In China, this instrument further developed for hundreds of years, where it was known as Erhu. Japan, the final destination of the Silk Route in the east, finally met this two stringed bowed musical instrument thousands of years after its original creation and was called the Niko.
Sitting at Harima Restaurant on Residency road, Haruyo Kimura, in her grey cotton shirt and flannel pants looks right at home. "The city is becoming my second home slowly but steadily," she says, "I found love here," she says before tucking a strand of her shoulder length hair behind her ear, "I found acceptance and I found appreciation for music, even if it is something as different as a traditional Japanese violin."
Haruyo plays the Niko, a two stringed bowed instrument, which is also called the "southern fiddle" or the "exotic violin" and sounds much like a soft female voice, she says. "It sounds like a woman singing. It doesn’t have frets and it only has two strings, making it quite challenging to play." At the bottom of the string is a small drum covered in python skin, where the acoustics happen, she explains.
Born in Kobe, western Japan, Haruyo wasn’t always a classical violin player. "I remember I had a band when I was around 16. I was so into J Pop!" she laughs, "I had seen this movie, For the Boys, and was so taken by the world of pop and jazz." The 1991 feature film traces the life of singer and actress DixieLegend played by Bette Midler who was awarded a Golden Globe for it. Haruyo eventually enrolled in a music school and studied jazz, but life had different plans for her. The Great Hanshin Earthquake struck in 1995 that claimed the lives of about 6,434 people happened to have its epicenter in Kobe. "Our lives were destroyed. There was no water or power supply and we lost our homes. My music school happened to be one of the buildings that fell apart," she narrates like it was just yesterday. "I was 19 at the time and to help me out of the grief, my mother’s friends got me a Niko. That was the beginning." At first, it lay there, she says but after thing started looking up she started playing again and never looked back. She traveled to learn from masters on the eastern coast and even Shanghai but says that there is so much one can do with music, it never really is enough. "I searched for masters on the Eastern part of Japan and then China because the instrument is believed to have originated on that part of Asia. I met about six masters from all over Japan and China just so I could get the basics right. Even today, after about two decades of playing it, I am still learning."
Many of us cling to vices after losing battles, but Haruyo only got stronger. The challenges she faced in learning how to play the instrument only made her more determined. "Musicians usually start early on the Niko. I was quite late. Our fingers adapt to the Niko as we grow, like most string instruments so it is best to start as soon as possible. I was already in my early twenties and so it was personally difficult to do it. I used to practice for 12 hours initially," she says animatedly, her long slender fingers holding the neck of the Niko in the air. But the loss that she and her family went through was too great and she focused all her energy into music. It was a fight she could win, she says. "A natural disaster of that magnitude left us helpless, we could only pray, but this, I was determined to learn."
For her fourth performance in the city, she has put together different tunes of folk, pop, classical but she’s also telling this story of this victory, a victory she believes all of her people are forever grateful for. The first composition is one that describes spring in Japan. "It describes the sound that sakura flowers or cheery blossoms make when they fall on the ground. It is a very mellow but happy tune. I am also playing an original that is a prayer for all the people that lost their lives in that earthquake when I was a young girl. People who were left behind fought to rise up and taught us to be grateful for life."
As they are instrumental pieces, the audience is free to interpret it in their own way, she adds. "That’s the beauty of music with no lyrics. It will touch your heart and you never know which string may go playing."
What: Performance by Haruyo Kimura on the Niko exotic Japanese violin
When: Friday 16 march at 7pm
Where: Bangalore School of Music, RT Nagar, Next to St. Jude´s Church