Last year on 10th March I attended a concert by Joji Hirota and the London Metropolitan Orchestra at St John’s Wood Church in London (read more about that here). It was absolutely incredible and, as you can imagine, I was thrilled when I heard Joji was back this year with another ‘Beyond the Requiem’ concert at the same venue.
Joji played once again with the London Metropolitan Orchestra and the London Taiko Drummers, and was this time joined by special guest Yoriko Sano from Iwate Prefecture, Abeya from Tokyo, and some children from the Chelsea Kodomo no Hiroba. The concert was to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and money raised will go to help the recovery in Tohoku. After last year’s concert, Joji toured Tohoku, playing a series of concerts in the affected areas, aiming to support Tohoku through music.
The programme consisted of 16 songs, performed by various combinations of orchestra, taiko drums, harp, shakuhachi flute, and singing. Opening with ‘Suisei Hanabi’ (‘Comet – Firework – Shooting star’) played by the London Taiko Drummers, I immediately felt energised. They played with such enthusiasm and huge smiles, and the sound was incredible. See that big drum in the photo above? That makes a hell of a sound when you factor in the acoustics of a church!
The next two pieces were beautiful, sad pieces played by Joji and the orchestra – ‘Profoundly’ and ‘Esashi Oiwake’. The programme for the concert included some information about the songs as well as brief translations of some of the lyrics. ‘Esashi Oiwake’ is a traditional folk song about Ezo, which historically sometimes referred to Hokkaido. No photos or videos were allowed during the performance, which I was actually quite glad about. It was nice just to sit back and enjoy the music, to look around, or to shut my eyes and feel the sound if I wanted to. However, I do want to share some of this beautiful music with you, so I’ve done a bit of digging on YouTube…
Here’s a recording of ’Esashi Oiwake’ by Joji Hirota and the London Metropolitan Orchestra:
The next piece was a medley of children’s songs, performed by children from the Chelsea Kodomo no Hiroba, which is a class that meets every Saturday in London to learn about Japanese language and culture. Students range from the ages of 3 to 15. The songs they performed were ‘Kono Michi’ (‘The Road’), ‘Akatombo’ (‘Red Dragonfly’) and Shikararete’ (‘Scolded’). They were ever-so cute!
The special guest performer was brought out next – Yoriko Sano from Iwate Prefecture. Yoriko has been singing Japanese folk songs (minyo) since the age of 3, has won various competitions, and has recorded numerous albums and toured internationally with the group Himekami. Yoriko is from Unosumai-cho, Kamaishi City, Iwate Prefecture. Her home town was devastated by the disaster two years ago, and she lost both of her parents, as well as her home. The first piece she performed was a solo folk song from the Tohoku region.
The rest of the first half of the concert continued with Joji playing shakuhachi and singing with the orchestra. They played ‘Miyagi Nagamochi Uta’ and ‘Nanbu Ushioi Uta’, and then the London Taiko Drummers came back on for a rousing rendition of ‘Akita Ondo’. ‘Akita Ondo’ is one of my favourite folk songs, and one of the most popular folk songs in Japan. It includes an amusing ‘rap’ in Akita dialect, which was translated in the programme as follows:
“Here, from now, I beg your pardon, but I will speak the useless phrases of the Ondo. I may offend you, but either way I will start rolling them out. Hey, the Akita specialty Sailfin Sandfish from Hachimori, the Sandfish roe from Oga. Noshiro Lacquer, Natto from Hiyama, rounded wood carved boxes from Odate. Hey, Akita girls, why are they so beautiful? It’s silly to ask why. Don’t you know this is the birthplace of Ono no Komachi? Hey, in Akita, we don’t use umbrellas, even if it rains. Just put up a large butterbur leaf and set off quickly. Hey’ whatever the situation, matters will not be solved unless we drink a cup of sake. The more you drink, the more your heart is opened and the dancing side of you will come out. hey, Akita has so many good traits and specialities, and is the number one prefecture in Tohiku. There are gold mine mountains, flowery parks in the forestland and beautiful girls dancing, entertaining.”
The sound on Joji’s vocals weren’t great for ‘Akita Ondo’, but I still loved it!
Part two began with a moving speech by Yoriko Sano, thanking everyone for coming and for supporting Tohoku. While she spoke about her loss, photos of her home town from before the disaster showed on a screen. It looked like a beautiful place… then the images changed to show streets filled with rubble and debris. As her voice broke and she struggled to speak, I too felt a lump in my throat.
The first piece of music in the second half was ‘Hiten Ryu’ (‘Flying Nymph and Dragon’), composed by Joji Hirota and performed by Joji and the London Taiko drummers.
Next up were two pieces by a brilliant group called Abeya. Abeya are a four-piece group, playing traditional folk songs using folk instruments such as the Tsugaru shamisen. This is the first time I’ve seen them perform, but I really hope they come to the UK again.
Here’s a video I found of Abeya on YouTube so you can get the idea of what they were like – they were even better than this though!
After Abeya, the orchestra and Joji came back on for a couple of numbers – ‘Shin Soma Bushi’, ‘Nanbu Kobiki Uta’, and ‘Esashi Oiwake Mae Uta’. The last of these, ‘Esashi Oiwake Mae Uta’ was particularly moving. Watching Joji sing, it’s like he’s channelling something, and the atmosphere of the church added a certain spirituality to the performance.
The second to last song of the night was my absolute favourite – an incredible version of a folk song I know well, ‘Kokiriko Bushi’, performed by Joji Hirota, the London Metropolitan Orchestra, Yoriko Sano and the London Taiko Drummers. It was just incredible! I wish I could share that exact performance with you, but the best I can do is a similar version I found on YouTube, which is by Joji Hirota with the Sendai Philharmonic String Ensemble & Friends.
Imagine that in a church, with dim lights, and wooden pews you can feel the drums reverberating through…
The final song of the night was an incredibly up-beat, fun folk song called ‘Harvest’, performed by Joji and the London Taiko Drummers. I left the church with the ‘don doko don doko don’ of taiko drums beating through my veins and pounding in my heart.
The concert was absolutely incredible, and I really hope this becomes a yearly tradition. I’ve heard that Joji will have a new CD out around May this year, so I’ll be looking out for that too. If you like taiko drums and Japanese folk songs, I highly recommend checking out the range of Joji’s music available on Amazon and iTunes.
I’ll leave you with a video from last year’s concert, featuring the Toramai from Iwate Prefecture:
This event was organised by the Committee for Delivering Messages from Overseas (Tohoku Pride), in association with the Embassy of Japan, the Japan Tourism Agency, and the Japan Society.