Koto Connections

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The koto sounds very regal, I think.  Its sound invokes an image distinctly Japanese, where every stroke is rich and rife with restrained, yet taut (tightly wound up and ready for action) expression.

Like any musical instrument, it leaves the realm of the ordinary when played on by a master. In the JFM’s case, it was a female master– rather, mistress– who showed the passionate potential of the koto. Her name is Chieko Fukuda.

Ms. Fukuda has led an accomplishment-strewn career, having been the youngest winner of Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Arts Festival Excellent Prize (1993), then receiving the same recognition in 1997. Her success can be attributed partly to genes — her father is Tanehiko Fukuda, the second headmaster of the Mitsunonekai, or koto-shamisen school– and mostly to her dedication to her art, which she honed since age 3. She is now the Headmaster for Mitsunonekai

Her program in Manila started at the UP College of Music where she held one-on-one coaching sessions with koto students who would like to work on their technique. We were told that it was a good time for the students as some of them were due to go through koto performance finals. Although it was unfortunate that an interpreter was present at these sessions, Ms. Fukuda and the Filipino students tried their best to hurdle language barriers and let their music communicate instead.  There were about 16 students she personally coached, most of them one after another.

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Japanese tradition is steeped with hierarchy, and the world of traditional music is not exempt. It is unmistakable who holds the reins and controls the show, observing the dynamics between student and teacher. There is none of the casual buddy-buddy air that sometimes envelops the usual teacher-student relations, probably owing to the unfamiliarness of each other’s language and personalities. When the teacher speaks, the student listens. It seemed like an alternate world, where students bit their tongue instead of speaking their minds at the least provocation. Such order and discipline is refreshing.

Ms. Fukuda also had a full performing schedule while in Manila, performing during the Embassy Night of the 4th PIJAZZ Festival at the Captain’s Bar, Mandarin Oriental (February 26), at the UP Abelardo Hall on February 27, and finally at the SM Cinema 1 on February 28 for the 2009 Nihongo Fiesta.

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While there were some uneasy shuffling during Ms. Fukuda’s set at the PIJAZZ Embassy performance (they were after all, expecting jazz), it nevertheless provided a calming intermission to the the energetic acts programmed that night.

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For her performance at the UP Abelardo Hall, Ms. Fukuda introduced a musical collaboration between koto and saxophone in a piece called “Haru no Umi”. Ms. Fukuda played the koto, while a UP Music student, Igie, played the sax.   

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All throughout her stay, Ms. Fukuda’s enthusiasm and passion for koto and traditional Japanese music always shone. That energy is enough to inspire and motivate the younger musicians , we hope. 

While Ms. Fukuda is now back in Japan, she still looks over the UP College of Music and recommended a koto artisan to repair its koto collection. Keen on promoting Japanese art and music and deepening exchanges with its partners, JFM will support the rehabilitation of the UP College of Music’s koto collection — hopefully allowing more generations of UP students to connect to Japanese culture and realize the importance of their own traditional musical traditions.

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