Tag ‘Distinguished Member’
Motofumi Yamaguchi: An Interview by Johnny Wales
Composer, arranger, fue (bamboo flute), koto (Japanese harp), shamisen (Japanese banjo-like stringed instrument), kokyu (Japanese violin), flute, cello and piano player Motofumi Yamaguchi was born in 1954 in Ibaraki Prefecture, just up the coast from Tokyo. His family moved to the big city when he was five years old. At high school and university (The Musashino Academy of Music) he studied Western classical music, composition, piano, cello and flute.
In those days classical Japanese music was not generally held in very high regard among fellow students, and even some of the staff. It was seen as not quite as real as music from say, Germany or Italy. Motofumi began to feel this was very strange. Why shouldn’t Japanese have greater respect for their native culture? So he began seeking out performances of Noh and Kabuki, shamisen, koto and even Buddhist shomyo chanting. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that they felt very comfortable to him. He began to sense that he would be able to express himself more naturally in Japanese genres than Western. And so, at the age of 18, he began to study under shamisen (jiuta style) and koto teachers living nearby. He was surprised at how quickly he progressed and began to think that he had discovered a better, more natural direction for his career.
He was also beginning to tire of the big city and to dream of a life making music in the country. One day, while listening to his car radio, he heard vocalist and composer Ryudo Uzaki talking enthusiastically about his wonderful experience making music on Sado Island with a taiko group called Sado no Kuni Ondekoza. He talked about how amazing not only the taiko, but the koto and shamisen sounded too. Motofumi was fascinated and so went out and bought the two available Ondekoza records. They changed his life. As koto and shamisen were two of his instruments, he thought the group might have some use for him. He had heard about Ondekoza’s strict physical regimen and so decided to buy a bicycle. He would combine getting into shape with a 3-month holiday touring Japan. He quit his part-time job, drained his bank account and hit the road.
It was mid-November 1980 when he arrived unannounced at the group’s old wooden school house overlooking Mano Bay. After being reprimanded for not calling ahead, he was invited in and spent 3 days running at the crack of dawn, helping with cooking and cleaning and watching the group train. He returned to Tokyo with the understanding that he would move to Sado in January. Those were the days when there were no interviews, tests nor an apprentice system to join the group. If you showed up, demonstrated enough dedication and persistence, chances are you were in. Motofumi says with a chuckle that he (and quite a few other senior members) probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the place under the current way of doing things!
This was just the time that Ondekoza was splitting off from the group’s founder Mr. Tagayasu Den, so things were in a great state of flux. Back in Tokyo, Motofumi met with Mr. Den and helped around the office for a week. Mr. Den suggested he learn the fue, and rather strangely, that he grow his beard. Motofumi followed his advice on the former matter and after arriving on Sado in the New Year he spent the next six months at the school house while the group toured, teaching himself the Japanese flute. It wasn’t long before he was touring with the group, something he carried on doing – including long stints as Musical Director – for the next 35 years.