Sunday, March 15, 2009

It's called a Sanshin


The Okinawan people are great lovers of music. One Okinawan gentleman I was acquainted with once told me with great pride that after he finished college and got his first real job, he took the very first pay check he received and blew it all on a Sanshin just so he could have something to do in the evening hours when he was bored. I think he mentioned that he was paid by the month at that time. That's a bit extreme in my book but I guess some people would rather play music than eat.
Suffice it to say, it's simply a safe bet to say that when it comes to music, nothing quite says Okinawa like a Sanshin! Some people refer to it as the Okinawa banjo. It's made from a snakeskin-covered resonance chamber, a short neck in comparison with its younger mainland Japanese cousin the samisen and has but three strings. Some say its close in resemblance and appearance with the Chinese “Sanxian” suggests Chinese origins. This only makes sense since the old Kingdom of the Ryukyus (what Okinawa used to be known as) had very close ties with China.

It's an enduring part of the culture of the islands. The devastation that was The Battle of Okinawa laid everything waste. People were starving and homeless. People scrounged for whatever they could. The U.S. military built up the island in preparation for the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. An atomic bomb or two got the cooler heads in mainland Japan thinking about survival and fortunately the invasion was averted.

But it was this massive American build up in preparation for the invasion that sustained the people for a time after the battle. It also created the one thing the people had plenty of, scrap. This is where the true genius of the Okinawan people showed through. These days we often flippantly say that one man's trash is another man's treasure. The people of Okinawa proved that theory in spades! Think of the closing scene from the movie "Tea House of the August Moon" and multiply that by a thousand and you'll probably have it just about right.

This ingenuity is on display today at the new prefectural museum in Naha, Okinawa's capitol city. There on display visitors can see the many things created out of the war machines refuse. There's a fishing boat made from the belly fuel tank of an American fighter plane and cookware made from discarded artillery shells just to name a few. One of the enduring symbols of Okinawa's rise from the ashes is the Kankan Sanshin. This is a musical instrument made from discarded cookie tins and coffee cans.

Kankan Sanshins are popular gifts and easily found by walking through the markets. True musical aficionados look for the real thing which is made from the snakeskin of the venomous Habu. Due to international wildlife protection treaties, it is presently not legal to export snakeskin-covered Sanshins to some countries. For anyone interested in purchasing a Sanshin to take out of Okinawa, it is probably advisable to purchase one that is not covered with snakeskin. Non-snakeskin-covered Sanshins tend to be less well made, have inferior sound qualities and are thus much cheaper to buy.

There are essentially two options available to someone looking for a quality Sanshin. They can purchase a real snakeskin Sanshin and have the resonance chamber covered in material that resembles snakeskin. Most music stores that deal in Sanshin's can do this for a nominal fee. The other option is they can move to Okinawa. Me personally, I chose the latter.


The Sanshin is very important to Okinawan music. Virtually all traditional folk music called "Mineo" or "Minyo" is accompanied by Sanshin, Taiko drums or both. It's a unique style of music that ranges in tempo and beat from happy go lucky to painfully slow. To the first time listener unfamiliar with the genre, it can sometimes get your blood up and be spiritually uplifting or to others it can sound like someone molesting a cat. But with the popularity of all things Okinawan these days, the instrument has transcended traditional music and found its way into Japanese Pop!

The Sanshin is as Okinawan as the banjo is American or the bagpipes Scottish. Popular Okinawan based artists and bands from Kina Shokiichi, The Boom, Begin and Orange Range just to name a few incorporate the Sanshin into much if not all of their musical fare. They enjoy success that reaches far beyond the tiny island they all call home. Some even say they owe much of their success to the unique sound of this very unique musical instrument. The Sanshin has without a doubt a very interesting history that in many ways defines a whole culture.


Here's a favorite photo of mine that I digitally enhanced to make look like a painting. I have more available at my store which you can see by clicking on the picture here or the title of this post. Enjoy your visit to the Goya Republic.

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