A version of this article appeared in New Indian Express
Ikue Asazaki’s raspy voice takes some getting used to. It is far placed from anything you have ever heard before. Most of the music we hear today is a temporary respite from our clockwork lives. Asazaki’s music, on the other hand, needs effort to be liked and absorbed.
But within a few moments, it grabs your attention and then the spell is cast. There’s no hope of breaking it.
Born in 1935 in Kakeroma, Amami Islands, in Japan, Ikue Asazaki is known for her performance in the traditional folk music of Japan, Amami Shimauta. Her father Tatsujo, recognised her as a musical prodigy when she was in her early teens and helped develop her musical talent. She performed concerts in Los Angeles, Cuba and the Carnegie Hall in New York.
Like the American Blues, the Amami Shimauta has a story behind it that is permeated with pain and conflict. Until the late 19th century, the Amami Islands were ruled by the feudal lords of Satsuma. The people of Amami had to toil to produce cane sugar for the higher authorities under the most stringent conditions. Their only pastime was singing folk songs that they made up spontaneously. Life was less complicated then, and yet a great deal harder.
Asazaki is best known for her album Utaba-utayun which was the first album in her discography to be released under a major label (Universal) in 2002. She went on to release others, including Uta Asibi (2003), Obokuri (2005), Shimayumuta (2006), and Hamasaki (2007). In Hamasaki she collaborated with artists from an eclectic range of musical backgrounds.
One of the tracks from Utaba-utayun, Obukuri Eemui, was featured in the acclaimed anime film, Samurai Champloo, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe (of Cowboy Bebop fame). When people traced the haunting, ethereal sounds of a song from the series back to her, Asazaki gained a legion of new listeners and fans.
A loose translation of what Asazaki sings in Obukuri Eemui:
The light of the full moon shines down /Far and wide like the Gods / When my lover sneaks in to visit me/ I wish that the clouds would hide that light just a little.
It hardly matters that Asazaki sings in Okinawan Japanese; the pain, sadness and melancholy of her music seeps into you like rain — slowly and naturally, leaving you perhaps only with a slight tinge of regret about being unable to understand the rich poetry hidden in the lyrics.
All the other songs in Utaba-utayun match the excellence of the more famous Obukuri Eemui, if not surpass it. Tokuno Shimasetsu, Chidori Hama and Yoisura Setsu are especially brilliant and memorable.
The ancient strains of the traditional three- stringed lute, Sanshin, which are typically heard in Okinawan folk music, are replaced by the modern, comforting sounds of a piano in most of Asazaki’s work. The sounds flow over you — the musical equivalent of a gentle, ocean breeze — and transport you back into a time that is long gone and forgotten. An exceptionally talented artist who, sadly, is not known as well as she ought to be, Asazaki’s music is both emotionally moving and tremendously powerful.
Ikue Asazaki’s hoarse voice arrests you, much like the ancient mariner, till you are frozen and listening to an old lady’s stories, thick with wisdom, transfixed, hypnotised, and enchanted.
Music was never so strangely disconcerting and yet so successful in helping you transcend several levels till you are oddly, surprisingly, and completely peaceful.