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Music of the east

Japanese musician Sumie Kaneko performed in Pakistan recently with moving virtuosity

Music of the east

Celebrated Japanese musician Sumie Kaneko visited Pakistan recently and performed number of cultural programmes. She has been educated in traditional Japanese music and specialised in two very traditional instruments that have been part of Japanese music for many centuries: koto and shamisen. In Lahore, she displayed her ample talent last week at  Alhamra.

This was not her first visit to the country; she has  earlier performed in India and Bangladesh.

Kanek has been playing since age 5. She was noticed when she appeared in a Japanese TV programme. Seeing the possibilities, she took up music formally and studied Japanese traditional music at Tokyo National University of the Arts. In order to diversify, and to widen her understanding of other music systems, she went for further study (of Jazz vocals) at Berklee College of Music.

For the uninitiated, Koto is about 180 centimetres in length and made from kiri wood. It has 13 strings that are usually over 13 movable bridges along the width of the instrument. There is also a 17-string variant. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving the white bridges before playing. To play the instrument, the strings are plucked using three finger picks, a thumb, index finger, and middle finger. Shamisen varies in shape, depending on the genre in which it is used. The instrument meant to accompany Kabuki has a thin neck, facilitating the agile and virtuosic requirements of that genre. The one used to accompany puppet plays and folk songs has a longer and thicker neck instead, to match the more robust music of those genres.

It is difficult to judge the quality of a music programme from Japan. Ironically though, Japanese music has much to share with our music. The base of traditional Japanese music is the same as ours. The history of this leads to Buddhism that travelled from this part of the world to far-away places such as Japan. And with it travelled the musical instruments and the forms that underpinned the liturgical expression of the rituals. From then on it became a permanent feature of the larger cultural context as it developed over centuries. Japan and China due to their proximity have been sworn enemies over generations but that still did not stop the musical influences travelling across the great divide to nurture musical expressions and forms in both lands. It is said that due to much interaction between the Chinese civilisation and Japanese, the two instruments that were played in the programme either originated in China or were heavily influenced in their music-making by Chinese music.

Our musical ear is familiar to the sounds that come from the west and not so much with the sounds of the east, which incidentally are closer to our traditional sonic past. But the creation of new forms and developments in technology have formed a sonic shield that is very universal and dominant in its outreach. Sumie Kaneko too has been swept away by these developments as her recent past indicates. She has been trying to bring out creative exchanges between Jazz and her traditional Japanese music. The United States is now her second home, where she is linked to educational institutions while also participating in shows that demonstrate the evolution of her music.

In 1995, she won the Takasaki International Competition in Koto performance. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Blue Note New York, TED talk, Regattabar, Getty Center, Boston Ballet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has also conducted workshops at Harvard University, MIT, Princeton University, Wellesley College and Berklee College of Music, among other institutions. In 2014, her group was invited to the Washington DC Jazz Festival, which is co-sponsored by the Embassy of Japan.

In her concerts in Pakistan she did not branch off into the bigger area of her experimentations that have also made her a star in lands outside of Japan, sticking to two traditional instruments instead. It was a pleasure to witness the virtuosity of her playing.

The exchange of music and artistes is always a  good indicator that the possibility of the development of musical ideas is still alive and potent. There used to be greater exchanges in the past but the few that are still made possible as this one through the Japanese Embassy, are always welcome, with the hope that Pakistan will also be part of the touring schedule of the international circuit of musicians as are India and Bangladesh.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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