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One of a kind

Eriko Mukoyama broke new ground as she became the world's first female nyatiti player

by Eriko Arita

A young Japanese woman in colorful African clothes appeared on the stage at a small club in Tokyo’s central Roppongi district on April 25. She sat down on a low chair in front of an eight-stringed wooden instrument.

“Good evening, everyone. I am Anyango!” she announced. “Anyango” means “girl born in the morning” in Dholuo, the language of the Luo tribe who live beside Lake Victoria in Kenya. Anyango is also the stage name of Eriko Mukoyama, a musician who plays the nyatiti, a traditional Luo instrument.

Before the audience could finish applauding, Mukoyama started to pluck the strings at a quick tempo while creating a rhythm with the iron bells attached to her right ankle and an iron ring on her right toe.

“Anyango kamadonje weche ng’eny / Weche ng’eny weche ng’eny,” she sang in a clear and powerful voice, accompanied by a chorus of three Japanese singers dancing to the cheerful music.

The performance was full of energy and excitement and soon had the audience swinging and grooving.

“The title of the song means ‘A lot of problems,’ ” Mukoyama said with a laugh.

The song is one of 13 tunes on her first album, titled “Nyatiti Diva,” released in September 2009. All the tracks are traditional songs of the Luo arranged by Mukoyama.

Because the harp-like instrument has traditionally been played only by men in the tribe, Mukoyama is the first female nyatiti player in the world.

But why, and how, did this 29-year-old Japanese woman become a professional player of a traditional Kenyan instrument forbidden for women?

Born in Tokyo, the only daughter of an elementary school teacher, Mukoyama has loved music since childhood. When she was a high school student, she formed an amateur rock band in which she was the vocalist. Then, in her third year of university in Tokyo, she decided to go to New York to learn music. But the day she left Tokyo was Sept. 11, 2001.

“My flight couldn’t reach New York, so I came back to Japan,” Mukoyama said. She eventually made it to New York, in March 2003, but the U.S. launched its attack on Iraq soon after, and Mukoyama returned home in line with a Japanese government advisory.

Then a friend invited her to see a concert of traditional Kenyan music by a Japanese band in Tokyo, and what she heard changed her life.

“I was overwhelmed by the surge of drum beats,” Mukoyama said, noting that she joined the band she’d gone to see on that very day.

She went on to immerse herself in Kenyan rhythms and learn songs in the languages of Kenyan tribes. One year later Mukoyama and other band members went to Kenya to study the music. Staying in Nairobi, Mukoyama listened to a wide range of traditional Kenyan music at live concerts. She also went to a village of the Giryama tribe, near the Indian Ocean, to learn to play drums.

But while other members of the band stayed on in Kenya to master the music, Mukoyama returned to Japan. However, she felt sure she would soon be going back to Kenya.

“I believed that I needed to learn something there that would be important for my life,” Mukoyama said.

After a second visit in August 2004, Mukoyama decided to return to the East African country and stay for several months to learn to play the nyatiti.

“Because I was a singer, I wanted to sing at the same time as playing an instrument,” Mukoyama said, explaining why she chose the nyatiti.

But things were not easy. When she contacted her band leader in Kenya and told him she wanted to learn the nyatiti, he said, “It suits your talents, but that instrument is played only by men.”

The band leader consulted a professional nyatiti player in Nairobi. But when the band leader told him that Mukoyama was a woman, he too was hesitant.

However, Mukoyama was firm in her decision and went to Kenya in March 2005. In Nairobi, she met the player and persuaded him to teach her. Finally he agreed — and also gave her the Luo name Anyango.

After Mukoyama spent two weeks learning nyatiti from the instructor, though, she was anything but satisfied.

“I went to his lessons in the city and practiced nyatiti every day, but the lifestyle was like that of Japan. I wanted to learn about the real African culture in a community,” Mukoyama said.

So when she asked her instructor to introduce her to his teacher, who lived in a Luo community, he took her to the village of Karapul near Lake Victoria. When she arrived there, she experienced severe culture shock, Mukoyama said.

“The village looked like an ancient community,” she said. The houses, with their thatch roofs and walls made of cow dung, were spread out from each other almost hidden in high grass. In one of them lived the nyatiti master, Okumu Orengo, whom Mukoyama asked to teach her.

“At the time, he couldn’t understand why I, a woman from a foreign country, wanted to learn nyatiti,” Mukoyama said, explaining that in Africa most instruments are played only by men, with the women dancing to the music.

Although Orengo initially refused, Mukoyama didn’t give up and kept on visiting him for a week from a village four hours away on foot and by bicycle.

“Finally, he said, ‘If you want to learn Luo culture, you can live in my house,’ ” Mukoyama said. “But he noted, ‘I won’t teach you nyatiti until I’m satisfied you are a person with the right mind to play it.’ “

With that, Mukoyama moved into Orengo’s small house with no electricity and followed the Orengo family’s daily lifestyle. That involved getting up at sunrise, walking one hour to fetch water from a spring and then gathering firewood — as well as helping Orengo’s wife to cook meals and harvest corn. Finally, after three months, Orengo agreed to teach her the nyatiti.

“When the master taught, he never played nyatiti slowly and only played a pattern at normal speed once. So I really had to concentrate on the tune and imitate his playing,” Mukoyama said.

One song she mastered was “Nabede nade gijo pinje.” (“How Can We Live with the People in the World”). It includes the line: “Na bede nade gijo pinje / Mang’ato kang’ato — duaro wende” (“How can we live with the people in the world? Everyone wants their own song”).

“In this tune, the word ‘song’ may also mean ‘dream’ or ‘home,’ ” Mukoyama said. “Like that song, many tunes of the Luo have a universal and instructive message.”

After almost five months of training and living in her master’s house, the final hurdle Mukoyama had to clear was to play in front of 200 villagers, including Orengo, so that they could certify her as a bona fide player of nyatiti.

“I played six tunes and sang the songs,” Mukoyama said. “The people were very excited as a result, and finally everyone danced to my music.”

After she had gained the certification, Orengo said to her: “Anyango, from now on, it is not just fun. You are the first female nyatiti player in the world. Go to every part of the world where I cannot go and play the instrument.”

Back in Japan, Mukoyama staged her first nyatiti concert as Anyango in March 2006. Soon afterward, she put together her backing chorus and dance group named Nyatiti Warembo (warembo means “beautiful women” in Swahili), and released her first CD in September.

When Mukoyama took the CD to Kenya in January 2007 and gave it to a radio station in Nairobi, her songs soon hit the airwaves — and an “Anyango boom” was born.

“I heard that many Kenyan people said, ‘No! The person singing and playing cannot be a Japanese woman,” Mukoyama said, adding that TV stations then screened her playing and singing to prove she was the actual performer. A few weeks later, Mukoyama played and sang in front of an audience of 50,000 Kenyans in Homa Bay, a city near Lake Victoria, in a concert held by the United Nations to promote AIDS education.

“When I was learning nyatiti, only several Luo elders could play the instrument, and they were afraid that nobody would be able to play it in future,” Mukoyama said. “But many Kenyan people who heard my music told me that they realized the nyatiti is a great aspect of their culture that should be maintained.”

In Japan, Mukoyama has performed across the country and appeared on TV and radio. Because of her contribution to the promotion of Kenyan music, she was appointed as Kenya’s goodwill ambassador to Japan by the Kenya Tourist Board in February 2007 — and was chosen as one of “the 100 Japanese most respected by the world” by the Japanese version of the weekly magazine Newsweek in July 2009.

On May 30, Mukoyama will release her second album, titled “Horizon,” which includes some of her own compositions.

The musician’s endeavors to expand her musical and cultural horizon continue, with Mukoyama saying she hopes to perform not only in Japan and Kenya but also in other countries in the near future in order to spread the great tradition of African music she has learned.