’ll meet in Tokyo and sail across the Pacific in a huge white ship laden with musical instruments. The message: "Lay down your weapons, take up musical instruments."
The idea has an ironic twist. Matthew Perry’s fleet, the first North American ships to visit Japan in 1853, were called the "Black Ships" because they carried enough firepower to force Japan to open its doors to Western trade. The admiral’s arrival signaled many changes for the isolated country, and, as Kina points out, "marked the start of fateful relationship" between the US and Japan.
Okinawa has shouldered much of the burden. Some of the worst World War II battles were fought on its shores, and the continuous military presence since then has caused serious problems. Okinawa houses 75 percent of all US military forces in Japan, and US servicemen have been responsible for crimes including murder and rape. Most Okinawans are eager for the US military to go home.
Kina’s response is to heighten awareness in the US. His White Ship will carry its peace message from Tokyo to Hawaii, then San Francisco. From there, the "pilgrims" will travel to New York via mid-western Iroquois country, home to Kina’s ally, Native American Dennis Banks. Kina sees parallels between the Native American struggle for land and justice, and that of the Okinawans. He also views the tour as an opportunity for fellowship between Black and White people in the US. At each stop, he plans to gather supporters and momentum, stirring up a nationwide musical celebration of peace, ecology, human rights, and friendship. The final musical event will be a performance at the UN in New York.
Kina holds a utopian vision of a 21st century free from the threat of war and nuclear weapons, subscribing to the notion that we cannot "simultaneously prevent and prepare for war." He envisions the tour as a "starting point for peace" and a chance for US citizens to hear the cries – musical and otherwise – of Okinawa.
Back at Chakura, Macchu programs another song into the karaoke machine and grabs a mike. The simulated sound of Shokichi Kina’s "A Flower for Everyone’s Heart" fills the lounge as his son sings, "River flowing, where does it go? People flowing, where, where do they go? When the flow comes to the end, like flowers, let’s make them bloom …"
The White Ship of Peace Tour will commence early in September 1998, due to arrive on the West Coast in November, finishing in New York around December 10. Kennerly Clay teaches English to young students in Japan.