Friday, 11 March 2011
Today I don't wish to speak about fashion. I am usually silent on political events, wars and tragedy as I never feel that this is the place to speak of them, but today I wish to speak about Japan.
It is a little known fact that the biggest market for flamenco in the world is in Japan. Over ten years ago now a figure was quoted publicly, that in contrast to the six thousand people that earnt all or part their living from flamenco in Spain, there were over eighty thousand Japanese involved in some sense in flamenco either professionally or as a hobby.
Although I have never been to Japan, over the last decade I have been exposed time and time again to the people and their culture, curiously enough, through the mutual love we have of another culture's art form. In some sense flamenco is the ultimate emotional release for these quiet, disciplined, hard working and respectful people whose culture can at times work to repress their individuality. Through flamenco I have met so many Japanese men and women who have impressed me with the personal sacrifices they have made to come to Spain to follow their hearts and their passion. Today all their faces filed past my mind's eye wondering whether they and their loved ones are okay.
One of the best received shows at the flamenco festival I just attended in Jerez was the creation of a seventy plus year old flamenco dancer from Japan, Shoji Kojima and world renowned Spanish flamenco artists including Javier LaTorre. It was a production of Celestina with Kojima himself playing the part of the witch. I arrived in Jerez too late to see the show but heard rave review after rave review from the girlfriends who had attended.
Despite the interest from foreign cultures in flamenco being a major force in the survival of this art form today it is not easy to be a foreigner, particularly if you are Asian, trying to perform flamenco professionally anywhere in the world, let alone in Spain where one has to overcome the often racist preconceptions of the Spanish about who has the cultural right to be dancing flamenco. The inclusion of this production, which showcased several Japanese flamenco dancers from Kojima's company, in such an important flamenco festival in Spain is a testimony to how seriously the Japanese take flamenco as an art form, as well as an indication that the Spanish themselves have started to sit up and take notice.
On Sunday evening as a friend and I were rehearsing in a local studio there was a knock on the door and the land lady stepped in asking if someone could briefly interrupt our practice session to take a photo. Our jaws dropped as Kojima himself walked in with a beaming smile peeking from beneath a curtain of long straight black hair, resplendent in a long line jacket cut in plush dark velvet that reached his knees, slim black trousers and a black turtleneck. He was accompanied by a Jerez percussionist called Perico wielding a camera and who proceeded to take some photos of Kojima in the studio.
A little starstruck and aware we were meeting a truly grand figure and pioneer in the Japanese flamenco scene, we asked to have a photo taken with him to which he cheerfully obliged. He was extremely charming without any hint of the type of inflated ego that could easily come with being so talented and accomplished. He asked us where we were from, talked enthusiastically with us about the production of Celestina and even told us he had spent three years growing his hair for the role. By the end of our conversation we had been totally charmed by his energy and personality. At seventy plus I hope I will be as energetic and (by some miracle) still dancing too! As we warmly bade our farewells we felt we had made a new friend as he made us promise to email him the photos. He was due to fly back to Japan the next day.
Kojima is described as a devoted ambassador of flamenco in Japan. Later that evening I bumped into Perico in a local bar. Perico had played the percussion for Celestina and spoke to me very highly of Kojima as someone with a very special energy both as a person and an artist. He also told me that Kojima had come to Spain as a young man to learn flamenco, travelling for a month by boat and overland.
All day I have been following the horrific devastation in Japan by the earthquake and tsunami with a sense of disbelief, helplessness and horror. No amount of witchcraft can save you if you are in the path of such a brutal force of nature. It remains to be seen how many of my Japanese friends located in Spain, Australia and London will have families or loved ones that have been affected. Shoji Kojima, I hope that you are safe. My thoughts are with you and all the Japanese people.