When me and my wife found out we were having our first child, my first thought was that I would need a tune to hum to the baby. There are a lot of nursery rhymes and lullabies in Okinawa. Unfortunately I have no memory of hearing those songs during my own childhood, so I wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case for my child. I didn’t care if the songs were lovely or terrible.
I was there with my wife through the birth, and right after the baby was born, I had a chance to be alone with our daughter, only a few minutes old, and I was so nervous holding her as I sang “Shirafu bushi”—The song of Shirafu— into her ear to welcome her. This song is a celebratory one, originating from Shirafu village on Ishigaki Island; it talks about how the age of peace, of miruku, has come so we should all gather and dance and sing together. Ara Yukito, a Yaeyama folk song singer, is particularly well known for his rendition of “Shirafu bushi.”
I don’t know if “Shirafu bushi” had anything to do with what came next, but my child grew up quickly, and under my influence, she came to love Yaeyama folk songs. On nights when she couldn’t sleep—as small children so often can’t—I’d hold her and sing “Tsuki nu kaisha,” which I’d been singing even back when she was in her mother’s belly; somewhere mid-song I’d hear the sound of her sleeping breath. Or rather, I just kept singing until she fell asleep.
Tsuki nu kaisha tukamikka
Miyarabi kaisha tōnanatsu
Moon most beautiful the 13th night
Girl most beautiful the 17th year
Hō-i-chō-ga (a vocable akin to “Fa-la-la”)
“Tsuki nu kaisha” originates in Yaeyama, but it has become a lullaby sung all over the Ryukyu Islands, and I personally think it’s one of the top three Okinawan song masterpieces. The melody is gentle, the composition relaxed, and though you sing of the moon’s beauty, somewhere along the way the lyrics transform into a love story secreted away like a little crush. It makes me feel incredibly lucky to have been born in Okinawa, getting to sing a lullaby like this.
Agari kara agari yoru ufutsuki nu yu
Uchinan yaiman tirashōri
At night, full moon rises in the east
And lights up Okinawa, lights up Yaeyama
On nights like the one in the lyrics, the moon brightens the night sky over Shuri, and me and my daughter walk along singing “Tsuki nu kaisha.” Indeed, this was the first folk song she memorized.
Andakinānu ufutsuki nu yu
Bāga gēra ashobyōra
How wonderful, this full moon night
Come, everyone, and celebrate
The past few years, my friend M has opened the big New Year’s to-do with a live-instrumental set he’s titled “Akagi Tei”—fifty or sixty dushi and shichōrū (friends and acquaintances) gather together, and Ara Yukito starts the celebrations off with music. With each passing year the live show continues, more and more children participate. My own daughter has been participating since the age of three. In the afternoon, the children gather and start rabble-rousing while the food is being prepared, but when night comes on and showtime hits, they all grow strangely quiet, their attention drawn to Ara’s sanshin.
Birama nu ya nu an tan ga
Muriku bana nu sakaryōri
Uri torui kari torui
Birama nu ya yu mimaisu
On the eastern side of your house
Pretend to pluck it
Oh how I long to visit your home
What most fascinated me was when Ara started “Tsuki nu kaisha.” No sooner had he sung the words “Tsuki nu kaisha” than my daughter, who’d been humming along the whole time, fell straight to sleep. Once I noticed, I realized that all the children around us were breathing in unison, every single one fast asleep. They were probably just tired from their long afternoon, but in that instant, I felt a renewed sense of awe at “Tsuki nu kaisha’s” strength as a lullaby. Every sleeping child, slack-faced, riding the Alpha waves. Is there any happiness greater than falling asleep to a lullaby? I found myself jealous of the children that night.