Banjo Ai went from mastering sanshin to master banjo player

By Michael B. Martin

A nice young lady from Sashiki, Nanjo City, Okinawa, has made an unusual choice of instrument, for an Okinawan that is. She plays banjo, and for that reason is known on stage as ‘Banjo Ai.’

Banjo Ai plays bluegrass in sanshin country.

Banjo Ai plays bluegrass in sanshin country.

How did this happen? Banjo Ai, acquired a love of music and first took up playing the piano at the age of three. As time went by, her interest was focused on a wide variety of music: rock, pop, Hawaiian, bluegrass and quite naturally, the grass root music of Okinawa, known as ‘Shima Uta.’ Her father was quite an accomplished sanshin player and he taught her how to play the traditional local instrument.

Though she was actively playing the guitar, ukulele, sanshin and piano, she became interested in a television program in 2012 that featured a musical group with a banjo player. They group was playing bluegrass music. Hearing the beautiful melodic range of the banjo, she started to seek someone who could teach her how to play the 5-string instrument.

Banjo Ai has played banjo since first seeing it in a TV show in 2012.

Banjo Ai has played banjo since first seeing it in a TV show in 2012.

Through a friend she was able to find Hideo Nakasone, a member of the Okinawa Bluegrass group, who taught her the basics. After getting a banjo of her own, she leaned herself the mechanics of mastering the instrument. Being an accomplished musician, she focused her time on one of the most difficult songs to play, Earl Scruggs’, the “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a masterpiece that is best known from the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

She developed her banjo playing skills further in Tokyo by both taking lessons and playing with various bluegrass groups.

During her touring, Banjo Ai’s astute skills in writing and composing music resulted in her debut CD in March 2014. The CD, titled “Uta No Shima” contained four songs and quickly sold out! Her “The Isle of Song” became the theme song of OTV’s drunk driving elimination promotion commercial. JTA (Japan Trans-ocean Airlines) used three of her songs as flight music during landing and takeoffs.

Since then Banjo Ai has become busy. She has performed at Hawaii Okinawa Festival, Alumni Association of Kansai Gakuin University, and had a special appearance on “Tome Banjo Masters,” featuring musician Chichi Matsumura (of GONTITI). Recently, she has been on stage at Nashville Restaurant and Rodeo Okinawa.

Her first concert that took place on the small stage at Tedako Hall in Urasoe Friday was sold out.

She has a “Special Message” to her fans. “I want to create my music beyond the boundaries of rock, folk, country, bluegrass, and other genres. I shall call it “Earth Music!”

23:29 25 Jun , 2024