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By Dan Grunebaum

Published June 25, 2007

With luxuriant hair and chiseled features seldom found in Japanese, Oki was teasingly nicknamed “Ainu” as a kid growing up in Tokyo. He suspected there might be some truth to the matter. But it wasn’t until he visited relatives in Hokkaido in his 20s that he realized his father was in fact a descendant of the famously hirsute people that used to inhabit northern Japan, Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. Like many Ainu who feared discrimination, Oki’s father had hidden his past from him. “There were questions, and I got the answer, but it wasn’t a surprise,” he recalls in an interview at his record company’s Tokyo office.

Oki was at a low point. Disillusioned with a career in television commercial production, he’d moved to Hokkaido in search of a change. He ended up living next door to an Ainu elder, who taught him the language and culture. One evening, a cousin who ran an Ainu museum threw a tonkori at him, telling him he should take up the little-used instrument. Oki soon fell in love with the ungainly, five-stringed object, but learning a musical tradition that was essentially dead was a challenge. “I listened to old recordings by musicologists,” he explains. “A couple of [Japanese] musicologists can play tonkori and are authorized as traditional tonkori players. But why do I have to ask Japanese people about my own culture? When Ainu want to learn Ainu language or tonkori, they have to knock on the door of Japanese linguists or musicologists, but I can’t do that because of my pride. That's why I still say I don’t know how to play the tonkori.”

Oki credits his stubbornness and “idiot spirit” for making him the international apostle of the tonkori that he is today. Oki’s recent albums, including his first overseas release, last year’s Dub Ainu Deluxe, as well as his traditional solo album Tonkori and his work with musicians from other cultures such as the Celts and the Tuareg, have recently reached a wide audience. His appearances at the prestigious WOMAD world music festival in 2004 and 2005 were highly acclaimed, and he has his sights set on nothing less than Carnegie Hall.

Many Ainu songs are prayers to kamuy, the bear deity central to Ainu religion. Bear meat and salmon formed the basis of the Ainu diet, but even during Oki’s grandfather’s times traditional ways of hunting were a thing of the past. The song “Iyomante Upopo” tells the story of a successful hunt with a decidedly modern twist. It’s about his grandfather, a bear hunter and proprietor of a souvenir shop in a national park, who ventures into the snow-covered mountains in spring time and shoots a bear. “My grandfather hurried back down the mountain to the Aibetsu post office, where he sent a telegram to [his village] Chikapni,” reads a translation of the lyrics. “Villagers who heard the news immediately set off for the Aibetsu mountains to help carry the fresh bear meat.”

The tonkori, strung with deer tendons, was once used in shamanic rites or, for example, to give notice of one’s presence and ward off attack when passing through another clan’s territory. But its authentic traditions were already in decline centuries ago, as Ainu hunting and gathering culture gave way to the industrial culture of the Japanese colonists. “In the Edo period, 200 years ago, a Japanese guy went to Sakhalin to look for tonkori players, and found an old man who could play very well,” Oki says. “He asked the Ainu elder if he knew of any other players, but the guy answered that there weren’t any others. They'd all gone to work in the Japanese fish factories.”

Oki has high hopes for his brand-new album Dub Ainu Band. Fronting the band is fellow Ainu Futoshi Ikabe, who also performs traditional dance on stage, but the rest of the members consist of some of the cream of the crop of Japan’s community of dub musicians. Placing a tribal instrument into a contemporary context without sounding trite is tricky, but Oki

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