Japan is one of the most jazz-loving countries. Those who visited would know, one can listen to live music in many small cafes and clubs. Or one would hear jazz at a moment when they least expect it. Pianist and composer Selen Gülün has been working in these far away islands for a while. We chatted when she came to Istanbul for a concert and we conducted this interview you are about to read partially face to face (the first part) and partially through online correspondence.
You can reach Selen Gülün’s biography on http://selengulun.com/about/biography/ .
There are a lot of Turkish musicians who have moved to Europe or the US, but I don’t know any who moved to Japan. How did the moving process happen?
I came to Japan for the first time for an album concert. It was June 2015. Disk Union, the biggest album distributor in Japan, asked surprisingly for my 2010 album Answers a year ago. I asked the recording label Pozitif for it. They discussed this with Disk Union and sent them the albums. One day I saw one of my followers on Instagram had found my album in Tokyo and they posted a photo with me tagged in it. I saw that Answers was the sixth best-selling album in a list of ten jazz albums in Tokyo. I was surprised because I did not follow up after the albums were distributed in Japan. I did a Google search and found many news articles about myself. I read things like “How did we not discover this woman before?” in most of these articles. I was surprised about the attention I was receiving since I wasn’t yet aware of how proud Japanese people can be about discovering something new in arts, especially in music. After all, this was an album released in 2010 and recorded in 2006. Nine years had passed since then! Ultimately I gave two concerts in Tokyo. It was a thrilling experience. I went back both for vacation and for more concerts following that first visit. I was more impressed by the Japanese culture, its people, the flow of life there, its arts, parks and most importantly its musicianship and music with every visit. I made the decision to move to Tokyo after that.
I know that you really enjoy working with Japanese musicians. Which experiences or shared instances enforced this feeling?
I played the first concert as a trio. The bassist, whom I was meeting for the first time during the rehearsal, had memorized “Başka”, one of my pieces that I didn’t include in the playlist because it is hard and he asked me why we weren’t playing it. He listened to it and liked it so he learnt how to play and came to the rehearsal with this in mind! Such a thing had never happened to me in my long career as a professional musician. I frequently encountered similar things after moving to Japan. Some musicians came up with the suggestions of playing certain pieces because they “listened to it and really enjoyed it” even though it wasn’t on the playlist. There were people who brought their Answers albums to my solo concert and those who brought gifts while asking for my autograph and these listeners knew most of the pieces on the album. I was very moved; I don’t know any musician who wouldn’t be. I started giving mostly duo concerts after moving to this country, this was a natural process. I see this as a search for dialogue that ascends the language barriers. I think I am also in a period of my life when I want to speak less but share more at the same time. Music, of course, is the best way I can do this. I meet musicians in Japan who will meet this need while enriching my psyche. I get the opportunity to be a part of one and a half hour performances that flow naturally and are self-planning without exchanging many words with a musician who comes from an entirely foreign culture compared to myself. It is hard to explain with words what an inspiring experience this is.
Which musicians would you list above everyone else?
I can list violinist Keisuke Ohta with his affinity to free improvization, trumpet player Issei Igarashi who is one of the most important representitives of Japanese jazz and noise music genius Keiji Haino among the musicians who excite me and have performed as a duo with me.
You mentioned that working permits are harder to get during our previous conversation. What are the main problems you face as a foreign artist in Japan?
Yes, there are some challenges that are unique to Japan. Ultimately, I didn’t make the decision to move to Tokyo spontaneously. One of the most important reasons to this is the fact that there is such a thing as an artist’s visa in theory but it is hard to get ahold of. All working fields are considered as jobs in Japan; so if you are a composer, someone has to hire you as a composer. As you also know, finding a job as a composer is just as easy as finding a four-leaf clover or a two-headed dragon! Having seven albums to your name, having pieces that have been vocalized, giving concerts in tens of countries; none of these make you a composer in Japan. You have to hold a job in order to belong to the legal side of working in Japan as a composer. I got over this obstacle by starting to work. It has almost become impossible to make a living as a composer anywhere in the world anyways… I currently give lessons and performances in Tokyo. When I ask my Japanese musician colleagues that I rehearse with how foreign musicians are able to stay in Japan, they thought a bit and then replied that most are married to Japanese women! It is just as hard to make a living as a performance artist as it is to as a composer. Music culture is very evolved, there are venues for every genre and a certain number of people who would come listen, but being able to play at the clubs is entirely dependent on getting the government permits. It is impossible to perform at bigger clubs or clubs with bigger audiences without owning a licence I will call an entertainment visa. They are unfortunately very strict about this and it is very costly to receive this visa. You need a tour manager who will obtain these visas for you in order to tour as a professional musician in Japan and it isn’t easy to reach these people. It is possible to perform at small clubs of course but if you get get in trouble if you are caught and can even be deported. Even guest musicians who come to perform in Japan need visas. There are various different lengths to these processes and the longest one is a month as I remember. What I am trying to say is, it isn’t possible to play a few gigs while visiting Japan for a holiday but of course, nothing in life is either black or white.
I need to ask this… You actively have things to say about rights and equality as well as someone who takes action on these. You became a part of the life in Japan, a hierarchical place where women and men are not necessarily equal, as a “foreigner” as you mentioned, as you distanced yourself from Turkey. Do you think the fact that you are an outsider has a role in you owning up to these problems or in causing you to deal with them?
I was working with Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız (We will stop women murders) Platform when I was in Turkey. I actually came here with a curiosity about what kind of pressure do the social conduct codes create. The social norms here aren’t so readily understood when we look at it through our own cultural perspectives, as I tried to convey at the beginning of our conversation. There aren’t similarities between the Muslim gaze on women and the Japanese gaze on them. Human right infractions and limitations imposed on lives are similar but their contexts aren’t related at all. This is very interesting for me. The way the freedom is limited isn’t defined so clearly as a foreign gaze can recognize it. A foreigner in Japan can be pushed to live without ever being accepted by the local community; being a foreigner here means not being Japanese, no matter where you come from. They use the word gaijin while defining a foreigner outside their community, similar to the Turkish word gavur, even though they aren’t the same. There is even a site called GaijinPot so that foreigners can meet one another and have an easier life. I can say that I utilized this site many times. They are very courteous to foreigners but you might not be greeted with the same courtesy if you are to compete with them and if you want to enter their own spaces. When men vs. women topics are concerned; I observed that woman work less, and if they are, they usually choose careers as teachers, classical music pianists, singers, sales associates, service givers etc. similar to some other countries. I also encounter some attitudes that conflict with the controlling aspect of repression on women in Japan, a country in which laughing, walking or dressing in certain ways are codified. There are limited opportunities to be high-ranking officers in companies, and women are viewed differently once they have children.
Let’s talk a bit about the city life. Tokyo’s parks are beautiful, a small getaway calms the soul. On the other hand, stores are filled with toys and knick-knacks, nights are overly-illuminated on every corner in certain areas, some young people are motivated by the pop or anime cultures. What influences you the most?
I am impressed by every state of Tokyo. Sometimes I get fed up from the noise, sometimes my eyes ache from the visuality but the harmony and balance overpower anything. As you also said, there are places where you can go to hide from the craziness of Tokyo. Of course they were consciously constructed… Parks to breathe in among buildings, metro stations and people. People normally walk really fast, move really fast as if they have to be somewhere all the time. This really takes a toll on me emotionally for example; I feel like I visit the parks the most among the people I know. On the other hand, there is a balance in this race. Everyone is in the pursuit of doing something good to the community, and culture-arts activities and artists are very valuable as an extension of this. Culture and arts are perceived as things that still being in the daily life; they are accessible. Being a productive person, especially if you are a person who creates art, is received with acclaim because they don’t see arts as a separate field of productivity adjacent to society. Young people are usually immersed in the pop culture, but they don’t turn their backs on cultural and artistic activities. Most of them practice sports or learn how to plan an instrument.
Do you see any contradictions in these?
I don’t see these as contradictory. One needs to look with a Western perspective to see them as contradictory. The more I live here, the more I think there is nothing to be seen here if viewed through our own perspectives here. Nothing, including people relationships, language use, sexuality, education, etc, is similar to what we are used to. Even though they are always racing against time—as you know Japan has the highest rate of death due to occupational exhaustion—the capital has the highest number of jazz bars, Michelin-starred restaurants and concert halls. How is this possible? Even the most ordinary person make it a matter of pride to help their local jazz bar thrive; they get out of work, goes to listen to live music, order a beer, maybe not drink it all but sit and listen to the music until the very end and then go home. They always leave time for other things in their fast and crazy lives.
How long do you think you will stay in Japan?
I am trying to adapt to what is going on around me for now. Everything is still so new for me that I haven’t lost anything from my initial excitement. It is tiring to try to constantly understand the society you live in, because you need to keep re-structuring yourself all the time. I see this as something positive and live like that. I try to learn the Japanese language in the meanwhile, I try to adapt to the food but it isn’t easy since they consume a lot of meat and I haven’t touched it since fifteen years. Of course I know that I might want to live somewhere else because I might get fed up with the strict and controlling attitude. We feed from chaos after all…
On to the obvious subject…. Occasionally people inspect how non-American or non-European musicians incorporate their own native music to their projects. Sometimes this is even a decisive factor in concert and festival invitations. I know very well that you and most jazz musicians don’t feel obligations to what is local but I would like to ask if you are thinking about a project that would incorporate Japanese music.
Actually, noone should be analyzed outside of their own music and culture. I sing in Turkish most of the time. I adapt a different attitude while singing in English. Hearing your voice in Turkish makes music and interaction more personal, you cannot avoid that. Therefore, I don’t think it is right to search for local interactions only in music. I am intimidated by the local music genres at the same time. I don’t like to do anything “as if”, so I don’t want to deal with local genres without learning about them in depth. There are incredible musicians who play local instruments as if they are speaking, I am intimidated to delve into that world but this only applies to now… I have a music project in mind that is suitable to the form of haiku poems. I intend to write a bigger scale piece that consists of multiple parts. I started the preliminary work on this; I am reading about Japanese literature and am gathering knowledge on it. I will focus on this and write a piece when I find the opportunity. I will just say it is a piece for a soprano, double bass and piano. I find the idea unique and exciting. I won’t give many details here since my heart will be broken if I cannot bring this to reality.
We are waiting for the project with anticipation! Thank you for the interview Selen; see you soon!