The Yokome Brothers Keep Japanese Sanshin Alive, Public Radio International’s The World, July 2011
The Yokome brothers hail from Ishigaki-jima, an island in the East China Sea that was once part of the former Ryukyu Kingdom. It’s now part of the Okinawa island chain in southern Japan. And it’s where the brothers learned to play the sanshin, a three-stringed instrument.
The Yokome brothers come from a family of musicians. Their father, who taught them to play sanshin, runs a sanshin school on Ishigaki island. Their grandmother was once a well-known singer on the island.
“I’ve been listening to sanshin since I was in my mother’s body,” said Hiroya Yokome, who is 26 years old, “so the rhythm and music was instilled in me from the start.”
His brother, Hiromichi, 28, said he started playing sanshin when he was 10. But he didn’t really love the family tradition until later on.
“At first, I thought this music was just for old people,” Hiromichi said. “I used to have the idea that sanshin must be played in a traditional way, but then I realized it could be played in many ways.”
The brothers live on Okinawa’s main island, but they sing melodies in the old language from their native home, Ishigaki. The language used to be spoken on the Okinawa islands. But it was banned in schools after Japan annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom in the late 1800s. The language has mostly disappeared, but it remains alive in the music.
“There are things that can only be expressed in the Yaeyama language,” Hiromichi said. “If the language dies, then I think Yaeyama native music would die too.”
The Yokome brothers were also influenced by more modern music.
“My father introduced me to rock,” Hiromichi said. “Then I started to listen to other kinds of music, like jazz. Thanks to him my music style is mixture of many different elements.”
The brothers have started to make a name for them in Okinawa’s capital, Naha. They perform concerts there several times a week.
Keisuke Chinen, the manager of one local venue, said the brothers evoke feelings of Okinawa’s island culture.
“Because they’re brothers, their harmony is wonderful,” Chinen said. “Through their music, listeners can also see and feel Okinawa’s four seasons, scenery, and culture.”