FEATURES Chiyomi Yamada Sings the Songs of Her Land By James Gui · March 06, 2024

In the middle of the 19th century, under the threat of colonization from Western powers, the Japanese state looked to strengthen itself by following Western modernization trends in technology, economy, and culture. Music was a key factor. During the Meiji period, American music educator Luther Whiting Mason was recruited by the Japanese Ministry of Education to introduce Western classical music to the Japanese grade school curriculum; he would go on to create textbooks, import Western instruments and, alongside his student Isawa Shūji, lay the foundation for Tokyo University of the Arts. Concurrently, gagaku court music and regional folk songs became relatively marginal presences in the country’s musical education system.

After decades of singing Western classical and early music, Japanese soprano Chiyomi Yamada moved back to Japan from Europe in 2002 in search of her roots. “I had been singing European early music for long,” she says over a video call from her home on the rural outskirts of Kumamoto. “I was always [wondering] why I didn’t know any Japanese music.” Her work since returning has focused on tracing the intertwined musical histories of Japan and Europe, influenced by the maritime routes that brought cultural exchange between the regions.

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Yamada developed a passion for European early music through her Japanese music education, eventually moving to the Netherlands to study at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague under Marius van Altena and Dr. Rebecca Stewart, PhD. Upon returning to Japan, however, she realized that Japanese music had surprising parallels with the traditions she’d been steeped in while performing in Europe. While learning shamisen and Noh theater, she noticed that the modal rather than tonal nature of Renaissance and Medieval music was similar to that of the Japanese traditions she was searching for. “The Noh singing [method] is, I found, exactly the same as [that of] European old chants,” she says. “In that sense, Japanese music and European music can come together.” That epiphany unlocked a sense of possibility for Yamada.

But while acts like the Minyo Crusaders have been fusing Japanese folk songs with various worldwide traditions, a model for how Yamada could integrate her European early music training with Japanese melodies and instrumentation didn’t exist. “It was really creating something out of the void, aesthetically,” says German producer Jonas Niederstadt, who has been working with Yamada since her 2011 album Kurofune, describes Songs of My Land as “an open source research project.”

On Songs of My Land, Yamada uses Japanese folk tunes from an old songbook as the basis for new renditions that use elements from both Japanese and European folk music traditions. The result is an ethereal combination of Celtic-inflected arrangements by folk duo Baobab (Mirai and Maika Matsumoto, who are also Yamada’s nephew and niece respectively), Yamada’s powerful-yet-smooth melisma, and Niederstadt’s clean, classical-minded production touch. At times, the Japanese elements stand out—the shinobue flute solo by Tsuyoshi Maeda that opens “Akita Obako,” the pentatonic melodies that crop up variously throughout amidst ritualistic suzu bells. These elements deftly weave themselves into folk-pop song structures, yielding a sound unique to Yamada’s own musical path.

Yamada’s daughter, Miki Satoh, who designed the CD booklet and translated the liner notes, adds that the “project was also about really remembering these old folk songs, their tales and words…and all these messages that are still relevant today, to really bring them back to life.”

Niederstadt, who produces and records mostly Western classical music, recalls the unique challenges posed by recording a pop-oriented album. “In classical music we always do live recordings, no overdubs, everybody just plays in one room,” he says. On the other hand, with a pop album like Songs of My Land, the process is meticulous, with each track recorded individually and stitched together after the fact.

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Tsuyoshi Maeda’s taiko percussion required an especially creative approach. “We tried to record the taiko drums in an old historical house in the countryside, like a Japanese-style house. It’s actually quite fine as a studio because [it’s] made of wood and paper and there’s no resonances,” says Niederstadt. “But we brought the taiko drums in and the guy started playing, and the whole house would just shake. We were running around taping the whole house for an hour…but it was no different. In the end we just brought the whole setup out in the forest, and we recorded the taiko drums in the forest between the trees outside. [Tsuyoshi] was super happy with the taiko sound; he said it’s the best taiko sound he’s heard in his life!”

Tracks like “Yasugi-bushi” and “Sangai-bushi” combine the taiko’s weighty sound with Yamada’s unique approach to Japanese melody, less nasally than typical minyo singers but also not quite adhering to classical conventions either. In the case of medieval and Renaissance music, Yamada’s training in various tunings outside of equal temperament primed her for the alternative tunings in the Japanese tradition. “I never divide, I never change the way I sing from when I’m singing European or Japanese music. [It’s the] same approach,” she says. “I’m happy, because my experience can combine with my culture, finally.”

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