The music of two tropical Pacific islands intertwined for possibly the first time in December 1998, when American guitarist Bob Brozman, 45, visited the Okinawa island of Taketomi in southern Japan to record with sanshin player Takashi Hirayasu, 48.
Still in doubt was whether Brozman's Hawaiian steel guitar would mesh with Hirayasu's sanshin, a fretless, three-stringed, snakeskin-covered traditional Okinawan instrument that sounds like a guitar, bass and banjo all at once. But the duo's Jin Jin/Firefly, released by Riverboat, turns out to be an exception to the tendency of crosscultural collaborations to produce chunky musical salads rather than smooth soups.
Jin Jin mixes bouncy Okinawan traditional music and breezy Hawaiian folk with a smattering of blue notes from West of the Pacific. Hirayasu's adamant vocals, alongside Brozman's swoops, bends and twangs, yield an album epitomized by the track "Jin Jin" (RealAudio excerpt) that could be described as scorching yet intimate cowboy music from the wild, wild East.
"Two hundred years ago, there was no guitar in Hawaiian music," Brozman said. "The music consisted mainly of two-note scales, chanting and drumming. In the 19th century, thousands of Mexicans were sent to Hawaii to work on the plantations, and they brought their guitars with them." Today, this unique romantic style rooted in Mexican music has come to define Hawaiian music.
Brozman, an unreconstructed guitar nut, hasn't put down the instrument since he began playing it at the age of five. He literally wrote the book on Hawaiian guitar: It's called "The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments." An avid historian and collector, he has amassed thousands of Hawaiian 78s dating back to the 1920s.
Working on the pan-Pacific Jin Jin, Brozman said, illuminated the startling similarities of Hawaiian and Okinawan music. "Every colonized culture has an element of the blues," he said, observing that each island's inhabitants favor melancholic music and open tunings in major keys. Magically, the romantic twangs of Brozman's steel-stringed Hawaiian guitar sound perfectly natural alongside Hirayasu's lonely banjolike sanshin.
Hirayasu is a veteran of Okinawan music. He began playing more than three decades ago, performing R&B covers during the "completely wild" Vietnam War years for American servicemen stationed in the military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa. He later joined the groundbreaking Okinawan folk-rock band Shoukichi Kina. Feeling a need for a change, Hirayasu left Shoukichi Kina in the 1990s to follow what he characterizes as a "different path."
Jin Jin, recorded in a small wood house, reprises many of the same insinuating melodies that made Kina's songs instant cult hits, including "Uruku Tumi Gushiku" (RealAudio excerpt). But Brozman and Hirayasu's acoustic arrangements are usually more intimate, spontaneous and reflective quieter music for quieter days.