Kenton Odo-Sensei Shares His Uta-Sanshin Journey
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
There were so many times in uta-sanshin master Kenton Odo’s 33 years in Okinawan music when he could have taken different paths along the road he traveled. But the choices he ultimately made led him to his passion in his life. So it was fitting that Odo selected “Wachimugukuru Utati Katayabira,” Okinawan language for “Sharing My Heart Through Song” as the title for his dokuenkai, or solo recital. He knew he wanted to share his journey in Okinawan music and song with his audience.
Odo was initially reluctant to stage the dokuenkai. Although he had attained the rank of Shihan, or master, in uta-sanshin — the highest level of proficiency — in his mind, he was nowhere close to realizing his goals in classical Ryükyüan music. After much urging from his two uta-sanshin teachers and cultural sempai (mentor) — Grant “Masanduu” Murata-Sensei in Hawai‘i and Choichi Terukina–Sensei in Okinawa — he finally decided to go ahead with it, viewing the recital as “a rite of passage.”
“You must do!” Terukina-Sensei, grandmaster of Ryukyu Koten Afuso Ryu Ongaku Kenkyuu Choichi Kai, had told him emphatically, just as he had urged Murata prior to his 2018 dokuenkai. The two Hawai‘i Yonsei held Terukina-Sensei in the highest regard. Among numerous honors, in 2000, the Government of Japan had proclaimed him a Ningen Kokuho, a Living National Treasure of Japan, in Ryükyüan classical music.
Odo’s dokuenkai was originally planned for a lucky day in 2020 — Saturday, July, 11 — at the Pearl City Cultural Center. The emergence of COVID-19 that March quickly dashed those plans. Certain that the pandemic would be gone by the start of the new year, he rescheduled the recital for another lucky day in 2021 — July 11, a Sunday. But COVID-19 had a mind of its own, or maybe it was testing Kenton Odo’s resolve. Terukina-Sensei had often reminded his students: “Yareba Dekiru. If you want to do it, you will.”
Odo, again, rescheduled the recital, this time for July 9, 2022. By then, vaccines were available, and the public knew how to safely maneuver around the virus. And there was another reward for Odo’s patience and determination: Just a few weeks earlier, the theater complex on the campus of Pearl City High School, the alma mater of his three children, had been renamed the Michael D. Nakasone Performing Arts Center, in honor of the Hawai‘i-born Uchinänchu’s contributions to music education, including at Pearl City High School, and to band programs such as the Royal Hawaiian Band.
The pandemic had left the Okinawan community hungry for a live, in-person Okinawan music performance, and a good one at that. The last time the community had been together in person, tapping their toes to the beat of live Okinawan music was probably the 2019 Okinawan Festival. On July 9, Odo gave his audience a performance to remember.
In his program booklet, Odo wrote:
“After much reflection, thinking about how I started this journey, how it led me to spend 3.5 years learning directly from Terukina-Sensei, the casual hobby that turned into a passion; Masanduu-Sensei’s faith in me; the love and support from my parents, siblings, all my Okinawan moms, sensei and sempai, my family, my friends, my wife Kris and my children Kassie, Kayla and Kolby, I resolved to use this dokuenkai as an opportunity to take you on my journey thus far and share my passion, my goals and my hope for the future of Afuso Ryu Koten Ongaku and Okinawan music outside our ancestral homeland.”
“Wachimugukuru Utati Katayabira” was a journey that began rather reluctantly in 1989. In the program booklet, Murata-Sensei (and The Hawai‘i Herald’s advertising and promotions manager), recalled meeting Odo for the first time. Murata’s first Afuso Ryu uta-sanshin student, Grace (Kaneshiro) Nushida, had arrived at his home for sanshin practice. She said her friend, Kenton, was waiting in the car for her to finish class. “Why is he waiting in the car?” Murata asked. She said he was half-Uchinänchu, but wasn’t interested in Okinawan music. Unhappy, or perhaps insulted by the answer, Murata stalked out to the car. “If you’re going to wait anyway, wait inside!” he barked. As Odo stepped out of the car, Murata added, “And while you’re at it, hold this sanshin in your hand and follow along.”
Odo took to the three-stringed snakeskin instrument immediately and became Murata’s newest student. The journey had its bumps, though. Uta-sanshin is the Ryükyüan art of playing sanshin and singing at the same time. Odo was quick to learn the instrument, but getting him to sing “was like pulling teeth,” recalled Murata.
In 1992, the Okinawa Prefectural Government introduced a new year-long scholarship for descendants of Okinawan emigrants — the opportunity to study at the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts, also referred to as Geidai. Terukina-Sensei had hoped that Murata would apply for the scholarship. Unable to spend a year in Okinawa, Murata instead encouraged Nushida to apply. Her application was granted, making her the first recipient of the scholarship, which continues to be offered annually.
When not in classes at Geidai, Nushida spent much of her time studying sanshin one-to-one with Terukina-Sensei at his döjö (studio) in Naha. He, too, enjoyed the experience. When Nushida’s year at Geidai concluded, Terukina-Sensei asked Murata to send him more students like her.
Murata immediately turned to Odo, who was initially reluctant to apply. After returning from a trip to the continental U.S. with friends; however, he said the experience had opened his eyes to a bigger world and he decided to apply for the scholarship. Odo was accepted and in 1993, he journeyed to Okinawa for the first time in his life.
Although unable to speak Japanese, Odo studied closely with Terukina-Sensei, learning not just sanshin and music and some Japanese language, but also about Terukina-Sensei’s approach to life. In Okinawa, he “found his voice.” The year changed his life. Within months of arriving in Okinawa, he told Murata-Sensei that a year wouldn’t be enough time to learn all that he wanted to learn, so he planned to look into staying beyond his scholarship year.
Two years turned into three and a half years. Odo took a job with a shipping company to pay for his living expenses. When he wasn’t at work, he was usually at Terukina-Sensei’s döjö. Within a year, he had passed the Shinjin-sho, or newcomers’ proficiency test, in the Afuso Ryu style of uta-sanshin. Terukina-Sensei began including his young student from Hawai‘i in as many musical performances as possible, exposing Odo to all forms of performing and to all parts of Okinawa and Japan.
Odo also began learning another instrument — the kücho, a vertically played bowed string instrument — earning his Shinjin-sho in kücho a year after arriving in Okinawa. Before returning to Hawai‘i in 1996, he earned his Yuushuu-sho, second-level proficiency certificate, in uta-sanshin.
Back home in Hawai‘i, he completed his degree in architecture and started working. He also resumed studying with “Masanduu” Murata-Sensei, Terukina-Sensei’s protégé and first student in Hawai‘i, periodically returning to Okinawa for testing before panels of Afuso Ryu sensei and to participate in special performances. He also continued honing his skills in kücho, for which there is growing interest among Afuso Ryu students. Last year, Odo earned his Shihan certificate in kücho.
In 1997, Afuso Ryu Gensei Kai, Hawaii Shibu, organized by Murata, held its debut concert at the Blaisdell Concert Hall with Afuso Ryu Gensei Kai, their parent organization in Okinawa, which was celebrating its 70th anniversary. Terukina-Sensei presented Odo his Kyoshi Menkyo, or teacher’s license, at the performance.
Other achievements in proficiency followed: Saiko-sho (top level certification) in uta-sanshin in 2007, then Shihan Menkyo, or master instructor, in 2010. In 2008, Odo opened his own school in ‘Aiea, Afuso Ryu Choichi Kai Hawaii — Kenton Odo Kenkyuujo. The following year, Odo began traveling monthly to teach on Maui, forming Choichi Kai Maui.
In the back of his mind, and Murata’s as well, were words Terukina-Sensei had often repeated to them: “Don’t be like hanabi” — beautiful fireworks that light up the sky for a few minutes and then fade to nothingness. He wanted them to continue lighting up the sky by sharing their love for uta-sanshin and Okinawan culture with their students and the community and to nurture new generations of uta-sanshin masters who would continue to pass on the culture.
Odo and Murata took Terukina-Sensei’s words to heart and have worked closely with their students, preparing them for the rigorous uta-sanshin performance tests — the Konkuru — held annually in Okinawa. With Terukina-Sensei’s blessing, Choichi Kai USA became the first and thus far, only Afuso Ryu chapter established outside of Japan. It is also the largest of the Choichi Kai chapters with nearly 200 members belonging to groups on O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i and in Los Angeles. It has produced five Shihan, including one in Los Angeles. In Odo’s ‘Aiea and Maui classes, 11 students, primarily Sansei and Yonsei, have earned certificates ranging from Shinjin-sho to Saiko-sho. Three students have also earned their Shinjin-sho in kuucho.
In April of 2019, some 200 students and supporters celebrated Terukina-Sensei’s auspicious 88th, or tookachi, birthday (traditionally celebrated in the honoree’s 87th year of life) in New York City with a party at Buco di Beppo and a performance at Carnegie Hall. They also traveled to the nation’s capital and performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Odo designed “Wachimugukuru Utati Katayabira” as a musical journey, not simply a performance. Through short videos, the audience learned about his awakening to his Okinawan roots and about his sanshin journey. Odo called it “edu-tainment” — a melding of education and entertainment. The program featured only three dance numbers with Odo soloing on sanshin for all of them. The dancers, all of them Shihan, or masters, were Frances Nakachi with Tamagusuku Ryu Senju Kai Hawaii Frances Nakachi Ryubu Dojo; sisters Lisa Nakandakari and Julia Okamura with Hooge Ryu Hana Nuuzi no Kai Nakasone Dance Academy; and Joseph Nishijo with the Tamagusuku Ryu Kansen Kai Yonamine Keiko Ryubu Dojo in Los Angeles.
A small ensemble of musicians accompanied him for the minyö, or folk song, segment of the performance: Lynn Miyashiro Masuda and June Uyeunten on fue (flute); Uyeunten and Allison Ebesu on taiko; and Chikako Murata performing heeshi, or vocal enhancement.
I was fascinated by Odo’s uta-sanshin presentations of classical Ryükyüan bushi, or songs, performed with a backdrop of Shuri Castle, accompanied only by Lisa Sadaoka, a Shihan in Okinawan koto. That simple but regal stage was perfect for these songs from the days of the Ryükyü Kingdom (1429-1879). As Odo sang the bushi, the words appeared above the stage in Uchinäguchi (Okinawan language) for the audience to follow. I wasn’t following the words closely at first. At point; however, I wondered why the next verse wasn’t appearing on the screen. After all, only two lines of Okinawan words appeared. That’s when I realized that they weren’t “lyrics” like we’re used to seeing in a karaoke video. Rather, Odo was singing these 300-year-old ryuka, or poems, generally no more than 10 Okinawan words, drawn-out-syllable by drawn-out-syllable.
One of the songs, “Shukwe Bushi,” told of the sorrow of parting lovers. “Ugadi Nachikashiya Maji Shimiti Yashiga Wakati Umukajinu Tatawa Chagusa,” meaning, “The relief I feel is fine for a while, but when I think about your image after we’ve parted, I wonder what I will do without you.” Each bushi required tremendous breathing and vocal control — skills Odo had acquired over his three decades of study, practice and performing with Murata-Sensei, Terukina-Sensei and other Ryukyu Koten Afuso Ryu sensei in Okinawa.
The dokuenkai was also a family affair involving his wife Kris and their three young adult children — Kassie, Kayla and Kolby — all of whom had learned sanshin from Odo and had earned their Shinjin-sho. Son Kolby, a music education major at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, and three other sax players performed medleys of Okinawan songs set to saxophone by music educator Derek Fujio.
The Odo family closed the dokuenkai with the popular upbeat Okinawan song, “Mensore,” which Terukina-Sensei had written and composed in celebration of the joyous opening of the rebuilt Shuri Castle in 1992. It is a popular sing-along tune of Hawai‘i’s Uchinänchu community. The audience immediately began clapping their hands to the beat and joining the Odo ‘ohana for the chorus: Ichariba chode, kuni chode, mensore mensore mensore (Once we meet, we become family. A family of nations. Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!).
Terukina-Sensei always concluded his performances with his entire cast of dancers and musicians lined up behind him across the stage. Following his lead, they all bowed respectfully and appreciatively to the audience seated on the left side of the theater, then on the right side and, finally, facing forward to everyone. Kenton Odo-Sensei followed that tradition, with Murata-Sensei and the dokuenkai’s chair, Norman Nakasone, joining him at the front of the stage for the final bows. Yareba dekiru … Mission accomplished!
Karleen Chinen is a former Hawai‘i Herald editor and writer. She is currently writing a book chronicling Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community from 1980 to 2000, titled, “Born Again Uchinanchu: Hawai‘i’s Chibariyo! Community.”