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The Japanese Bouzouki Player Who Performs Greek Rebetika

Japanese bouzouki player rebetika
Nobuka Sunohara playing rebetika with her bouzouki. Credit: Nobuka Sunohara/Facebook

It is not often that you see a Japanese bouzouki player, much less a woman, playing her favorite instrument, the bouzouki in the rebetika genre in the faraway city of Kobe in Japan.

But then again, Greece and Greeks are everywhere, leaving their stamp on every corner of the planet.

Nobuka Sunohara is the rare case of a Japanese bouzouki player, who along with her instrument has a great love for Vassilis Tsitsanis.

Reading the Facebook post that says, “Today, Bouzouki live streaming from Japan!!” may sound a bit surreal to some ears, yet that was a real live streaming that took place on January 8.

Watching the live stream of a group of eight Japanese people playing the bouzouki, rendering classic Greek popular songs, makes you realize that music knows no borders and everything is possible when you put your mind to it.

The Greek restaurant in Kobe

Bouzouki is part of Nobuka Sunohara’s life, but it’s definitely not the only Greek thing she loves.

As she tells the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (AMNA), she is married to a Greek man and they have two sons, who are 20 and 17 years old.

Like music, love knows no borders either, as Nobuka met her Greek husband when he was a university student in Japan.

Today they run a small Greek restaurant in Kobe, where the blue-and-white flies proudly at the entrance, while its colors dominate the decor.

And, of course, Greek bouzouki music plays nonstop in the cozy eatery, where one can also buy produce from Greece, like olive oil, Kalamata olives, feta cheese and other delicacies.

The restaurant where you can hear bouzouki all day long

The Japanese woman tells AMNA that she started learning to play bouzouki in 2018. The live streaming was her teacher’s idea.

“Last Saturday, our teacher, who lives in Tokyo and plays with us online in class, threw out the idea for this live on Facebook,” she said.

Initially, she wanted to sing the Greek songs she loved so much and urged her son — who plays guitar — to learn to play the bouzouki. Yet, her son chose to remain true to his rock music.

Nobuka started playing the bouzouki and now practices daily, even when she is at the restaurant — in between customers — with her love for the bouzouki growing day by day.

“It was very difficult in the beginning. Two years ago I met a Japanese man who is self-taught in bouzouki. So I started lessons with him, here, in my store, and I love playing  bouzouki.”

She was not alone in that. She found other people in Kobe who share the same love for the instrument, and now she is trying to spread that love for bouzouki to more people, and make them discover the magic of its sound.

Now 17 people participate in the classes that are hosted twice a month in her restaurant, although the coronavirus pandemic has put a temporary stop to that.

The love for Tsitsanis and rebetika

The Japanese bouzouki player is proud of her new 6-stringed instrument, custom-made as it was in the good old days of rebetika.

“Before that I had an 8-string, but I heard that the 6-string was what they used in the past and I wanted to try it,” Nobuka said, adding that she loves the songs of Vassilis Tsitsanis, her favorite being “Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki” (Cloudy Sunday).

“Tsitsanis was great,” she says. “I listen to a lot of rebetika music at home and when I’m posting a song on Facebook a lot of people help me find out more about the singer or suggest other songs.”

It is the feeling of nostalgia that these songs trigger in her, as she says.

Even though the lyrics in Greek are difficult for her, she makes sure that she learns and understands the words and then she picks up the bouzouki to accompany the lyrics.

“Many of my Japanese customers have never seen a bouzouki and I urge them to take it in their hands and try to play it. I invite them to participate in the lessons we organize,” Nobuki says.

 

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