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Sanshin plays straight into Okinawan soul

Date Posted: 2011-03-04

In an age of countless musical genres that employ the most modern digital technologies, Okinawa stands alone is keeping its ancient customs and culture alive with the sanshin and its unique sound
Tomorrow marks Sanshin Day in Okinawa (3/4; san = three, shi = four). Often said as the embodiment of the soul of Okinawa, the sanshin is a plucked banjo-like instrument consisting of a long, black-lacquered ebony neck which pierces the top and bottom of an open frame-shaped body covered on both sides with snakeskin. The three strings were formerly made of silk, although tetron is now more commonly used. The strings are plucked by means of a plectrum made of water-buffalo horn.

There are various types of sanshin classified in accordance with such features of the neck as the angle of inclination of the head section, the size of the peg box, and the curvature of the base of the neck before it enters the body. Named after their original makers, these include Makabi, Febaru, Chinen-deku, Kuba Shunden, Kuba-nu-funi, Hiranaka-Chinen, and Yunagushiku types.

Although sanshin was originally reserved for the Ryukyuan nobility, the sanshin became the favorite of the commoners during the nineteenth century, and is currently experiencing a sort of renaissance.

Today, the sanshin finds its way into nearly every form of music. Pop and folk musicians and groups, including Okinawa's Begin, integrate the sanshin into much of its music. Interestingly enough, the mellow sounds fit everything from pop to jazz to Okinawa minyo, a more traditional sanshin sound that's heard every day on numerous Okinawa radio stations, in bars, restaurants and clubs, and even in businesses.

It is said that when a fire broke out in a house, the first thing Okinawans rescued was the sanshin whereas in mainland Japan it was the sword. Nevertheless, such is the popularity of the sanshin nowadays that its soulful sounds are incorporated in many contemporary popular tunes.

One of the main events of the Sanshin Day takes place at Yomitan Village Culture Center, usually from 12 to 9 p.m. Admission to the event is free.

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