Owing to the paucity of documentary records relating to the early history of Ryūkyū in general, little is known of the early development of music there. Until the sanshin tradition became established during the 16th and 17th centuries, musical activity is likely to have focussed entirely on religious ceremonies. Asked about music in their country, two envoys sent to Korea in 1462 replied: ‘One performer claps his hands and sings, whereupon others join in … There is no instrumental court music’. The performance described here is likely to have been of omoro; the remarks indicate that sacred songs (kamiuta) retained a central place in music at this time. The earliest strata of Ryukyuan culture are present in the Miyako islands, where many kamiuta are still sung today. Most Miyako kamiuta employ a scale (ritsu; see §(v)(b) below) that is a feature of the earliest strata of Japanese music as a whole, suggesting their origins in a musical culture shared with Japan proper prior to the linguistic and cultural separation of Ryūkyū and Japan around the 4th and 5th centuries.
The first flowering of Ryukyuan culture occurred during the reign of King Shō Shin (1478–1526), who among his many achievements is reputed to have introduced instrumental music (‘flutes and strings’) into the court. This was the age when Ryūkyū engaged in a lively entrepôt trade with China, Japan and South-east Asia and imported cultural manifestations that laid the foundations for the future development of Okinawa's diverse and cosmopolitan artistic culture.
The Chinese investiture envoy Chen Kan provided the earliest reference (1534) to what would appear to be Ryukyuan art music as we know it: ‘The music employs singing accompanied by stringed instruments. The sound is very melancholy’. One can infer therefore that this music became established among the Shuri nobility early in the 16th century. This dating is further supported by its coincidence with the period of transition in Okinawan literary history between the omoro and the ryūka, a transition in which the legendary figure of Aka Inko may have played a key role. The ryūka was the first indigenous Okinawan literary form to provide an outlet for personalized emotional expression, and music became its chosen medium.
The Japanese invasion of Ryūkyū in 1609 inevitably brought about an increase in Japanese influence to supplement the already strong degree of Chinese influence in the kingdom. Accomplishment in Chinese and Japanese arts became an essential attribute of any aspirant to government office. However, by the end of the century a cultural crisis of confidence had occurred. The consequence was a self-conscious and productive attempt to uncover cultural roots and the great florescence of Ryukyuan culture during the 18th century.
The earliest historically verifiable figure of importance in music was Tansui wēkata Kenchū (1623–83), to whom composition of several extant pieces (including the five nkashi-bushi) is attributed. The Tansui school maintains a precarious existence today, although the complete repertory of the school consists of only the five nkashi-bushi together with two versions each of the ha-bushi pieces Hai Chikuten-bushi and Agi Chikuten-bushi.
Tamagusuku Chōkun (1684–1734), the functionary responsible for presenting performances to the party of Chinese envoys who visited Ryūkyū for the investiture of King Shō Kei in 1719, consolidated the traditional performing arts and devised the new form of music theatre, kumiodori. Influenced by Japanese nō and Chinese music drama but rooted in Okinawan legend, it employed an artificial, neo-classical form of language and was an early step towards the revival (if not invention) of a distinctive Ryukyuan cultural identity. The music of kumiodori dramas employs arrangements of pieces from the classical repertory.
The Nomura-ryū and the Afuso-ryū, the two leading modern schools of classical music, can be traced back in an unbroken line to Yakabi Chōki (1716–75). Yakabi was a practitioner of nō who transferred allegiance to Ryukyuan music after losing his eyesight. His foremost pupil was Chinen Sekkō (1761–1828), who in turn taught Nomura Anchō (1805–71) and Afuso Seigen (1785–1865), the founders of the modern schools. Controversy surrounds the precise route of transmission of the Tō-ryū school of which Yakabi was the founder, but it seems likely that Nomura simplified aspects of the tradition to make it more accessible to amateur practitioners.
Despite the popularity of Ryukyuan classical music in Okinawa today, the tradition is essentially a static one, with no new pieces created since the 18th century. In contrast, the folk music tradition has demonstrated considerable vitality. It is unclear precisely when the sanshin, which was originally the exclusive property of the nobility, made inroads among commoners. It seems likely that it was introduced during the early 19th century into village festivities and the revels known as mō-ashibi, in which young unmarried men and women would engage after working in the fields. The 20th century was a tragic one for Okinawa, and it was newly created songs accompanied by the sanshin that provided ordinary people with solace in the internment camps after World War II, and that played a major role in re-establishing Okinawan identity and self-confidence during the 27 years of post-war US military occupation.
Japan, §VIII, 1: Regional traditions, Ryūkyū.
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