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KBG84, group of singing Okinawan grandmas, enjoys growing fame

Members of the KBG84 singing group practice at the Fureai Center on Kohama Island in Taketomi, Okinawa Prefecture. (Mainichi)

AKB48 may want to step aside, because a new girl choral group has come on the scene: KBG84, whose initials stand for Kohama, the Okinawan island from which they hail; "Baachan," or grandma; "Gasshodan," or choral group; and -- wait for it -- the average age of their members.

    The diminutive Kohama Island, which is part of the town of Taketomi in the Yaeyama Islands around 410 kilometers southwest of the Okinawan mainland, has a circumference of some 16 kilometers, and a population hovering near 670. The island was also the location of the NHK drama series "Churasan."

    Around 20 years ago, a group of grandmothers who were members of a volunteer organization on the island known as the "Ufutaki-kai" decided to form a singing group, and subsequently began performing at local festivals.

    Then, around five years ago, everything changed. Kikuo Tsuchida, 58, a singer-songwriter living on the island, casually mentioned to the group, "If you began singing and dancing in Tokyo, I'm sure you would be successful." The ladies' immediate response? "Let's go!"

    Before they knew what was happening, the trip to Tokyo became a reality. The group joined Tsuchida onstage during a live show there in 2011, and subsequently began making an increasing number of appearances. In 2013, the ensemble was awarded the Suntory Prize for Community Cultural Activities.

    The group's name KBG84 was coined last year. In addition to performing shows in both Tokyo and Osaka, the singing grandmas have also appeared on the popular TV Asahi program "Tetsuko's Room."

    "On Kohama Island, you are not considered an 'obaachan' (grandmother) until you are 80 years old," explains Tsuchida. "Women in their 60s and 70s are still in the prime of their life. They are not at all yet 'obaachan.'"

    KBG84 presently has around 25 members, of whom the eldest is 96. Women who are in their 60s and 70s, meanwhile, are considered 'research students.' When new inductees join the group, a celebration is held whereby they appear wearing a wedding dress -- something members profess "wanting to experience just once," since they married and raised children during and just after the war.

    Standing in the middle of the group, and referred to as its "center," is 91-year-old Tomi Menaka. Despite the fact that her back is hunched down so low that the upper half of her body practically runs parallel with the ground, she never fails to continue dancing right up until the end of every show.

    Traveling to Tokyo and Osaka for the very first time in her life in order to perform, Menaka -- who is also regarded as the "face of KBG84" -- says matter-of-factly, "I don't know anyone here, so even if I mess up, I'm not nervous even one little bit. Back on Kohama Island, I know everybody -- so performing there is really scary."

    Another member of the group notes, "We have been together since we were small, so we are all very close."

    KBG84 released its first CD last year in October, which includes the rhythmical and Okinawan musically inspired "Come on and Dance, Kohama Island." A book featuring the tireless ensemble, whose title translates roughly as "Let's make flowers bloom with a smile," was subsequently published by Gentosha in December.

    The group was also tapped this year to perform in Singapore, and all its members say they want to.

    "These obaachan have suffered," notes Tsuchida. "As they themselves have also said, 'We've spent a great deal of time crying -- and now we are ready to spend a great deal of time laughing.'"

    He adds, "Young people are also very moved when they watch the obaachan, who teach us not to brood over things -- but to remain cheerful."

    Dubbed as "the closest idols to heaven," one goal of these singing, dancing, ecstatically smiling golden-agers is none other than this: a performance slot on the popular year-end music program "Kohaku Uta Gassen."

    "I'm not ready to get to heaven yet," says one KBG84 member, her smile radiating like a flower at peak bloom. "There are still just too many fun things to do."

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