The Ainu are a native people from the island of Hokkaido in Northern Japan, the only natives still existing today from the Japan islands. Some Ainu tribes are also found on the Russian island of Sakhalin, north of Hokkaido. In Japan, they are almost gone; not many of their traditions are alive today. This CD was originally produced in 1980 by the Unesco, under the supervision of two ethnomusicologists dedicated to preserving the Ainu music. This is a 1993 release on the French Auvidis label. The Ainu are part of the shamanistic societies found all around Siberia. Their music is mainly sung, accompanied at times by some percussions. Interestingly, their songs are similar at times to the Inuit (or Eskimo) katajak of Northern Canada (a kind of throat singing). They have very few other instruments not heard on the CD. This CD presents 14 Ainu traditional songs. It is a tribute to a people who were already disappearing in 1980 when these songs were recorded. (allmusic)
The Ainu had an oral literature in the form of long poems called yukara. (There were no Ainu letters, and we have no written record.) The poems were recited or, rather, sung, to individual melodies by a storyteller of the village. The storyteller (or yukara singer, we might say) was, in most cases, an old man or woman. But the storyteller had no monopoly; everybody in the village learned how to recite yukara. Some were better than others in recitation and memory, and one of the ablest was selected as the official storyteller of the village. He recited the poems during the evenings of ceremonial days, or, if asked by the villagers, on ordinary evenings.
At one time yukara were epics believed to be the voice of the gods describing their ceremonies. In Ainu language, yukara originally meant "to imitate" or "to mimic." They were always told in the first person and always ended "So said the god." This indicates yukara may have begun as the ceremonial songs or prayers of the shamans.
Later, yukara became poetry that, characteristically, told of the acts and loves of a young hero called Poiyawumpe, a god's son brought up by human cousins. Just, generous, and brave, he fought for, and finally won, a beautiful girl he had rescued from a disaster, from a "bad guy," or from a devil. These stories, too long to be told in one night, were comparable to the Homeric epic.
Yukara were passed from generation to generation. Just before they vanished from the Ainu culture, the few now known to us were discovered and collected by Dr. Kyosuke Kindouche, former professor at the University of Tokyo, Faculty of Letters, who translated them into Japanese.
In addition to the yukara, the Ainu had lullabies, love songs, rounds, and simple dances. Among them, the "Dance of Cranes," which imitates the movements of the birds, was particularly popular. The Ainu possessed no musical instruments, but they beat time with their hands for their songs and dances.