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Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Latin love: Blame it on bossa nova

Sao Paulo-born woman brings passion for music, Brazil's love of life back to Japan

Staff writer

This is the first of a four-part series featuring Japanese emigration to Brazil. Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of the first group to venture to the South American country. Lisa Ono, an early Japanese devotee of bossa nova, hopes her songs make people here aware of the wonders of the country of her birth, Brazil.

News photo
Then and now: Bossa nova singer Lisa Ono smiles in a handout portrait and poses at age 6 with her mother and baby sister at her parents' apartment in Sao Paulo. COURTESY OF LISA ONO MANAGEMENT OFFICE PHOTO

"I realized how nice a country Brazil is after moving to Japan," the Sao Paulo-born Japanese national said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. "I have been producing CDs, hoping I can show the Japanese how great Brazil is.

"I have traveled between the two countries so many times after returning to Japan, for CD recordings and other purposes," said Ono, who gave birth to her third child in April and has suspended her music activities since last fall.

Ono was born in Brazil and lived there until she was 10. Her parents had emigrated to the world's fifth-most populous country in 1957.

Unlike many Japanese who emigrated to Brazil 100 years ago in search of vast farmland, her father moved for different reasons.

"My father loved Brazilian music and wanted to run a live (performance) house in Brazil," Ono said. "He had a great impact on my" pursuit of a music career.

Spending a lot of time at her father's club in Sao Paulo, where she listened to music all the time, Ono was able to interact with the musicians her father invited to perform.

"That was my first encounter with music and the very foundation of my music life," said Ono, whose stage experiences include performing at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2006. She has also performed with renowned bossa nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Immediately after returning to Japan in 1972, her father opened a Brazilian restaurant in Yotsuya, Tokyo, where he invited many musicians to perform. Spending her early teens surrounded by Latin music, Ono was playing guitar and singing at age 15. She released her first CD in 1989.

Bossa nova, which blends jazz and Latin rhythms, is "very well-balanced with simple and an easy-to-sing melody, refined harmony and joyful and casual rhythm based on samba," Ono said. "It's hard to get tired of and people enjoy it all over the world."

The genre, which emerged from the young middle class in Brazil in the 1950s, "fits my personality," she said.

While bossa nova, literally meaning "new beat," helps her connect Brazil with Japan, Japanese living in Sao Paulo, the only place she lived in Brazil, were not very connected with the locals, she recalled.

"There were many Japanese around me, including my parents' friends, then, but they did not interact with Brazilians as much as other nationalities did, so they were viewed as mysterious," she said.

She spoke Japanese with her family, but Portuguese with maids and drivers at home. Elsewhere, including at school, she mostly spoke Portuguese.

She went to a Japanese kindergarten, but to better prepare for elementary school her parents let her study with Brazilian children at a local school.

She had a life outside the Japanese community and knew how to have fun the Brazilian way.

"I really loved dancing in costumes at the carnival every year," she said. "It is a very good memory."

At school, however, she faced academic challenges.

She used the Japanese "kuku" rhythmic recitation approach to memorize multiplication tables, having been told this was an easier method than studying it in Portuguese. But at school, she had to respond in Portuguese, and thus she had to translate answers from Japanese to Portuguese in her head.

She recalls being admonished by a teacher once when she was unable to respond quickly to a question in Portuguese. The impatient teacher scolded her, "Didn't you practice at home?"

But a bigger challenge awaited Ono upon her first setting foot in Japan.

When she arrived, Ono entered an elementary school but was placed in a class with children one year her junior. To improve her Japanese ability, she had to attend cram school to learn hiragana, which most Japanese children know by age 7.

Ono said she "enjoyed going to the cram school," but going every day was "sometimes tough."

She remembers adapting to life in Japan quickly but turned toward a music career to maintain her Brazilian cultural roots.

Trying to build a bridge between the two countries and two cultures, "both ends of an extreme," Ono praised the century of bilateral relations and what they've achieved.

"The seeds many immigrants have planted will bear fruit now that the two countries coexist, complementing each other with what they need: Brazil's ample resources and labor and Japan's high technology," she said.

She remembers that life in Brazil was peaceful when she lived there, but public safety has declined over the years. These days she is happy to hear from friends that the country's economy is expanding.

But she hopes Brazilians, who are "geniuses at enjoying life," maintain their cheery nature.

The entire world has a reason to support Brazil, which is rich in natural resources, including oil, and runs on hydroelectric power, Ono said, and the Amazon forests supply two-thirds of the planet's oxygen.

"All of these things are resources that can save the world. Japan should provide technological help and other things Japan has strength in," she said.

"And as for me, I would like to cooperate with Brazilians living in Japan to help build a bright future for the children."

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