The towns of Coria del Rio (Seville, Spain) and Madrid (Spain), were the lucky ones to be able to enjoy on Thursday 14th and Saturday 16th of February, an original show full of music and humor performed by the Japanese composer Mine Kawakami accompanied by Japan’s most popular comic duo Sandwichman (read news).
Rafa Melgar, regular collaborator in SoundTrackFest, attended the concert on Thursday 14th in Coria del Rio and has written this summary article together with an exclusive interview with Mine Kawakami, where they talked about her fascination for the piano, the time she lived in Córdoba, the music she has composed dedicated to the Camino de Santiago, or her collaboration with Chucho Valdés among other things.
NOTE: As a curiosity, note that Coria del Río was the place where the first Japanese diplomatic expedition arrived in Spain 400 years ago, held by the samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga, and many of their members decided to stay in Coria later, having families and kids there.
A great opportunity was presented to us on February 14 in Coria del Río (Seville, Spain). The composer Mine Kawakami together with the duo formed by the two Japanese comedians Sandwichman (Mikio Date and Takeshi Tomizawa) arrived on Valentine’s Day, precisely to make us fall in love. A complete and varied show, like a good Gyūdon dish.
For those who do not know Mine Kawakami and her personal journey, I will begin by saying that she was born in the city of Nagakute, Japan in 1969. Prolific pianist, who at the early age of 3 years, had her tiny fingers stroking the keys of a piano. For years her personal and musical search took her to Germany, to finally find in Spain a home where she could continue exploring and training at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Madrid.
Perhaps having lived in several cultures has made her the versatile composer she is today. Nicknamed “The pianist of the soul” for her delicate, suggestive and full of light compositions, with which she manages to thrill and make us feel hopelessly vulnerable.
She is currently a regular composer in anime series and soap operas for NHK (Japanese National Television) and has done different works for film and television such as “Four Seasons in Japan”, “Nekonoshippo Kaerunote” or the beautiful film of 2013 “The garden of the four seasons” for which she composed the soundtrack.
Famous and mythical is the joint work with Cuban musician Chucho Valdés. Two very different cultures at the service of musical wealth at the piano, which took place at the Teatro Real in Madrid. The concert was held on December 1, 2018 and its edition on CD-DVD, will be released in the coming months, as the composer told us.
“Sonata samurai” is the composer’s last published work, and it was the OST of the cultural events organized for the commemoration of the “Spain-Japan year”. A musical work that takes us 400 years into the past, to describe the journey that Samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga had to face from Japan to Spain.
It goes without saying that she was the main incentive, for me not to miss the opportunity of what was undoubtedly going to be a musical trip to Japan in three acts.
The show has three parts very differentiated by the protagonists and offered with duration of an hour and a half in its entirety.
The location of the stage, which apparently was very distant culturally and in distance from Japan, turned out to be just the opposite. Coria del Rio is recognized as the Japanese-Andalusian village since the arrival of the expedition of the Keicho Embassy in 1614 to this little town of Seville region.
The Cultural Center of the Villa “Pastora Soler” of Coria del Rio massively invited all the villagers, to be aware of the cultural wealth that this town has, in tune with the Far East.
The center registered a full house, and a considerable number of Japanese spectators, something that surprised me a lot.
Mine Kawakami, speaking in perfect Spanish, transported us to a retrospective trip from her childhood in Japan, where the pianist herself narrated in first person with a monologue in comedy key, that made those present laugh. As a master of synesthesia, she reinforced her explanations by assigning smells, colors and feelings to specific sounds produced by the piano, and so we could all understand and visualize what she proposed to us. “The bear and I” is an adventure story that little Mine had to face from home to school every day. “In Japan there are many bears and bears eat people, but people in Japan also eat bears”; with this phrase Mine summarized that survival struggle of her childhood, and she spoke of that memory as if it were still present, and she knew how to project it into our minds through the piano with a theme full of epic and emotion.
Following she changed the musical registry, this time with another color, smell, and personal moment. In search of her music, she told us that she left Japan to disembark in Cuba and there in the music school the culture shock her and enriched her. She performed a classic theme, which she then turned into a frenetic and Caribbean one, with a very recognizable essence compared to the original.
Among the different anecdotes told by Mine we came to what would be the last song of “Sonata Samurai”. A long-lived theme that tells a fantasy sonata with 4 movements, Tsukinoura, Matsuri, Guadalquivir and Spirit. It is in summary the trip that had to complete the Samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga, the first Japanese diplomat sent to Spain in an embassy, four hundred years ago. And that’s where the pianist from Sendai enjoyed absolute freedom: just the piano and her. Beautiful score with different nuances, emotions, and colors. Mine becomes with her music a spiritual chronicler of the adventures that that trip supposed. The influence of her country, playing with her doctrine in classical music and her personal Cuban and Spanish baggage. A fantasy to convey the greatest epic story.
The most insane and irreverent comedy arrived in the second part of the show and was run by Sandwichman, the most popular comic duo in Japan, something like the Spanish “Los Morancos” in Japanese version.
Without any shame, the duo took the risk of performing the sketches in both languages. When playing the original version, subtitles were projected on a screen enabled in the theater, so that the audience could read and understand what they were saying.
In the original versions, the comedians warned that the performances would be carried out with a greater pause, since they tend to be very frenetic when it comes to their performances and they go from gag to gag quickly. In the “Spanish version” Sandwichman needed the help of two collaborators who gave them posters with the dialogues to say.
At times the use of language did not resemble, but that linguistic difficulty made it even more comical, getting many laughs from the audience. The Japanese humor is highly exaggerated in acting and with little elaboration, it is close to the knock in the head or “poop, ass, fart and pee” jokes, but that does not stop it from being effective.
A mini representation of what these geniuses of Japanese humor can give, who won the sympathy of the public since the beginning.
The explosion of color of the show took place when the group of Suzume Odori from Sendai assaulted the place from the back of the theater, surrounding the spectators and arriving at the stage giving an end to the celebration; giving a closure to the evening, contributing with another cultural side of our Japanese “neighbors” that’s the traditional dance.
A large number of dancers dressed in kimono and with fans in their hands, danced incessantly, with impossible postures and unattainable jumps. Total interaction with the public, where they managed to get on the stage staff of the mayor’s office, audiences of different ages, and Mine herself with Sandwichman, to end up all together dancing on the same stage, symbolizing the brotherhood that exists between Japan and the people of Coria del Río.
Mine, thanks for being here for SoundTrackFest. We love interviewing composers who make us feel excited about their music and discover who is responsible for that gift. So again, thank you very much.
You were born in the city of Nagakute, Japan in 1969 and started playing the piano at 3 years old. The first question is compulsory, why the piano? How does that passion for that particular instrument arise and also for the music in general?
Yes, my parents are artists, my father is the professor at the State University of Art, and then I was born in an area full of artists’ houses, that is, they were all professors and my neighbor was a pianist, and I visited her, and she taught me how to play the piano.
And… at such an early age of 3 years?
Yes, yes, I thought that I lived in a world full of artists, because the town was full of artists, and it was very normal to start with 3 years.
What does Spain have in particular to make you fall in love and help you “paint” your compositions, something that has even made you live here, in Córdoba specifically?
My profession is basically related to intuition, to inspiration; something that looks and something that feels. Spain is something that you see and something that you feel. Spain is something that I do not know very well why, but it gives me a lot of inspiration. This is the reason why I am living here. Córdoba was like that, I lived four years there, and it was incredible because I have never seen a city with so much light and with so many shadows. And it was very nice because I composed many songs there in Córdoba. Because every moment is music, every moment is harmony, and then it is not creating something, but transcribing everything in the landscape that I like, that inspires me. And it turns out that Spain gives me a lot of transcription possibilities.
You also talk about how composing is something like painting a picture, right?
Exactly, well, I also paint personally, but I do not mix it. When I play the piano, for me it is like another type of painting (of course I have a score) but the music is very visual for me. Many times I do not write down all the notes of what I play, but I put here “the lights” and “at 7 o’clock in the morning of Cordoba on the 14th of I do not know when“. Then I remember a lot about what the light was like and the piano keys ask me where to play. My music is very visual, it is like painting, but it is not something present, it is in the memory.
Your native language is Japanese, but you learned Spanish once you came to live here. And you also speak German…
I learned German studying because I made my career in Germany. Spanish is a language to be spoken, to speak in a conversation. I was never in a language course. Well, I was one month, but I did not learn anything; Spanish is such a special language that you only learn by speaking. That’s why I like it a lot.
There is an album of you that’s very rooted in this country “O Meu Camiño” and I think it is very interesting if you could explain to us where did the idea of composing an album that pays tribute to the ‘Camino de Santiago’ came from.
I love the Camino de Santiago and instead of taking pictures, I make music so I do not forget it. Because sometimes with the photos you forget. But the sound is the same or very similar to the taste, that you remember things suddenly. Like when you smell some things from many years ago. Suddenly you smell something and you know you can directly travel to the past. And the music is the same. That’s why I composed the music, not to forget the Camino to Santiago, its smell, its atmosphere, and in the end it turned to become a record.
I must admit that I am a lover of Japanese composers and I have had the opportunity to meet some of them. Taro Iwashiro, Kenji Kawai, Toshiyuki Watanabe… all of them excellent pianists. Is studying piano a common practice in Japan?
Well, Japan is the country where I think there are more pianos at the moment… well, maybe in China now they have more pianos, because they have more people. What happens is that my generation is a generation of having parents survivors of the Second World War. In other words, they have endured a lot of poverty, and after the Second World War, we have grown a lot economically. Then the parents passed on their dream to the children and they have educated us very well. Almost everyone in my class had a piano; everybody started to study piano, then English, then I do not know what… Everybody learned to play the piano. So in my generation, there are many pianists, and of course, that generation has produced many pianists. Now it is changing because not everyone can have such a hard career, so there are many pianos now that are sleeping in the houses.
It is interesting what you just said, which was that then people studied from a young age, and that the piano was present when it came to studying, right?
Yes, I remember that in my class when I was eight or nine years old, I had forty children and thirty of them were learning to play the piano. And half of them had a piano at home, an electric piano. Then it has come down again… but that is why now almost everyone knows how to read scores, knows how to play the piano, and there were many music colleges. Now they are decreasing, but at the time you’re talking about, there were many pianists.
Tell us how has been your experience when working on audiovisual projects for film and TV, where your music should be at the service of images and the composition was born with a context in which to develop.
It has been a surprise almost without expecting it. I have worked a lot for NHK national television and they invite me to work with them on nature or anime documentaries. It’s been two jobs that I’ve been working on lately and they’re a bit different because I’ve never worked with computers. So my music must be manual, like in Mozart’s time, and I write with pencil and paper. When I work mostly with TV, they first edit the content and then they give it to me and I play over it watching the images. That’s how I am able to draw. For example, if I see a flower, I can make the sound accompany it as if it were the halo, if some bird flies, I can make the sound as if it were the movement of the air. This is what I can do with the piano. The piano has 88 keys and you can make a lot of incredible sounds. From very low to very high sounds; from thunder to light. And then you can accompany TV shows very well, that’s why they hire me. There are very few composers who can play this way directly and in an improvised way.
So they give you some freedom when it comes to making these compositions, right?
They say exactly what they want, the kind of environment, something like that… and we do a lot of rehearsals, but then we record at once. There are very few productions that allow it to do so. Normally you first deliver the music and then they edit the music, and synchronize it with the images. But I do not want to do it that way, I want to do it like it was done before. First, the image that is already completed, and then the music that goes on top.
Normally, composers usually work with “temp-tracks” that are references that the director has worked with during the editing. In your case, I see that there is a minimum agreed, but that they finally opt for the work you propose. It’s fantastic that freedom and that trust they place in you! Would you like to work more specifically in the film and TV sector as the aforementioned composers?
Yes, I would be very interested in working for cinema. Now I work a lot for anime and soap operas and I have several projects. I love making good music that accompanies the images, that have good air, good aroma and if food comes out, put sound to the smell. This is the work that I love to do.
Your compositions are characterized by beautiful and delicate music. And suddenly you surprise us with a hand-to-hand collaboration with Chucho Valdés, who is a LATIN JAZZ pianist, who at first, except for the instrument by which you express yourself (piano), are different musical tonalities. How was this joint collaboration born? And what can you tell us about the experience?
Yes (*laughs*). When I was still playing classical music, I was not very happy and I was looking for my way in music; I was looking for freedom. And suddenly I met Chucho more than twenty years ago. When I heard his music it was my intuition that told me that that was what I was looking for. And since then I’ve been following Chucho. He was born in Cuba as an Afro-Cuban and I was born in Japan as a Japanese so we have very different bases. What we have in common is that with the piano we want absolute freedom. We use the piano as a loudspeaker to express our freedom. Chucho being Afro-Cuban, his freedom is land, wood, and metal; and my freedom as Japanese, where we do not have very strong nuances, are more like color, air, wind, aroma, and light. And they are two very different ways when we play together, but we have something in common that is freedom. That is why we have been able to play together on the same melody making very incredible variations. On May of this year we are going to release a CD-DVD with the recording of the concert at the Teatro Real of 2018. It will be very nice and special this live edition.
How was to be responsible for composing “Sonata Samurai” within the cultural events organized for the commemoration of the “Spain-Japan Year”, premiering this composition at the Teatro Real in Madrid, in the presence of the Princes of Asturias and the Crown Prince of Japan?
It was amazing! (*laughs*) This was all organized by the Samurai who is 400 years old. I would never be able to organize all of that (*laughs*). It was so incredible the spirit of the Samurai, that I noticed his presence, and he accompanied me. His story is amazing, as he was born in Sendai and then came as the first ambassador to Spain, passing through two seas, through Cuba, through Mexico, and then into Spain, where they arrived first at Sanlucar de Barrameda and then to Seville. The trip is very interesting since the trajectory was coincidentally like what I did when I was looking for my music. And 400 years ago the Samurai made his way by boat, and I was interested in making that path with music and also I was very interested because the tsunami that we had 8 years ago in Japan was tremendous and ended the lives of 30,000 people in a minute. And the motive of 400 years ago by which the Samurai came here was the same category of a tsunami. That is to say, to recover the damage, he took the decision to negotiate with Spain and have a commercial relationship between both countries. Finally, that did not succeed and many of the Samurai stayed in Coria del Rio and founded the family of Japan.
This musical journey consists of 4 movements, Tsukinoura, Matsuri, Guadalquivir and Espíritu, the official theme of the event. You are undoubtedly a great connoisseur of the two cultures (Japan and Spain). But how does your work translate when synthesizing or maintaining a sound balance that is not so abrupt with that clash of cultures?
The composition was my imagination drawing the memories that the Samurai had. I wanted to draw what he had seen. It is the look of a single person and then all movements go through what he has seen from my imagination or something very similar. Because he is Japanese, and I am also Japanese, and the first time I saw the Guadalquivir River I was surprised by the color of the water, the light, and the shadow, and then I drew the landscape that I have seen, as if the Samurai had seen it. Sometimes old music comes out, and I mix old Japanese music through the Samurai’s look.
Tomorrow will take place the show AMBASSADORS OF GOOD FRIENDSHIP AMONG SENDAI AND SPAIN in the town of Coria del Río, considered the Japanese-Andalusian town. Has the choice been a coincidence? Do you think it takes a special sense to do it in a town that Japanese culture is so important?
I am an ambassador from Sendai and, therefore, one cannot tell the story without including Coria del Rio, which is a place where the Sendarians have been. Tomorrow we will have two comedians, who are the most followed in Japan and it has been a miracle that they have been able to travel here without speaking a word in Spanish… and if I tell you the truth I do not know what they are going to do tomorrow (*laughs*), we are all very worried because (*laughs*)… I do not know, it’s going to be fun. But the funny thing is that one of the comedians is a descendant of the Shogun who sent the mission and therefore, he’s been years wishing to know Coria. And that’s where the idea came from, they wanted to come and see the place, and I wanted to organize it in Coria and the city of Coria de Rio invited us to play in the hall… and in short… everything was organized by the Samurai of 400 years ago (*laughs*).
Once again you associate and return to perform a joint show. This time with the comic duo Sandwichman, Mine, you’re all-terrain! What can you tell us about the show?
A total surprise. It’s going to be the trip that Masamune made 400 years ago (*laughs*), that is, we have arrived without really knowing how (*laughs*). We know more or less what we are going to do and the order. I want to offer the public a trip to Japan. I’m going to be like a Japanese ship that I’m going to take them to Japan, with the sound, back to 400 years ago. Then the comedians arrive, who will show their humor. For me their humor is like music, and I therefore believe that you do not have to understand everything they say to feel it. I want you to enjoy the rhythm and the harmony that exists between the two of them.
As a consumer of Japanese cinema or anime, I find your humor very peculiar and visual. I suppose we can enjoy that essence tomorrow.
It is very unique! That’s true. It’s funny how in Spain you have humor that you understand us a lot, right? That’s why there are many Spaniards who visit us more and more, without speaking anything in Japanese, but we understand each other. Tomorrow will be seeing something like that, like the journey of 400 years ago of those samurai that arrived here without speaking any Spanish. We will close with a dance group from Sendai.
I’m looking forward to seeing the show and to make that special trip to Japan from your hand.
It will be like a “comic anime” world, and I’m also looking forward to that moment.
Article and interview by Rafael Melgar
Pictures by MissSoez · Ilustración y Diseño