Born into a musical family, koto player Karin Nakagawa’s destiny seemed to be mapped out for her from birth — still, she put up a fight.
At 3 years old, her flautist father, Masami, and her composer mother, Izumi, started young Karin on the piano.
“I just did not like the piano as a child,” Nakagawa recalls. By the age of 12, she says she was “fully prepared to die if necessary” to quit her piano lessons. If the musical desire wasn’t there, at least a flair for the dramatic was.
Not wanting her to give up on music altogether, Nakagawa’s parents tried a different tack. They took her to koto master Soju Nosaka, the woman who took a traditional 13-string koto and used it to invent the 20-string koto in 1969, and when Nakagawa met her in 1991 she had just created the 25-string koto.
Instead of telling Nakagawa what to do with the instrument, Nosaka simply let her try it out. She then told her that there was no music for this new koto and asked her if she could create some.
“I was just puzzled by the suggestion at the time,” Nakagawa says, now realizing that “thanks to my parents and Master Nosaka, I was given the freedom to try out this strange instrument in my own way.”
It was quite the turning point. Nakagawa may have felt forced into the world of Western classical music, but she embraced the Japanese koto at her own pace. By the age of 14 she had started performing her own compositions on the 25-string koto at recitals.
Another turning point came in 2009, however, when Nakagawa left Japan for Europe. She had been concerned about the shrinking market for traditional music here, so she traveled on her own for two months and busked in the streets.
“Once I was invited to perform in a haunted house,” she says of her time abroad. “Another day, an office worker asked me to perform for him and gave me enough money for breakfast.”
While in Sweden, Nakagawa reunited with bassist Anders Jormin, whom she met through her parents in 2000.
“While Japanese musicians tend to be rigid and feel pressured to make music, Anders played it with a child-like joy,” Nakagawa says of her fellow artist.
Her reunion with Jormin led her to record with him and Swedish singer Lena Willemark, who performs regional folk music. Their album “Trees of Light” won a Grammis Award for best folk/traditional album for 2015.
Nakagawa is set to embark on a nationwide tour that she hopes will help earthquake victims from the Tohoku and Kyushu regions. The program will include her original suite, which is based on the “Kojiki,” an eighth-century collection of myths thought to be Japan’s earliest chronicle.
On tour she will collaborate with clarinet player Keiichi Hashizume and actress Jun Arai, as well as other classical musicians, including violinist Yoko Sugie in Osaka, violinist Tatsunobu Goto and contrabass player Rika Tokitsu in Fukuoka, and marimba player Mutsumi Tsuzaki in Kyoto.
The pairings are sure to please. Nakagawa describes the koto’s sound as “the muddy water of a rice paddy,” compared to something like the Western harp, which is like a “stream of clear water.”
“I believe the koto brings the traditional Japanese sensibility for silence (to a collaboration),” Nakagawa says. “Silence is an essential element of music, but waiting for the appropriate moment to play a note is just as important.”
Karin Nakagawa joins the lineup on the 5×5 Next charity concert tour at Yamanishi Welfare Memorial Hall in Kita-ku, Osaka, on May 26. From there the tour heads to Fukuoka (May 29), Shimane (May 31), Fukui (June 3), Kyoto (June 4), Nagano (June 8), Sendai (June 10), Ishinomaki, Miyagi Pref. (June 11) and Tokyo (June 15). Tickets cost ¥3,000, start times vary. For more details, call 090-2564-3198 or visit blog.livedoor.jp/lalala55next. Translation for this story by Chiho Iuchi.