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Moonlight casts a cool glow over the ocean as a night surfer prepares to paddle out a Publics
Vol. 11, No. 1
February/March 2008

  >>   Night Shift
  >>   Ancient Pathways
  >>   Trees of Life

Slack Key Meets Sanshin 

story by Sue Kiyabu
cover design by Bonnie Louise Judd


When Hawaiian singer Teresa Bright tries to describe the sound of traditional Okinawan music, she emits a “whaa-whaa” warble that is loud, sharp and nasal, nothing like the mellifluous tones that gained her fame on Island hits like “‘Uwehe ‘Ami and Slide.” But in the foreign tones of an island far away, she found a connection.

“I was not familiar with Okinawan music,” says Bright, “but when I started to study, I realized Okinawa is like Hawai‘i. We were both once ruled by kings. We were both independent countries. We were both overthrown. We are both islands. They are fisherman and farmers, too. So that’s how I started. I had to find the similarities first.” The payoff to that research can be found in Bright’s latest release, Hawaiinawa. The title is a contraction of the words Hawai‘i and Okinawa and the album is a fusion of Eastern classic and contemporary Hawaiian.

“It’s a brand new sound, really,” says Bright. The idea to create it came from her producer in Japan: Since both Hawaiian and Okinawan music are now so popular in the Asian nation, Bright’s producer saw a perfect fit—and a new opportunity.

But it wasn’t an easy one to pursue. It took Bright time and creativity to develop Hawaiinawa, and she is the first to tell you that it challenged her as an artist. Classic Okinawan folk tunes are more akin to religious chants than soft or breezy Hawaiian melodies. To create the music, Bright changed the songs’ timing and combined slack key, ‘ukulele and sanshin, the traditional Okinawan three-stringed instrument. The lyrics went through four languages, from Okinawan to Japanese to English to Hawaiian. Often the result was translations stripped to their bare bones. “The English words I’d get would be ‘woman, fisherman, sad, leave so long,’” Bright says. “I’d interpret that as a story about a woman who was sad because her husband, a fisherman, had been away. When I could find a story, then I could translate into Hawaiian.”

In the end, Bright’s producer’s instincts were right on the money: The Japanese have embraced the project. “They tell me,” says Bright, “that it’s got big buzz.” HH