Paradise Pulse
 
The Japanese Girl And Her Steelpan
  Vedesh Nath
FEATURES
February 2016

There is this old Japanese folktale that tells the story of two frogs who lived at the opposite ends of Japan and who wanted to see what was beyond their home towns. The two frogs decided one day to leave their homes and explore the world beyond their imaginations. They hopped across the country – passing each other along their journeys on the mountain tops - and when arriving at the opposite ends of Japan, they would realize that it was all very similar – it looked just like their home. They thought that all of the world was the same and the two frogs held on to this belief until they died.

 

I am here to tell you another story today – about a beautiful Japanese girl who travelled half-way across the world with her steel drum and found a place very similar to her home – just like these two frogs.

 

Her name: Asami Nagakiya.

 

Born with musicality entrenched in her heartbeat, Asami treasured her culture back in Japan and the traditional instruments she studied to play at Senzoku Gakuen College of Music, but her love for the Trinidad-born instrument steelpan would triumph over all others.

 

Steelpan’s exportation to Japan could be traced back to as far as 1992 when the late icon Jit Samaroo travelled to the Republic with his band Samaroo Jets, winning the hearts of a new audience and a whole new world. In 1995, in the town of Fukuno, Samaroo and his band was invited to be part of theSukiyaki Meet the World ’95 programme where they performed some of their most-celebrated and treasured compositions for a live audience. This festival in Fukuno also commemorated the start of a steelpan playing course in Japan.

The celebration and study of the steelpan continued in Japan in the years to come after this, attracting many performers – including a rhythmic Asami.

In 2012, Asami would land in Trinidad for the first time along with some of her pan-loving comrades from Japan.  Their mission would be to play in the Panorama finals. Some played with Phase II, others with Starlift and Desperadoes, but Asami’s heart led her to the two-time winning Panorama champs- PCS Nitrogen Silver Stars Steel Orchestra.

Asami with fellow pannists from Silver Stars

Silver Stars’ passion and esteemed-range of playing steelpan was perhaps what attracted Asami to the band. The band was founded by former students of St. Mary’s College and captained then by the late Junior Pouchet, and later by his younger brother – the late Edwin Pouchet. The band is now being led by Christine Pouchet and Edwin’s daughter, Chanel Pouchet, who also serves as Captain to the pannists.

Asami would find comfort in this band and would return every year, after her first visit, to open arms at Silver Stars - fluttering from green pheasant to humming bird and back again, until both became embedded as part of her plethoric self forever.

Photomontage with Asami at different events from Carnival 2016

Asami would be more than happy to be in Trinidad and celebrate her love for steelpan along with her local counterparts. Every time she landed at the airport, she would rush to Silver Stars camp in Port of Spain, excited to hear the composition she would be playing that year. In no time, she would find herself behind her Tenor Pan in the pan yard and gracefully with her pan sticks – learning the rhythm innately, as if it was part of her already. There was no greater feeling for Asami than to play at the finals of the Panorama competition under the starry sky of the Queen’s Park Savannah. The aficionada would also take her love for pan to the streets for J’ouvert. Drenched in the early morning dew – in the darkness of the street, while being smudged in paint and mud - Asami would get lost in the notes of her steelpan, the rhythm echoing with poetry across the festive island.

When Asami wasn’t practising her notes assiduously, more for self-gratification than for the competition, she would take time to indulge in the unique cuisine that Trinidad offers. Though not a fan of pepper, she would find herself feasting on chow her friends at Silver Stars made between rehearsals and questioning every ingredient so she could get it right when she was back in Japan and longing to be in Trinidad. She would take notes of the chadon beni, the garlic, the black pepper – even the angles in which the fruit was – every last intricacy. Whilst in Trinidad prepping for the steelpan competition, her mouth would also water for the infamous Bake and Shark found at Maracas Beach – physiognomies found in every steelpan lover and every Trinbagonian alike.

Asami with fellow Silver Stars Pannist, Marcus Ash

Year after year, with each visit, Asami would find herself soaking up a little bit more of Trinidad and the Carnival culture. She would find herself going on boat cruises and taking long drives to the beaches – all while humming the latest soca or calypso song.

When Carnival was over and she left, everyone who came across this Japanese girl who loved playing the steelpan, would miss her immensely. They would all reminisce about her signature smile and couldn’t wait to be greeted by it next Carnival. She was always happy and never had a sad day while she was in Trinidad – a journey many of us long for but which was achieved by Asami. Throughout the year, while waiting for her return, her local counterparts would remember her zealous steelpan playing skills and the way she danced while she played. It was as if, each time she went behind the steelpan, she would put on a little show – ultimately owning the room. They all knew that knowing Asami was the experience of a lifetime and could not wait for her return the next year.

While away in Japan, Asami would miss her second home in Trinidad. She would surround herself with fragments of Trinidad as a way to remind herself of her second home and the culture she loved. She would play both Tenor and Double Seconds Pan in her band back in Japan - Panorama Steel Orchestra – named after her most fancied celebration.  In 2015, in the first ever steelpan competition to be held in Japan, Asami and her band would beat the Silver Stars at their own game – placing 9th in the competition whilst Silver Stars placed 11th – a stunning accomplishment, leaving Asami and her band to brag to the Silver Stars.

Asami continued to play steelpan back in her native land and also taught the history of the instrument to young enthusiasts like herself. She would also contribute to the growth and exportation of steelpan in Japan by bringing participants to part-take in Panorama with her for Carnival. She successfully spread the name of Trinidad and Tobago back in Japan and the sentience of steelpan.

Though Carnival 2016 was an abrupt one, we all stand in the empty panyard in Port of Spain, waiting for Asami’s wide smile and vibrant rhythm to fill the yard once again.

Farewell Asami. You may be gone but your legacy will live on forever.

 

Paradise Pulse wishes to thank Mr. Marcus Ash from the PCS Nitrogen Silver Stars Steel Orchestra for taking the time to be interviewed. This feature would not have been possible without his participation and contribution.

By: Vedesh Nath | FEATURES | February 2016


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