x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Musical fusion gets a definite thumbs up

Japanese musician enjoys an award-winning career playing the thumb piano.

One of Africa's most traditional instruments, the thumb piano, may look a little out of place in the hands of Sakaki Mango, a Japanese musician who has adopted it as his own.

Over the past decade, Mango has become known in his native Japan for mixing the sound of the traditional hand-held metal and wood instrument with songs he composes and sings in Japanese.

The result is a rare and quirky fusion that intrigues - and at times puzzles - traditional players of the thumb piano, also known as the lamellophone.

"It's a very special instrument," said Mango, 37, and one that has won him "world music" awards in Japan for his three albums released in 2005, 2008 and 2011 - a modest success in a country that otherwise idolises pop stars.

The musician's fascination with Africa started as a teenager when he came face to face with an African for the first time, having previously seen black faces only on television. He decided to study the language Swahili in Osaka before setting off to Tanzania, where he discovered the pianos in local villages.

Part of Africa's musical heritage, thumb pianos have been used over the ages to celebrate marriages and to invoke ancestral spirits.

Mango noted that traditional "players are always changing the tune until it fits their voice", so he did the same. He often sings in the dialect of his native island of Kyushu in southern Japan to "stay connected with my roots".