This Japanese-Emirati music movement is changing the score for cultural exchange
It has been said that music is the great unifier, and that no matter your nationality, gender or age, if there’s one thing that can bring us together, it’s the universal language of a great tune or a toe-tapping beat.
It’s an ethos that the team from local cross-cultural music collective Kharsha Drums stand behind wholeheartedly.
Founded by Japanese resident Yotaro Matsutani and Emirati Taryam Mohamed Alkatheeri, the group march to the beat of their own drum – literally – as they play traditional Japanese wadaiko percussion performances across the UAE in a bid to unite the two countries through music.
The rhythm of life
“Kharsha means excitement, movement,” begins Yotaro, who spent the first half of his life in Abu Dhabi and now splits his time between the Middle East and the Far East as part of a drumming troupe in his native Tokyo.
“I spent my childhood here, but I’d never had the chance to interact with Emirati people or their culture. When I came back as an exchange student with Zayed University, I brought my drum back with me and began drumming by myself.”
It was at that point that he met Taryam, and as the pair began drumming together, they decided to form Kharsha Drums in homage to both of their cultures.
“I wanted to drum as a kid, but my mum never let me,” Taryam laughs. “When I saw my first performance and the way they move and play simultaneously, it reminded me of dancing. The beats and the rhythm, it’s unified and exact – I love that.”
Yotaro agrees: “In Japanese drumming, there’s no maestro. We have to unite the beat by synchronising together. It’s something between a martial art and music; there’s rhythm and harmony, discipline and teamwork.”
It’s in the group’s vibrant costumes that there’s the most visible sign of the cultural connections at play.
Custom-designed by Yotaro, the stylised kandoras worn by the group’s male members fuse elements of classic Emirati tailoring and Japanese culture with flared skirts allowing the performers to move more freely, while the female drummers wear the Japanese happi – a style of coat worn at festival – over their abayas.
While the band certainly looks the part, its members are trying to do something a little different on a musical score, too.
“What we’re trying to do now is bring in Emirati drumming to make the performance a true unity,” Yotaro says. “Emirati drumming is more about sound and tone and the base rhythm sounds like it’s hopping, while Japanese drums are louder and the rhythm is flatter.”
Taryam adds: “The Khaleeji drum is so different to the Japanese one. For us, the drums originated from the people of the sea. They’d travel for so long, pearl diving and fishing, and they’d bring the drum and make up simple songs – this was their form of entertainment. We want to show people that these music styles can fuse together. Music helps us understand other cultures.”
As more drummers have joined the show and the group has extended its reach, its members have discovered that the two cultures, at first sight different, may have more in common than they were aware of.
“I used to think the UAE and Japan were so far away, both in distance and culture-wise, but there are so many similarities,” Yotaro reflects.
It’s something Amna Ali Aldarmaki, one of the group’s core members, agrees with.
“We both care so much about hospitality, tradition and culture,” she says. “When I go [to Japan], I feel like I’m among family. The more we find out about different cultures, the more we find out we’re all the same.”
WORDS Camille Hogg