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a musical interlude

March 12, 2004

Suzuki Melodion

On Friday evening, after the conference was over, I played my first proper public gig since coming to Japan. Actually, it was my second, but the first – a few months ago – was to a roomful of businessmen who were having a business-card swapping party on my island, which was a weird experience, and came about only because I was playing in my neighbour’s cafe a few days before and he – possibly slightly happy on booze – invited me to come and play at the card-swapping party, for which he was organising the entertainments.

Anyway, the occasion was a ball for the foreign English teachers of Okinawa. A few weeks ago I was staying with Leigh (see the previous entry) and his wife Anna in the big city, and she was trying to organise this ball. I’d been thinking about the possibility of putting on some sort of open-stage event, so I suggested that as the entertainment for the ball. Someone else organised the whole thing, though, so all I had to do was agree to come and be one of the performers. I just assumed that virtually everyone else who played would also be turning up with acoustic guitars, but I was pleasantly wrong. There were six performances, and they were about as varied as six performances could have been: a piece by Chopin, played on the grand piano, a Chinese pop song, accompanied by piano, a karate demonstration, a Hawaiian dance, and a Hawaiian song performed on the ukelele and accompanied by another Hawaiian dance (a surprising number of the other JET teachers in Okinawa are from Hawaii, because there was a lot of emigration from Okinawa to Hawaii following the second World War, and so now lots of young Hawaiians have relatives in Okinawa that they want to re-establish relations with). And me with an acoustic guitar.

As well as giving me a taste for performing again (darling), playing a couple of my songs made me realise how useful playing an instrument is when you live on a remote island, and so don’t know many people in the big city. If you turn up somewhere, and play a bit of music, it gives everybody in the room an excuse to come up and chat to you. Consequently, I finished the evening feeling I knew about seven times more people on mainland Okinawa than I had the day before.

Rather than rush back to the island, I spent Saturday wandering round the city, taking the opportunity to do things like sit in cafés, and buy a melodion (pictured, also known as a melodica), which is a kids’ keyboard instrument that sounds like an accordion, which you play by blowing into via a length of flexible tubing. Nice. I’ve wanted one for ages. In the evening, I headed up the mainland to a small town where a bloke I met the previous day was having a birthday party. It was in a little bar with bongos and djembes and various instruments lying around, and it turned into a big musical session, with everyone taking it in turns to hit things. I played guitar for a bit, and then I got out my melodion and played along on that for a while, too. Good god! It might be meant for children, but it’s loud enough to compete with an electric guitar!

Anyway, the bloke who owns the bar seemed very nice, spoke good English (having lived in London for two years), was clearly into live music, and was one of the best harmonica players I’ve ever met. So now I’m hoping that I might be able to get some sort of occasional open-stage night going there. I’m going back next month, so we’ll see what happens then…

I also found a nice bar in the city that has Guiness on tap. Slightly wrong-tasting Guiness, admittedly, but still probably the closest thing I’m going to get in this region of the planet.

Here‘s an interesting article in today’s Guardian by a man travelling round Kyoto, where I’m going in two weeks’ time. It’s particularly interesting because he’s the first person I’ve ever come across who enjoys the notorious Japanese denki furo (電気風呂), or electric bath.

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