Photo by Yusuke Kitamura
The tonkori is an old traditional Ainu instrument shaped like a pointed board holding five strings made of gut. There’s not much to compare it to in terms of sound, but when in the hands of The Oki Ainu Dub Band it becomes at times otherworldly. The set begins with an atmospheric tonkori solo heavy on echo, pulling out of the instrument lower earthy tones to create a sense of nostalgia. Perhaps the point of the Oki Ainu Dub Band is to find what exactly that sense of nostalgia is for. To make broad comparisons, where India has the sitar, and Okinawa the sanshin, the tonkori may not be familiar to many because the Ainu culture it was so closely connected to has all but disappeared since the 18th century when the Japanese government began a crackdown on the indigenous culture of Hokkaido. Band leader Kano Oki’s Ainu heritage is the driving force behind the band, which spreads an awareness of Ainu culture through a mutual love of music.
Ainu is predominantly a culture based on oral traditions, which means that much has been lost over time, but the Oki Ainu Dub Band go some way to addressing that in the appropriation of daily spirituals laid over a dub backing (as the band name would suggest) to make these orations more palatable to their audience. Purists may argue that the Westernization of a traditional art form is hardly promoting the original culture, but the uniqueness of the band never lets us forget where the source of the sound comes from. The tonkori lends itself rather well to a reggae vibe, the dub groove providing the perfect underlay for a the repetitive, almost mantra-like structure to the songs. Other traditional instruments are brought into play, including the mukkuri (a mouth harp) which instigates a back and forth of complex calls (“kon-ko-ko-kon-ka-kon”) that the audience good-naturedly tries to emulate. The mood even gets jazzy at points, with a psychedelic edge lent by the peculiarity of the instruments and a synth backing.
The feeling behind much of these songs is suggestive of other traditional forms of music thrown together with more modern beats (see Awesome Tapes From Africa on Sunday night for something similar but totally different), which goes over well with an appreciative crowd. For their unique and pleasant groove, the Oki Ainu Dub Band are worth catching again.