jueves, 19 de noviembre de 2009

HOKKAIDO. The Revival of Ainu Music

Hokkaido is the large island in the north of Japan. It is connected with the main land by a train under the sea. The Ainu is the indigenous people of Japan that live in Hokkaido. They used to live in the Sakhalin islands north of Japan, the northern part of Honshu on the main island and the Kamchatka Peninsula and on the Kurile Islands of Russia.


It is not clear which are the origins of Ainu people. There are many theories surrounding the origins of the Ainu, but the most popular is that the Ainu were descended from the Jomon people, a hunter-gatherer society who lived throughout Japan about 13000 years ago. They probably came from Siberia or from the southern Pacific. A Caucasian and mongoloid origin as also been proposed.
Ainu people were colonized by the Japanese until Meiji-era. The Ainu attempted several unsuccessfully revolts during the Edo period. Finally, they were forced to an assimilation process, being ordered to adapt to Japanese dresses, ethics and agriculture as well as they married with Japanese people. In addition, their lands were confiscated. The assimilation policies were so successful that nowadays almost nothing remains of the Ainu’s traditional way of life. The most of their traditional dresses, tools, and musical instruments are now only seen in museums.


There is not a national census of Ainu people that lives in Japan. The estimated number that identified themselves as Ainu is about 24,000, although probably there are more. Due to the intermarriage between Japanese and Ainu people, the number of pure blood type Ainu people is very small. Pure blood Ainu have physical characters that are quite different of the Japanese people. They have a larger eyebrows and nose than Japanese people. In addition, they have more body hair. In former times they used to wear a large beard and long hair.


In relation to the language, there are several theories of the origen of Ainu language: a Siberian (Altaic), southern Pacific, Caucasian and a mongoloid origin as been proposed. In addition, existed several dialects but with no system of writing. However, Ainu language has been transcribed to katakana and Russian cylliric. Nowadays, there are very few people (about 100), usually old people, that speaks their native language. In fact, it is endangered language, that it could extinct in the next generation. The Japanese recognize the Ainu as an ethnic minority in the 90’ decade. However, they still don’t have full indigenous rights and political representation. For more information about the Ainu people check the following webs:




Early Ainu music was associated with festival singing and dancing, and was related with spirit deities (kamui) and animals such as the bear, whale, owl and the sea turtle. The playing of the musical instruments was used in the context of telling epics stories, praying, greetings, magic spells or just for enjoying themselves. Many songs are accompanied by hand-clapping alone, or the singers form a circle or perform a pantomimic dance (e.g. bird dance).
They may use a characteristic form of throat singing called “rekuhkara”: it is like a game that involves two women facing each other, with one forming a tube with her hands and chanting into the mouth of the her partner. The technique is essentially one where the "giver" provides the voice and the "receiver", holding her glottis closed, uses her vocal tract to modulate the sound stream http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rekuhkara
The main styles of Ainu music or chants are epic and narrative songs called yukar and the upopo.

The yukar is a narrative style of sacred songs generally performed by women which use shorter repeated melodies. It may be also heroic epics, being long stories but usually performed by men. The rhythm is kept by clapping the hands or by beating a stick against a wooden hearth that it was used to be found in the traditional Ainu houses.
The upopo (seated songs) is a vocalized form of contrapuntal or polyphonic music based on chanting. Many woman are seated in a circle. Placed in the center is wooden chest lid, which the women beat with their hands. They are performed without instruments. When they use musical instruments, such as mukkuri and tonkori (see below), they are related to the daily work, for creating a work rhythm or imitating animal’s calls or raindrops patterns, but also may acted as prayers and warded off evil spirits which may cause diseases (kutunke). Many Ainu tradicional dances are based on rimse (round dance) centering around upopo chants.
They also may sing lullabies (named ihunke and iyonnonkka) using falsetto and rolling the tongue in the mouth.

The sinotcha are lyrical songs, usually sung bu one person, which express ordinary everyday emotions, such as love and happiness.

The pictures of the singers, musicians and dancers were taken from a performance in The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. For the description of the instruments see the Page of Ainu Musical Instruments in this blog

Chiba Nobuhiro. The music of Ainu. The Ashgate Research. Companion to Japanese Music. A. McQueen Tokita & David W. Hughes eds. Aldershot, Hampshire, England, 2008: 323-344.

Tanimoto Kazuyuki. Regional and Minority Music in Japan. Music of the Ainu, Nivkhi, and Uilta. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol 7. East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. Robert C.Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru and J.Lawrence Wiyzleben editors. Routledge. New York, 2002: 781-788.

In my visit to Hokkaido I noticed a strong revival of the Ainu culture http://www.japanfocus.org/-Chisato__Kitty_-Dubreuil/2589. I have to thanks to the staff of the tourist office in Yamagata, in the building Central Kajo http://www.yamagatakanko.com/english/index.html, who helped me to plan my travel to Hokkaido. There are so many places to visit in Hokkaido related with the Ainu Culture that is quite difficult to choose. In addition, some of them are a little far for foreign people who are short in time (I'm a catalan from Barcelona, Spain). The woman who kindly attended me, suggested to visit The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. To go there, take the train from Hakodate, Hokkaido to Nobosiberetsu (Sapporo Line), and then change train to Shiraoi. It is possible to visit in one day trip from Hakodate.

The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, it was established in 1976 by the Shiraoi Fundation for Preservation of the Ainu Culture, It is a very interesting because there are a museum and several houses that simulate a traditional Ainu village or kotan. It is placed near the lake Poroto. The museum is also named Porotokotan (Poroto village). It is the largest construction of an Ainu village in Japan. They have about 800 items on display. Also you can see a performance of Ainu traditional musical and dances. Also it is possible to learn to play the mukkuri. They also have a quite complete shop of books and CDs related with Ainu culture. Do not miss the beatiful sunset view from the village towars the lake http://www.ainu-museum.or.jp/.

Altough small, it is very interesting the Hakodate City Museum of Northern People in Hakodate (south of Hokkaido). They do not have shop of books for sell. The have a nice DVD of the Ainu on display.
If you can not go to Hokkaido, in the Ueno Park in Tokyo you can visit the Tokyo National Museum http://www.tnm.jp/ They have a display of about 40 Ainu items. If you visit the touristy city of Kyoto, you can go to Osaka in a round day trip and visit the Osaka National Museum of Ethnology. They exhibits about 500 items http://www.minpaku.ac.jp/english/ . Thought the year is possible to attend to ceremonies, rituals and festivals organized by The Ainu Association of Hokkaido, The Ainu Museum (Shiraoi), The Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (Hakodate, Sapporo), and many other cultural associations.


"Songs of the Ainu". Published in the JVC World Sound Series in 2000 the CD. It included upopo and yukar songs as well as dances and lullabies. The singers are Shigeru Kayano and The Biratoi Ainu Culture Succession and Practice Group.

"Yukar, The Ainu Epic Songs". The Excellent Japanese World Music Library (WML) Series published this CD in 1997. It included two long yukar songs: one song is named "A duel with my Guardian God" and the other "Goldend Clogs". It was recorded in Nibutani, Japan. There is extensive english notes Now it's difficult to find. Some of WML albums now are beeing re-edited in Japan with different jackets and sometimes with bonus tracks. As far as I now this CD has not yet been re-edited.

"Chants des Ainou" (Ainu Songs). It is from the Unesco Collection published in 1980 by Auvidis, 1980 France. There are upopo, short yukar songs, some lullabies and dances (rimse), a sinotcha song and other type of ainu songs (one shaman song). The songs were recorded by Kazuyuki Tanimoto and Jean-Jacques Nattiez in 1978 in the villages of Nibutani, Okaribe, Kushiro and Shisunai. This CD is unavailable. Some years ago Rounder Records (Cambridge, USA) re-edited some CDs of the Unesco Collection with completely different jackets. However, they did not released this one.

This last CD I bought it in the Shop of the The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. There is no english transcription. There are 31 tracks. Most of them are oral explanations in Japanese. In was published in 2008 by The Japan Traditional Cultures Foundation.

The author with the Manager of the The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido.

I am very grateful to Nomoto-San and Mizue-San for their help and kindness during my visit to the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido


The Ainu have very few native instruments, that some of them have similarities with other instruments played in Siberia or South-East of Asia. Howver, the tonkori is an instrument exclusively designed and played by the Ainu people.


  • Tonkori. It is plucked zither-like string of five strings. It is carved for a single piece of wood. Size may change depending of the maker. It may measure aproximately 120x10,5x3 cm. There are two bridges. Nowadays the strings are the same as in the shamisen. Usually are tuning, respectively, from 1st to 5th string, in F, C, G, D, A. The opening strings-pitches are used. The strings are plucked with both hands playing arpeggios or strumming all the strings together. It was obsolete in the 1970's, but there is a strong revival thanks to the musician Oki (see below). For european ears, the sound would remind a celtic harp.
Tonkori made by Nomoto-san
  • Pararayki. It is used by the kuril Ainu. It has three strings and comes from the russian balalaika.


  • Mukkuri. It’s a jew’s harp made of bamboo. It is similar to other jew’s harps that are played in south-east Asia. It is usually played by woman. It usually measures about 10x1,5 cm. The player vibrate the tongue-like by snapping the attached string with sudden movements of the hand, thus allowing to resonate the sound in the oral cavity. The player usually imitates natural sounds, imagine nature in motion or animals. Nowadays it is very easy to find in Hokkaido since it is sold as a tourist item.


  • Straw flutes
  • Pehkutu. reed-stalk pipe
  • Coiled-bark horns


MUSIC OF TONKORI. The most famous contemporary performer of Ainu music is the the revivalist KANNO OKI who plays the tonkori. He deserve the recognition of having approach the Ainu music to the young generation. He has published several traditional CD and have mixed the tonkori with modern instruments and rhythms. His discography is the following:

1. Kamuy kor nupurpe. Released in 1996 and 2001. He adapt Ainu music playing tonkori, guitar and chants to acomplish a rock, reggae and pop nice mix.

2. Hankapuy. Released in 1999. It the album collaborated the late Umeko Ando and Kazutoki Umezo (with percussion and sax). It could be described as Ainu new-age style-like music.

3. No one's land. Released in 2002. He include a femele chorus group. There are influences of reggae, and an spanish and african flavour. Ainu songs and solo tonkori with modern arrangements. Interesting are the throat songs of the siberian singer Olga Letykai Csonka. Some songs of this album were remixed in the Oki album entitled "Dub Ainu", which was released in 2004.

3. Tonkori. Released in 2005. It is almost an instrumental CD of tonkori without additional arrangements. In the album there are traditional Ainu songs (eg. some composed by Umeko Ando, Esohorankemah and several renditions to the tonkori player Ume Nishihira) with three Oki compositions, one of them singing a lullaby. The repetitive and short melodies are peaceful, enchanting and wonderful!!.

Other Oki CD's published as the Dub Ainu Band are the following:
1. Oki Dub Ainu Band. Released in 2006
2. Dub Ainu Deluxe. Follow-up of the previous album. Released in 2006.
3. Dub Ainu Band Live in Japan 2007. Released in 2007

These albums reflect what Oki plays in the live shows: rhythmic phrases of tonkori, bass and percussion with some Senegalese and dub Hirohisa arrangements in some songs.

NISHIHIRA UME (1901-1977) She was one of the last tonkori old players and singers of traditional songs that helped to keep the Ainu Music and traditions during the last century.
In the The Ainu Museum of Shiraoi I purchased a book where it explains about the Ainus and Nishihira. In the book there are pictures of antic tonkoris and somes tonkoris made by Mr.Nomoto as well as antic pictures of Ainu people and Nishihira Ume holding a tonkori. The book also includes musical scores, field recordings of Nishihira Ume and a DVD explaining how to play the tonkori. The chapter of the tonkori was written by Ms. Miyuki Muraki (Vice-Director of The Ainu Museum of Shiraoi ), Masahiro Nomoto (Curator of the museum), Jirouta Kitahara (Curator of the museum) and Nobuhiko Chiba (professional musician). Ms. Muraki wrote about clothes of Sakhalin Ainu people, Mr. Kitahara explained also about the tonkori and history of Sakhalin. Finally, Mr. Nomoto wrote how to make a tonkori and Mr. Chiba explains how to play the tonkori in the bonus DVD included as well as he transcribed the musical scores. No english translation is included.

THE MUKKURI. One of the most renowed player of the jew's harp mukkuri is the late UMEKO ANDO. She also was a great singer in the upopo traditional Ainu chant. She collaborated in the Hankapuy's Oki album. Pitifully she passed away in 2004. It has been published two albums:

1. Ihunke. Released in 2001. Produced by Oki. The albums is very recommended for its traditional approach with mukkuri and chant songs. Also there are tonkori songs and nice percussion arrangements. It was recorded when she was in her late 60's years-old.

2. Upopo Sanke. Released in 2004. Also produced by Oki who again plays in the album. Ando's chants are complemented with percussion, some mukkuri songs, which become a wonderful album and pleasent music.

All Oki and Umeko Ando albums may be bought thru reliable internet sources such as: the Fisher web page Far Side Music http://www.farsidemusic.com/acatalog/Ainu.html and the Oki Chikar studio web page http://www.tonkori.com. The book of the "Nishihira Ume and Tonkori" can be bought to The Ainu Museum http://www.ainu-museum.or.jp/shop/book.html#tonkori

MAGANE AKI. She is a young mukkuri player, born in Hokkaido in 1993. She published thru the Sapporo Cultural Production an introduction to the mukkuri entitled "Sound of Mukkuri, My Sound". The CD "Mon-o-lah" was released in 2001 by http://www.booxbox.com/. It a nice mukkuri album, in which there are very strong mongolian and tuvian influences: horse-fiddle playing (morin-khuur) and mongolian khöömii/tuvian khoomeii throat-singing. When I listen to this CD my mind travel more towards Central Asia or North America than Hokkaido. However, it is really a very nice album!!!. I bought this CD in the Museum Shop of Shiraoi, Hokkaido. However, if you can not go there, it can also be purshased tru the reliable german web page who is specialized in jew's harps named "Danmoi" http://www.danmoi.de.

An interesting CD of Ainu jew's harp is "Mukkuri Hawahe. Sounds of Mukkuri Jew's Harp and Vocal Music of the Ainu". It contains 31 songs with a total duration time of almost 56 min. It was produced by Leo Tatagawa in 2001. I met him in 2008 in Abakan, Russia. A very gently guy!!. He is the president of the Japan Jew's Harp Association who has published several jew's harp albums of Siberian musician (Yakutia, Kyrgystan and Khakassia). If you read japanese check his web: http://koukin.jp/. This CD can be obtained directly from Tatagawa's page or thru Danmoi http://www.danmoi.de.

sábado, 20 de junio de 2009

The Music of Khakassia. Travel to the Center of Asia

Khakassia is a Republic within the Russian Federation, with an area of 61900km². It is located in the south of Siberia. The population is about of 550000 inhabitans. People speak russian, but some ethnic groups, such the khakass speak their own language. The main ethnic group is russian (81%), followed by the Khakass (10%). However, there are other groups such as the ukrainians, tatars and germans. The khakass, together the altais, tofalars, shors and tuvian belong to the turkic speaking ethnic group. The border republics of Khakassia are Gorny Altai and Tuva in the south and Krasnoyarsk and Kemerovo in the north. Musically speaking the khakkas share more in common with the altais that with the tuvian. The capital of Khakassia, named Abakan, is the main door entrance towards Tuva, which is connected by by bus to Kyzyl (Tuva). A beautiful lanscape of the Sayan mountains can be seen on route to Kyzyl. Abakan has a railway station that allow to connect easily with other russian cities. This station is NOT part of the transiberian route.

During the Soviet time the khakass music was almost forgotten. However, in the 70-80' a new generation of young musicians started to play khakass traditional music with their own traditional instruments, in some cases made by themselves.
The throat-singing with its nice overtones and melodies has similarities with the mongolian aand tuvian "khoomi". The khakass throat-singing is named "khay" and it is related with the heroic epic "aliptigh nimakh" telling and the melody by overtones is not considered to be very important. "Khay" singing is connected with the "kai" altai singing and shor people.

When I was in Khakassia I met the renowned music and revitalist Sergey Charkov. He is involved in the traditional khakass music and khai throat-singing. Below I list the groups and his recordings.

-Sabjilar. It was formed in 1996. They play and sing traditional Khakass music with traditional made musical instruments. Most of the instruments are made by Sergei Charkov. They perform old epics from the 6th to the 12th century, nomad songs from the Siberian steppe regions and hunter melodies from the mountains.They have played in many European countries (Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Holland, Norway, Finland, England, as well as USA, Japan,Switzerland.The members are of Sabjilar were the following: Anna Burnakova : vocals (one of the first woman throat-singing), khobrakh, timir khomys and tüür. See below for the discription of theese instruments. Anna won the Special Prizr as best femela singer in the First International Khakass Folk Music competition held in Abakan in 1995. Sergey Charkov: He sings t2 styles of khai and plays chatkhan, yikh, syylas. In the performances he used to improvice in the chatkhan. He is a great luthier of khakass musical instruments, that can be seen in his performances and also he make instruments for another folk groups of Siberia. Vyatcheslav Kuchenov: He sings 3 styles of khay and he play chatkhan, khomys, müüs yikh. He won the Special Prize at the International Symposium of Throat Singing in Tuva in 1998. You can visit his web page page: http://www.sabjilar.com/.
The recordings of Sabjilar and Sergey Charkov are very good. I strongly recommended and can be purchased on line (see below):

-Sabjilar. Syr Chome, 1999 Pure Nature Music. http://www.purenaturemusic.com

-Sabjilar. Saddle Creek. 200? Pure Nature Music

They have collaborated in some other compilations:

-Tien-Shan-Switzerland Express. 2002 Virgin. It is a live recording in which, in addition of Sabjilar, there are performances of The National Mountain Orchestra (Switzerland / Austria), who sing in the yodelling style and play the logn trumpet named alphorn, Egschiglen (Mongolia) and Tenir Too (Kyrgyzstan). Sabjilar played two tunes and the last one of the CD is all the musicians together. http://www.musikderwelt.ch/en/tsse_artist_e.html

-The Silk Road. This is a double CD that I strongly recommend. There is a song by Evgeni Ulugbashev singing and playing the chatkah and one of Sabjlilar entitled Kögmen. The song was writen by Slava Kuchenov. The Cd is a nice trip to the music and musicians of the silk road (kazhaks, uyghurs, tajicks, uzbeks, turkish, kyrgyz, mongol and azari/iranian people. It was released by The Smithsonian Folkways in 2002 .

- Central Asia Tales. In this album there are songs of Sabjilar (Khakkasia), Chirgilchin (Tuva) and Sarymai (Altai).

Sergei Charkov has released other great albums:

-Khyrkhass. Songs of our Elders. 2004 Seven Star Records. The CD was produce by Carole Pegg. She was a member of the 70's english folk group Mr.Fox and she made many albums with Bob Pegg. She wrote and interesting book: Mongolian, Dance & Oral Narrative. Sergei Charkov and his daughter Yulia sing ancient epic and traditional songs of the taiga and steppes. The khai singing style, it is also used for the first time for a women. There was a popular belief that khai throat singing may harm female fertilty. You can buy this CD the Carole Pegg page http:// www.innerasianmusic.com

-Khayjilar: Chatkhan (Long Zither) and Khay (Throat-Singing) of the Khakass from the Center of Asia. Musicians are Evgeniy Ulugbashev (chatkhan, khai), Sergey Charkov (chatkhan, yikh, khai), Vyacheslav Kuchenov (tüür, khai) and Lyubov Ayoshina (timir khomis). This was produced by the japanese Teo Tadagawa in 2004. The booklet has many pictures and texts in original Khakass, English and Japanese. I met Teo Tadagawa in Abakan in 2008. He is a nice guy, who is interested in jew's harp. He has a web page. http://www.koukin.jp/. Pitifully, it's only in the japanese language. He has produced several other CDs from other areas such as Yakutia and Kyrgystan. In Abakan I bought other CDs from Khakass music. They are not commercially manufactured. It seems "home made". However, the music is great! You can obtain these CDs thru the Richard Feynman web page "Tuva Trader" http://scs-intl.com/trader/. Some of these CDs are the following:

-Ailanys, who play traditional khakas folklore with most of the the musical instruments listed below (see page of Khakkas musical instrumests).

-Evgeniy Ulugbashev. Belosnezhnye. He plays the chatkhan.

-Azbien Jacheesmar. Kogeler Cheiiendeisi. Chelger Patsnomye

Another intersting young group is Ensemble Üch Süme. Traditional songs of the Khakass and the Altai people.
The CD has been released by Face Music http://www.face-music.ch/catalog/uechsuemervol_1.html. It is an only online shop from Switzerland. The release World Music from several Asian Countries.

Some other pictures:

Sergei Charkov playing some instruments made by himself and the author of this blog

miércoles, 17 de junio de 2009




-Chatkhan. It is the most popular instrument. It is a plucked long zither, with a trapezoid shape, which is generally used as the accompaniment to the "khay" throat-singing.. It has from 5 to 13 strings. Modern zithers used to have 13 strings with movable bridges made by the anklebones of sheeps. Tuvians and tofalars had a similar instruments named chadagan and chattygan. The chatkhan pictured was made by Sergei Charkov.

-Khomys. It is a two-three strings plucked type of lute with a wood resonance box. Altai people has a similar instrument named topshur. It is also related with tuvan toshpulur and the Mongolian tobshuur.

-Yikh. It is a bowed two-string instrument. The strings are made from twisted sinews of deer or sheep. It is played with a bow made made of horsetail hair stringing. The peach-shape resonance box is made of animal skin. The altai equivalent name is ikili, the tuvan is igil and the Mongolian is ikil. It as some resemblance with the khomys, but usually less decorated.

Yikh made by Sergei Charkov


-Temir-khomys. It is a metal jew's harp made of brass or zteel, which is very popular. The pitch is modified by changing the shape of the mouth cavity, which at the same time acts as a resonance chamber. The tuvian name is khomus.

Temir-khomys made by Sergei Charkov

-Orba. It is a rattle with a handle made of the urinary bladder of animal filled with grain.


-Tüür. It is a single-headed frame drum, generally round. The membrane is sometimes decorated with drawings. It usually comes with a beater covered by a soft skin. It is played by shamans, but it is also played by modern traditional groups. A similar shamanic drum is named dungur in Tuva


- Khobrakh (or shoor). It is an open long end-blown flute. It is made of wood and nowdays of plastic. It usually comes with 3-6 finger-holes.

- Syylas. It is a a flute from the Taiga

- Pyrgy. It is a large conical pipe made of the stem of plant with no finger holes. It is closely related to the altai abyrga. It is used to lure the siberian stag.

Pyrgy and Khobrakh made by Petri Topoev

-Symyskha. It is a birch-bark folded in two for luring goats.

Schyltys. Singer-songwriter from Altai playing the khomys made by the luthier Petri Topoev. She won the best female singer in the Ustuu-Khuree Music Festival in Tuva, in 2008