The national musical instrument of Japan is the koto, a six-foot zither made of Paulownia wood and containing 13 (and sometimes 17) strings. The history of the koto dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries, when the Chinese introduced the guzheng to Japan.
Classical koto music is akin to a cascading waterfall. If you close your eyes while listening to the sound of the koto, you can be transported to a time reminiscent of The Tale of Genji. The koto conjures scenes of kimono-clad court ladies relaxing in beautiful garden settings.
At the age of twelve, Yuki Yasuda began taking koto lessons in her native Japan. While she still admires and plays traditional songs on the ancient instrument, when she takes the stage these days, she dons a Tool T-shirt rather than a kimono, and her koto playing sounds more like this:
Yasuda is a member of Ten, a three-piece hard rock/alternative band based in New York City. She and her husband, bass player Atsushi Asano, formed the band in Japan in 2005. The couple came to New York in 2009 and added drummer Paola Viteri, a native of Ecuador, after she answered an ad on MySpace.
Asano and Yasuda came to New York because “Japan doesn’t receive our music,” says Asano, alluding to the fact that Ten’s harder edge and English lyrics aren’t popular in their homeland. Although Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and countless Western acts enjoy great success in Japan, Japanese bands are expected to sing in Japanese.
“My influences are Tool, Korn, Papa Roach,” says Asano. “They all sing in English, so I write songs and sing in English, too.”
Another reason for leaving their homeland is that they simply didn’t fit in with the rigid structure of Japanese society. “Japan doesn’t like him,” Yasuda says of her soft-spoken and seemingly reserved husband, referring to his tattooed arms and long beard. Wanting more freedom for themselves and their music, Asano and Yasuda packed up their bass guitars and kotos and headed to the States.
It’s ironic that while Ten shuns its Japanese tradition, the essence of the band is defined by a traditional instrument of Japan. Although the ancient koto is the focal point of Ten, Yasuda and Asano maintain that the centuries of tradition behind it don’t come into play when they make their brand of music.
“He doesn’t think about the koto,” says Yasuda of Asano’s songwriting process. After Asano writes a song, Yasuda, who says she’s playing the role of the guitarist, applies her interpretation of the song to fit her style of koto playing. “We don’t think about the Japanese sound or the koto sound,” says Yasuda, who says she adapts the “guitar part” into the way the koto should sound, changing the technique from classical to Ten’s darker and heavier style.
While Yasuda and Asano almost downplay the tradition of the koto, the fact that the koto is unique in rock and alternative music is the very reason Viteri relishes playing in Ten. “The challenge to show something so non-traditional in [today’s] music and so traditional in traditional music is an oxymoron, but it’s very interesting,” says Viteri, “and it’s definitely a challenge.”
It’s a challenge for Viteri’s drums not to overpower the delicate twang of the koto. She wants audiences to appreciate the one-of-a-kind blend of past and present that Ten offers. As a result, Viteri says it forces her to focus on her playing, which has made her a better drummer.
The band has not yet released a CD, but they continue to grow their fan base through in the Internet. “We’ve gotten our following from our Facebook page and YouTube,” says Viteri. Since the cost of studio time is at a premium, Viteri says the trio will polish their songs to perfection before thinking about recording.
Here’s a look at their performance at j-Summit New York on July 3.