Kina Finds the Right Blend

Okinawan singer Shoukichi Kina was impressive in his L.A. debut at downtown's California Plaza on Friday night, moving a crowd largely unfamiliar with his music from curious appreciation to an enthusiastic embrace by the end of his 90-minute set.

Kina, whose pioneering sound blends traditional folk material with Western elements and electric instruments, stressed the traditional side early. He played his amplified sanshin (a three-stringed, banjo-like instrument) against the high harmonies of three female backing singers that at first sounded too giddy for Western ears to take seriously.

The set gathered momentum behind the expert delivery and superb dynamics of Kina's seven-piece band Champloose--the name translates as "all mixed together," and two songs featuring guest Ry Cooder's bottleneck guitar were just that. The first sounded like a double-time, bluegrass take on a spaghetti Western theme, while Cooder's sweet solo gave a ballad the flavor of that purest of folk styles, Okinawan cantina music.

Kina's engagingly crazed charisma took over during a closing string of up-tempo, bouncy pop tunes. Three people turned the wading pool in front of the stage into an impromptu splash pit, and Kina dedicated the first encore to a couple celebrating its 50th wedding anniversary, who danced at center stage as audience members skipped exuberantly among the musicians.

Maybe giddy isn't such a bad word after all.

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