I think that you can convey a fact by words, but you can not convey the truth only with those words,” says Misia, taking a break from recording sessions in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. “And I believe music is what can fill it out.”
The dreadlocked soul-singer has recently embarked on two trips that have affected her outlook on life, as well as the message of her songs. A live tour last year saw her perform around some of Asia’s other metropolises: Taipei, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong. But it was her trips to some of Africa’s most deprived hot spots that left a lasting impression.
Misia, who has seen all eight of her gospel-influenced pop albums hit the top three since her 2.5 million-selling 1998 debut, inspired the creation of the Child Africa organization after getting involved in various fundraising activities in 2002. Aimed at supporting education and creating sustainable societies, Misia has visited Kenya, Malawi and Mali to raise awareness and offer support.
“Music is valued with great traditions in Mali,” she explains. “There are people called ‘Griots’ (poets and praise singers) who play music passed down over generations. I saw musicians go to schools and sing for the children, and when a girl started singing, tears were gushing from my eyes. I was touched by the lyrics. They were singing to all men, women and children: ‘Let’s work together,’ ‘We are going to create happiness for this country,’ and ‘We shouldn’t wait for our happiness to come from other countries because it is very sad if we lose our own souls.’ “
Through exhibitions in Japan, benefit concerts, donations and the help of educational specialists and advisers, Child Africa has not only been able to bring attention to the problems facing the youth of many African countries, but also to have a real, direct effect.
“We aim to go forward together with them, with the project that they want, without breaking their culture or spirit,” Misia explains. “In Kenya, I visited a primary school where the mothers were taking vocational courses upstairs, making bags and accessories. We decided to sell those things as my own tour goods. We could then assure the jobs of the mothers and use some of the profit to pay for the operation of the schools. Then when I revisited the school, it had been enlarged, and the number of students had increased.
“Some children stay the night at school because they are homeless, which made me feel a sense of achievement.”
The importance of education is key to Misia’s ambitions in Africa, and supporting UNICEF’s “Child Friendly Schools” scheme is vital to that. “If I’m asked which is more important, health care or education, I’d say education, but I think we need to provide an appropriate environment and safe water for that education.”
“Child Friendly School is a way of thinking rather than a project,” Child Africa program director Miki Nagashima explains.
Misia continues: “It is different in every school. In some villages, the education system has collapsed due to the uncontrolled surge of modernization. They used to gather around a bonfire at night and tell stories to children and teach them how to survive. But globalization came to these villages and they lost that chance. I think it is very important to have a place to communicate and teach each other.
“I think our main goal is to end the use of words such as ‘aid,’ ‘help’ or ‘support’ when talking about Africans,” adds Misia. “I might be speaking rather abstractly, but the main goal is that we all live meaningful lives together.”
The lessons learned from touring Asia have also had a profound effect on Misia. Speaking of her first concert tour around the continent, she picked up on differences in crowds, which highlighted the different cultural responses to music.
“In Japan, it is like people are melting into one group in their excitement, but in other parts of Asia, it was like there are a lot of different groups that finally unite as one big whirlpool.
“I started singing a ballad in Singapore, and young couples started to kiss. I often see Japanese couples hand-in-hand, but it is rare to see them showing they love each other in front of others.”
Misia’s next tour will be acoustic only, scaling back from her usual large arena shows to 40 smaller concert halls, nearly 20 of which she has never visited before.
“I’ve learned the importance of delivering my songs directly, so I want to take them to all parts of Japan,” she explains.
Misia’s latest single, “Ginga” (“Starry Sky”), bears all the hallmarks of her recent life experiences, as well as her personal background. Growing up in Tsushima, a group of islands in the Korea Strait, to a family of doctors, she reveals: “One of my staff once told me that my family heal the physical wounds of people, but I am working to heal people’s hearts. When I was told that, I was very touched.”
“(‘Ginga’) is related to my recent experiences, but the most inspiring thing for me was meeting my grandfather. It might be the last time I see him. I told him that I would never be able to thank him enough. I thanked him for taking me out for a walk when I was a child, for teaching me how to fold origami and make shadow pictures, and for telling me stories. I couldn’t stop saying thank you.”
Before returning to the studio, Misia declares: “Music is a message, and I always put what I want to share into my songs.”
Misia’s latest single “Ginga/ Istumademo,” and DVD “The Tour of Misia Discotheque Asia” are out now. More information on Child Africa is at child-africa.org