Kumiko Tsumori is Japanese, from Osaka, but feels the most traditional Portuguese in her soul. In recent years, she has become a regular in Lisbon fado houses and even released two albums.
“Fado is a part of me. Just like Amália Rodrigues sings in the song ‘Foi Deus’, ‘I feel that my soul inside calms with the verses I sing’. Only when I started as a fado singer did I find my place in the world.” In truth, only such a special affinity can explain why fado has been Kumiko Tsumori’s destiny for the last ten years. She discovered the musical genre in Japan: “I was encouraged to sing fado by a friend of mine who was learning to play Portuguese guitar with the musician António Parreira. As soon as I heard fado, I fell in love with it. It was a revelation”.
From December 2003, Kumiko began to perform at shows in Portuguese restaurants and bars in Japan. The artist still remembers the first time she sang fado in public: “Despite having some experience in theatre and being used to being on stage, I was very nervous and my pronunciation wasn’t very good. Apart from that, people were surprised to see and hear a Japanese woman singing fado. However, they weren’t the only ones. At the beginning, my family also reacted the same way when they discovered that I had the soul of a fado singer, because this type of music is virtually unknown in Japan”. Kumiko admits that fado is still a bit of a mystery in Japan, although it does have its admirers. For her, this general ignorance of fado is just one example of the “barriers” that separate the two countries: “In Japan, there are lots pre-conceived ideas about Portugal, which need to be dispelled. Most people continue to associate Portugal with football. Virtually the only well-known Portuguese figures are Eusébio and Cristiano Ronaldo. But the same thing happens in reverse. In Portugal, people often ask me if the Japanese eat sushi every day!”
Kumiko visited Portugal for the first time in May, 2005. Her stay in the country was constantly interrupted by trips to her homeland, which meant the fado singer was able to find similarities between the two nations: “The character of the two people is very similar. Both the Portuguese and Japanese are reserved, friendly and serene. However, there are clear differences. In Japan, punctuality is sacred. It’s rare for a concert to start late, which is something more common in Portugal”. Living in this part of Europe has also been very important to her career, and Kumiko is a regular in a number of Lisbon fado houses, such as Velho Páteo de Sant´Ana: “I’ve had both good and bad experiences at Velho Páteo. In the first shows, there were customers who laughed at me and my pronunciation. That upset me a lot. But, luckily, I always had the support of António Parreira, my friend and mentor, Dona Rosalina, the owner of Velho Páteo, and other colleagues who told me not to give up. They helped me understand that it doesn’t matter if you’re foreign, because my soul belongs to fado”. In the meantime, Kumiko has released two albums of fados: Flor (2007) and Cheira a Lisboa (2009). The artist highlights the latter as a work influenced by her experience in Portugal: “The second CD tries to transmit the atmosphere of a typical Lisbon fado house. All of the songs that I sing are fados that I learnt at the Velho Páteo de Sant´Ana. This album is also important to me because I was able to work with Portuguese guitarists I admire so much, like António Parreira and Guilherme Carvalhais”.
Knowing her destiny was to spend a lot of time in the country, she decided to improve her Portuguese at Lisbon’s Faculdade de Letras: “Although I’ve enjoyed learning a new language, I still have problems. In Japan, we have an alphabet and grammar that is totally different to Portuguese. But I’ve tried very hard, because I think that it’s always worth overcoming these linguistic barriers. I want to be ever closer to Portugal, a country that has welcomed my art with open arms”.
by Igor Garcia Pires