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In search of a lost cultural treasure (Part 2)

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-08-13

Trying to begin the impossible was a job given to Etsuko Higa, a former graduate of the University of Hawaii and current Director of the Okinawa Convention Center. After returning to Okinawa from Hawaii, Higa used her background as an ethnomusicologist to collect and record Okinawan traditional songs for different municipalities in Okinawa Prefecture. In 1994 the Prefectural Government put her in charge of the "Uzagaku Revival Association," which was created to revive the lost music of the Ryukyu Royal Court.

Higa began the arduous task of piecing together past accounts of Okinawan history along with other musical scholars and historians. "It was very difficult. There were almost no written records and no instruments. There was nothing left," explained Higa about the beginnings of their research.

Through tedious review of Japanese archives showing records of envoys from the Ryukyu Kingdom visiting the old Japanese capital of Edo to pay tribute to the Shogun, Higa and her team learned that many gifts were presented during these trips. Amazingly, the trail lead to a set of instruments used for Ryukyuan Court music that were presented to the Tokugawa Shogun in 1796. The instruments were traced to the private collection of the Tokugawa family and are located in a private museum in Nagoya. Records helped the group discover another set of instruments in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Higa and other researchers immediately went to Nagoya to study the last surviving instruments of 'Uzagaku." Although they were not allowed to remove anything, they were able to take photographs and record the exact size and measurements of each of the nineteen instruments. They also spent days carefully duplicating all written records by hand.

Their careful study of the Tokugawa collection revealed that the instruments were from Fukien Province. "We originally thought that the music was learned in Beijing, but after examining the style of the instruments we believed that most of the instruments were purchased in Fukien, in southern China," said Higa. "The original designs were made in Fukien, but some of the instruments were polished here in Okinawa."

Higa and her colleagues then left for China in search of another missing piece to the puzzle - musical scores. From manuscripts studied during research conducted at Tokyo's National Library, Higa had the names of songs that were played, but there was still no music. "The records often included the names of performers and instruments used, along with song names, but there were no written records of musical scores," explained Higa. After weeks of disappointment, the group finally came across the songs "Chuntaikei" and "Shunshokukyo" by mistake in a small province near Fukien. "We found it by accident. We were so excited - we never expected to hear that music there," remembered Higa. A local musicologist working with Higa was able to locate several more songs.

From the discovery of the songs, Higa was able to put down the music after many hours of trained listening. "In western music the melodies for each instrument in an ensemble can vary, but the melodies of Chinese and Okinawan music are the same, so if we know the song we can put together the music for an ensemble," she explained.

Higa now had to find a way to reconstruct the instruments from the Tokugawa collection and learn how to play them. She explained that reconstruction focused on two points: the first was on the artistic design, and the second was to have actual working instruments, which could give more variety to young people studying Okinawan music. She stressed that being able to use the instruments to create music was one of the important aspects of the project.

Her next visit was to Taiwan, where classical Chinese music is still taught and played regularly, despite its disappearance from China. The Okinawan researchers were introduced to Chen Kun-jin, a well known expert in Chinese classical music and a renowned instrument maker. Using the photographs and calculations supplied by Higa's group, and relying on much of his own musical ability, Chen was able to replicate the "Uzagaku" instruments. The results of his work are a full reconstructed set of the Tokugawa collection.

In February of 1998 musicians from Taiwan and members form Higa's "Uzagaku" revival group played scores that were heard for the first time in over a hundred years on Okinawa. The occasion was regarded as a tremendous cultural achievement by many scholars and government officials.

Through a workshop conducted by Chen here in Okinawa after the historical concert and from videos made by the revival group, Higa and the other Okinawan musicians have learned how to play the traditional instruments that once echoed inside of Shuri castle. The Japanese Government has subsidized 8,000,000 towards the construction of nineteen instruments total, and Higa and her group are now learning more scores.

Thanks to the dedication of the "Uzagaku Revival Association" the walls of Shuri Castle will no longer enclose an empty space. The people of Okinawa can once again be proud of their history, knowing that the music of "Uzagaku" has returned to its former place of glory.

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