Japanese musician with rebetiko in his soul performs at Melbourne Rebetiko Music Festival


On the one hand, you have the Japanese work ethic, submission and thoroughness. On the other hand you have greek rebetika, music once despised and marginalized in the hashish lairs of the outcasts of the underworld. And then you have a peak stage where you expect to find top performance.

Marry the three and you get contrasts, broken stereotypes and an exquisite opportunity to enjoy Japanese Atsushi Tookaya performing Greek bouzouki at the Melbourne Center as part of the Rebetiko Music Festival on March 23.

What the festival wants to show is that rebetika are relevant, malleable, and much larger than the little tekes hidden in the lanes of Greek ports where music was first played – and it transcends time and distance and, thanks to technology, can even be found in the most unexpected places such as the metropolis of Tokyo people where Tookaya plays.

He first experienced the excitement of rebetika at the age of 23 as part of his research into traditional musical styles. Until then he liked hard rock and heavy metal and played guitar.

“I was very interested in the cultures of various countries around the world and listened to ethnic music,” Mr. Tookaya said. Neos Kosmos, adding that apart from music he also immersed himself in painting, religion and dance.

“I met rebetika during this process.

He was awakened by the sweet pain and harmony that music evokes, and began to explore the genre – listening to Markos Vamvakaris, Vassilis Tsitsanis, to Manolis Papos and Grigoris Vasilas.

He couldn’t get enough, studying and researching him as a bouzouki player and instrumentalist for over two decades.

Self-taught like the old rebetika masters, he fed the music and let it grow.

“I watch and study Youtube videos,” Mr. Tookaya said.

“In principle, I do not develop (on) the Greek styles of play, and I try to get as close as possible to the Greek style. I don’t want to destroy the Greek rebetika by insisting that I am Japanese.

But because rebetika comes from within, he can’t help but wear something of his musician between the notes as well. And in the communication process, he’s undoubtedly affected by when it’s played and the relationship Mr. Tookaya has with his audience.

“When the Japanese listen rebetika, they often say that it is similar to Enka (演 歌, a traditional Japanese style ballad).

Most Japanese have never heard of the genre.

“Rebetika is not the music they naturally hear in Japan,” he said, adding that those who know her are either culture seekers or fans of ethnic music.

“And the Japanese are a nationality that likes the gender division. Most Japanese only listen to popular TV music – and rock, jazz, Western classical music. Only a minority of Japanese like ethnic music, ”he said, adding that those who deviate from the norms would more likely listen to flamenco or be attracted to the sounds of tango.

“Almost no one is listening rebetika!” he said.

By playing his bouzouki, listening to rebetika and learning from one Youtube video to another, he knows he is alone – perhaps the only Japanese to express himself with rebetika in Japan. And this is quite appropriate, considering the fact that rebetika was an expression for the lonely, the excluded, the disenfranchised, the minority.

He calls himself a “rare man” who realizes the depth of music, but feels that he does not understand it as deeply as a Greek.

“Only the Greeks understand the history (context),” he said.

“But I play with my soul.”

And that’s rebetika!


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