Japanese “Soul” Meets American Jazz

In the fall of 2003 at a conference in North Carolina, Hank Knerr, director of public events for the College of Fine Arts and the Lively Arts at IUP, saw a taped performance by Japanese shamisen artist Masahiro Nitta. “It was a very different, exciting sound,” he said.

Nitta Oyako

The performing father-son duo of Nitta Oyako: Masahiro Nitta, left, and his father, Hiroshi Nitta

The shamisen is a traditional long-necked instrument without frets and with three strings, usually of waxed silk. It is played with a large, pick-like object called a bachi or plectrum. Although some think of it as a Japanese guitar, it more closely resembles the construction and sound of the banjo.

The basis for Nitta’s music, Tsugaru shamisen, conveys the heart and soul of the Japanese. Appropriate for festivals, street performances, and other events conducted in large, festive venues, Tsugaru shamisen is part of a long Japanese folk music tradition. Knerr has been instrumental in bringing scores of renowned performers to IUP. Given the Lively Arts’ mission of providing experiences in cultural diversity, he realized that Tsugaru shamisen should be heard here, too.

Knerr began to consider what the concert would sound like in Indiana and what form it should take. Through contacts within the regional cultural community, Knerr found that several other venues were interested in the young musican, and at least two were interested in a concert at their venues that would combine shamisen with an IUP ensemble.

With the help of the U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and through contacts Knerr had made on a previous trip to Japan, a delegation from IUP visited Japan last October. Led by Knerr and Dean of Fine Arts Michael Hood, it met with Masahiro Nitta and his father, Hiroshi Nitta, who together form the duo Nitta Oyako (“parent and child”). The contingent made arrangements to meet and rehearse with the musicians in Japan to prepare for a U.S. concert that would combine traditional shamisen repertoire with Western music and a special emphasis on Western-style jazz.

The IUP delegation

First row, left to right: Kohei Miki ’95, Jumpei Ishiguro ’98, Michael Kingan, Hiromi Sakai ’02, Shoei Kaneo M’03, Satoko Hasegawa ’03, Emily Jaros ’03. Second row, left to right: Noriko Ohata, Hirohide Shikata M’01, Ayano Takeuchi ’04, Yoshinobu Tsujimoto M’02, Noriko Date ’95, Chika Shirahama ’96, Kota Ohata D’04. Third row, left to right: Hijiri Yamada ’03, Hank Knerr, Kevin Eisensmith ’78, Yasuko Ono M’00, Michael Hood, Robert Stearns (Arts Midwest), Kyoko Yoshida (U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network), Minori Goto ’02, Hara Norimichi M’03

In the delegation were IUP faculty members Kevin Eisensmith, trumpet professor and Jazz Ensemble director, and Michael Kingan, percussion professor. College of Fine Arts technical director David Surtasky served as technical advisor for the project and tour, and Emily Jaros, a graduate student and assistant in the university’s Video Services area, was the project’s videographer.

Rehearsal and meeting space in Japan is limited and costly, Knerr said. To the rescue came the U.S. Army, inviting the musicians to Camp Zama, twenty-five minutes southwest of Tokyo. As the home of the U.S. Army Band in Japan, the installation afforded perfect practice facilities and even “loaned” some jazz musicians. Also assisting with space was the United States Embassy in Tokyo and the Tokyo American Center.

The IUP concert will be an outgrowth of the collaboration that flowered in Japan. It will involve a combination of Nitta Oyako’s regular repertoire plus original pieces and arrangements developed  by the father, the son, and several IUP music faculty members and students. Performers will include not only Nitta Oyako but an ensemble composed of twelve IUP faculty members and students who have been in rehearsal since September.

The College of Fine Arts sees this collaboration and concert as the next step in a full cultural and educational exchange with Japan involving music, theater, art, and dance. The first step was taken in 2003 when the Nibroll Art Director’s Collaborative of Tokyo joined Attack Theatre of Pittsburgh at IUP in No-to: Memory Fades, a contemporary dance work based on “emotional and cultural turbulence” shared by the two cultures. This was followed last April with the visit of Mizuto Abura, a theater movement troupe from Tokyo. Based on meetings Hood and Knerr had with U.S. Embassy representatives and others during their recent visit, they hope to take this spring’s combined concert on tour in Japan next spring.

A welcome sidelight of the trip for the IUP contingent was the chance to visit with IUP alumni.

Nitta Oyako and IUP will present the combined concert in IUP’s Fisher Auditorium, April 21, at 8 p.m. The combined concert will also be performed at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg on May 6, Other combined performances, with dates to be confirmed, are planned for in Butler and Erie. Nitta Oyako performances are slated for Philadelphia, Frostburg, Md., Lynchburg, Va., New York, Easton, Pa., and Minneapolis. For updates and more information, contact Knerr at hknerr@iup.edu or call 724-357-2547.