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A Kozak from Japan
Mr Suitsi Sakuma is a Japanese who calls himself Charlie Sakuma in Canada, and pan Sakumchak in Ukraine. He is a bandura and kobza player whose performances are appreciated both in Ukraine and in Canada and Japan. He is learning Ukrainian but to avoid misunderstanding he spoke Japanese with Yevhen BUDKO during the interview. Olha Gudz helped with interpretation.
The bandura and the kobza are Ukrainian traditional string instruments which are intrinsically linked to the Ukrainian age-old musical traditions and culture.
Suitsi Sakuma, a Japanese follower of these traditions, doesn’t have a drop of Ukrainian blood in him. But he is full of fascination for Ukrainian traditional instruments and music.
His stage appearance — a wig (long hair lock on the shaved head), moustache and the Ukrainian traditional dress are perfectly in line with the kozak (Cossack) traditions.
But Mr Suitsi Sakuma’s Cossack interests go much further beyond a stage kozak imitation.
Sakuma-san, my first question can’t be anything but — How did you get to be a bandura player, Ukrainian style?
Some time ago I moved from Japan to Canada where I settled in the city of Edmonton in the Province of Alberta. There is a large Ukrainian community there. What I saw and learnt there literally changed my life. I had been exposed to jazz, rock and to Japanese traditional music but in Edmonton I heard something entirely different — Ukrainian traditional music. It was like music from a different planet. And the Ukrainian traditional dance hopak captivated me by its vigor and rhythms. Later I learnt that hopak was a sort of martial dance, something similar to the Japanese martial arts, like karate.
The Ukrainian dances and singing that I watched at Ukrainian concerts in Canada were a revelation, they went straight to my heart. I realized I had to learn much more about it. First, I joined a dancing group and then I switched to learning to play the bandura. It was back in 1998.
I used to alternate living in Canada and Japan and I hoped that I would be able to acquaint the Japanese people with the richness of the Ukrainian traditional culture, at least with one little bit of it. I want the Japanese to have a comprehensive image of Ukraine as a country with ancient and immensely rich cultural traditions.
At the same time, bandura playing does not seem to be very popular among the people of Ukrainian descent in Canada, and I’ll feel happy if I contribute to popularizing it among the Ukrainian Canadians!
Is it your first visit to Ukraine?
No, it’s the fourth. I visited Ukraine for the first time in 2005. Since then I’ve been to Kyiv, to Lviv and to the Land of Poltavshchyna — these places differ so much one from the other and it gives you an idea how versatile Ukrainian culture is.
Incidentally, I am planning to stay in Ukraine for good.
Yes. I’m getting married. My fiancee is from Lviv. The wedding will take place either in April or in May — and it will be arranged in the traditional Ukrainian style, with all the proper rituals and in accordance with ancient Ukrainian traditions. I invite you to attend it — please come if you can.
Thank you for the invitation! From marriage to music — how difficult was it for you to learn to play the bandura?
Oh it was very difficult... First, it was difficult to find a good instrument in Canada, and then it is a very difficult instrument to master. When I was in Ukraine in 2005 I ordered my bandura from the Trembita company and they made it for me. It is probably the most difficult musical instrument in the world as far as learning to play is concerned.
Who were your teachers?
First it was Mr Julian Kytasty, a Canadian composer and singer of Ukrainian descent. Then it was Dr Andriy Horniatkevych, a musician and scholar who is probably the only one in Canada who does research into the history of the bandura and kobza.
In Ukraine, my teachers were Professor Vasyl Herasymenko and the kobza players Taras Lazurkevych, Oleh Sozansky and Taras Sylenko. I have heard a lot about Roman Hrynkiv, I have CDs with his music but I have not met him yet personally — I hope I will.
Is your Ukrainian good enough to understand the lyrics of the old Ukrainian songs?
Well, I do ask for help to understand it properly. When I started to learn to play the bandura, I did not think I would do the singing too, but Professor Herasymenko said that playing the bandura entailed singing too… There are many sounds in the Ukrainian language which are absent in Japanese — so I had to work hard to get these sounds right.
In what language do you talk with your fiancee?
A Ukrainian woman talking Japanese?
Yes. We met in Japan, eighteen months ago, but we had been corresponding before that too. But I would want to gradually come over to talking in Ukrainian.
Do you sing any Japanese songs playing the bandura?
I do. As a matter of fact, there is a traditional Japanese instrument, biwa, which is somewhat similar to the bandura. Biwa hoshi were itinerant musicians who traveled the breadth and length of Japan performing ancient Japanese songs of heroic deeds.
Which aspects of Ukrainian culture are of a particular interest or importance to you?
Ukrainian culture is a treasure trove of most amazing things, both in the sphere of spirit and in the sphere of the everyday life.
Borshch, holubtsi (minced meat wrapped in cabbage leaves and cooked), kozaky, bandura — just the first things that come to mind!
How do the people in Japan react to your fascination with Ukrainian culture?
The Japanese people are very polite and tend to keep their opinions to themselves but I am sure many are wondering… embroidered Ukrainian shirts are among the things that cause a particular interest. A new fad? they must be thinking.
However, my parents fully approve of my interests and support me. They are interested in traditional Japanese art and are musically talented. They even take part in performances of traditional Japanese dances.
Have you tried to teach anybody else to play the bandura?
No, not really, but the people in Japan like the sound of the bandura and appreciate its rhythms.
Do your Ukrainian interests and your stage appearance attract the media attention?
Yes, they do, but what I do I do because I enjoy doing it not because I want the media attention.
I understand that you’ve performed at concerts here in Ukraine as well?
Yes, I have! I’ve even performed in front of the children audiences! At first I was apprehensive, but they definitely enjoyed the performances and even wanted my autographs!
May I ask you what you actually do for living? Do you earn your living by bandura playing?
No, I don’t. In Canada I’ve been working as an electrician but I am not sure what I am going to do when I move to Ukraine. But I’m sure I will continue playing the bandura!
There are many misconceptions and wrong stereotypes that still exist in the west about Ukraine. Have you found any of them being true after all?
Not really, though there are of course many things that do need improvement… One of the things that a westerner can’t help noticing is that people in the street do not seem to be smiling too much, but I’ve found out that the Ukrainians have a wonderful sense of humor. I hope I will contribute somehow to popularize smiling!
The Ukrainians should respect their own culture more — and it will help to better the image of Ukraine in the world.
Suitsi Sakuma at his home in Japan, playing the bandura.
Suitsi Sakuma’s interest in Ukrainian music