Cardiff-Tochigi duo Celtic Wind help boost folk music appeal (and Irish are stunned by dry gigs)
Down a rain-slicked back alley in Chigasaki, the sound of The Waterboys’ A Man Is in Love wafts from the windows of a second-floor bar. The singer’s voice is deep and mellow; the flute-player’s notes hang in the air hauntingly.
Paul Williams and Yuko Hamamoto are running through a selection of traditional and contemporary folk-soul songs they perform as Celtic Wind.
“We have about 300 songs in our playbook and I couldn’t name a favourite because there are just so many that are good and suit the mood on any given evening”, said 52-year-old Williams, who is originally from Cardiff and first came to Japan in 1986.
“I love singing in Welsh”, he said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m fluent in the language, but I learned it for eight years in school and I don’t have a problem singing in Welsh”.
Hamamoto, however, does have a personal favourite. Llwyn Onn (The ash grove) she said has “a beautiful melody and an interesting story that runs through it”.
Hamamoto has been playing the flute for 30 years and is a trained classical musician. She mostly focused on jazz and classical pieces until meeting Williams in 2002, when she took part in one of his workshops in Hawaii. They met up again after he returned to Japan in 2006 and they formed Celtic Wind in late 2009.
Today, Hamamoto is one of a handful of Japanese female flautists who perform traditional Celtic music, although the genre is gradually attracting a broader following, according to Williams.
“Irish people are amazed when they come here and see Japanese people doing all these old tunes, and it’s great”, he said. “And they’re also amazed that most of them are not drinking at the same time”.
Williams came to Japan after growing tired of living in Britain, although in his twenties he had been playing with a folk-country-rock band called Charlie Don’t Surf. He spent 13 years in Hiroshima as an English teacher—and, inevitably, played music—before moving to Hawaii for seven years, where he practiced healing therapy and played in the bars of Kauai and Honolulu.
He returned to Japan in 2006 and now lives near the beach in Kamakura. And while he admits making a living from playing music is a tough proposition, he has not quite given up on it yet.
Celtic Wind have performed live at the St. Andrew’s Society’s celebrations to mark Burns’ Night and for the St. David’s Society. They also perform at numerous Irish bars in and around Tokyo, including the Dubliners in Ikebukuro and Seamus O’Hara in Meguro.
“It’s really not like a job at all”, said Williams. “There is a melody that runs through all Celtic music, but it’s really the words that count. The story is fundamental to the entire piece”.
Williams first started playing the guitar at age 19, but also strums a mandolin in a five-piece band called Mutiny, which plays more of a “thrash-folk” genre, he said.
Williams and Hamamoto launch into a Ewan McColl number, Bright Blue Rose, with the flute notes piercingly clear and the vocals probably reminiscent of Williams’ father, who had a reputation for taking on Tom Jones numbers and Danny Boy in the pub.