By Tatsuhiro Morishige / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterBorn to an American father and a Japanese mother, the musician known as Leo used to wonder who he was because of his mixed cultural background. An encounter in a school music class gave him a road to finding the answer: learning the koto stringed instrument.
Now 19, Leo has become a rising star of the koto, performing not only traditional and contemporary works, but also pieces from jazz and classical music.
Koto actually refers to a group of traditional stringed instruments. Zither types with 13 or more strings and movable bridges to regulate pitch are also known as “so,” with Leo playing the 13-stringed conventional koto and also the 17-stringed variety.
In a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Leo appeared in a formal black kimono and hakama trousers, giving him a dignified and composed look along with his chiseled face and dark hair.
During a photo shoot, Leo played a piece from memory. He performed very quickly, plucking at strings with his right fingers while also pressing strings with his left fingers to change the pitch or play vibrato. It was amazing how effectively and elegantly he moved all his fingers over the 13 strings.
A native of Yokohama, Leo attended a local international school from kindergarten to high school. “Most of the people there were non-Japanese, and classes were taught only in English,” he recalled. “It was hard for me to catch up in my classes [at first] because I usually spoke Japanese at home.”
Although he was frustrated with his school life, Leo had a chance to play koto for the first time in a fourth-grade music class. His music teacher was a koto player and required all the students to play it, too.
“When I was a fifth grader, I saw a student three years older than me playing a contemporary piece, which I thought was so cool,” he said. “That inspired me to practice harder so I could play as well as that student.”
As he improved his skills, Leo found himself attracting more attention from his classmates. “I couldn’t speak English well, so I maybe tried to express what I wanted to say through the sounds of the koto,” he said.
By his mid-teens, Leo had also learned how to play Western instruments such as the piano, bass and guitar, forming a band with friends to enjoy covering rock and pop pieces by overseas artists such as Bruno Mars and Maroon 5. However, he was always certain that koto was the best way to express himself.
Leo took part in an annual national contest of the instrument for elementary and junior high school students. Victory eluded him for several years but he finally took home the top prize in his last chance to compete.
At 16, he won the Japanese Hogaku Music Contest on his first attempt, becoming the youngest winner ever in the traditional music competition, which is open to both amateurs and professionals.
Leo eventually made up his mind to pursue a career as a koto player. As he was preparing to take an entrance examination for Tokyo University of the Arts, he was contacted by Nippon Columbia Co., which had noted his achievements and wanted to release a CD to promote him as a new star in traditional Japanese music.
Leo accepted the offer and performed seven pieces for the CD, titled “Leo 1st,” which was released in March. The album covers not only popular pieces such as “Haru no Umi” (The Sea in Spring) and “Turkish March,” but also the jazz standard “Take Five,” which is known for having quintuple time.
Leo chose this piece to “show the diversity of koto music to people who haven’t heard it before.” When he was recording, he used two instruments with different tunings, doing a complete improvisation for solo parts.
Last year, Leo performed in New York at the invitation of violinist Midori Goto, known internationally by her first name Midori. “What was good for me was I can explain koto in English,” he said. “While many Japanese consider the instrument difficult to understand, people overseas knew nothing about it beforehand and simply enjoyed its sounds as a form of music.”
This experience has prompted Leo to set himself a mission: to promote the fascinating aspects of the koto beyond Japan’s borders.
Currently, Leo practices under Kazue Sawai. In April, he started studying at Tokyo University of the Arts’ Department of Traditional Japanese Music, at which he not only majors in contemporary koto music, but also takes lessons on classical repertoire from Associate Prof. Satomi Fukami, a top koto player.
“I believe koto is good for performing even bossa nova,” Leo said. “I also love the string sounds of the violin and cello, so I want to perform music of various genres.”
He also thinks he should have a deep understanding of the instrument to take on its soul.
Leo’s passion has helped him find his identity, he said. “Koto is an instrument that felt right for me, so I now understand that I’m definitely Japanese.”