Fil-Japan Friendship: Bridging cultures through music and shared experiences

July 29, 2012

During the performance, and in the workshop the following day, the artists have repeatedly mentioned that when the country's traditional musical instrument Koto is played, the air exuded the presence of the cherry blossom, Japan's national flower.

If this is the artists' way of establishing "cultural connections through music,' as they have declared then Japanese musicians Aki and Kuniko certainly won the hearts of the audience at the University of the Cordilleras (UC) Theater last July 16.

Acoustic guitarist Aki, and Koto player Kuniko performed through two standing ovations and an encore in an hour-long concert that was part of the 2012 Philippine-Japan Friendship month in Baguio City.

Supported by the Japan Foundation which also brought to the Philippines films, performances and exhibits on the recovery of Japan's Tohoku region after the March 11, 2011 "Great East Japan Earthquake," Aki and Kuniko were slated to perform in two more venues - Manila and Cebu - after their UC engagement.

Japan Foundation Manila assistant director Mitomi Yukie explained that the inclusion of performances and exhibits in the aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake is Japan's way of extending their gratitude to the world "for its compassionate support" to the nation and to demonstrate Japan's resolve to rise from the disaster.

Aki and Kuniko's July 16 UC performance also recalls a similar disaster that occurred in the northwestern Philippines including Baguio City on July 16, 1990.

But none of the trauma of both disasters was conveyed during Aki and Kuniko's performance. Instead, the "acoustic duo's" repertoire of ten instrumental pieces brought into focus the ethereal and gentle sound of the Koto, heard live for the first time by some in the audience.

Commonly used in Japanese folk music, the Koto according to Yukie, is usually played during New Year and Spring festivities. The instrument, she said, can be played by both genders but it is the female who is mostly seen playing music with it.

Filipinos might recall a crossover Japanese song "Sakura" which is accompanied by the Koto. Sans vocals the main tune is essentially delivered by the Koto. "Sakura" is Japanese for "cherry blossom," the inspiration for the fourth song in Aki and Kuniko's repertoire, "Flower Dance."

But while the Koto delivers "delicate heartrending murmurs" when played by itself, the instrument's range widens and becomes driving and forceful when matched with an acoustic guitar.

According to Aki and Kuniko, the acoustic guitar and the Koto are a natural blend. "The instruments do not accompany one another but rather they are complementary." In the next day's workshop attended by members of the UC Percussion and Orchestra, the UC Hapiyoh Mi cultural group and students from the Baguio City National High School, both musicians elaborated on why their instruments are complementary.

"There is a dominant and passive dynamic to our music," they said alluding to the Asian concept of balance and harmony Yin and Yang. "The guitar adjusts with the fixed structure of the Koto," they explain.

The Koto's fixed structure is the result of a tuning system where a bridge for each of its thirteen strings is provided. Tone is assigned by positioning the bridge nearer or farther from the string catch for higher or lower tones. Unlike the guitar, the Koto has no tuning pegs.

UC Percussion and Orchestra conductor Paul Louie Serrano observes that the Koto is tuned in octaves, which is set apart from the standard tuning of the acoustic guitar. Aki acknowledges that he must indeed detune his acoustic guitar - adding one octave from the lower A and D strings and subtracting one octave from the higher B and E strings to match the Koto's tuning system.

This results in a guitar chord pattern that matches the musicality of the Koto. Yukie explains that the Aki and Kuniko musical collaboration consists of original compositions inspired by traditional, classical and contemporary music. Chording with the acoustic guitar unifies the sound of the Koto where it is played with single note picking.

However, the dynamic of the guitar also shows when Aki plays scales and it is Kuniko's turn to blend. Aki says he generally plays the E minor pentatonic which is blues and jazz driven. Koto players, explains Kuniko, optimizes the instrument's range through different techniques in drawing the sound. These consist of plucking the low, middle and high tones, blending, bending, sweeping and scratching the strings.

For the workshop participants, the up close encounter with the Koto was an experience. "For now, let us forget hip-hop, rap or rock music. Let us indulge in this learning first," one participant said.

The instrument, which originated from China, is made of hollowed Paulownia wood known in Japan as Kiri. Kuniko explains the design and pattern of the Koto's body is that of a dragon's. While the bridge and strings were traditionally made out of ivory and silk, today they are made from synthetic material.

"But the care and attention devoted to the instrument is still traditional," Kuniko said. "There is a specialist dedicated to fixing the strings, another specialist tunes it."

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