NARA--For 20 years, Atsuko Arai has been traveling around the countryside of Nara Prefecture rescuing traditional children’s songs.
With falling populations in rural areas and changes in the way children interact with each other killing off many of the songs, it is a race against time for the 58-year-old. So far, she has recorded and scored close to 400 tunes and rhymes.
But Arai, 58, the driving force behind the Nara-based Matsubokkuri Children's Choir, believes saving a ditty is about more than just taking it down and locking it away in an archive. It must be performed.
Her quest has its roots in the participation of her Nara-based Matsubokkuri Children's Choir in the Nara Silk Road Expo in 1988. She wanted to entertain guests with local songs and went looking for the songs herself when she realized many had not been recorded.
Now, she regularly takes children in the choir to mountain villages to mine the memories of elderly residents.
“Everywhere we go, the people shy away at first. They say, ‘Oh, no, I can’t sing!’ But then when we sit down for some tea and snacks, chatting away, someone will begin, ‘That reminds me of a song.’ That gets the ball rolling. Once they get started, songs keep on coming. It’s like untangling a jumble of threads,” she says.
Many of the songs, which are known as “warabe uta,” are part of traditional games and not all of them make much sense. One older woman, for instance, taught Arai the following song: “Otake/ mamatake/ hifukidake/ shirikara deruno wa puppu dake.”
That translates as: “Chiding ‘Otake’ to cook rice/ with a bamboo blowpipe to start the fire/ only farting sounds come from the bottom.”
But the lyrics occasionally offer deeper truths. From a snippet about the “Buddha (at Todaiji temple in Nara) baking in the sun,” Arai unscrambled the historical fact that the “Daibutsuden,” in which the Buddha’s statue is housed, once burned down, leaving the statue to the elements.
Another rhyme simply asked: “Dear wind, blow some more, just enough to fly my kite.”
Arai feels ancient people's awe and respect to Mother Nature.
“Unless you sing a song aloud, it loses its vitality. It dies away,” she tells her choir members. “How sad is that? So, let me hear you! Louder!”
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