The Okinawan Songbird’s Performance Set for Sunday, Sept. 3
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The Japanese characters for Rimi Natsukawa’s family name mean “summer river.” How else could you describe the pure and magical flow of Natsukawa’s voice? The songbird whose recording of “Nada Sousou,” the signature tune from the heartbreaking 2006 movie of the same name, will headline this year’s Okinawan Festival, presented by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association. Natsukawa will take the bandstand stage at Kapiolani Park on Sunday, Sept. 3, at 3 p.m.
It won’t be Natsukawa’s concert debut in Hawai‘i, however. In March of 2016, she presented an unforgettable performance at the Hawai’i Convention Center in a concert titled, “Ryuukyuu No Kaze,” sharing the stage with fellow Uchinanchu artists Sadao China, the Nenes and MONGOL800.
“At that time, the feeling of Hawai‘i was so welcoming, I strongly felt that I would like to come back again,” she said in an email interview from Okinawa. “Then came an opportunity to sing at the Okinawan Festival! I am so happy to have received such good luck!”
Natsukawa’s genre is Okinawan folk, to which she blends traditional music with modern elements, creating her signature vocal style. She is best known in her native Okinawa, mainland Japan and across the Pacific, in Hawai‘i, for her rendition of popular song, “Nada Sousou.” The lyrics speak of looking through an old photo album and remembering a departed loved one. In spite of the flood of tears that flow, we are grateful for the love we once shared, knowing that we will be reunited again one day.
Local singer Alison Arakawa, perhaps best known for her renditions of the holehole bushi plantations songs sung by the early Japanese immigrants, but who also sings contemporary American and Japanese as well as Okinawan folk and classical tunes, has her own take on Natsukawa’s “Nada Sousou.” “While this song is contemporary, you can still hear the past influences of minyo (folk) and the Okinawan soul Rimi brings to it,” Arakawa said. “It bridges the past and present and, like every good song, has the ability to transcend cultures.”
Award-winning singer and kumu hula Keali‘i Reichel would likely agree. After all, he melded the two cultures — Hawaiian and Okinawan — creating his popular medley, “Nada Sousou/Ka Nohona Pili Kai.” “Nada Sousou” has also been adapted by artists worldwide, with versions recorded in various languages and with instruments such as the cello, erhu, harmonica, harp, guitar, koto, music box, piano and violin. Natsukawa also recorded other hit singles, including “Hana,” “Michishirube,” “Tori yo,” “Warabigami,” “Kanayo Kanayo” and “Sayonara Arigatou.”
She said she doesn’t know why “Nada Sousou” is so popular, although she concedes that it is a favorite of people around the globe. “I personally love this song very much,” she said in our interview.
Although more than a year has passed since Natsukawa’s “Ryuukyuu No Kaze” appearance, the memories of that performance linger in the hearts of many, including Jon Itomura. Natsukawa left Itomura awestruck. “There are certain songs and artists that travel with you through your entire lifetime. Some local Island favorites that come to mind are Cecilio and Kapono and Kalapana, as their songs carried me through high school, college and still today, take me on sentimental journeys,” explained the president of Hawaii Okinawa Creative Arts and an HUOA past president.
“As a contemporary artist from Okinawa, Rimi Natsukawa creates that same aura of timelessness. Her smooth vocals reflect a traditional Okinawa tone within contemporary lyrics.” Itomura has seen Natsukawa perform live twice: last year’s Ryuukyuu No Kaze show, and at last October’s Sixth Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival (also referred to as the “Taikai”) in Okinawa. “As much as I wanted to resist singing along so my own warbling wouldn’t interfere with the beauty of her voice, soon my lips were singing all the timeless, familiar lyrics along with her. Witnessing both of her live performances up-close, I felt like her warm smile was directed right at me and it made me feel like I have known her like family for many years.” Natsukawa, who will turn 44 this October, will leave her Okinawan Festival audience with “a very special memory,” he said.
Itomura isn’t alone in his thinking. HUOA president-elect and 2017 Okinawan Festival chair Courtney Takara said she is “so excited” that Natsukawa will be performing at the festival. “I am a big fan and love hearing her beautiful voice,” said Takara, who caught Natsukawa’s Hawai‘i and Taikai performances last year.
“For HUOA, I think it is a great opportunity for us to showcase such a talented singer. We know she has a large fan base here in Hawai’i, so we expect tons of people to come out Sunday afternoon to watch her perform,” Takara said. “It’s really amazing when you think about it: You get to watch Rimi perform for free!”
Natsukawa said her Okinawan Festival audience can look forward to “songs that are people’s favorites originating from Okinawa.” She said she hopes that her song and voice will carry the audience to Okinawa in spirit. “I am happy if you feel Okinawa’s wind,” Natsukawa said.
It’s not at all surprising that Natsukawa references the wind. She was born and raised in Ishigaki City in the Yaeyama Islands, located southwest of the main island of Okinawa. Like Hawai‘i’s neighbor islands, the rural character and slower pace of the Yaeyama Islands, have produced some of Okinawa’s most gifted musical talents, among them singer Mamoru Miyagi (“Mifayu” and “Yaima,” both recorded in the Yaeyama dialect) and the popular group, Begin, whose members — Eisho Higa, Masaru Shimabukuro and Hitoshi Uechi — met as elementary schoolmates in Ishigaki and eventually became bandmates. In fact, Natsukawa’s vocal recording of “Nada Sousou” is done to the music of Begin. Both Miyagi and Begin performed at previous Okinawan Festivals. Maybe it is that island identity that connects Hawai‘i island people with artists like Natsukawa, Begin and Miyagi.
Natsukawa recently added to her repertoire — and her marketability in Okinawa, which is a growing Chinese tourist market — by recording six songs in Mandarin. Natsukawa’s Chinese teacher, Jiang Xiaoqing, from Beijing, played the guzheng, a Chinese zither, at a concert they performed at in Singapore this past April.
Rimi Natsukawa is looking forward to returning to Hawai‘i and sharing her music with the Okinawan Festival audience and taking them in song to her beloved homeland, Okinawa.
“I am happy if I can convey the feeling we are all Uchinanchu, with our hometown in Okinawa, using my live singing voice.”
Jodie Ching is a freelance writer and blogger who also works for her family’s accounting firm in Kaimukï. She has a bachelor’s degree in Japanese from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and is a past recipient of the Okinawa Prefectural Government Foundation scholarship.