A TROUPE of Japanese musicians wearing cowboy hats is on a mission to make the ocarina the primary instrument used to teach music education in Cambodian schools.
The troupe jetted off from Siem Reap to Tokyo last week, leaving a trail of hundreds of the ancient wind instruments in their wake at pottery workshops and schools.
Led by 27-year-old ocarina virtuoso Mitsuo Yonezu, the four-person Khmer Ocarina Project wowed audiences during their two-week tour of bars and schools in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, playing covers of jazz, samba and bossa nova songs, re-written to be performed on the ocarina. The instrument, while resembling a bullet-ridden egg, is capable of producing a soft flute-like sound when air is blown correctly through its surface holes.
Yonezu, whose stage name is Milt, told 7Days that he started playing the ocarina at age 13, attracted by the unusual shape and “heart-warming” sound of the instrument.
He then embarked on a career as a professional ocarina teacher and composer, which has seen him write the soundtracks for several Japanese television shows and a movie by director Shusuke Kaneko.
“The ocarina is a very simple instrument but it’s hard to master,” he explained. “There are 12 holes for playing, two on the back and 10 on the front, plus a 13th hole to let the air in.
“I started learning about 16 years ago, when the ocarina was not so popular and only a limited amount of people were playing it. Compared to other musical instruments, the ocarina has a special structure.
This instrument makes a really round and heart warming sound that I find very attractive.”
Since Milt started popularising the instrument, ocarina fever has swept Japan according to Tomoko Machiguchi who manages Milt and his group and is heading up efforts to manufacture ocarinas at several pottery workshops in Kampong Chhnang province, funded by a grant from the Japan Foundation.
Standing next to her star performer, and similarly attired in a cowboy hat and waistcoat, Machiguchi told 7Days she runs a showbusiness agency in Japan but regularly takes time off to voluntarily manage Milt on his overseas tours.
“I don’t look like it but I am the president of a company called The Office Izki Agency back in Japan. I manage Milt when he is overseas; manage him, organise him, and try
to teach him how to smile,” she joked.
She said that something of an ocarina renaissance has seen Milt and other masters of the instrument catapulted to fame in recent years.
Ocarinas are already widely used in kindergartens and primary schools in South Korea and Japan, Machiguchi explained, and the purpose of the Khmer Ocarina Project is to promote their use in Cambodia as a cheap, locally-made alternative to recorders and flutes which can be used to teach music easily to school-aged children.
Ocarinas are constructed from clay or glass, and are simple to make. A series of Cambodia-specific ocarinas in rabbit, turtle and pigeon shapes have already been commissioned by the Khmer Ocarina Project and produced by potteries in Kampong Chhnang.
They will then be distributed to four schools in the province, along with another 200 ocarinas donated by South Korean manufacturer Zin Ocarina.
Milt and Machiguchi, accompanied by guitar player Motoki Ohno and support staff, journeyed from Kampong Chhnang to Siem Reap for a concert at Art Deli, alongside local musicians Philippe Ceulen and Aya Urata, before flying back to Tokyo.
Milt plans to return to Cambodia as soon as possible, Machiguchi told 7Days, before explaining the pair’s signature cowboy hats are only worn in Cambodia. She said: “I don’t wear one in Japan but I do in Cambodia, because I like to dress in a Cambodian style.”