Songs of Otomae

A Music Restoration Project

The Songs of Otomae (1085?-1169)

Restoring the Art of a Celebrity Singer
and Her Repertory of the Popular Songs of Her Day

This project has grown out of our early work to resurrect important Japanese women lost to history. More recently actualization has become more realistic as the renaissance of music made by Japan-born instruments has bloomed. Considering the fact that Japan-born music was banned from the schools from the Meiji period (late 1800s) until very recently in Japan’s attempt to Westernize, it is now wonderful that new generations of Japanese are renewing their joy and pride in Japan’s almost lost musical heritage.

Otomae was a 12th-century musical powerhouse, with a fame and charisma not unlike singers we know, such as Misora Hibari or Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Beyoncé, and others, though obviously long before technology and the media launched those women into global stardom. Otomae came from a long line of exclusively female singers belonging to a kind of guild known as kugutsu who specialized in contemporary songs known generically as imayō or “songs of today.” Emperor GoShirakawa (1127-1192; r. 1155-1158) was an impassioned fan of the genre. After Otomae retired professionally taking the lay vows of a Buddhist nun, the then retired Emperor called her to his court and apprenticed himself to her so as to learn directly from her to sing her entire repertory in her special characteristic way. He carefully wrote out the lyrics to all her songs, more than 500 of which remain written down in the collection he called Ryōjin Hishō, which can loosely be translated as “Private Treasure of Superb Songs that make the rafters sing and the dust fly.”

Unfortunately, there was no way in those days to notate her music or to record her voice or body language, nor the use of the hip-drum that apparently she used. He tried to preserve her songs and her style of singing by teaching them to others after her death, but found only inadequate disciples and so we have lost the oral/aural part of her art.

So that Otomae’s repertory does not remain buried, as it is now, known primarily as Emperor GoShirakawa’s collection of songs, and so that her lyrics are left to be ingested by the eyes alone, we owe it to her to resurrect her lyrics in song. Even as we will never know what she looked like or sounded like, the depth and breadth of her lyrics, their double-entendre insinuations, their Buddhist gospel, their erotic seductions, can inspire new generations to seek out and activate her rhythms and give voice to the words, which even now, in our day, could be “songs of today.”

There are many challenges in this project. So far, those few who have composed melodies and sung a few Ryōjin Hishō songs have tended to be uninspiring and mundane. Frankly if our project is successful we should be able in effect to bring to life a whole new genre of beloved song as globally understandable in both Japanese and English as lieder in German became, and as have become in our own day the heartfelt songs of Joan Baez, John Lennon, and other profoundly charismatic, and culturally deep singers/songwriters.

The first step has been to work on more accurate and sensitive English translations of her most universally moving songs, recast those translations, with a mind to how the words may best sit on a woman’s voice. The same, of course, for her original Japanese lyrics, where newly voiced music must be wedded to her words. Further, we are dealing with songs of women at different ages, to say nothing of moods (from deep religious devotion to blatantly sexual thrall). Her drumming beat to a certain extent can be felt in the rhythm of her lyrics. Workshops at various stages will allow for the full collaboration with songwriters, percussionists, singers of different ages, always advancing in collaboration with both Japanese and Western song professionals.