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Klezmer in a kimono

A Japanese musical ensemble brings its audacious Yiddishe sound to Hartford

By Cindy Mindell

Japanese klezmer? Not exactly oxymoronic. But close.

Or maybe not.

Enter Jinta-la-Mvta – a Japanese musical duo hailed as “the epicenter of the Tokyo underground scene,” that marries the traditional Japanese street music – aka chindon – with klezmer and other street-music styles from around the world. The result: a unique sound that delights audiences filed with both millenials and their old-world grandparents.

This month and next, Jinta-la-Mvta (pronounced jinta-la-moota) is on an American tour that will include gigs in Montreal and Boston – with a stop iin between at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford. The duo will be joined by tubist Naoki Hishinuma and Boston-based accordionist Marié Abe, who is also an assistant professor of music in the Boston University Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology.

Created in 2004, the core ensemble comprises clarinetist Wataru Okuma, and his partner, drummer Miwazow Kogure, who are joined by a rotating roster of other musicians for the group’s performances around the world.

Mandell JCC Executive Director David Jacobs learned of Jinta-la-Mvta from Moishe Rosenfield, president of the New York-based Golden Land Concerts & Connections.

“When he wrote to me about a Japanese klezmer band, I was obviously quite intrigued,” Jacobs says. “I watched a couple of YouTube videos and thought that Jinta-la-Mvta would bring a fun concert to Hartford. There is a real universality to music and to klezmer music specifically. It has traveled throughout the world from its origin in Eastern Europe. I think it’s a great statement that it’s now played in Japan. I thought it would be a fun Sunday afternoon concert as we glide into the end of summer.”

On this U.S. tour, Jinta-la-Mvta is playing the Markham Jazz Festival, KlezKanada Festival, and Ashkenaz Festival, all in Canada, and in Boston at a Jewish Arts Collaborative event. Last year, they were part of KulturfestNYC, an annual international Jewish performing-arts extravaganza.

In a review in The Forward of the performance at Joe’s Pub last summer, The Essential Klezmer author Seth Rogovoy wrote that the group proved itself “not only unique with its Japanese-accented Yiddish, entertaining with its audacious punk-infused presentation, colorful costumes and infectious enthusiasm, and skilled at a level only surpassed by the very top tier of klezmer musicians.”

Jinta is a nickname for the “high-brow” street brass-band musical style that was imported from the West and transformed by Japanese musicians into an indigenous and populist genre, Okuma explains. “’Mvta’” [pronounced moota] is a word we got from Azenbo – meaning “mute cicala” – a street singer who was active in the early 20th century,” he says. “We admire his humor and rebellious spirit.”

Chindon – comprised of the Japanese sound-symbols for two instruments – originated in the 1850s as a way for street-peddlers to advertise their wares by singing and playing loud musical instruments. As the advertising medium grew into a street-music genre, chindon-ya (chindon-performers) would dress up in ostentatious costumes, a tradition that inspires Jinta-la-Mvta’s outfits. Kogure wears a kimono-inspired costume that she creates herself.

Okuma started studying piano and organ as a young child. After a brief hiatus, he learned synthesizers and guitar in his 20s, exploring post-punk music, and gradually became interested in acoustic instruments.

“In the mid-1980s, klezmer recordings became available in Japan as part of the Klezmer Revival, and I fell in love with it,” he says. “But I didn’t even know the term ‘klezmer’ at the time, so I was just doing as much research as I could on my own. Various recordings became available shortly after, including music from the Balkan region and the Mediterranean, and I became obsessed.”

Okuma came across the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s 1980 album, “Yiddishe Renaissance.” At the same time, he encountered chindon and decided to teach himself clarinet, studying the techniques of klezmer clarinet greats like Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras.

“Chindon and klezmer had some common attractive traits, such as melancholy, and the fact that it was people’s music that prominently featured the clarinet,” he says. “So it was only natural that I started to play klezmer in the stylings of chindon music.” Okuma played with legendary saxophonist-composer Masami Shinoda, who combined chindon with jazz and hard rock, and later founded Cicala-Mvta, a precursor to Jinta-la-Mvta and its global mishmash of musical styles. Okuma is considered one of the few klezmer experts in Japan and has written several liner notes for the Klezmatics and Frank London.

Miwazow Kogure started playing the koto, a Japanese zither, at age three, and became a licensed teacher eight years later. As a university student more than 20 years ago, Kogure was on the stage crew of a klezmer musical.

“The beautiful melodies captured me, and I also became interested in Yiddish theater,” she says. When she was 25, she joined a rock band as a chindon drummer. Okuma invited Kogure to play drums in Cicala-Mvta, whose repertoire included klezmer. “I didn’t have much trouble playing klezmer music; chindon drums and klezmer seem to be a natural fit,” she says. “As a chindon drummer, it really doesn’t feel awkward or different performing klezmer. Spiritually, I do not feel any distance from klezmer melodies. It’s strange, but it feels so familiar as if I had known klezmer since I was born.” Kogure is also a self-taught vocalist who has been singing for four years.

In addition to klezmer, Jinta-la-Mvta also incorporates jazz, rock, Balkan folk music, and improvisation, among other styles. “I am always happy when music can peacefully connect all people,” Kogure says.

Jinta-la-Mvta will perform on Sunday, August 28, 5 p.m., at the Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. For tickets and/or information: (860) 236-4571, mandelljcc.org.

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