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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011

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Filipino touch: Koji Ishikawa's home and studio weren't damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake, but the Sendai artist experienced the disaster firsthand. ERIKO ARITA PHOTO

Songwriter's album touches on quake


Staff writer

SENDAI — It might still be too early to understand the effect of March 11's Great East Japan Earthquake on musicians living in the stricken Tohoku region, but as lives get back to normal artists will no doubt find ways to express themselves.

Singer-songwriter Koji Ishikawa's home and studio in central Sendai were not hit by the devastating tsunami, but he says he lost electricity for two days and the gas was not back on for a month after. Several days after the disasters, he drove to the coastal area of Sendai and saw piles of overturned cars and ships.

"I have never seen such a scene. It was hellish," 33-year-old Ishikawa says. "As a musician, I thought that I wouldn't be able to play music again in this location after seeing such destruction."

Ishikawa released the album "11" on — of course — Nov. 11. While much of the album was written in 2010, some tracks came about after the earthquake. One of those is "Motto Hikari wo" ("More Light"). Ishikawa wrote the song in reference to the period after the lights went out on March 11.

"On that day, the lights went off suddenly. That really made me think about light," says Ishikawa, adding that it was the first time he ever experienced true darkness. The song expresses his thoughts in more detail and makes allusions to darkness representing the hopelessness of the situation at the time: "More light / I want (it) to give strength to me / Who grew up without knowing darkness."

It might be a small reaction to the worst disaster Japan has seen since World War II, but it's an interesting sign of what might be to come. In May, Ishikawa joined an American reporter as a translator and toured the town of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, which was almost completely wiped out by the tsunami. It was in a shelter there that he met a woman in her 70s who told her that she was happier meeting visitors from other regions than receiving packages of supplies. "Listening to her words," he says, "I realized that I shouldn't look at the people in the disaster-hit area with too much pity. I should treat them the same as I always would."

While the earthquake makes a brief appearance on "11," the initial inspiration for the album came via a fan who merely suggested Ishikawa write something to mark 11/11/11. In response, he thought carefully about the month and its role in the calendar.

"It's getting colder and I am starting to develop more sentimental feelings," says Ishikawa about the month. "I also think November has originality because it has a fewer number of events happening in it."

Ishikawa puts his introspection into words for the first track on the album, "Juichigatsu no Sora" ("The Sky in November"): "What I have taken as a matter of course till now / is not natural in fact / Just because I didn't know or because I assumed it was natural / I think so when I look back." Ishikawa says he completed those lyrics in January, but thinks they take on new meaning after the earthquake. However, he is adamant that he doesn't want to impose a set message on listeners, and he also doesn't want listeners to see this as a "quake album."

Ishikawa first started making music on a computer in high school. However, he has lived in Germany and the United States, and has traveled extensively. It was on one of those trips, to the Philippines, that he heard Filipino pop band Side A.

"I was very much influenced by Joey Benin, the (then) bass guitarist, composer and producer of the band," Ishikawa says.

In 2004, he moved to the Philippines and visited Benin, asking to learn from him about producing music. Benin accepted Ishikawa and he worked as a recording engineer with Benin and various artists in Manila until 2008.

When Ishikawa released his first CD, "Heartwarming," in May 2009, he included the English song, "I Guess This Is Love." The song features a Filipino touch, sentimental lyrics and a strong emphasis on melody — something that has come to the fore in Ishikawa's approach to music through his last four albums (all of which were produced in the Philippines).

"Filipinos love sentimental lyrics and melodies," says Ishikawa. "I find it's very similar to the Japanese market."

Koji Ishikawa plays Za-Koenji in Tokyo on Dec. 9. For more information, visit web.me.com/kojiishikawa.

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