Mio Matsuda is a remarkable singer from Japan. Shortly after she made her debut album Atlantica in 2005 I wrote about her for an article in the UK’s fRoots magazine (now on the Features page of The Power of Okinawa website) and we have kept in touch ever since. Known for her eclectic musical tastes, and equally at home singing in Japanese, Portuguese or Spanish, she has worked with many musicians from around Europe, South America and elsewhere and has gone on to make a number of successful albums.
Her latest project sees her returning to her roots as she sings many old Japanese songs that she collected while on her extensive travels both inside and outside Japan. The result is not just a CD but also a book which she has written about the songs and her journey to discover them. Creole Japan: a journey through the memories of songs is scheduled for release in December.
Mio found time recently to answer some of my questions about this intriguing work. The interview follows below.
(JP): The Creole Japan project has no Okinawan songs. Is there any special reason for this?
(MM): I have a deep respect and love for Okinawan music and culture, ever since I was at university. I have visited Okinawa at various times and learned a lot from artists like Tetsuhiro Daiku and Yasukatsu Oshima. In the first place, I respect Okinawa as a place with a different language and history, not as one of Japanese dialect or a region such as Meiji Japan wanted it to be. With so much respect and love for Okinawa, I didn’t include any Okinawan songs as I still have a long way to go till I learn the language and the soul of Uchinanchu, which is the essence of their folklore. The aim of this project is not to make a compilation of songs from all over the Japanese territory, it is on the contrary, to undo the image of Japan through the songs.
How did you get the idea for this very ambitious project?
I have always wanted to find a repertoire in Japanese while I have been singing a lot in other languages like Portuguese and Spanish. In December 2011, in my hometown in Akita, I found an archive of old folk songs sung by local people. Then I started to encounter these fascinating songs. As for my repertoire, I wanted to find songs of Japan that transcend the images of a closed archipelago. I could have taken some of the well-known minyo, but that wasn’t my idea. I found instead that it was more interesting to meet with rough songs sung by people in their daily work, since those work songs carry the real rhythm of the body, which is now lost a lot in Japan.
You must have done a lot of travelling both outside and inside Japan. How long did the whole thing take and which places outside Japan did you go to when looking for songs?
It’s been three years since I first had the idea of looking for songs, visiting different regions, interviewing people, arranging and recording the songs and finally writing the whole book. It is a book because I wanted to write all the stories behind the songs.
Was there anything in particular that surprised you or was very unexpected during the project?
A lot. I was surprised by the fact that a song itself carries lots of stories behind it. Like the Christian songs in Nagasaki, like a Micronesian song delivered to Ogasawara, like songs made by Japanese immigrants in Brazil… there are lots of stories we would never know without looking deeply into a single song.
Do you have a favourite song or songs that you discovered? (My own favourites are ‘Song of the Mountain’, and ‘Lemon Grass’ which I can’t stop humming to myself – in my head).
Oh how nice! I love these two too. In fact, I love them all, they are precious songs from the time when people were singing in their daily lives attached to nature. All the lyrics are peculiar and somehow connected to the places across the sea. In particular “The Tale of a Small Man” as it is a Christian song made in the Meiji era and I see it as a mixture of occidental and Japanese cosmology. It reminds me of William Butler Yeats’s fairy stories. It became more and more attractive as I discovered little by little the stories behind the song.
The title of the CD-book (and the whole project) suggests that Japan is not a mono-racial or mono-cultural place at all but has a lot of mixtures and variety. This might surprise some people who don’t realise how diverse it is. Would you agree and do you have anything to add about that?
Japan was certainly formed by people of various cultural and racial roots over a period of thousands of years. The diversity has survived in the regional culture. Lafcadio Hearn came to Japan with his mixed roots, animist soul and experiences in Creole regions of the world. That’s why he understood the essence of Japanese culture. This CD-book is in a way, in response to his vision that I admire.
You have made these songs come back to life and you sing them in such a beautiful and sympathetic way. Do you see this as a separate side project or do you intend doing more Japanese songs in the future. How about your Portuguese, Cape Verde, and South American work?
This project is unique in my singing career but the essence is the same. I always see a song as a story. So I had a very deep look into particular songs and searched for their origins. I had to make it a CD-book because the stories were so dramatic and precious and it was worthwhile to write about them. I hope to translate it into English someday. The songs are not only of Japan, they are also connected to the world where I have travelled…Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde, Hawaii, Micronesia and so on. They are places where the people who sang those songs have travelled both physically and spiritually.
A concert to mark the release of the CD-book will be held in Tokyo at Sonorium on 4th December. (www.sonorium.jp). In the meantime a fascinating glimpse into Mio Matsuda’s journey can be seen in this documentary video which is subtitled in English: