Minyo folk song singer and taiko drummer. Born in Yokohama City, Kanagawa Pref. as the eldest daughter of the minyo shakuhachi flute artist Takemine Kitsu. She learned minyo singing from her father, shamisen from Hidetaro Honjo, taiko drum from Tsurukimi Yamada. She performed on radio and television minyo programs from childhood and on the stage. After graduating from high school, she participated in collaboration performances with artists from a variety of music genre including pops, jazz and world music. In 1997 she began activities as a solo artist after participating in the 1st World Folk Music Festival on Uzbekistan with her own unique style of playing the drums as she sang. In 2002 she formed the performance duo Tsuru to Kame with the renowned Tsugaru shamisen master Katsuaki Sawada. With the aim of reviving the original easygoing, energetic nature of minyo music, she has concentrated efforts on performance that focuses primarily on the songs themselves. She has actively performed overseas, including tours to Los Angeles in 2002, Indonesia and Singapore in 2003, New York in 2004, Italy and Germany in 2008, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in 2009 and Shanghai in 2010. She also performs minyo music in a duo with her sister Kaori Kitsu.
|Tsuru to Kame
©Japan Traditional Cultures Foundation
Born in Hirosaki, Aomori Pref. Sawada began performing Tsugaru Teodori dance on stage from the age of eight and Tsugaru shamisen from the age of 15 as a traveling musician in the Tohoku region. He moved to Tokyo at the age of 19. He polished his art in the Minyo Sakaba pubs of and released his first album from Teichiku Records in 1970. Since then, he has continued to perform and record, releasing countless records and CDs. Sawada is highly respected as one of the few performers today who is a master of the original mainstream Tsugaru minyo art of Utazuke (the high-level art of playing improvised dialogue with the singer on the shamisen). For these skills he has been awarded the technique awards of the Nihon Kyodo Minyo Association in 1992 and the Nihon Minyo Association in 1999. Presently, heads the nationwide Sawada Kai, as a master of Tsugaru shamisen and minyo music active both in his own performances and educating the next generation of young artists.
Nov. 2, 2010
|Every country and region in the world has traditional folk songs that have been sung generation after generation since olden times. Though the original writers of the words and music are unknown, these songs have lived on as work songs or songs of celebration. In Japan, a country of steep mountain regions surrounded by the sea and stretching from the cold north to the semi-tropical south, has given birth to a rich variety of traditional folk songs, known as minyo, or “songs/chants of the people” in Japanese. Among them are rice-planting songs, weaver songs, fishermen chanteys, woodcutter songs and more. However, as in many countries, life has changed greatly for the Japanese since the latter half of the 20th century and people’s musical tastes have shifted toward Western-influenced pop and rock music, so these traditional folk songs are becoming less and less a part of the people’s lives. In her attempt to communicate the inherent power of these traditional songs to the contemporary audience, minyo folk singer and taiko drum musician Shigeri Kitsu has extensive experience in collaborations with Western-style musicians and has recently joined with the renowned master of Tsugaru shamisen, Katsuaki Sawada, to form a unique duo calling themselves Tsuru to Kame (Crane and Tortoise). The impact of their performances of centuries-old Japanese minyo folk songs imbued with the power of traditional Japanese vocalization and compelling instrumentation has excited audiences at home and abroad. In this interview Kitsu speaks about the appeal of folk song that transcends generation and cultural differences and the recent activities of her Tsuru to Kame duo.
(Interviewer: Kazumi Narabe, journalist)
In May of this year (2010) you began a series of live performances titled “Aoyama Minyo Sakaba” (Folk Song Pub in Aoyama). The Aoyama district is one of Tokyo’s young high-fashion towns. What gave you the idea to sing old minyo folk songs in such a contemporary part of the city?
The venue for these live performances was a club named CAY where I have performed solos several times in the past. The musician Haruomi Hosono had been holding what he called “secret live” performances there once a month and he had invited me to perform there several times. Those performances gave me the opportunity to talk to CAY’s owner about minyo folk songs and those conversations excited him to say that the time has come for a revival of minyo folk songs and that we should make his club a “Minyo Sakaba” (folk song pub).
I was still quite young and I don’t have many memories of them but there used to be many minyo pubs in the Ueno and Asakusa district of Tokyo. People who had moved to Tokyo from other regions of the country used to gather there and sing their old local minyo songs from their home prefectures as they drank and that provided a bond for them to meet and talk to people they didn’t now. In that way the minyo pubs were a kind of community, and we thought it would be great if we could revive that old merry atmosphere in Aoyama.
During Japan’s era of rapid economic growth in the 1950s and ’60s, many people moved to Tokyo from all over the country. Euno was the railway hub for train lines connecting Tokyo with the Tohoku (northeast) region and Hokkaido in the north. Asakusa had the entertainment district in front of Asakusa Temple with its movie theaters and pubs that anyone could enter freely. There were areas where people from the other parts of Japan could gather after work or on weekends and the minyo pubs where they could hear the old songs of their region were apparently very popular, lively places. I am surprised that someone as young as you knows about that culture.
My father was a professional minyo shakuhachi flute player and he used to take me along to those places. I first performed on the stage when I was three years old, and although I was by no means a pro, I used to sing songs I learned from my father like Takeda-bushi at the minyo pubs as well. At those pubs people drank Japanese sake, not beer, and I didn’t like the smell of sake, but I remember how alive and energetic the people that gathered at those pubs were.
I think it would be great if we can re-create that lively atmosphere with our Aoyama Minyo Sakaba performances. Aoyama is a section of town where young people gather, but when I started performing there my feeling was that performing in a straight-forward minyo style would reach today’s young people better than trying to cater to young Aoyama tastes by giving it a rock or fusion flavor. The reason for this is that a small but growing number of young people have developed an interest in minyo folk song through my live performances. They come to listen and tell me that they find minyo folk songs and also my style of traditional performance which involves accompanying myself on the drums as I sing.
In May you Aoyama Minyo Sakaba performances on five consecutive nights and in September you performed another 2-night special edition.
I felt a great response from the live performances there in May. The audience grew in number each night, with many repeaters, and the fact that we were doing it in Aoyama we were able to play for people who don’t usually listen to minyo folk songs. The owner of AY was very pleased and suggested that we make it an ongoing series. The woman who runs the minyo sakaba pub “Oiwake” in Asakusa apparently heard that she now had a rival in Aoyama and asked, “Where have they started a minyo pub in Aoyama?” (Laughs)
Aoyama Minyo Sakaba was produced by the unit “Tsuru to Kame” that you started with the Tsugaru shamisen master Katsuaki Sawada in 2002. Can you tell us about the background behind the formation of your unit with Sawada?
We chose the unit name “Tsuru to Kame” (Crane and Tortoise) for the title of the first CD we made in 2002, but we had actually been performing as a duo from three years prior to that. This year marks our 12th year performing together. The name “Tsuru to Kame” comes from the words to the minyo folk song Echigo Matsuzaka, which is a song of celebration (congratulatory) from the Echigo region (north central Japan, present-day Toyama and Niigata pref.) which says, “How blessed, in the parlor of this house the auspicious crane and tortoise dance and play.”
Around 12 years ago I was having more and more opportunities to perform with rock and jazz musicians, but there was something uncomfortable about that kind of performance. Looking back I realize that it was because I didn’t really have my own stance yet regarding my minyo folk song performance. I felt that I was just being asked to sing with a certain minyo kobushi (tremolo) at a certain point in the performance or just provide some essence of minyo singing style and it didn’t really have to be me, but something that any minyo singer could do. That was part of the reason that I decided to really get into the world of minyo folk songs once again seriously.
I got into doing collaborations with musicians of Western-style music originally because I was invited to but also because I had an interest in doing that kind of collaboration with musicians of other genre because minyo folk songs had been the environment I grew up in and it was almost too familiar to me. My parents and sister, the whole family were minyo musicians and every day when I came home from school the first thing I would hear was the sounds of my father’s shakuhachi flute and my mother’s shamisen. But it wasn’t something I could avoid. It was only by working with musicians of Western-style music later that I finally started to think of minyo folk songs as a genre too.
It was just at that turning point that I heard a performance by Katsuaki Sawada. Of course I had known about Master Sawada from the time I was little but it wasn’t until that time that I realized what a great master had been so close by all that time. That made me want to work with Master Sawada very much. But when I asked him to do live performances with me he had no experience with that kind of [club] performance and he asked me what it would involve. He didn’t have a clue. I explained that in a live performance you didn’t just play the music but talked to the audience and such. He simply replied that he didn’t understand difficult things like that, but I saying to him, “Let’s perform together,” until he agreed.
Sawada-san finally gave in to your determination, didn’t he? (Laughs) Did you hope to gain something from working with the master?
Master Sawada’s shamisen signs. It was a time when young performers like Tsugaru shamisen performers like Shinichi Kinoshita had become popular one after another, and for a while I was thinking that I should work with one of those younger performers. And I did perform with Kinoshita-san a few times. But, and this may sound strange, I found that Kinoshita-san was still young. Since Master Sawada was one of the older masters, I thought I should work with him first, because he wouldn’t be around very much longer. I thought, if I am ever going to work with him it should be now.
Once I returned to the minyo folk song genre seriously, I was naturally placed among the young generation of performers, regardless of my intentions. But when I though about why I had returned to minyo, I realized that I had to dig back to its roots. With Tsugaru shamisen today, solo instrumental performance has become the mainstream and most of the performers are competing in technical virtuosity in that area, but originally, the Tsugaru shamisen was an instrument for accompanying Tsugaru minyo folk singing. So, the shamisen is best when it is playing along with the singing. With my drums as well, I wanted to learn to drum as accompaniment to my singing of the songs. I wanted to place most importance on the songs. Master Sawada was the foremost master in playing the shamisen with a priority on accompaniment for the songs.
Also, Master Sawada has a character that is one of a kind. He grew up on a farm and was raised by a father who loved minyo folk songs immensely. We hear that from childhood he was called a dancing child prodigy. They speak of “Walking minyo,” which refers to the fact that in the old days in Aomori Prefecture, where the Master was born, minyo folk singers and shamisen players traveled around in groups to perform in the towns far and near. When the Master was young he was trained in that environment on the road, and he is of the last generation of performers to have that experience. For that reason alone, there was so much that I could learn from him.
What is the appeal of minyo folk songs that you most want to present in your Tsuru to Kame performances with Sawada-san?
Master Sawada was born and raised in Tsugaru in Aomori, so he is steeped in the Tsugaru minyo song style, but today the mainstream in minyo singing focuses on the vocal virtuosity of the kobushi (tremolo) and the quality of the voice, which is not a tendency that I prefer. So I wanted us to perform in a simpler, older style of Tsugaru minyo folk song where the shamisen was primarily an instrument for accompaniment. And, since my father is from Niigata Prefecture, I was also interested in the Goze performers of old.
Goze-san were blind performers who played shamisen, sang and chanted old epic stories with a unique kobushi intonation style. They were based in the cities of Takada and Nagaoka in Niigata and traveled around to the different regions performing their music and storytelling. Back in their day there were few forms of entertainment in the regional towns, so people looked forward to the visits of the Goze-san wherever they went. It has been quite a few years since the woman who was called the last of the Goze died, but recently there has been a revival in interest in their art, hasn’t there?
Goze-san used to go as far north as Tsugaru spreading their songs. So I thought of making the old Tsugaru folk songs sung by the Goze-san the central part of our repertoire. The problem was that most of the Goze-san repertoire was long epic stories they recited and it would be difficult to bring that to contemporary audiences in an appealing way, so I decided to begin with songs that conveyed the atmosphere of their day. The song Echigo Matsuzaka that we take our Tsuru to Kame unit name from is said to be one of the songs that the Goze-san took to Tsugaru from Echigo. So we that song with its line, “How blessed, in the parlor of this house the auspicious crane and tortoise dance and play,” as our Tsuru to Kame theme song and had Master Sawada learn the old shamisen accompaniment style used by the Goze-san.
I believe that the emergence of the Tsugaru shamisen from an instrument for accompaniment to one for solo instrumental performance opened up great new range of musical potential. How did Sawada-san respond to your request that he go back to the old style of Tsugaru shamisen when it was only for accompaniment?
I didn’t put it to him that directly. I told him, “Your singing is marvelous.” (Laughs) No one today can sing fushi (phrases of melody) the way the Master Sawada does. When I told him that, he said “Is that so?” as if he didn’t really believe me. Anyway, I wanted to make his singing the central element rather than his shamisen.
Is that because your main concern is with minyo folk songs?
Yes. When you listen to a variety of old minyo folk songs you can sense the emotions that people of old sang them with. For example, I think it must have been hard for the women of old to stay up working into the night after their families had gone to sleep. But in the songs I feel that there was more than just the hardness of that life, because the songs they sang about that hard, lonely work revived and energized them and gave them strength.
For a scene like a woman of a harbor town seeing off the boat of the fisherman she loves, in today’s enka ballads the songs would have a line like “Don’t leave me,” but in the minyo folk songs of old it would be a more indirect plaint like, “There goes the boat, on and on.” It is not an expression of bitterness or the desire to go off in pursuit but a more positive attitude that seems to say, “Now it is gone, but there will be a new day tomorrow.” The image I get from these songs is that the people of old didn’t dwell on their troubles but faced aversion bravely and admirably. I get the sense of a positive attitude toward life and a strength of spirit that may see them wetting their pillows with tears at night but rising with fresh energy in the morning to go out and work in the fields. My desire is to sing in a way that expresses that kind of positive attitude I sense in minyo folk songs.
Is there any relationship between your interest in the “spirit” expressed in minyo folk songs and the fact that you were born and raised in the urban environment of Yokohama? We think of minyo as songs rooted in the land and life of a particular region, and it would seem that you, having grown up in Yokohama, and Sawada-san, who grew up in Tsugaru would have different orientations to minyo folk song.
Perhaps that is true. But, I am absorbed in minyo folk songs for a different reason. As a child, I was probably memorizing and singing minyo songs my father taught me before I even knew the meaning of the words. To sing these folk songs well it is a help to know the shamisen and the drum, and the reverse is also true: knowing the songs makes it easier to play the shamisen well. That is why from my elementary school days I was busy learning with lessons in everything. Today would be my shamisen lesson and tomorrow singing, the day after that would be Japanese traditional dance and drum lessons, and calligraphy as well. And, it was usually double lessons each day. By the time I was in high school I was already a stage performer and being sent on performance tours around the country.
My father had a branch school teaching minyo folk singing and performance in Los Angeles, and after graduating from high school I was invited by the director of that school to come to Los Angeles for a while. I thought I would finally be getting away from the minyo performing life, but I got there to find that they wanted me to participate in the lessons everyday. I felt like I had been tricked. About three months later they came to take me back to Japan because it had been arranged that I would be playing drums in the stage ensemble for the famous minyo folk singer Akiko Kanazawa. With that I began working as a drum performer.
You certainly were absorbed in the life of minyo performance, even if it wasn’t Tsugaru. And you just naturally became a professional.
It may seem as if it were through no wish of my own, but that is the way it happened. However, the fact that I didn’t resist it must have been because minyo had taken root in my soul to some extent.
At the time, Akiko Kanazawa was a professional minyo folk singer who brought a new style to the art, doing things like performing on stage in blue jeans instead of the standard furisode (long-sleeved dress kimono). And, didn’t you stand out too, the way you played drums behind her on those stages? After that you became active performing in collaboration s with musicians from various genre.
It was a time when “world music” was becoming popular and musicians from a variety of genre outside the minyo world came to me with offers to perform together. Looking back, I feel I was just going wherever I was called but not really enjoying what I was doing musically. That eventually made me uncomfortable. But, while I was working with musicians from other genre, I found myself naturally thinking things like, “It would be good if some drumming came in at this point,” or “I wonder what it would be like if I sang while drumming.” Eventually, those feelings let to my own style of singing as I drummed.
Was drumming and singing at the same time a style that didn’t exist in minyo performance before you started doing it?
In minyo stage performance there had always been a clear division between the singer and the accompaniment and you never had performers singing as they played an instrument. The first time I performed in that way [singing and drumming at the same time] was at the 1st World Folk Music Festival in Uzbekistan in the summer of 1997. The offer to perform there had come so suddenly that no other performers had room in their schedules to go with me, so I ended up gong alone. The festival was a big national effort for Uzbekistan and the venue was the big Registan Square in Samarkand. The other countries had brought large performance companies with National Treasure class musicians performing, and there I was all by myself. But, when I sang while playing the drums, the reception was rather good and it made me think that I could make this a successful performing style.
I had been doing minyo folk music since I was a child and I thought that it would continue to be a central part of my life from then on, but I didn’t really have any clear thoughts about what I would be doing specifically from a professional standpoint. One thing I knew, however, was that the idea of standing in the middle of the stage in a long-sleeved kimono performing as a minyo singer was something I would be too embarrassed to do. On the other hand, I also lacked a strong enough determination to make my way solely as a drum performer. But, when I performed there in Registan Square playing the drums as I sang, I felt something like a solid framework that enabled me to express the group feeling of minyo folk songs. Beating the drums as I sang naturally gave a good feeling of motion throughout my body and my voice came out strongly and projected easily, and it made me feel that my own emotions were fusing naturally into the spirit of the songs folk song. I thought, “This is it! This is what I have been searching for.” That changed my mind in a moment and made me feel with certainty that this was right for me. That moment of revelation gave birth to my performing style today.
Doing something new usually attracts criticism. When you began singing while playing the drums in a way that no one had played them before, and when you started Tsuru to Kame, what was the reaction from the people around you?
No one said anything to me directly, but I certainly did feel that people were looking at me as something strange. I had mainly been known as a drummer and Master Sawada was known as a master of the Tsugaru shamisen as an instrument of accompaniment. Neither of us were considered singers. When we first began performing as Tsuru to Kame, I could feel that people were thinking, “What can to accompanists do performing together?”
Did you have the feeling that you wanted to change the system of clear separation of accompanists and singers in stage minyo performance.
It wasn’t that. I was just being true to what I felt. But, clearly I did surprise the people around me. And, I was encouraged greatly by the fact that some of the great masters in the minyo world told me they thought what I was doing was interesting.
Now I would like to ask you about stage minyo performance. As lifestyles have changed, minyo folk songs are rarely sung in their original form as work song or songs of celebration in daily life. Nonetheless, the songs still continue to be sung in their regions of origin today, passed on from generation to generation. In the meantime, from early in the 20th century we had the emergence of skilled professional singers who made recordings and performed on stage, singing minyo folk songs from all regions of Japan. Their performances were carried by radio and TV to all corners of the country and gave birth to a new genre that might be called stage minyo. How would you describe a skilled stage minyo singer?
I guess it would be a singer with a high and beautiful voice who is able to sing a beautiful kobushi (tremolo) and deliver well-nuanced fushimawashi (phrasing and accentuation). As a result, these singers worry tremendously about losing their high notes as they get older and having to lower their key when performing as a result.
What do you think of that kind singing?
I have never been a skillful singer in that sense, and I think that it is all right and natural to lower the key if you can’t reach the high notes. I don’t worry when the condition of my voice is not good on a given day, and I think it is fine to just sing with the voice you have that day. If my voice is not coming out well on a given day I just sing as I can and accept that as my minyo on that particular day (laughs). I have a lower voice, but when I sing with Master Sawada and his male voice, the key is still quite different. By the standards of Western classical music you would probably say that our two voices are not well harmonized. But, I think that is OK, there is no need to be perfectly matched.
Rather than competing on the basis of the beauty of voice or getting high notes, I am interested in the particular spirit and emotion I can bring to the individual songs and feel it is enough to just express that spirit and emotion. For example, because it is minyo folk songs there is some bawdy language at times, but those have been eliminated from stage minyo singing in favor of songs or lines that will not be offensive to anyone. But, I believe that kind of censorship doesn’t allow the original spirit of the songs to come through.
In some regional lullabies we find phrases like, “I’m going to through you into the sea,” sung to frighten a child on the back that won’t stop crying. This conveys the frustration of young children forces to care for the baby of the family, but you will never hear that kind of cruel phrase sung in minyo songs on the stage or television. Also, I feel that the melodies are changed to make the songs easier to listen to. In your case, do you travel to the regions of the various folk songs and have the local singers teach you the way their songs are sung?
I don’t actually have them teach me but I do go to listen to them and to breathe the air of the place and feel its atmosphere. But, I think the meaning of my minyo singing would be lost if I allowed myself to become too absorbed in one particular region. Because there is no way you can compete with someone actually born and raised in the region when it comes to singing the folk songs that were born there. So, I communicate that fact to the people of the region and sing with the desire to communicate more objectively the inherent power and spirit that minyo songs possess.
In that sense of becoming more objective, the fact that I was born and raised in Yokohama may actually be a plus. When I was young and performing the drum accompaniment to Tsugaru minyo songs, someone would tell me, “That is not Tsugaru,” and that worried me. I was playing just as I had been taught and when I would ask what wasn’t Tsugaru about it they answered, “It doesn’t have the [Tsugaru] accent.” But even after being told that, I still didn’t know what it meant. There was a period when that really troubled me. Not knowing what to do, I did things like running off to Los Angeles, or doing collaborations with Western-style musicians. Looking back, I think that those doing those collaborations was an easy way to avoid facing the real core issues of minyo music, the things I was troubled about. In a way, I may have been trying to run away from the real issues.
If you take the argument that you can’t sing minyo folk songs unless you were raised in a regional environment to its natural extent, it means that only a person of a particular region is qualified to sing the songs of that region. I was born and raised in Yokohama, I wear regular [Western-style] clothes, I drink coffee, drive my car and generally live a contemporary lifestyle, but I have been doing minyo music ever since I was a child. That is a reality that can’t be changed. So, eventually I changed my mind and decided to take it all in a positive light and do my own style of minyo based on my own background. I am not of the era when people sang minyo as work songs while planting rice or pulling in the herring nets, but I think it is all right to sing all the minyo folk songs from the far north to the far south as long as I am attempting to sing them in a way that communicates the spirit in which they were originally sung. If someone listens to my songs and says they aren’t right, I will just say I’m sorry and excuse myself (laughs). I feel that I was able to find my own style after I began to think in that way.
In your Aoyama Minyo Sakaba appearances you also had a group of your students perform under the name “Kitsu Shachu” Recently you seem to be quite active doing workshops and such to teach minyo songs and performance.
I don’t really do it on a very large scale, but perhaps since I have gotten older I am thinking more and more seriously about the need to pass on the tradition to the next generation. I started teaching seriously about five or six years ago, after Tsuru to Kame had gotten off the ground. I have a couple dozen students ranging from a six-year-old girl to a woman of about 60. I am working hard now to sow seeds for the future, and I will be happy if some among them will become professional performers who will carry on my philosophy.
Minyo folk songs are sung with the person’s natural voice, but some of the people who come to study with me sing at first in a contemporary pops style or with an operatic type style. But, when I get them singing together with us, they gradually begin to sing in their natural voice. I can’t explain it theoretically so I just tell them, “This is where you bring in the kobushi (tremolo),” and after singing together with us for a while they gradually get the hang of it. I myself learned it that way as a child, never really understanding what I was doing but just copying the way my father sand for hour-long sessions. I didn’t look at the music score, just at my father’s mouth as he sang. That is how I learned minyo singing. All of the traditional Japanese performing arts are that way: you follow your master until it becomes a part of you.
What do you think will happen with Japan’s minyo folk songs from now on?
I think that so-called stage minyo and the [master] family (iemoto) and apprentice system will continue for a while. The [master] family-based system in minyo has a short history compared to those in other forms of traditional music, such as flute music or nagauta (traditional ballad chanting). In the minyo world, virtually anyone who says they are a master and head of a musician family can take on apprentices and become one in practice. So there are a lot of minyo iemoto, but very few last more than three generations. In my case, my father was the first in our family to become a pro, so I am a second-generation minyo folk song professional. But the fans of stage minyo are decreasing in number year by year. When you go to minyo group performances today, the younger members of the audience are in their 60s and there are a lot old women in their 80s coming to listen bent over their canes. Once this generation is gone, there is a chance that the art may die out completely if something isn’t done. But I feel there is a mood in Japan today where people want to rediscover their ethnic roots, their DNA, and as a result of this trend, I think minyo folk songs will survive.
Do you want to perform your minyo folk songs for more young people to hear?
It would be good if more people would begin to enjoy minyo folk songs. The music young people are in to today is almost completely pops and rock, and even I at one point almost got swept along with the flow and began to think that the minyo music I was involved was old-fashioned and un-cool. But now I am working to offer people music that I can say, “Try listening to it and I think you’ll find its cool.” Because more young people today are approaching traditional Japanese instruments like Tsugaru shamisen and taiko drums without preconceptions and finding them interesting.
Japan has almost a limitless number of minyo folk songs. There are work songs, songs of celebration, songs that people sing to the god of the mountains before they venture in, and songs to the gods of the sea. Go to the next village and you will find different songs, or you will find the same song sung differently in another region. Breaking the music down very generally by intonation and rhythm, you have two basic types: the up beat type from Okinawa and the southern regions of the country that goes something like “sutta, sutta” and then there is the rhythm of the northeaster Tohoku region with the accent on the first syllables like, “Ah ah, Ah ah”. I would like more people to discover the rich diversity of minyo folk songs and the spirit behind the songs.
I have many opportunities to perform overseas, but I never think about varying the rhythm or such to what I think might be easier for the people of that country to appreciate. I perform the music as I would in Japan. I believe that is the better way to get people to appreciate the appeal of Japanese folk songs directly. But there is still the language barrier that prevents the meaning of the song from communicating directly. To compensate for that, I try to bring even more emotional impetus to the words than I would when singing in Japan.
In your experiences performing abroad, have you come to think of anything in specific as the unique character of Japanese minyo folk songs that isn’t found in other countries’ folk songs?
Well, I would say it is the momi-te (literally “kneading hands”: the practice of clapping out a rhythm with a momentary pause after each clap to “knead” the palm of one hand with the fingers and palm of the other and thus create a slight pause between the beats or notes). This is something I don’t find in any other country, this sense of beat [Says Kitsu clapping and rubbing her palms together]. People of other countries don’t seem to understand the meaning of that pause created by rubbing the hand together between claps. They may think of it as a kind of prayer gesture. Yes, this is the unique characteristic of Japanese minyo folk song. If you don’t become skilled at this momi-te you won’t make progress as a minyo musician.
There is a lot that I absorb in my trips overseas and I am always impressed at how much the folk musicians of other countries value their culture and take great pride in it. That as influenced me a lot. It has made me realize that I too must value Japan’s minyo folk song tradition and sing with pride. Although I can do very little alone, I want to continue to spread the appeal of minyo folk songs.
We hope you will spread the appeal of the unique momi-te beat around the world too. We look forward to more great things from you in the future.