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Saturday, March 31, 2012
Singer finds fusion in Japan's cultural dichotomy
From war-torn Lebanon via Canada, Yara Eddine strikes the right note in Sapporo
By KRIS KOSAKA
Special to The Japan Times
Japan's fusion of the traditional and modern fascinated musician Yara Eddine as a young child when she learned about the country at a school in Canada. Fifteen years later, Eddine witnessed this integration firsthand.
Arriving at Narita International Airport alongside the contemporary craziness of soccer fans during the 2002 Japan/South Korea World Cup, Eddine observed a modern, efficient society hosting an international spectacle. Yet as she walked out of a train station in Sapporo and saw the Yosakoi-Soran Festival with taiko drumming, swirling kimono and men in fundoshi loincloths, Eddine felt connected to ancient Japan: "I don't know what it is about Japan, but this country always had a piece of my heart."
Perhaps Japan unites two sides of a divided heart. "Japan really suits both sides of my heritage — it has the traditional morals and that hierarchy that many foreigners do not like, the hierarchy within the country, workplace, the family, that appeals to my Middle Eastern side," she explains. "Then you have things like the modern conveniences of the West: public transportation, safety, fast food, running water and constant electricity and with that, the chance to go out and enjoy nomihodai drinks with friends, and the freedom to say what you want if you have the confidence to do so, which appeals to my North American side."
Eddine, 32, grew up in the mountain village of Salima in Lebanon — 16 km west of Beirut — with her grandparents during the war-torn 1990s. Whenever the fighting became too dangerous, Eddine and her older sister rejoined their parents and other siblings in Calgary, Alberta.
Eddine describes her childhood as "bouncing from country to country, language to language." A tomboy who could never stop singing ("My parents were always telling me to be quiet, in Arabic and English"), Eddine enjoys her dual life in Japan. A preschool teacher by day, she moonlights as a singer for a local band called Aura!
Growing up, Eddine's two worlds were far away from Japan. "Salima's a kind of town where you know everybody and everybody knows you, and if you don't know them, you are related to them so they know about you before they've even met you. They don't ask your name when they meet you. They ask, 'Who's child are you?' Everything is locally grown and supplied if you don't grow it yourself. You'd walk by the butcher in the morning and see a live cow and an hour later you'd be back to pick up your order of steak or ground beef."
Canada, meanwhile, meant English education, plotting for a piano, blue jeans and burgers, as her parents started and then expanded the popular fast food restaurant, The Burger Baron.
Whether in jeans or in the mountains of Lebanon, Eddine was singing. "My father and his brothers were all very musical. My dad played the accordion and my uncles all sang, one of them so well as to be quite famous in the '50s up in the mountains. I taught myself how to play the hand drum and also learned to play the piano by ear. Within a year after getting my piano, I was playing the 'Moonlight Sonata.' "
Travel between both countries prevented serious music lessons, but Eddine never gave up her passion.
By the time she was 14, her nomadic upbringing stabilized as she and her elder sister remained in Lebanon to help her ailing grandfather. Eddine finished her high school education early by correspondence. "I went directly to the American University in Beirut in 1995 during the war, and worked a few years with special needs children at the American Collegiate School of Beirut."
She was aware of the dangers of growing up during the constant strife, and admits she wishes she could have seen Beirut when it was "the Paris of the Middle East" before the civil war. "We used to watch aircraft from our house in the mountains fly by to shoot the warplanes as they dropped bombs. A couple of times we were put on lockdown; you bring down the metal shutters of your house because if the planes can see any lights, they bomb. We would wake up in the morning, pull up the shutters and find the shrapnel in the yard."
Still, Eddine remains connected to her heritage and returns either to Lebanon or Canada every year, although Japan "is now home."
Eddine briefly considered settling back in Canada after she finished her psychology degree in Lebanon, but the Canadian government refused to recognize her education because it was completed partially during the war.
A friend of an older brother in Canada was teaching English in Sapporo. Eddine took the opportunity to visit the country that had fascinated her as a child, since fitting back into Canadian society was not easy. "I'm what we call in my family a cultural misfit," she says. "I am too strict for North America, and too lax for the Middle East."
Arriving in Sapporo in 2002, Eddine easily found work teaching English. Encouraged by the freedom of buskers and musicians at Odori Park in the city, Eddine brought along her Lebanese drum and joined a group. "I was lucky. I met a few local musicians, and they introduced me to the studio where they rehearsed. We performed a few live shows together, and I did some belly-dancing for them, and I soon became a regular member of their band."
Eddine stayed with this original band, Percussion Unites, for five years, playing all around Hokkaido. At the same time, she joined guitarist Osamu Sakurai in performances around the country, all the way to Okinawa.
A close friend in Hokkaido, Rob Davis, encouraged Eddine's burgeoning musical career, and she credits his encouragement "to constantly push me to get out there and do something with my voice and my passion for music." Sadly, Davis died while climbing Mount Kenya in Africa in 2006, and Eddine briefly left Japan the following year to work in Malaysia.
"Everything about Japan suited me except teaching English conversation, and I just needed to take a break," she recalls. Eddine kept in touch with both Percussion Unites and Sakurai while in Malaysia and returned to Japan the following year with a new job, this time teaching children.
Sakurai and Eddine formed the band Aura! on her return. A popular favorite in Niseko's international clubs and live houses in the Susukino entertainment district of Sapporo, Aura! quickly built up a fan base. "Everything just snowballed. The people in Aura! are all from different walks of life, different ages, different backgrounds and musical training, but it all clicks and comes together in true musical communication."
Their debut CD, "Uplevel Everything," was released last month. The album is dedicated to Davis and his family "for their indefatigable support." Eddine describes the band's music as "ethnic jazz with a twist of funk," and the band is booked up in performances throughout the year.
The important thing to Eddine is their creative collaboration and fusion of culture through music. "All of us are just really happy performing. Where that goes in the future, we are welcome for anything, but we want to keep it meaningful."
Eddine has also found meaning in her day job. "I love my students. It is a normal preschool program with English immersion for mostly nonnative speakers." That sounds similar to Eddine's own upbringing, she notices, and adds: "There are many misconceptions about the Middle East, but unfortunately, some of the stereotypes contain a seed of truth. Japan is also a traditional country but with enough freedom that I could handle. It is also a country open to creativity and artists, and I feel lucky I can pursue music here."