Japan-Mekong exchange opens
By Zon Pann Pwint and Than Htike Oo
IT is a harsh country, deep in snow in the winter, but also a beautiful one, a land fragrant with apple trees. And its music, the string music of Aomori-ken in northern Honshu, Japan, is both haunting and dynamic.
Last week a Myanmar audience had the chance to hear the sounds of Aomori when the Japanese duo Anmitsu, formed by Yuka Annaka and Kumi Kindaichi, played at the Grand Ballroom of Yangon’s Chatrium Hotel on February 6. The occasion was the opening event of Japan-Mekong Exchange Year, hosted by the Embassy of Japan.
The two young musicians – already veterans of the international music scene – launched into a rendition of Tsugaru Jonkara Bushi, a song native to Aomori Prefecture, and accompanied by the traditional three-stringed Tsugaru syamisen. This is a winter-warmer of a song, at once defying and celebrating the harsh northern climate of its birthplace and the spirit of the people who live there, and they sang it with a vigour and a pride that roused an attentive audience to cheers.
Anmitsu then continued with Akita Ondo, a song from another snowy corner of Honshu’s north-west coast. Their third song, Krungthep, is an original composition by Anmitsu, composed in Asia during a world tour. The Thai word, meaning City of the Angels, is another word for Bangkok and was inspired, they said, by the shining eyes of Thai children.
Kumi Kindaichi and Yuka Annaka take seriously their role as guardians of Japan’s musical traditions, and its interpreters for foreign audiences.
“We learned the Tsugaru syamisen and native songs from childhood and have always been very keen to preserve our own traditions. Even today the dynamic and soulful sound of the Tsugaru syamisen fascinates many people in Japan, particularly among the older generation. But even young people are vaguely aware of this instrument and its sound,” the two told The Myanmar Times after the event.
The Japanese duo were followed on stage by Myanmar harpist U Hlaing Win Maung, whose playing brought to mind the sound of streams rippling through leafy valleys and the song of birds. The peaceful atmosphere created by U Hlaing Win Maung’s three songs created a pleasing contrast with the faster and more driven sound of the Tsugaru syamisen.
“The sound of the Myanmar harp is melodious and soulful. Though this is the first time we’ve seen it live, we’ve heard CD recordings by U Hlaing Win Maung. It’s so mellow,” said Yuka Annaka.
“Whenever Japanese people, especially older people, hear the name ‘Myanmar’ they think of the Myanmar harp,” said Kumi.
In a musical departure from the earlier songs of the concert, Anmitsu returned to the stage to join U Hlaing Win Maung in a Japanese song, “Sakura” (cherry blossom).
“I did not find it difficult to play a Japanese song (“Sakura” is accompanied by the Myanmar harp), but the styles of Japanese and Myanmar music are different, so I had to adjust,” said U Hlaing Win Maung after the concert.
After “Sakura”, the Anmitsu duo took up the Tsugaru syamisen again to play a famous Japanese folk song, “Hana” (flower). As Yuka plucked the strings, Kumi sang the words in Myanmar, with a faint Japanese accent, as the audience hummed along before breaking into applause to show their appreciation of Anmitsu’s mastery of their musical craft, and their interpretation of their heritage.
The Tsugaru syamisen in is an important cultural artefact amid the long winters and heavy snowfalls of rugged Aomori. In the dark, cold nights, parties and festivals with music, singing and dancing were a source of great relief and comfort.
Yuka Annaka, prize winner at a number of Tsugaru syamisen competitions, and Kumi Kindaichi, also a folk singer, formed Anmitsu in 1999. Since that time, the group has performed more than 50 times a year, holding concerts and live performances and playing at educational institutions.
Their first overseas performance was at a concert in Myanmar, the Japan festival at Yangon National Theatre. In 2002, the duo performed at a concert in London entitled “The Power, Spirit and Beauty of Japanese music”. They have also performed at a reception welcoming the president of Indonesia hosted by the then Japanese prime minister Koizumi.