Music as a Cultural Portal: An Interview with Mako & Munjuru

Mako & Munjuru, a musical ensemble playing traditional Okinawan music, will be joining us at this year’s 4th Annual Seattle Children’s Festival, where they will perform special pieces while teaching us about the Okinawan culture they know and love! Wearing  beautifully tailored kimonos, Mako & Munjuru spread Okinawan music through playing traditional instruments:the sanshin and taiko. These songs not only preserve the traditional sound of Okinawan music—they also share stories of love, family and heritage. According to Mako, playing the music of her ancestors helps her feel a connection to her roots and the people who have come before her. That is the beauty of preserving our cultural arts.

We spoke with Mako to learn more about her work in preserving her culture through her music. Get to know her before you see her ensemble live at Seattle Children’s Festival on October 8!

Photo courtesy of Mako & Munjuru

How did Mako & Munjuru come to be?

I actually was performing alone for a while. I started playing out in the public for myself as a mean to learn more about my background.  Then it just led on to sharing and gathering a small number of us seeking the same. Then one day I thought of doing a group performance with some of us, which now Mako & Munjuru. Sometimes we are duo, trio or more.  The term munjuru is a word for ‘straw hat’ in Okinawan. There’s a dance piece with the same name and I always loved the dance and the symbolic meaning of the hat which is expressed in the dance.  

“Munjuru to me is my family & friends who’ll watch over each other.”

We are so excited for your performance at this year’s Seattle Children’s Festival! What is something our audiences can expect from your performance?

We are creating a program to share music and dance.  The audience will learn an easy song to sing with us; then learn the dance moves to dance all together. It will be a loads of fun!

As Mako & Munjuru is known to play and preserve traditional Okinawan music, what do you think is the most beautiful aspect of traditional Okinawan music?

Music is a part of life—everyone’s life in Okinawa in the past and now. Music is valued and needed in order to live for Okinawans. Our performance typically consists of rather old pieces; music from a few hundreds years old and some lyrics are poems which were written in about 15th century.  Those ancient melodies may sound very simple;  the expression might sound rather simple for those who understand but simplicity and complexity coexist, I think. So I feel it that it’s beautiful because it’s simple yet complex.

Can you teach us a little more about the traditional instruments that you use: the sanshin and taiko?

Sanshin is a 3-stringed fretless lute. The body is hollow inside and covered both front and back with a snake skin; no sound hole. When we perform in a small crowd, I love to show off my instruments since it’s got real python skin!  And also sanshin symbolizes the earth we live on.  The Okinawan taiko drum set consists of oodaiko, a big drum to create low deep sounding beats and shime’daiko, a smaller ones for the lighter higher pitched beats.

Do you think your understanding and love for the Okinawan culture has grown or changed in any way as you have continued to create music?

Yes. By continuing to learn and understand the traditional expression it really connects me with my grandparents, ancestors and even feels as though connected to ancestors few generations back. I understand more and more of our cultural beliefs and values, how my grandparents were the way they were and thought the way they thought. Also by learning the ancient pieces gives us the way to understand the Ryukyu Dynasty of the old days. It’s kind of like having a portal for me.

Why do you think it is important to preserve cultural traditions, and how does Mako & Munjuru play a role in that?

I think it’s more [of a privilege] to be able to [preserve our cultural tradition] rather than to see it as a task, at least for me. Some of the traditional music artists feel [that it is] important to preserve and to perpetuate the tradition to the next generations and I absolutely do not argue with that. I personally feel as though I’m put in a spot where I am so lucky to be able to share my knowledge.  And I’m lucky to have my mates to follow with [me].

What is your favorite aspect of our big neighborhood, Seattle?

I like Seattle for being such liberal and diverse neighborhood. I grew up in Hawaii my young adult age so it’s a bit different but a different diversity. Seattle is getting to be a big city but I’m hoping that the homey feeling will remain.  

In an interview you did with our friends at KEXP, you mentioned that one of your favorite aspects of being a part of Mako & Munjuru is when you can play Okinawan music to someone who has never heard its traditional music or may not even know where Okinawa is on the world map. What are some aspects of Okinawa or its culture that you’d like to share to our audiences?

In the States, especially in the mainland, Okinawa is known by “The Battle of Okinawa” so much.  Many people only know Okinawa relating to the war and or with US military bases. 

“So when I can give the idea to change the view of those  from the perspective of the natives, as native as I can be remotely, it gives me joy.”

I want to tell them “I grew up there and this is the Okinawa I know.”

Why do you think it’s important to expose the youth to various cultures, identities, and people?

As different cultures and languages are more widely exposed worldwide, I think introductions to a lot of different views in an earlier age is be vital to understanding and having acceptance. Or even not to feel so “different.” As for my music, I think the audience come to see [us] because they’re curious regardless of their age. If I get to fill that curiosity just a little bit, then I’m happy.   

Photo courtesy of Mako & Munjuru

How do you live out the meaning of “folk life”?

As a part of my childhood in Okinawa, some things [were] just natural “Okinawan stuff” that I could do. Besides music, [an] easy thing is food. I cook and enjoy eating Okinawan food. That means sometimes making everything from scratch rather than going out to get a dish, since there’re no traditional Okinawan restaurant around here. I have to get the basic ingredients and make [it] from that. Then, I think about my grandparents’ life, surrounded by the ocean and working primarily as farmers to eat what they got from the earth and the sea.  

Come and celebrate the Okinawan culture through music with our friends Majo & Munjuru! Mark your calendars for Sunday, October 8, 2017 for the 4th Annual Seattle Children’s Festival at Seattle Center! Mako & Munjuru will be performing at Loft 4 in the Armory from 1:00-1:45 PM. Events like this are made possible by Friends of Folklife and your generous donations. See you there!

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