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Living Colours: ‘Blending Japanese music with jazz wasn’t easy’

Living Colours: ‘Blending Japanese music with jazz wasn’t easy’

Sumie Kaneko, a Japanese traditional music instrumentalist and Jazz singer, is visiting Pakistan for the first time as part of a tour which takes her to Islamabad, Karachi and Dhaka. Her first stop on the tour was Islamabad where she performed multiple concerts playing the Koto and Shamisen.

Q: The traditional Japanese instruments and Jazz seem to be an extremely unlikely combination. How did you fuse the two together?

A: Everyone wonders about that because the two are so different. I play the Koto and Shamisen of course. I also play the piano, violin and flute, and I sing. To me the transformation and blending is very natural. My mother is a musician and when I was a child she took me to all sorts of concerts and exposed me to all sorts of music. The reason I combine all these various forms is simply because I like it. But while bringing traditional Japanese instruments and Jazz together was natural for me, it was not easy. Japanese music is all written and you follow a teacher, while Jazz is all improvisation. My first semester at the Berkeley College of Music was the hardest semester for me because the expectations were completely different from what I had learnt till then. They wanted me to have a vision of my musical path and I had to choose what I had to do but I had to also show that vision in my music. But gradually I found my genre, and now I am writing original music with my Jazz band.

Q: What is a typical day like in your life?

A: Mostly I practice at home and then I go to rehearsals in the evenings. At night if I don’t have a performance I go to places where my friends are performing to see what type of music is popular right now. I have a lot of very talented musician friends and I want to check out what they are doing, which serves as great input for me. I perform two or three times a week and the performances range from clubs and concert halls to restaurants and schools – from kindergartens to colleges, practically anywhere I can go. I love performing for all sorts of audiences whether it’s the four-year-old children in kindergartens or students at Harvard University who want to learn about Japanese traditional music or even hipster places in Brooklyn. That is one of the best things about New York. People in New York are always looking for something cool and it really doesn’t matter what the ‘tradition’ is and that makes it the ideal place for me because I wanted to blend traditional music with Jazz and improvise. In Japan what can occasionally seem like breaking out is simply cool in New York. When I’m relaxing, however, I don’t listen to any music but instead I go to the woods and listen to nature. When I hear music, a part of me is always analysing what I am hearing.

Q: Who or what inspired you to become a musician and what is your source of inspiration now?

A: My mother was the first person who delivered music to me but what she is doing now and what I am doing are completely different. She is a Western court music performer while I do a whole mix of genres but she definitely is the person who brought the joy of music and performance to me. She also gave me the best possible musical education. I also learn from and draw ideas from other musicians who are both my friends and my rivals. My greatest source of inspiration is Japanese religion and Japanese nature. These elements influence my music more than any person or place. I write music out of my experience of Japanese nature and when I go to the shrine I am inspired. This doesn’t mean I have to go back to Japan every time I want to write something new but that core is always there.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2015

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