Here’s another addition to the Features Archive. Japanese singer Mio Matsuda is an interpreter of songs from many diverse places and musical traditions and has been especially active in Portugal, Cape Verde and Brazil. In 2014 she turned her attentions to her own roots in Japan with the production of an excellent CD and book Creole Japan. She was interviewed for this blog at that time but I first met Mio back in 2005 shortly after the release of her debut album. The article below was published the following year by UK magazine fRoots and another version also appeared in Kansai Time Out.
A Japanese fado singer? Yes indeed, says John Potter
She has already travelled Europe, appeared on Portuguese TV, performed on the islands of Cape Verde, and recorded in Rio de Janeiro. Now she has a debut album on the Victor label showcasing her own brand of fado and other styles. But this exciting young singer isn’t from any of these places. Despite singing in apparently flawless Portuguese, 26 year old Mio Matsuda is from Japan, where she lives in Kyoto. Late last year I met her for the first time when she played to a warmly appreciative audience at a packed concert hall in Osaka. More recently I renewed our acquaintance by phone as she prepared to travel again from Japan to Portugal and Brazil for two months of music making which includes recording for a second album.
Mio Matsuda bubbles with enthusiasm when speaking about her musical passion. In fluent English, with more than a hint of a Portuguese accent, she starts by explaining how the fado fascination came about: “I grew up in Akita in the north of Japan in a performing theatre commune. All the children lived and grew up together in the same place and we learned plays based on both Japanese and world folklore. My mother was an actress in the theatre and my father played viola in an orchestra. We were always moving about. When I was 18, at university, I met some Brazilian friends, and also began to learn Portuguese as well as English, Italian and Greek. Then I studied sociology in Vancouver so this helped my English too. As for music, everyone in Japan already knew about the Brazilians, but European music from Portugal was much less known especially at that time. One of my friends recommended me to listen to Amalia Rodrigues, so I bought a CD of hers.”
This was to be her Road to Damascus moment as Matsuda rapidly became hooked on the fado of Portugal. In 2001 she made her first trip to the country and returned in 2003 to stay for a year after winning a scholarship to study Portuguese. During her time there she took advantage of opportunities to visit the many casa do fado of Lisbon where the songs are performed. Soon she was up there performing as well and also singing in restaurants in old areas such as Alfama.
“I wanted to learn from the local people and I especially wanted to learn how they create the mood of fado. I was interested to be with them. They have a special way – like a ritual – of creating fado.” Being Japanese and singing fado might have created problems but her experiences were all positive. “I had no problems at all. They accepted me very well. They were interested in my singing, they loved me and they asked me to sing and even offered me dinner. In the beginning I didn’t understand what fado really was. All I had was a passion but I didn’t know how to express it. Language is very important but I didn’t speak Portuguese very well so I studied and gradually I could feel what the people were feeling. The last three months I was there they really accepted me. I also began to understand the meaning of saudade (the spirit of yearning at the heart of fado).”
“During my time in Lisbon I also made friends with people from Cape Verde.. I sang a song from their islands on Cape Verdean radio in Lisbon. After that a pianist wanted me to come and sing in Cape Verde so I went there for one month. I was surprised that when I went to the island of Santo Antao a restaurant owner there already knew me from the radio in Lisbon!” Having recently recorded a cover version (in Portuguese) of Kazufumi Miyazawa’s popular Okinawan-style song Shimauta, I wondered whether she thought there was any similarity between different island musics? “Yes, I think there is a special quality in island music. The idea of ‘fatalism’ is important to Cape Verdeans and I think this is also the case in Okinawa. Everything comes from the sea.”
This idea of the sea is pursued on her debut album Atlantica which is broadly based around the theme of the Atlantic Ocean. “I didn’t want my first album to be just a Japanese singer doing fado. I’m a traveller. So I wanted to make a CD which expressed the idea of travel and was not only fado but other kinds of music that I’d been involved with in Cape Verde and from Brazil too, all connected by the ocean. I wanted to mix things up and so I sometimes sing fado with all these different kinds of rhythms. I chose the songs partly because of their poetry but also the melodies. There are Brazilian musicians on the album and we made the recordings in Rio de Janeiro. Rogerio Souza, who co-produced with me and plays guitar on the album, helped me to understand other musical styles such as choro when I was planning the album.”
If the audience reaction in Osaka was anything to go by Japan may have produced a new world music star, but as almost everything was sung in Portuguese, except for the infectious Saiko which has Japanese lyrics written by her, I wondered how she felt about the different audiences? “It’s true there are different reactions from people in Japan and Portugal. The audiences in Portugal are very lively because they can understand the language. But I always explain the songs before singing them in Japan and the audiences have been very good here as well.”
“I am satisfied with Atlantica but the next one will be totally different. The stories and the songs and also the musicians may be different… I’m very positive about the future and I will do it little by little. I hope my songs can open people’s hearts.”
(fRoots Magazine, May 2006, No.275)