cherishes connotations of historical resonance in the performances of the cherry blossom-inspired Japanese jazz musician Makoto Kuryia
Sweeping his hand through his dense jet-black hair, Makoto Kuryia rises to shake my hand and does not seem to take much notice of my flustered arrival. A last minute change in Kuryia's interview schedule moves my meeting with him forward by an hour. That means that I must bolt across town like Japanese animation pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida's Mach GoGoGo to arrive punctually for the workshop organised by the Japan Foundation at the Faculty of Musical Education, Helwan University, in Zamalek.
Fortuitously, Cultural Attaché Hajime "Jimmy" Kishimori at the Japanese Embassy in Maadi kindly offered to give me a ride. It is a day of scorching sunshine on the Maadi Corniche riverside vista. Towering skyscrapers cast long, dark and sinister shadows and triangular shapes emerge from between the palm trees: the Pyramids. For me, it is all emblematic of a wonderful cross-pollination between the funky jazz and the traditional Japanese musical worlds that we, Jimmy and I, have braced ourselves to sample. Of course, not everyone is capable of capturing this kind of hybridised magic.
Accidentally, too, the traffic was not too bad. That was until we got to Zamalek, then it literally came to an abrupt standstill. Jimmy and I exchanged anxious looks. He graciously distracted me with terrific tales about the state-of-the-art Tokyo Traffic Control centre, the brain of all the highways of the biggest city on Earth. I reminisced about my time in Tokyo, the futuristic city where high-tech vehicle detectors will be cranking out the latest, while we in Cairo are stuck in endless traffic jams. One subject led to another and we ended up where we began -- with Makoto Kuryia and the Tokyo Freedom Soul.
Kuryia looks somewhat perplexed, but relaxed; a contradiction in terms, but true. He makes music with a moral seriousness that mesmerises his audience. He plays jazz that is not exactly on the margins of Japanese musical life. And that is an understatement. "A fabulous pianist integrating all genres of music into the world of Jazz, expressing all aspects of music that Tokyo can give. The most important artist that anybody in the world should listen to," rhapsodises Atsuko Yashima, producer of Tokyo Jazz.
Kuryia attributes his popularity in Japan and abroad to the sentimentality of Japanese jazz, a quality long lost in much jazz swing in the West.
The Promethean intensity of Kuryia's music took the assembled students by surprise. He penetrated the emotional heart of one piece after another. The whole sequence was immensely satisfying. This was the event of the week for me. It began with the exquisitely ornamented, winding down to something gospel-tinged towards the end, and brought forth the exacting ecstasy of the Mississippi Delta Blues with breathtaking bravura -- much to the delight of the mostly youthful Egyptian audience.
His connectivity to his audience is perceptible. The second piece, more perceptibly Asian, is softer and more mellow to begin with. Kuryia was adept at prizing out the colouristic vitality of the music unique to Japan's southernmost island Okinawa, which as home to a gigantic United States military base, has been infused with American jazz. It sounded a bit like an enchanting assemblage of Balinese and the Blues. The combination is captivating. Kuryia managed to turn around and flash a courteous smile at an audience member who was video-recording him. He is best known for his cheerful, uplifting performace and simpering tear-jerkers such as Sakura (or Cherry Blossom) Garden, but his music portrays a wide range of Japanese characters.
The story is simple. "I try to play with positive energy," he says wistfully. "The transmission of happiness is of pivotal importance." In Japanese the word denoting music is "ongaku": an amalgamation of "on, or sound" and "gaku, or fun". Happiness, therefore, is an intrinsic concept in Japanese music. By turn sonorous, sentimental and lyrical, and at times majestic, Kuryio's music panders to the philosophy that everyone wants to be happy because everyone knows that they cannot be happy all of the time.
"To me that is what music is all about," he muses. Kuryia gives it shape to the happiness mantra by producing volumes of rich non-verbal music. He demonstrates that a predisposition for bliss is as beautiful and evanescent as a cherry blossom. Both his spirit, and his very conception of music, is characteristically Japanese.
"I always want to produce brand-new music to make more open the existent jazz scene that tends to be closed," he elaborates. In the West, feelings are the new facts. In Japan, feelings were always fact flirting with fiction. "To me, music is like eating and drinking. It is about life, living and entertainment. It is fundamental in our lives, for our sanity and well-being."
He sidesteps further probing. His programme was announced a little late and I was unaware of what he was playing to the students until he explained his first two numbers and it soon became obvious that his music was in a different league. The grandeur of Japanese jazz was magnificent but seemingly effortlessly released.
The music of Makoto Kuryia is a reminder of the glories of the Land of the Rising Sun. His signature tune Sakura Garden is evocative of the very essence of Japan -- the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Sento Imperial Palace, or the Nijo Castle of the Tokugawa Shoguns and the Kamo Shrines. In short, his music is intrinsically Japanese.
I am still shutting my eyes and thinking of Kyoto. Plum blossomed when I visited the magnificent city one February and the snow, sensuous and surreal, covered the ground in patchy swathes. The air was cold, crisp and clear. The contrast with Cairo cannot be starker. Therein lies the secret of the success of Kuryia's music. His music features the spectacular backdrop of the stunning Japanese countryside -- snow-capped mountain peaks and flowering, lush valleys. And teaming, orderly cities. He has, at his core, a steely belief in what he does. The piano is as much a texture for the music as a lead instrument.
There is something innate to the Japanese psyche that dictates that this significance is never forgotten. Kuryia was reaching out to a younger, hipper audience when he wrote the animation film soundtrack.
A spate of collaborations with internationally acclaimed jazz musicians followed. He released albums with "congenial friends": James Genus, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Gary Thomas and Herbie Hancock himself hailed Kuryia's genius.
In 1990, Kuryia released his first jazz album, which unleashed a tremendous interest in Japan and had a profound impact on the Japanese jazz scene throughout the 1990s. This particular album was unique in that it incorporated features of American "East Coast Style" jazz and some of the more traditional Japanese influences -- the keynote of the Kuryia production. Apart from a largely original Okinawan-inspired prologue, virtually all the tunes were funky jazz. He yearned for the frenzy of youthful passion.
With one single stroke, Kuryio came up with a new album "Antithesis" garnered an eclectic motley of television animation theme songs. "I felt that the jazz audience in Japan was rather restricted and I dreamed of making the jazz I had come to love easily accessible to a wider spectrum of younger Japanese music connoisseurs. The adolescent Japanese have a sub-culture in contemporary Japan and I wanted to reach out to them."
Exuberance, with extravagantly sentimental mimes and spontaneous musical outbursts blossomed in Antithesis#2, again focusing on a more serious teenage intensity of emotions. He pioneered this kind of music in Japan. Still, he had time to collaborate with talented artists, both foreign and Japanese. Kuryia worked with J-pop artist Ken Hirai, consistently a chart hit star and a million seller musician in Japan. Again, he was reaching out to a wider audience. In much the same vein, he penetrated deeper into the Japanese big city club scene. Tokyo's raunchy Rapponggi district was his next goal. He himself was born in Kobe, along with Osaka the original hometown of Japanese jazz. It was in America, though, that Kuryia learnt his trade and imbibed the spirit of jazz. He enrolled at West Virginia University where he majored in linguistics.
The jazz clubs in these two twin cities produced some of the earliest and most sensational jazz artists between the two world wars. The jazz bug hit prosperous entertainment districts of Osaka and Kobe in particular. By 1924 Osaka boasted 20 dance halls. Soon after, Japanese-born musicians started to play jazz professionally. Trumpeter Fumio Nanri (1910-1975) initiated his Hot Peppers, American-style swing. In 1933, Chinusa Japan's first jazz café opened in Osaka. Kuryia is proud of his roots in the Japanese jazz Heartland. "Rhythm of the Elements", a very authentically Tokyo tune, was released next. Jazz hit on higher notes in the Japan of the 1920s. After this spate of electrifying work with club scene jazz he moved abruptly to collaboration with the classical. With every beat and note in its ascribed place, the music resonated with the "joy" that Kuryia boasts about. Kuryio worked with Masataka Hirano, Japan's internationally acclaimed saxophonist and then it was back to animation music and the movie "Nitaboh", once again pioneering the incorporation of traditional Japanese instruments -- the new fusion was "Tsugaru-Shamsein".
Back in Cairo, we step over boxes and musical instruments to get into the auditorium where Makoto Kuryio is to perform. He clears his throat and swirls around, taking in the cluttered auditorium. I am certain that he's seen nothing like this in Japan where everything is utterly meticulous. The students converge on the splendid, albeit somewhat crumbling villa that houses the faculty on 27 Mohamed Ismail Street, Zamalek. And it becomes clear that enduringly resonant of Zen Buddhism, the Zen aesthetic, as well as the traditional Japanese Shinto religious liturgical strains influence Japanese jazz as expressed by Kuryia. He plays a funky jazz piece much to the delight of his young audience. This one has gone down very well.
Groove, sending a ripple of amusement around the auditorium, grips the young Egyptians like no other sound of Kuryia. Japanese jazz fuses different strands of jazz, but the genre remains intrinsically Japanese. "Take Tsugaru-Shamisen music played with a shamisen, or stringed lute- like instrument with a long neck and a square sound box. Tsugaru-Shamisen songs, often romantic traditional balads, highlighted by a special shamisen called a Tataki-Soho." The result of the fusion suggests simultaneously or in turns both aggressive and delicate tones and melodies.
The Sakura Garden, his greatest and most popular hit, is pure Japan presented in an engaging cosmopolitan fashion. Club jazz, or nu-jazz, is popular with the younger generation of Japanese. And Sakura is infused with the old with a touch of the new. Kuryia is keen to attract the Cairene audience. This, after all, is the first time that Japan participates in the Cairo Jazz Festival. And he is keen to do what he did in Europe in 2003, once again collaborating with Satie and Michael Legrand to produce "Latin Europe" adding his special touch of re-harmonised strings. Of course, the ever- present Japanese pentatonic scale, which Kuryia points out, differs substantially from mainstream Western harmonic structures.
The three artists on stage were a thoroughly cosmopolitan lot -- at home in Tokyo, Osaka, London, Paris, New York and even Cairo. A glance at the trio confirms the suspicion. Keisuke Torigoe (bass) sports a cross. Masanori Amakura (drums) is a constant drumbeat of persuasive performances. He has a natural gift for the epigrammatic. Pentatonic scales are prevalent in Asia and Africa -- the Indonesian or Javanese gamelan and the Ethiopian krar are typical examples. However, the pentatonic scale is predominant in African American spirituals, blues and jazz. West African music, the ancestral sounds of African American jazz, is also based on the pentatonic scale. Central to the piece is a cluster of unique sounds based on the Hirajoshi scale. Themes of happiness and freedom are timelessly and universally pertinent. "My mission is to spread happiness and joy," Kuryio puts it very succinctly.
The Tokyo Freedom Soul took Cairo by storm, with audiences interacting freely and spontaneously with the Japanese trio. I suggest to Makoto Kuryia that some Egyptians might consider his collaboration with certain Western jazz musicians to be controversial, and he admits that there is often truth in the accusation but is persuasive in his justification of this particular genre of Japanese music.
"I always try to help the happiness concept, because I believe in fusion of styles." His music is striking and honest. You'll laugh until your head falls off.