Happy to announce that I’m performing at a really fun event on 9/10 December 2017 – The Great British Weekend, a celebration of all things British featuring British music, sport, travel, fashion, food and drink.
I’ll be doing a harp and voice performance of British music featuring covers of folk, pop and Christmas songs.
I was super excited to hear that indie band The Watanabes will also be playing. Founded by two lads from Norfolk, The Watanabes are a Tokyo based indie band with members from the UK and Japan. They take their name from the main character of the novel Norweigan Wood by Haruki Murakami, which is also the title of a Beatles song. I think this fusing of British and Japanese references is pretty neat on their part.
To be honest, I was never too fussed about the Beatles but I loved the Murakami novel and that made me come to appreciate the song. From there I slowly started to get into more of their music. So to honor British Japanese relations, I thought I would cover Norwegian Wood.
When you’re doing a British event in Tokyo, it’s pretty much compulsory to play the song which is both a Beatles classic and a world famous Japanese novel.
“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.
As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.
Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.
On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).
So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.
So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.
First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in 4 layers of bubble wrap…
Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.
Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.
The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.
It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.
So until now, this blog has been all Tokyo and not much harp.
I suppose that isn’t surprising – I arrived in Tokyo overwhelmed by everything and skint to boot. My first couple of months were spent soaking it all in, as well as making enough money to stay afloat. Once I surfaced from ‘survival mode,’ I could start to think about a vital part of my identity – my musical one.
We haven’t always been easy bedfellows, but for better or for worse the harp is an integral part of my personality. If I don’t play for a while, I feel lost. After looking into hiring a harp I discovered that the Japanese rental market is pretty unforgiving and began to look into second hand celtic harps. I found my new baby in Yahoo auctions of all places. He’s a beautiful second-hand Aoyama lever harp and I got him for far less than he’s worth (and less than it would cost to rent his peer for a year) thanks to the guy not knowing what he was selling. He was out of practice when I brought him home but that’s ok – so am I. Regular tuning, playing and general TLC has improved his tone and tuning, as well as my mental well-being. It felt so good to be able to be play again after so long without a harp.
It’s no secret that I am hugely insecure about my harp playing ability. I know I’m not amazing, and thanks to some bad experiences and an anxious personality sometimes I’ve been tempted to quit all together as I feel I’ll never be able to play the way I want to. Because of this, in a way, the pain of separation between me and the harp world was a good thing. Knowing that it hurt not to be able to play confirmed to me that I am a harpist, even if I don’t play ‘good music,’ even if I have double jointed fingers and muscle tension that cripples my technique, even if I lack the self-discipline to practice properly, even though I started playing ‘too late to ever really be any good.’ The most important thing is that when I play I feel like me. Perhaps it took an enforced break to make me realise that.
For my first cover in Japan and my first online upload ever on a lever harp (excluding my covers on my purple harpsicle), I chose Yumi Arai’s Hikoukigumo, ‘vapour trail,’ the theme song for my favourite Hayao Miyazaki film The Wind Rises. It was originally written by Arai decades earlier as a requiem for a deceased childhood friend. The lyrics to Hikoukigumo are a masterpiece of Japanese vagueness and English is just too much of a blunt instrument to do them justice, although my boyfriend had a good try at a translation. Though the song title is often translated as ‘vapour trails,’ Hikoukigumo literally means ‘airplane clouds,’ and the text gently compares our lives to the ephemeral clouds produces by airplanes. The tension between the imaginative, artistic potential of airplanes and their huge destructive potential is central to the The Wind Rises, which focuses on the life of World War Two aeronautical engineer Jiro Hirikoshi. This is what makes Hikoukigumo a perfect soundtrack for the film, as well as its romantic, meditative sound which I tried to capture in my cover.
I found the juxtaposition of Jiro’s life – an unworldly boy who dreams of flying planes and designs them with the care and love of a master painter, but his beloved creations turn into the killing machines of World War Two – extremely compelling and I fell in love with the song and the film. I have been playing around with it for months and actually performed it live at London Anime Con in July but I chickened out and got Arthur Rei to accompany me on the guitar because playing harp and singing in Japanese was too much at the time. I’m very happy for it to be my first upload of my Japanese life. I’ve been dabbling in mindfulness and Japanese thought since arriving here and so letting go of my attachments to the self, as if my life is a hikoukigumo, resonates with me.
I have several ideas for covers in the pipeline as well as an original release, and I’m hopefully doing a gig in a cafe in Harajuku in the next couple of weeks. But mostly importantly, I’m practicing regularly and enjoying it. Still the same amount of Tokyo, but with more harp. We’ll see what happens.
In the mean time,
“Le vent se lève! . . . Il faut tenter de vivre!”