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Eva Alkula and Tomoya Nakai – A genuine interest in someone else’s culture is the best starting point for collaboration

by Elina Roms

As the saying goes, “sometimes you have to travel far to see what is near”. Finnish kantele artist Eva Alkula and Japanese koto artist Tomoya Nakai have performed as a duo for nearly two decades. Their collaboration crystallises each artist’s identity as a musician and enables the birth of something new. The unique union of the distinct timbres of the kantele and the koto is “a match made in heaven”, even if the physical distance between Tokyo and Tampere remains 7,843 kilometres.

“I think I first heard the koto somewhere in Finland, perhaps as background music in a Japanese restaurant. My first meaningful encounter with the instrument, however, was in 1999 during my student exchange year at the Hokkaido University of Education in Sapporo”, kantele player Eva Alkula recalls.  

“I wanted to learn Japanese music and being a kantele player, the koto was a very natural choice for me. The traditional 13-stringed koto provided a tangible way to experience Japanese music and culture firsthand, and to study them at a deeper level. I was enchanted by the sound of the koto which was so different to the sound of the kantele – I had, after all, been playing different kanteles since I was very young. But when Tomoya gave me a demonstration on a 25-string koto, I was simply blown away by its rich sound and Tomoya’s expressive, lively and evocative playing”.

Koto artist Tomoya Nakai’s first experience of the kantele was through Eva’s recital in Tokyo in 2006. He was immediately drawn to the instrument’s sound. 

“I was moved by the beauty and expressiveness of the kantele’s tone. Above all else, Eva’s inherent musicality was wonderful, and being able to perform with her was like a dream come true. It was my first encounter with a foreign traditional musical instrument, and from there on my world expanded, and my sense of values and music changed”, Tomoya recalls.

After the concert, Tomoya and Eva organised to meet and find out if the kantele and the koto would sound good together. And they did! 

The difference is in the sound

The koto is an ancient instrument whose origins go back several millennia. The 13-string koto first arrived in Japan from China, but even prior to this, there was an existing range of koto-like instruments in Japan. In addition to the 13-string koto, Nakai regularly plays larger instruments developed during more modern times, such as the 25-string koto. 

There are various theories about the age of the Finnish kantele, some estimating its age at 2,000 years, with others deeming it to be a younger arrival. It is difficult to determine the exact age, but be as it may, both the kantele and the koto are ancient traditional instruments, and both have been gradually modernised through time. Both are instruments whose strings are strung horizontally along the soundboard, which classifies them as zither instruments.

Not so long ago, kantele playing came very close to extinction in Finland. The “kantele at school” project in the 1980s helped make the simplest form of the instrument, the five-stringed kantele, familiar to just about all school cohorts ever since. 

Eva Alkula and Tomoya Nakai also perform works of contemporary music. In this performance, Nakai plays the 25-string koto. Photo: Jun Kano

In the early 2000s, Japanese traditional instruments started to experience a revival in school classrooms. For example, some schools have opted for kotos while others have offered tuition in instruments such as the taiko drum for a duration of one year. During Tomoya Nakai’s school years, however, traditional instruments were not yet part of the curriculum. Instead, he got to know the koto through his mother. She played the shamisen, a traditional Japanese banjo-like instrument, passing her love of the instrument to Tomoya.

The koto and the kantele have a lot in common while remaining quite distinct in terms of their timbre. “This is why each instrument has a different role in our duo. The kantele typically has a lingering, bright resonance while the koto’s sound is much deeper, stronger and drier. The kantele also has a slightly wider pitch range compared to the 25-string koto”, Alkula explains. The sound of each instrument is affected by the materials of strings and the type of wood used for the body. Kantele strings are made of steel, whereas modern koto strings are made of a specific type of plastic. Another factor affecting the timbre is whether the strings are plucked with bare fingertips or finger picks.  

Intercultural collaboration – challenges and opportunities

When one half of the duo lives in Finland and the other in Japan, the sheer distance certainly poses challenges. Before COVID-19, Alkula travelled to Japan and Nakai to Finland around once a year. The pandemic with its associated travel restrictions interrupted the rhythm of the duo’s collaborations, but in November 2022 Alkula and Nakai were reunited in Germany where they performed on a concert tour together. 

“Another challenge rises from the significant differences in volume between the koto and the kantele. The concerts must be amplified to be able to balance the two instruments”, Nakai explains.  

”Naturally, combining these two instruments creates a certain Japanese-Finnish sound which also carries echoes from the musical cultures of other Eurasian countries, such as China, India and Egypt. It would be interesting to combine this sound with electronics as well”, he suggests.

Eva Alkula and Tomoya Nakai use notation when composing new work for the duo. An individual work may contain segments which have been created together through improvisations or arrangements, but even these sections will ultimately be notated. 

“We try to take advantage of a wide range of different timbres and the full character of each instrument. We think that the koto and the kantele complement each other beautifully, especially in regard to timbre and sound. We continue to discover new musical and artistic dimensions through this collaboration”, Alkula says. 

This musical collaboration spanning across two decades is a great example of the ways in which cultural exchange can bring the world closer together and open up new ways of thinking about other cultures as well as one’s own. Alkula and Nakai are grateful for all the support and funding they have received, enabling them to maintain such a long-lasting cultural bridge between Japan and Finland. 

“I think that to be able to build such cultural bridges, both participants must have a genuine interest in the other person’s culture. There must be a need to gain a deeper understanding of the other culture and to create channels of communication. The collaboration also causes both participants to reflect on their own culture and background, which in turn influences one’s own identity as an artist”, Alkula reflects.

“I have very strong ties with Japanese culture. Especially with music, through these shared projects, but I do enjoy Japanese culture and aesthetics on a more general level as well. It has become a way of life for me.”

Alkula is intrigued by Japanese culture, whereas Nakai describes Finns and Finnish culture with the word “ihana”, wonderful. Both feel that they are perhaps more at home with the other person’s culture. Today, their collaboration is more than the sum of its parts. The combination of the kantele and the koto creates a highly unique musical landscape. 

“At first, we made a lot of arrangements of Finnish and Japanese tunes or composed new works based on Japanese or Finnish mythology. These have gradually faded into the background. Now I feel that we no longer have the need to emphasise the two different cultures – instead, we can shine the spotlight on new music which has been specifically composed and arranged for these two distinct instruments”, Alkula says.

Cultural exchange expands

When I ask if there are any local kantele players in Japan, Tomoya replies that his country is indeed experiencing an uptake in kantele playing – although almost all players are studying with Alkula! 

“I am lucky”, Alkula says. “I have met many Japanese kantele players during the past twenty years. We have shared many great workshops and concerts. Some Japanese players have also visited Finland to attend kantele camps and events. And while I am obviously not the only kantele teacher they have come across, I am lucky”, says Alkula again. 

Apart from only playing the koto, Nakai also sings to Alkula’s kantele accompaniment. Photo: Jun Kano

The kantele is fairly well known in Japan amongst those who are interested in Finnish and Scandinavian cultures. There are more than twenty Japan-Finland friendship societies operating in Japan, including associations organised around specific themes, such as the Japan Mölkky Association, Airguitar Japan Association, Finnish Tango and Dance Association – and naturally, the Sibelius Society of Japan. Nihon Kantele Tomonokai – Japan Friends of the Kantele – was established in 2008. “Local kantele players have worked really patiently to make the instrument better known in Japan.” There are currently a few hundred players across the country, with the majority living in Hokkaido or the Tokyo and Kansai regions. 

The number of Finnish koto players is smaller, but a handful of them exist. However, Finns are getting increasingly interested in Japanese culture in general, and Tomoya Nakai has taught koto playing in Finland at the Sommelo Festival, for example. So far, Finnish koto players and Japanese kantele players have not crossed paths or played together. Alkula thinks this would be a fun idea to pursue. 

How to know that you know enough?

Finland takes part in the universal discussion surrounding the right of artists to borrow imagery, stories, songs or even instruments from different cultures as part of their own art. What are the dangers associated with this practice? 

Eva Alkula views this as an important question. “We must be fully aware of the problems with cultural appropriation”, she states emphatically. Multicultural collaboration projects provide an excellent response to this challenge: “We must always consider carefully how much we really know about the culture that we are influenced by, so that we will not be tempted to repeat existing stereotypes, for example. This is why it is crucial to initiate collaborations between individuals from two different cultures. When we collaborate, both participants are experts of their own culture, and thus we are able to utilise ancient melodies, stories or other cultural material in our joint art practice in a way that is genuinely fruitful and ethical.”

“Some Finnish contemporary composers have been inspired by the sounds of the koto and used it in their compositions. It is important, however, to be very conscious of cultural appropriation in new classical music as well. When do you know that you know enough of the other culture to be able to use it in your own art?” Eva Alkula reflects. 

Dreams that came true

“I teach kantele playing at the Tampere Conservatoire and at the Sibelius Academy at Uniarts Helsinki, as well as working as a musician. Both paths are extremely inspiring and filled with creative opportunities”, Alkula says. 

“As a teacher, I wish to support and help my students to find their own musical voices and discover a unique relationship with the kantele. I also want to continue to develop kantele teaching methods”. 

As a musician, Alkula wants to concentrate on contemporary music, cross-artform and multicultural projects. Her near future holds projects with visual artists, designers, dancers and even scientists. “I also want to take a position on climate change and participate in the related discussions. I feel that multidisciplinary projects are the most organic way for a musician to participate in discussions”, Alkula states.

Tomoya Nakai focuses on developing repertoire for the 25-string koto, and above all else, pursuing the perfect sound. “I always want to write representative pieces for the 25-string koto. My wish is that by creating works that make the instrument resonate beautifully because they have been composed by the performer, and by producing works that everyone wants to hear and play, I will contribute to the spreading popularity of the 25-string koto.”

Although the koto has never been a part of the traditional Kabuki theatre which originates from the 1600s, Nakai has introduced the instrument into the contemporary expression of the Kabuki. One such project was conceived during COVID lockdowns and presented in an outdoors space where performances could take place in a safe manner. The performances displayed ancient Kabuki stories through a contemporary lens, modernising some aspects of performance tradition, costumes and music.  

Many of Nakai’s professional dreams have been fulfilled. His work towards developing the sound of the koto, building up the repertoire, and enriching the use of the instrument has already produced results.

And on her part, Eva Alkula feels that her dream of a diverse and international work life has already come true. 

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham

Featured photo: Duo Eva Alkula & Tomoya Nakai