‘Shadow war­rior’ crafts an­cient banjo

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

ENOR­MOUS python skins hang from a wire in­side the swel­ter­ing work­shop where Sei­bun Nakamine sculpts a piece of Ok­i­nawa’s mu­si­cal iden­tity.

They are es­sen­tial for the wiry 69-year-old crafts­man who has spent nearly half a cen­tury mak­ing the three-stringed san­shin.

The snake­skin-cov­ered in­stru­ment, sim­i­lar to a banjo, sits at the heart of the sub-trop­i­cal is­land chain’s rich mu­si­cal his­tory. Its con­ta­gious, twangy sound is a fix­ture at wed­dings, fes­ti­vals and other cel­e­bra­tions.

Sit­ting on the wooden floor of his tiny stu­dio, a pair of huge ox horns on the wall above, Nakamine sees his work as much more than as­sem­bling an in­stru­ment which can take sev­eral weeks to make and cost as much as US$5000.

Craft­ing a san­shin – which means “three strings” in Ja­panese – from ebony wood is like giv­ing birth to a child, he said.

“When I sell them to mu­si­cians, I feel like I am mar­ry­ing off my daugh­ter,” Nakamine said.

“The art of mak­ing the san­shin is based on re­ally old cus­toms. It’s com­plex, but very ex­cit­ing to do.

“It’s my job to fig­ure out how to craft its body from the mid­dle with the best pos­si­ble bal­ance and in the most beau­ti­ful way,” he added.

Nakamine – who has al­ready cho­sen the san­shin mu­sic to be played at his fu­neral – is part of a dy­ing breed.

He es­ti­mates there are only about 50 pro­fes­sional san­shin mak­ers left in Ok­i­nawa these days.

The ar­chi­pel­ago, which sits about 650 kilo­me­tres (400 miles) south­west of the Ja­panese main­land, was once home to the in­de­pen­dent Ryukyu king­dom un­til it was an­nexed by Tokyo in the late 1800s.

For hun­dreds of years be­fore that, Ok­i­nawa had strong links with China where a sim­i­lar three-stringed in­stru­ment, the sanx­ian, served as a model for what would be­come the san­shin and, later, the Ja­panese shamisen.

Ok­i­nawa, the scene of some of World War II’s heav­i­est fight­ing, be­came a US colony af­ter Ja­pan’s sur­ren­der in 1945. It was re­turned to Tokyo’s con­trol in the early sev­en­ties.

Dur­ing the tough post-war years, some Ok­i­nawans re­sorted to a makeshift ver­sion of the in­stru­ment made out of a piece of wood and tin can.

“Play­ing the san­shin was a com­fort and helped to re­lieve the stress,” said mu­si­cian Tat­suo Chi­nen at a bar in the cap­i­tal city Naha that spe­cialises in san­shin mu­sic.

But Chi­nen thinks the san­shin is not only an in­stru­ment of the past.

“There are many young peo­ple who are now in­ter­ested in this in­stru­ment,” he added.

For many though, the san­shin re­mains a pow­er­ful re­minder of Ok­i­nawa’s his­tory, and its soul­ful sound can mirror a vast range of emo­tions, from in­tense sad­ness to bub­bling joy.

Some­times that joy trans­lates into is­landers opt­ing to play san­shin mu­sic – or lis­ten­ing to a per­for­mance – in­stead of work­ing, Nakamine joked.

“It’s my opin­ion, but if you ask me, Ok­i­nawans like fool­ing around,” he says.

The san­shin has now crossed over into other more pop and rock-like mu­si­cal styles among Ok­i­nawan bands. And so Nakamine tries to match what he cre­ates to the voice and mu­si­cal style of his clients.

“If you try to de­ter­mine the san­shin’s sound when it’s done be­ing made, you’re al­ready too late,” he added.

“That won’t an­swer a cus­tomer’s needs.”

The crafts­man’s sun-wrin­kled hands are a hot com­mod­ity and his or­der back­log can some­times stretch back more than 10 months.

But it’s not his opin­ion of the work that counts most, Nakamine said.

“The mu­si­cian judges whether a san­shin is good or bad,” he said.

“As crafts­men, we do our best to make a great in­stru­ment. But in the end we’re only [work­ing] in the shadow of the mu­si­cian.

“We’re shadow war­riors.” –

Pho­tos: Shut­ter­stock

found that play­ing on­line video games might be bet­ter for stu­dents than us­ing so­cial me­dia apps such as Face­book.

A study re­leased in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion

Pho­tos: AFP

Pro­fes­sional singer Tat­suo Chi­nen (right) and a lo­cal res­i­dent play at a pub in Naha, Ok­i­nawa pre­fec­ture, on June 20. Sei­bun Nakamine makes a san­shin – a banjo-like in­stru­ment – at his work­shop in Ura­sone, Ok­i­nawa pre­fec­ture, on June 20.

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