The sound of music in Fukushima

The sound of music in Fukushima

Big-hearted Tokyo jazzmen help lift the spirits of evacuees

Fukushima jazzHot Club of Osawa with Tomo (guitar) and Ryu (percussion) at Paruse Hall, Iizaka, Fukushima on May 21.Musician and translator Alan Gleason has just returned from a gig in what might seem the unlikeliest of places: an evacuation center sheltering hundreds of people displaced from their homes by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

The long-time Tokyo resident and upright bassist plays in Hot Club of Osawa, a Mitaka-based group specializing in traditional "gypsy swing" jazz, which includes Chris Hoskins on violin, Matt Gillan on guitar, and Bill Harshbarger, also on guitar.

CNNGo: What gave you the idea to do this?

Alan Gleason: A month after the March 11 earthquake we played a gig at a café in my neighborhood in Suginami, on the west side of Tokyo.

Afterwards, a lady came up and introduced herself as Midori Watanabe, a liaison between Suginami and the city of Minami-Soma, Fukushima, which is inside the nuclear no-go zone and just north of the crippled Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant.

Suginami and Minami-Soma have a sister-city relationship, it turns out. A large number of Minami-Soma's citizens are staying in the spa resort town of Iizaka, just outside Fukushima city, 60 kilometers northwest of the nuke plant.

CNNGo: Resorts? Presumably not for R and R (though we're sure they could use it)?

Gleason: The resort hotels have been paid by the government to house the evacuees. They have been there since mid-April (previously they were in makeshift shelters elsewhere) with no idea of when they will be able to leave or where they can go.

Some lost their homes in the tsunami but many have homes that are intact, but essentially abandoned, in the no-go zone.

CNNGo: And how did your gig to play for them come about?

Gleason: Our contact explained that she is organizing visits by musicians to the evacuation centers to entertain these folks, as well as volunteers providing massages and so on. So, our band agreed to drive up there on May 21-22 with a group of six massage volunteers.

We played three gigs in three different evacuation venues (two hotels and a conference hall converted into an evacuation center), while the other volunteers provided massages in another room. Our band was also joined on stage by Tomo and Ryu, a guitar/vocal and percussion duo who sang original songs in Japanese.

Fukushima jazzHot Club of Osawa performing in the lobby of the evacuation center at Paruse Hall.


CNNGo: What was the response like?

Gleason: The evacuees were clearly grateful for the entertainment, but it was also clear they were in low spirits overall.

They ranged in age from very young to very old. The seniors smiled tentatively and clapped along with some of the more familiar tunes (we played a couple of popular Japanese chestnuts in addition to our usual American/European repertory).

The middle-agers seemed the least enthusiastic, or maybe just bemused at these foreign entertainers who'd appeared out of nowhere.

The warmest response came from the young kids in the audience, who were delighted to encounter a bunch of weird looking guys carrying even weirder instruments. They swarmed us and asked all kinds of questions about the violin, guitars and bass, wanting to touch them and try playing them.

During the concert some of the kids ran around the room playing tag, but others listened with rapt attention. It was clear they were going stir-crazy in their evacuation quarters, even in the nicely appointed resort hotels where many of them were staying.

Many of the evacuees talked to us quite willingly about their plight and their concerns. Parents, in particular, are worried about the kids. With their situation so unsettled, they don't know whether to enroll the kids in local schools, or to wait till they can resettle somewhere more permanently.

And in the meantime, they are upset that radiation levels are still high enough, even in Fukushima City, that kids are not supposed to go outside to play in the parks and school playgrounds.

CNNGo: How would you sum up the experience?

Gleason: I came away with the understanding that the evacuees desperately need cheering up, not to be told to "cheer up." More than anything else, though, they need housing, and relief from the fear of radiation.

We made a point of avoiding even well-intentioned words of encouragement, because the evacuees had heard it all and were sick and tired of being told by government bureaucrats and media personalities to "hang in there" ("Ganbaro!" in Japanese).

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