HISTORY OF RYUKYU DANCE
Geographically and historically, the island of Okinawa (former Ryukyu) has been an Asian crossroads, where the cultures of China, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia have left visible marks. The Ryukyu population always prioritized peaceful cultural exchange and trade, and this helped the process of a fertile inclusion of intercultural elements. Ryukyu Buyo, one of Okinawa’s traditional performing arts, is said to have developed between the 14th and the 15th C. during the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was performed at welcoming banquets to greet the Chinese emissaries with a dance celebration. Maintaining its traditional formal traits, the dance evolved through the centuries, thanks to the new interpretations, given by great performers over time. Normally, the classical Ryukyu dance is accompanied by instruments like the sanshin (a three-string-instrument), the koto (a Japanese plucked half-tube zither instrument), the flute, the taiko (drums) and the kokyu(Chinese fiddle). The techniques used to produce the original Bingata costumes for the dance are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia (possibly Java, or perhaps China or India), and arrived in the Ryukyu Kingdom through trade during the 14th century.
About the lyrics content of the Ryukyan songs played on stage:
“In essence, the earliest documentation for the tradition is of a court music style which used, as accompaniment to the voice, a group of instruments, some of which were introduced from China, most likely from the Fukien area and others from Japan. The basic element of the tradition seems always to have consisted of the human voice accompanied by the three-stringed lute, sanshin (Chinese, san hsien) which was later introduced into Japan where it became the shamisen. But the music and the poetry of the Ryukyuan tradition are unique and do not manifest many clearly identifiable Chinese or Japanese stylistic elements. The poetic structure of the classical Ryukyuan song or poetry form is the ryuka, consisting of combinations of eight and six syllables and so named to distinguish it from the waka, the Japanese form of 7 5-7-7.“ (from: Robert Garfias, The Okinawan Kunkunshi Notation System and Its Role in the Dissemination of the Shuri Court Music Tradition, in Asian Music, Vol. 25, No. 1/2, 25th Anniversary Double Issue (1993 – 1994), pp. 115-144, University of Texas Press)
1st song: KAGIYADE-FU (The classical „Kagiyade“ style)
This is one of the most representative traditional Okinawan songs. Kagiyadefubushi is a dance song, which has been played for over 300 years in the island of Okinawa, performed as an opening song for celebrations. During the Ryukyu Kingdom, this was one of the songs entitled Gujinfu (Royal melody) played in front of Ryukyu’s King. The dance invokes longevity and prosperity of offspring and wishes for a peaceful world.
Lyrics: „How can I express the wonderful feeling I’m feeling today? It’s a delightful feeling, like when we can feel the morning dew drops on buds of flowers and they start blooming lively.“
2nd song: KARAYA.
This dance expresses how the famous moon of the fifteenth night in the Chinese moon calendar is celebrated. It invites us to notice the beautiful full moon and to think of the beauty of our loved one, by implicit immediate association.
Lyrics: Today is the fifteenth night, so let’s go and look at the moon. The wind is blowing as if it had a heart today, the clouds are clear and the moon shining is beautiful. Now, that I’ve seen the moon, let’s go back home, because my loved one is waiting for me.
3rd song: CHIJUYA
The lyrics of this poem are about seeing a bird who cries on the seaside. The poem is about the bird (indirectly the singer), leaving her home alone. Sad feelings are growing. She remembers her parents and siblings, and when they use to spend time together. She wonders if her mother and her lover right now are also looking at the sky she is watching in that very moment. One of the most representative dances among the various dances created after the abolition of the Ryukyu kingdom. In the fluidity of Ryûkyû-buyô, the steps, including the gamaku, express the specificity of this technique. Gamaku is an Okinawan word, originally from the martial arts vocabulary (Karate), referring to the point in the body, where the force of movement is generated, involving the dancer’s back, her abdomen, and pelvis, connecting the upper and lower body in the fluidity of movement.
Lyrics: „On a journey, I make the seaside my lodgings and use a blade of grass as my pillow. Days spent with my parents that I can’t forget even when I go to bed. Memories of the past that come back to me when I wake up, painful in the early morning. There is one moon over the sea, mother, I wonder if that person I love is also looking at this sky? I will plant some bamboo, so please come back to me. And come to me again, not once, but often.“
4th song: SAGINJASHI-NAKAFU-BUSHI
Lyrics: Like unknotted threads, the months and days, resenting not being able to see each other. (unknotted threads: Expression often used as a metaphoric comparison in songs about longing for love).
Saginjashi Nakafubushi is a song about love that can never be fulfilled, reflected in the unknotted threads. In general, ryuka (Ryukyu poetry) is usually composed using a fixed rhythm of [8, 8, 8, 6], a total of 30 tones, but the Saginjashi Nakafubushi is composed in [5, 5], a number of tones often used in waka (Japanese poetry). It is said that the name Nakafu (Naka means middle, fu: style) derives from the fact that it incorporates half each of the two elements of Ryuka and Waka poetry. It is a fascinating poem that has been performed and sung for a long time since the days of the Ryukyu Dynasty. It is a piece for solo singing that requires a high level of skill. Until today, living national treasures and great teachers and performers love to sing this song.