Itsuki no komoriuta, or the Lullaby of Itsuki (a village on Kyushu Island, Japan), is one of the best-known Japanese folk melodies. It will probably sound familiar to you even if you know nothing about traditional Japanese songs. It’s been covered by many western musicians, including the French pop singer Claudine Longet and the Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell. Here’s a lovely version in a trembling, breaking voice style by Ikue Asazaki.
Dancer Mana Hashimoto, with whom I’ve previously collaborated several times, was inspired to explore this song in movement. Mana describes Itsuki no komoriuta this way: “Two centuries ago in Japan, it was common for poor families to sell their children, age six and up, to work for rich families as baby sitters or housekeepers. If the rich family were nice and open, the children might be allowed to go once in a while to visit their birth families, but often the children didn’t know when they would get to go home. Itsuki no lullaby is a song in the voice of a child missing her home town as she takes care of a rich family’s babies, putting them to bed.”
Norio Shimizu at lyricstranslate.com provides an excellent translation of the lyrics. (“Bon” refers to the annual Buddhist festival to honor the spirits of the ancestors by dancing and by floating lanterns on the river.)
As soon as Bon arrives,
I will leave for my hometown.
The sooner Bon comes, the sooner I will go home.
I am no better than a beggar.
They are rich people.
With good sashes and good dresses.
Who will cry for me
When I die?
Only the locusts in the mountain behind the house.
No, it’s not locusts.
It’s my little sister.
Don’t cry, little sister, I will be worried about you.
When I am dead,
Bury me by the roadside.
The passers-by would lay flowers for me.
What flowers would they lay?
The water would come falling down from above.
Mana was struck by the sad, forlorn mood of the lullaby, and by the beauty of its melody. It appealed to her sympathies as a mother. “I always want to find some hope,” she says, “to give those children some light.”
Mana incorporated Itsuki no komoriuta into her full-length choreographed piece “Yumema/Dream Between”, which she has performed recently at Dixon Place and Green Space. The film “Lullaby”, which I made with Mana two years ago, represents the beginnings of her engagement with the song, as she improvises movement while singing it.
This film was made in the Brooklyn loft of my friend Sullivan Walsh, a metal craftsman, who created the bed and oval mirror seen in the background.
Mana explores space by contact and by reaching out, often using tactile objects as a base for her movement. Here, a long banquet table is her stage. In the first part of the video she explores the melody of Itsuki no komoriuta through gesture and voice, bathed in the golden light of the setting sun. In the second part, she restlessly tests the boundaries of her narrow stage in the deep blue twilight.
The video of “Lullaby” is embedded here. If you receive the blog by email you will need to click to the blog site or follow this link to the Vimeo site for this video.
Mana will be performing a different piece this Saturday at a benefit for Japan earthquake relief at Tenri Cultural Institute in New York.
Hi Mizu Kaze – rebirth A fundraising event for Japan featuring gagaku and beyond
Featuring Mana Hashimoto (dance) // Sadahiro Kakitani (ryuteki) // Kaoru Watanabe (flute & taiko) with Daniel Abse (recitation) + Yoichi Fukui (sho) + Yuko Takebe (film)
Saturday, July 16, 2011, 7:30pm. $10 suggested donation. Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th St. (btwn. 5th & 6th Ave.), New York, NY, 10011, 212-645-2800, www.tenri.org