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The sound of the Shogun

Hear the sounds of Japan's Edo Period and beyond this Friday in Hillsboro

Mitsuki Dazai has spent her life bridging the gap between the traditional and the modern. A native of Tokyo who moved to Portland a decade ago, Dazai is a master of the koto and the jushichigen, two instruments with deep roots in traditional Japanese.

Yet Dazai is anything but traditional. A student of western vocal music, Dazai discovered music from Japan's rich history in college, where she fell in love with the koto - a large string instrument resembling a complex slide guitar - while studying ethnomusicology.

Dazai, who performs this Friday at Hillsboro's Walters Cultural Arts Center, says she was immediately captivated by the sounds of the koto and the unique nature of traditional Japanese music. Having grown up as a child in post World War II Japan - an era where many Japanese cultural institutions looked west for inspiration - she had not been exposed to the music of the past. It wasn't until she got a job at her college library that she came across traditional koto music, and instantly fell in love with its complex time signatures, unique melodies and jackknifing tonality.

'I was almost crying. I never thought we had such beautiful music,' says Dazai. 'I strongly felt that we should feel (our music is) valuable.'

Dazai went on to study the koto, but her education in western music also informed her progression. With two unique backgrounds in her past, she moved forward as a musician who meshes her two worlds together, crafting intricate takes on western compositions played with traditional Japanese instruments.

Now Dazai, who moved to the Eugene area a decade ago and has since released several albums and film scores, is seeking to help others bridge the gap between traditional Japanese music and western contemporary classical sounds.

'It helps my experience because I know how they feel to hear Japanese music for the first time,' says Dazai. 'Because I studied western music first, and was interested in ethnomusicology, I started with a very traditional school, but gradually I got lost because of the difference between western music and traditional Japanese music. It's very interesting, but (traditional music) wasn't the music I wanted to express myself through. It's very old and very valuable, but you can't enjoy it like you can today's music.'

Dazai has also become a prolific teacher, with several students from her classes joining her on stage at the Walters Center as part of a koto ensemble. One student, Yukiko Vossen, will even join the teacher for a rare koto duet.

'I hope the audience will really enjoy the different texture of the koto duet,' says Dazai.

The musician will also be joined by award-winning harmonica player and frequent collaborator Joe Powers.

While many associate the harmonica with American blues music above all, Dazai says harmonica music has deep roots in Japanese culture. Because of its small size and inexpensive price tag, children of post-war schools were often schooled in the instrument.

'In music school kids learned to play the harmonica because it's not expensive. So harmonica, for my generation, sounds very nostalgic,' says Dazai. 'We all learned how to play harmonica.'

In Dazai's reinterpretations of classics, Powers' harmonica plays a key role in her presentation of eastern and western fusion. For example, the traditional Japanese bamboo flute shakuhachi, a key harmonic instrument, is substituted for the harmonica, lending a very different take on compositions while also keeping them grounded in the familiar.

'We're going to do some really cool contemporary music,' says Dazai. 'It is very different.'