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Okinawa’s Only African American Traditional Folk Music Instructor

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-07-01

“I’m keen on slow students” says Byron Jones, shamisen player and English teacher, ‘because I’m still trying to bloom myself.” Jones, 31, has just become the first foreigner ever to pass a test set by the Traditional Ryukyu Minyo Association. The exam now makes him the proud possessor of an official Okinawan Folk Song teacher’s license.

Jones, a former military dependent who works at Konan Junior High School, first came to Okinawa when he was 16. He says his teenage identity crisis was compounded by the impossibility of knowing exactly where his African roots lay.

“Discrimination was very familiar to me” he says “I could identify very much with the Okinawans, forbidden to speak their language, and not allowed to live in their ancestral homes, just like the Native Americans. Lots of Okinawan homes were bulldozed so the military bases could be built here.”

Byron Jones believes that although Okinawan language and music barely survive, he can help preserve what remains and, he hopes, pass some of it on to the younger generation. “People who speak Rykyuan well are now aged 45 minimum but mostly over 60. Because the kids don’t learn the language at school, the problem with traditional music is that they don’t understand the words. So the music may not last. I work in a Minyo bar on Saturdays and most of the customers there are either over 45 or from the mainland. Some Okinawan tunes have been successfully rendered in Japanese and I have done some in English.”

Jones won first prize in an Okinawan TV contest when he transformed an Okinawan song into an English one with a Christian message. He would like to do an album on this theme, not with the idea of selling lots of copies, but because the concept is close to his heart.

When Jones first became interested in the shamisen, he says it was impossible to buy the snake skinned stringed instrument in the main shopping areas of the island. He adds that as it was impossible to rent musical instruments in Okinawa, a practice common in other countries, his only alternative was to buy one.

“In 1989 you had to spend a minimum of $350 for a shamisen of not particularly high quality. I bought one, which my father thought was irresponsible. The man who sold it to me asked if I wanted to play classical or folk music. I had never heard of either, so I started with classical”.

The same year Jones returned to the United States with his family and stayed there three years. He continued studying the instrument and then became proficient enough to teach it. He started with five students and later expanded to teaching 25 mostly middle aged Okinawan women who had bought shamisens as ornaments, without knowing how to play them. Ultimately he was traveling in a 60 mile radius to reach all his students in North Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC.

A warm accolade came his way when 21 of his students were invited to play at the Washington Cherry Blossom Festival. Jones says he originally had no intention of playing in public but was honored that his group was chosen to perform the Kadjadefu, a type of musical blessing for weddings and other celebrations.

Possible future projects could be making an album of club music as “Okinawan music is perfect for hip-hop”. Jones would also like to master the classical shamisen, which he has not yet done, only because he kept being asked to do folk music. Classical Okinawan music, unlike its folk cousin, is very much linked to dance.

The island’s only black American Okinawan folk music instructor sums up his philosophy thus:“All music is beautiful and an expression of the soul, whether it’s slow jams, jazz, Australian aboriginal music or metal. Poetry and creation come from the heart”.

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