Today’s post is a little different. It is not an interview with a professional artist, but with a young student named Carmen Kobayashi. Carmen is just beginning her studies of flamenco singing. She’s been around it her entire life, however, as her parents are both professional flamenco artists. She is half Japanese and half Spanish and her mom and brother operate a flamenco dance studio in Tokyo, Japan. In addition to flamenco, Carmen also studies acting and is pursuing a career in film as well. Her multicultural background and diverse creative pursuits give her a distinct perspective on art and on flamenco.
The interview was conducted April 23, 2018, in the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla. It will be presented over the course of several posts.
I’m Carmen Kobayashi, I’m half Japanese and half Spanish. I’m studying cante flamenco right now in Sevilla while I’m also pursuing acting.
What was your first experience with music?
I was born into a flamenco family; my dad was a cantaor (flamenco singer) and he used to work in the Baile Nacional. He used to do a lot of tours outside [of Spain]. And when my mom was young, she came to Sevilla to study baile (flamenco dancing). Right now she has a studio in Japan and teaches dance with my brother.
Where in Spain were they from, and where were you born?
I was born in Madrid and my dad was working at the Baile Nacional at that time. They got divorced and my mom, brother, and I moved to Japan. She opened her studio and she’s been teaching flamenco since then.
And you said with your brother. He dances too?
He’s more of an assistant and he also teaches. Sometimes they do performances there. I actually never wanted [to have] anything [to do] with flamenco.
When did you start studying flamenco?
I took a one-month intensive course and the Fundacion Cristina Heeren last July and I really liked it. Then I decided to do the one-year course which started last year in October, so it’s been about six or seven months. It hasn’t been long.
Has most of the flamenco that you’ve seen and been involved with been here or in Japan?
Mostly in Japan because we left Spain when I was very young. There’s this place in Japan called Garoche. A lot of groups from Spain used to go there and do shows, people like Antonio Canales and Rafael Amargo, many big artists. My mom used to take us there and I really liked watching flamenco. My dad was also invited many times and worked there. We knew people and we always had that flamenco environment. I liked it, but it wasn’t really my thing then.
What do you think is the difference between flamenco in Japan versus here?
I think in Japan people value it more. Here it’s everywhere, so people are like, “ah, flamenco.” But in Japan it’s, “wow, it’s flamenco!” People pay so much money to see flamenco and they appreciate the art more. I guess Japanese people really like flamenco because it’s the opposite culture. We still have the habit that… we don’t express ourselves emotionally. With flamenco they can. For them it’s something really new; with flamenco they can express themselves.
I’ve never been to Japan. I’ve had a number of different friends from Japan and they’ve said similar things. What type of expression in particular do they not allow in Japan that comes through in flamenco?
Well, I guess with flamenco they express themselves. But, in the culture… whenever you’re angry in Spain you’d scream or shout or whatever. You’d express what you feel, but in Japan, even when you’re angry, you’re not allowed to show it. If you screamed or shouted, they’d think you’re a bit of a crazy person. If you’re really sad, you don’t get to cry in the middle of the road.
That would be taken as a sign of weakness or something?
A sign of weakness or of being not educating, or not knowing how to control [yourself]. I feel like it’s coming from history. In Japan before, the man was first, you know. There’s a phrase that says that the woman is basically two or three steps behind. Whatever the guy said, she was like, “okay, okay, okay.” I think now it’s changing a little bit, but we still have that, and I still have that.
Do you feel like you have to act a certain way here, or are you able to flip the switch and act a different way when you’re in Spain?
Well, it’s really funny because sometimes when I’m here, I feel like I can express myself like Spanish people. I also have my Japanese side where I hide things, or I put up with the situation and say, “okay now I’m going to be calm and I’m not going to say anything.” Then sometimes I explode, and my teachers or classmates say, “whoa, the Spanish part came out!” (laughing). There was one time when I was at the compás (rhythm) class and I was translating in Japanese and everyone was saying, “oh my gosh, look, she’s speaking Japanese.” The first time, okay, the second time, okay, but after the third or fourth time I got really [annoyed], “Guys! Shut up, I can’t focus!” Everybody was so shocked, they didn’t think I would do that kind of thing (laughing). I was surprised at myself too, and this is okay! In Japan, it wouldn’t be okay.
People talk about the fact that flamenco is so expressive. Is there anything that flamenco doesn’t express for you?
That flamenco doesn’t express for me? Hmm, that’s a really tricky question. It’s not that flamenco doesn’t express something for me, it’s that I cannot express myself enough with flamenco yet. I guess that later on, I will be able to express all the emotions I have through flamenco. Since I’ve started studying cante flamenco, I’ve realized that this is really about opening my soul and expressing it. I thought I’d be able to do this easily because I’m not Japanese and I’m not Spanish so I have something to express. But because I was in Japan for so many years and I spent most of my adolescence there, it’s really hard for me to open up and transform and express everything.
What about when you’re watching a show? Is there a particular type of flamenco that you identify with more because of the expression it has? Do you feel like you go to see flamenco and learn it and study it everyday for a particular type of expression, or do you feel like you have to go to other art forms to fulfill yourself? Does flamenco give you all that you’re looking for?
All that I’m looking for… it’s actually in my acting. When I see films, that’s when I feel everything. When I see flamenco, it depends on the people performing. There are some cantaoras (singers) and some bailaoras (dancers) that bring out all my emotions. There are others that don’t make me feel anything. I guess it depends on that.
Do you feel like you identify more with your Spanish side or your Japanese side?
Ah… I don’t know. I feel like I’m more Spanish, then I feel like I’m more Japanese. I really cannot choose.
Tell me more about your experience with acting and how you got into that.
I always wanted to be an international actress. After graduating high school at 19 years old I went to New York City for four years to study acting for film and film-making. And after four years there, I couldn’t get [connected] to any agencies because of the visa and money. I went back to Japan and found an acting job for two and a half years. [It was] modeling and stuff like that.
Was the acting more for theater or film?
It was for short films, but it was mostly for modeling. I’m going to tell you why, because in Japan if you’re not 100 percent Japanese it’s hard to get [roles] as protagonists or even secondary roles. They really don’t have casting for foreign people. They wouldn’t take me as a Japanese [person] because of my appearance, so I couldn’t work. I felt totally lost, but instead of complaining I told myself I’d do everything I could do. I did so many castings and I was looking for agents but didn’t get anything I wanted. They wanted to work with me more as a model or someone in a comedy or TV show or something like that. I didn’t want to do that. Then I did one short film with my actress friend. We decided that if no one was going to see us, then we’re going to make a short film and send it to an international film festival. One got selected for the Ca’ Foscari festival in Italy, a small festival. But then after that we didn’t get anything. We were stuck. Then, I somehow got an email from Spain. They were looking for a Hispanic-Asian girl to do a short film. I was like, “Wow, this is weird. How did you [find] me?” She said that her roommate used to go to school with my brother when we were kids in Madrid. He was looking for a certain kind of profile. She said, “Ah, I think I know a guy, and I think he had a sister.” He searched for me on Google and I came up and he contacted me. My mom and I went to Malaga in October of 2016 and we filmed this film. I never thought of Spain as an option for acting. It was always America or Japan. I figured I’d try in Spain. The next year, in April of 2017 I came here and I studied video, books, acting reels, and regimen stuff. Within a week I got a contract with a big agent. I thought it was cool. Everything was good. But, here also, for casting a Japanese girl, I wasn’t Japanese enough. I got a little depressed and was a little lost. My mom said, “ you know, you always wanted to study cante.” It was true that I like cante flamenco. But I always thought I’d do it later when I had more time. My mom suggested I study as a sort of plan B. The actress thing was more long [term]. You can prepare, because in Japan there aren’t many singers or guitarists. You can prepare, so that in the future if you need money you have some skill. I thought that was good. My family and cousins are in Alcalá de Guadaíra, which is in [the province of Sevilla] and that’s when I did the one month intensive course.
What are your goals with both singing and acting?
My goals for acting are to be in Spanish films and later to go to America, to Hollywood. That would be my biggest dream. Since I can speak Spanish, Japanese, and English, I want to use that talent in some way and contribute, to act, to express my emotions, and touch people through film. With singing, I want to be number one in Japan just because there aren’t many singers [and there especially aren’t many young ones]. The level is also pretty low compared to Spain. Here you can find good singers everywhere, but in Japan maybe there are five. It’s a really small amount.
I know there’s a lot of flamenco in Tokyo. Is there much outside of Tokyo as well?
Outside of Tokyo? Yeah. Tokyo is the number one place, but I think there’s some everywhere in Japan. There are so many flamenco studios in Japan. Sometimes, when I’m really relaxed, things come out that I didn’t think was in me. I call my mom and tell her. She realizes that this thing I’ve been around since I was a kid is coming out now.
What has helped you so far in your flamenco training? What is working well and what are you struggling with?
The thing that’s going well is that, because of my dad, I have a [natural] melisma and vibrato. People train to get that, but I have it naturally.
I’m struggling with the pressure I feel from my dad, like I’m in his shadow. It’s kind of blocking me. I feel like I should be better than him or that, since I’m his daughter I should be better than I am. I’m also struggling to discover myself. In flamenco, everyday is a fight with myself. “I’m going to bring myself out. I’m going to open up. I’m going to bring my soul.” I’m fighting my fears. Somedays I win, other days I lose. Flamenco helps me find myself more than acting. Acting allows you to imagine and create [different] things. In flamenco, the real person comes out, whether or not you like it. It really has to do with personality and it allows me to discover new parts of myself. It’s a good [thing], even though it’s a struggle.
This post is Part 1 of Carmen’s interview. For additional excerpts of this interview and others, click Follow at bottom left to follow the blog and receive email updates.
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Click here to read the Fundación Cristina Heeren’s article about Carmen
Lose yourself in the music and the fears will follow.