Sunday, April 17, 2016

Musicology Research Takes an Unexpected Turn After the Death of Japanese Pannist Asami Nagakiya

By Mia Gormandy 

Panorama is the largest steelband competition in the world held every year during the carnival season in Trinidad and Tobago. It features the steelpan, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, which has become an iconic symbol of the country’s culture. The steelpan has gained visibility and a growing reputation around the world in countries such as the United States, England, and Canada. These countries have large Trinbagonian communities, which promoted the creation of steelpan cultures away from home. These international steelband communities are often represented within Trinidadian steelbands at Panorama.

The international presence within Panorama over the past ten years, however, has expanded to include Japanese pannists. Japan has a small but significant population of Trinbagonians, and the steelband communities in Japan are growing at a fast pace with the presence of Japanese pannists in Trinidad’s Panorama is expanding exponentially. Why is the steelpan becoming so popular in Japan, a country that has a small number of Trinbagonian immigrants? Why do Japanese pannists travel halfway across the world every year to compete in Panorama? My dissertation sought to answer these questions.

As an ethnomusicologist, conducting research in Japan as a participating observer is essential to understanding the cultural and societal intricacies that are present within this steelpan world. I have spent several months in Japan interacting and performing with Japanese pannists. While conducting fieldwork in 2015, I became very close with many of my Japanese friends. We grew a stronger bond as we discussed the steelpan world in Japan, made fun of silly music videos on YouTube, and even rambled about our personal lives. With 2016 Panorama approaching, I felt a sense of responsibility for my Japanese friends since they were traveling to my home country to participate in our competition and I was aware of the major cultural and language differences that existed between Trinidad and Tobago and Japan. Consequently, I asked many questions: Where are you staying? What steelbands are you performing with? How will you get to and from rehearsals? I just wanted to make sure that they were comfortable during the carnival season. I am convinced that these interactions with my friends in Japan and the strong bond we share are the reasons I felt numb when one of my Japanese friends messaged me a few days after Panorama stating that Asami Nagakiya was missing. This message came to me after seeing the local news broadcast a few hours prior asking the public’s assistance in identifying the body of a young Asian female found after the carnival celebrations were over. Within 24 hours, the body was identified and the cause of death was revealed as strangulation. Therefore, Asami’s death was ruled a homicide.

The following weeks became an unexpected whirlwind for many pannists in Trinidad and in Japan. News companies from both countries were requesting public statements, police officers were seeking interviews, and many people used social media to express their reaction to Asami’s death. My family and friends were worried about my return to Japan. “How are they going to treat you? Do you think they will take their frustration out on you?” were some of the questions I received. Someone also jokingly stated, “Don’t participate in Japanese carnival just in case someone wanted to kill you for revenge.” These questions and comments made me think long and hard about the impact Asami’s death had on other Japanese pannists and Japan by extension. After all, Asami was a talented pannist with an extraordinary gift for music and was loved by many.

On March 15, 2016, I returned to Japan without any idea of what to expect. Were my friends going to lose trust in me as a Trinidadian? Would they ever return to Trinidad? Perhaps they will never play steelpan again and discourage others from doing so. Was someone really going to try to kill me for revenge? These were thoughts that stormed my mind on my way to Japan as I reflected on the times I spent with Asami. When I arrived, I quickly realized that I was wrong and I didn’t have anything to worry about. I had many conversations with Japanese musicians who regularly visit Trinidad. They told me that Asami’s death has given them motivation to continue promoting Trinidad’s culture within Japan. They hope to return to Trinidad for future carnivals with intentions of participating in more events. They also want to encourage others to do the same. While many Japanese pannists consider Asami’s death an isolated event and a “crime of passion,” they do think that there are major cultural differences that can lead to dangerous situations. For example, while it is safe to walk the streets alone late at night in Japan, Trinidad and Tobago highly discourage this activity due to the rapid increase in crime over the past few years.  Due to such differences, some Japanese musicians are forming an unofficial organization to help promote the safety of Japanese visitors during carnival time in Trinidad by offering important sources that can lead to a better understanding of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture.

The death of Asami Nagakiya has taught us several lessons including the unpredictability of life and the realization that horrifying tragedies are always possible. However, her death serves as a cautionary tale that reveals the importance of cultural knowledge and sensitivity when entering another culture different to one’s own, and exposes the complexities of international and intercultural mingling that can be formed during ethnomusicological processes. It also raises ethical questions for the researcher, as such a delicate situation forms complex responses by interlocutors based on sensitive emotions, and as a result, determining what should and should not be used in a public forum such as a dissertation is difficult to determine. To conclude, many Japanese pannists, among others, are anxiously awaiting the arrest and persecution of Asami’s murderer. In the meantime, as eloquently stated by one of my Japanese friends, “Let’s not forget about the music. We will continue to play on in Asami’s memory!” And so we shall.




Mia Gormandy is a PhD candidate in musicology at Florida State University where her dissertation research is based on the steelband communities in Japan. She is the 2014 recipient of the Howard Mayer Brown Fellowship awarded by the American Musicological Society.

3 comments:

  1. Very well written article! It was indeed a sad and unexpected turn of events(Asami's tragedy). However, I am heartened to learn that the Japanese pannists have chosen to honor Asami's name by returning to Trinidad and continuing their newfound panorama tradition.

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  2. Culture differences are quite intriguing! Disappointed that the murderer has not been found.

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  3. Thanks for posting. Let the light continue to shine.

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