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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Art activist works toward helping spirits flourish

Several years ago, I was privileged to hear the Nubian musician Hamza El Din play at Enkaku-ji temple in Kita Kamakura. The space in which he played was open to the elements, and the sound of rain falling provided an accompaniment to the notes of his instrument, the oud, in a way that still resonates.

Kazuko Asaba
Kazuko Asaba looks to art to "allow the human spirit to flourish." Believing teaching is crucial toward opening up life, Asaba holds art classes for children and adults alike.

Hamza El Din, who traveled the world entrancing audiences with a rich fusion of Nubian and Arabic sounds, died in a hospital in Berkeley, Calif. last year. He was 76.

Meet Kazuko Asaba who is busy organizing a memorial concert in his name in Yokohama. "Hamza was a great ambassador for his country's music and culture and made a lot of friends here. I helped organize that event in Kita-Kamakura. Maybe we even sat beside one another. Life's like that, isn't it?"

The event, "Hamza Days," will be held over five days, from May 16 to May 20, at Zaim, a new arts facility created from a historic building — workshops, studios, stages — in Kannai, Yokohama. "With an ambitious lineup of artists and musicians, we're hoping for a large turnout and lots of interest and support."

Asaba is far from your average Japanese housewife and mother. Nor is her ex-husband stereotypical, for when she was 30, and with his blessing, she went traveling alone for 100 days around Europe with their 3-year-old child. Driving recently from her home of 40 years on the edge of Yokohama, she hauls a heavy bag of memorabilia out of her car and starts her story of liberation and creative illumination.

From Shizuoka, she studied locally and then attended Musashino Art University on the edge of Tokyo. "I was all set to be a graphic designer. But then I married a god in the graphic design world, and that was that. Three babies later, he was famous, and I was stupid."

She can afford to laugh now. Famed as an art activist in Europe and the Americas, she is strong, funny, very much her own woman.

In 1969, a neighbor asked Asaba to help her son with art projects. Now, Asaba believes teaching to be the most important work toward opening up life and making people feel happy. "It allows the human spirit to flourish — especially important in Japan where tradition tends to suppress natural freedom and emotions."

Since that first student, thousands have passed through her classes, workshops and events. These days she teaches on average some 90 children four times a week, and adults twice a month. "We draw, we paint, make mosaic, masks, flowers — there is no limit to what we can do with color, shape and divine inspiration."

Asaba was 27 when she first ventured out into the world. She traveled to San Francisco with Ocean University and still remembers her amazement at the size of the Golden Gate as the Greek vessel sailed under its arches. "Back then, Japan had no large bridges. Everything was small-scale."

It was an opening of experience she says: the cosmopolitan mix of people; the freedom of the fashions. "Now Japan is the same," she observes, laughing, "the good and the bad."

Europe was another eye-opener, this time at age 31, and with her son in tow. "I wrote articles for a Japanese magazine along the way, traveling through Italy, France, Scandinavia, Morocco. Wanting to know other cultures through direct experience, I hitch-hiked. It was a hippie trip."

Marriage and three children later, she experienced a powerful awakening in 1985 after a smart and sensitive fifth-grader committed suicide by jumping from the 12th floor of an apartment building. "He wrote a poem before he jumped, questioning development, the point of studying if all you did was become the boss of a company. Was that life?"

Asaba was so shaken that she decided to explore the roots of the civilizations that this boy had rejected with such desperate determination. She went, eventually, to Egypt, where most people were poor but there was little to no suicide.

In 1986, she took a small group of her young students to Egypt. In '89, she took 30 children to Cairo. They lived with local families, enjoyed art-based workshops with children of their own age, and were featured on TV. "On our return, the Egyptian Embassy in Tokyo hosted a welcome back party. This was when I first met Hamza."

In 1991, Asaba came across a painting that led her to spend a year with her daughter in California. Asaba then moved to New Mexico, where she stayed until 1996, studying Native American culture at the Oo-oonah Art Center and working to introduce it to Japan.

"In 1993, I took a group of 35 Japanese kids to New Mexico. The following year, I brought 40 Native American children here, finding them homestays all over Japan." It was a hugely successful cultural exchange. One of the helpers, a wonderful-looking Native-American guy, modeled for a Japanese magazine."

All the time Asaba was abroad, she was writing for the women's magazine, Josei Shimbun. And explaining to shocked neighbors in Kanazawa-bunko what she was up to: acting as an unofficial ambassador between Japan and other ancient cultures. When she finally returned to Kanazawa-bunko, it was with a renewed sense of her own identity and purpose.

See this girl here, she says, pointing at a child making glue for papier-mache. "She married now." She turns the page — boys involved in a wall-painting. "They came with me to Egypt." Another boy is now a Ryukyu University student — and so the pages of learning, expansion and success turn.

Further discoveries: The time Asaba spent teaching art therapy to black kids in Los Angeles. The month she taught in Laos. And on an annual basis, the Kanazawa-bunko Art Festival which runs a month from Sept. 29. "I organize a masquerade party ever year, with everyone making masks and hats."

Like Mary Poppins, she draws yet more treasures from her bag. "Right now my focus is on 'Hamza Days.' These drawings on Egyptians papyrus will go on exhibition inside Zaim. I'm hoping for 80, 90."

A major concert on May 16 at Yokohama-shi Kaiko Kinenkan, also in Kannai, kicks off the fest. Starting at 6:30 p.m., there will be a nonstop flow of live world music — including singer Shizuru Otaka, Morgan Fisher on piano, Luis Carlos on guitar, Masaki Yoshimi on tabura and Eitetsu Hayashi on taiko drums.

"Hamza gave us so much pleasure and joy," Asaba notes, packing up. "It's the only way we know to show our affection and appreciation."

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