Nenes to Nenez 30 Years On

Guest post by Henry Johnson

In 2021, Nenez (using their recent romanized name with a “z” instead of a “s”) celebrated their 30th anniversary with the release of the indies album, Gajumaru. Founded in 1991, the group has seen a number of line-up changes, with three of the current quartet joining in 2019. The ever changing line-ups are comparable with groups such as the American all-women trio, The Three Degrees, which dates from 1963 and is a brand that continues to this day. Indeed, the brand Nenez (or Nēnēzu, to use the transliteration of their Okinawan name) has gone through several phases that have transitioned from a world music act of the 1990s to live-house entertainment in their most recent guise.

Gajumaru album cover
Gajumaru album cover. Source:

Gajumaru has 14 remixed and re-recorded songs that featured on earlier Nenez’ albums over the past 19 years (i.e., during their post-2000 phase). While the group’s first decade included moderate international success, and built on the established reputations of its members, backing musicians, songwriters, and production team Nenez today is a new version of a continuing neo-traditional brand of Okinawan popular music that has undergone considerable recasting, not only as a result of the coming and going of its various singers, but also because of changes to instrumentalists, producers and touristic Naha (the latter offers a live house base for the mainstay of their performance activities). But rather than celebrate 30 years of performing, the commemorative album omits some of the group’s best known songs from the 1990s, which are even ones they still perform regularly at their live house in downtown Naha.

Over their three decades, Nenez have been prominent in their production of compilation albums. As well as a number of such releases in their first 20 years, their re-branding in 2015 saw the release of Reborn, which included a number of the group’s well-known songs from the 1990s. However, with Gajumaru, its 14 tracks were originally released on four of Nenez’s more recent albums: Chura Uta (2002; two songs), Shū (2004; two songs), Sai (2008; five songs), and Okurimono (2010; five songs). Most of the tracks were written (words and music) by China Sadao, Nenez’ creator, producer and sanshin player. Just two of the songs feature China’s music but with other lyricists: one with lyrics by Okamoto Osami (he had lyrics to three songs on Koza Dabasa) and the other from an anthology of Ryūkyūan verses and poems. The songs “Tōku Kara” and “Okurimono” are by Kadekaru Satoshi and Shimoji Isamu respectively. The album is, therefore, a work of Nenez over its past two decades (singers and China), and very much an album removed from the group’s early success during its exploration of world music in the 1990s.

As with all Nenez’ albums, this one too was produced by the group’s founder, songwriter and sanshin player, China Sadao. A number of instrumentalists are included, featuring a range of instruments typical of Nenez’ sound, such as sanshin (3-string lute) and taiko (Okinawan drums) blended into the world of popular music instrumentation.

As an album, Gajumaru is replete with iconography that indexes earlier albums and Okinawa. The CD booklet (the album is not currently available as a download) has on its cover a striking photo of the four women line up. Dressed in traditional and very colorful Okinawan attire with hair rolled into a ball on top of the head and held in place with a

The singers are pictures by the waterfront and with an urban background. Standing on a sidewalk, the four singers offer a cheerful image. The three newest members are placed next to each other, and the fourth member, Uehara Nagisa, who joined the group in 2005, is standing on a wall looking over the other three and perhaps symbolizing her senior role in the group. In the photo, the sky has been tinted orangey red, just as it was on several earlier albums (a similar photo appears on the next page of the booklet, with much the same layout but with a blue sky). At the top of the front cover is the name of the album and the group’s name, both in katakana script.

The image on the album cover is especially reminiscent of the one on the group’s first album, Ikawū (1991), which offers a 30-year celebration of the Nenez brand. While offering a different backdrop, the imagery is much the same. However, with Ikawū, while the group’s name is written in katakana scrip, the album’s title is romanized and exoticized with its style of script and long vowel marking.

What does “Gajumaru” mean? The word Gajumaru is the name of a tree, banyan, which is well known in Japan’s southwestern islands, and especially in sub-tropical Okinawa where it is a symbol of the region. The tree is believed to be spiritual in terms of the magical creature known as kijimun who lives in the banyan tree. These mythical creatures are believed to play tricks on people, and villages usually have at least one of these large trees, which links to the Okinawan belief system and local stories. In keeping with the title of the album, the CD’s back cover shows a picture of a gajumaru tree, offering visual imagery of this important icon of the Okinawan belief system. As noted in one interview with the group (in translation): “The title of the album is Gajumaru because it is a symbolic tree for Okinawa. Nenez (the 6th generation) have roots in the ground, spread branches and leaves, and want to nurture beautiful Okinawan songs.”

Ikawū (1991).
Ikawu (1991).
Nenes' Koza Dabasa cover

Henry Johnson is Professor of Music at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He has published widely in the field of Japanese music, including three monographs (The Koto, 2004; The Shamisen, 2010; The Shakuhachi, 2014), edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles in international journals such as Asian MusicEthnomusicology ForumJournal of World Popular Music and Perfect Beat.

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