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Island notes take over pop in Japan

In a pop world dominated by Western trends, Hajime has melded a uniquely - and classically - Japanese vocal style called "shimauta," or island music, with a smattering of reggae and soft rock

music Updated: Mar 28, 2003 15:49 IST

When Chitose Hajime left her tiny village, population 50, on a coral and mangrove-ringed island off the shores of southern Japan, she had big plans - to become a hairdresser. She loved it, but had to quit after two years. The chemicals used in the perms and dyes gave her asthma.
So she turned to Plan B.

Now, three years later, Hajime is one of Japan's biggest new singing stars, signing with a major label and racking up sales last year of more than 800,000 for both her debut single, "Wadatsumi No Ki" - which was the No. 3 seller for all of 2002 - and her debut album, "Hainumakaze."

In a pop world dominated by Western trends, Hajime has melded a uniquely - and classically - Japanese vocal style called "shimauta," or island music, with a smattering of reggae and soft rock.

"We didn't expect this kind of success," said producer Satoshi Aoki, of Epic Records. "But her fan base is strong. Her music has a broad appeal."

Deep Forest band founder Eric Mouquet, who has traveled around the world in search of interesting sounds to incorporate into his own music, agrees.

"The first time I heard her voice, I knew I had to work with her," he said. "Her voice is amazing."

Her popularity has been strong enough to create a spillover effect - she's sold nearly 50,000 more CDs around Asia, mainly in Taiwan, though she hasn't yet toured outside of Japan. At home, meanwhile, millions of TV viewers hear her sing the theme song for the popular drama "Manten" on Japan's public television network each morning.

"I didn't think I would be able to sell shimauta," Hajime, 24, said in a recent backstage interview before a sold-out concert in Tokyo with Deep Forest, a French New Age band. "So I thought I'd better try to sing a different way. But it was really hard, and it wasn't very interesting."

She also quit that before too long.

"One day I was trying to record a fast-paced song, and to keep up I had to slip back into my old style of singing," she said. "That was when we all realized that this was the way to go."

Hajime's singing style is powerful, emotive and punctuated by a kind of fluttering falsetto that is a common feature in traditional Japanese vocals. On stage, she also bucks the typical dictates of pop - opting instead to perform in flowing robes, often in her bare feet and strumming a "shamisen," or three-stringed lute. Shimauta is the collective name for folk music from Japan's southernmost fringe, a semitropical string of mostly small and sparsely populated islands that stretches from Hajime's Amami-Oshima to Okinawa, just north of Taiwan.

The music, dating well back into the feudal era, reflects the slower pace of life away from Tokyo and Japan's more urbane main islands.

"Singing was a very natural thing for me," Hajime said. "On my island, everyone sang."
She took group singing lessons as a child and won a statewide contest when she was in the ninth grade. Before graduating from high school, she won another award for folk music and became the subject of a TV documentary.

"After quitting hairdressing, I decided that before I went back to my island I'd give music a try," she said. "Since I'd already failed at something once, the possibility that I would fail again didn't seem to really matter."

Though she now lives in Tokyo, Hajime said she has no intention of abandoning her rural roots.
"I still go back quite often," she said. "I loved it there. I always just assumed I'd stay on the island forever. "But my mother told me I had to go out and see the world."

First Published: Mar 28, 2003 15:49 IST