Shamisen star Noriko Tadano on culture, music, mentors

Japanese musician Noriko Tadano has carved out a niche for herself in the Australian music scene. She has a rare talent coupled with charm and professionalism which has seen her career go from strength to strength over the past decade, gracing festival stages around Australia, and building a solid reputation as a solo artist.

Noriko Tadano | image credit – Lauren Connelly

Tadano began playing the shamisen at the age of six while growing up in Chiba, Japan. She learned the craft from her father and recounts that she begged him to learn it after first hearing him play. Tadano travelled around Tokyo performing the shamisen with her sister and father as part of a music ensemble, and continued studying traditional Japanese music until the age of fifteen.

Her adult life in Japan saw her working long hours that didn’t inspire her at all. She recalls “before coming to Australia I was working 9am to 11pm and working so hard. I didn’t want to do that with my life, so I quit.” In 2004, she travelled to Australia to work as a Japanese language teacher on a temporary visa. She thought that introducing her Australian students to the traditional music of her culture would be a valuable learning experience, so she shared her shamisen skills with them. The music skills she had acquired throughout her childhood were useful in her new profession, however, she would later realise that being a musician would be a viable career option.

“Australians showed a positive interest in my music. I felt it could be my vocation.” While working as a language teacher, she didn’t consider music to be a serious career path but she kept coming back to it. She was living off her savings acquired from working in Japan and thought of supplementing her income by busking on the streets of Melbourne. It was there that she met fellow musicians who would later become instrumental in her music career.

The first was George Kamikawa, a Japanese Blues musician, who would soon become her collaborator in the duo George and Noriko. Their combined talent saw them reach the grand final of Australia’s Got Talent in 2012. They have since performed on many festival stages around the country and will be collaborating this month as part of the Adelaide Guitar Festival.

George and Noriko | image supplied

The second musician to mentor Tadano was Toshi Sakamoto, a Japanese Taiko drummer who invited Tadano to be part of his band. She had six months remaining on her temporary visa, so she thought it would be a great opportunity to enrich her experience of Australia. Together they toured around Australia and performed school workshops educating children about traditional Japanese music. Tadano says “performing to kids is amazing, it gives me energy”.

Following this tour, Tadano tried to apply for an entertainment visa to extend her stay in Australia, which was challenging. As it happened, her boyfriend at the time became her husband and manager. Tadano says “[Simon] committed to stay with me forever”, and as a result of this union Tadano was granted permanent residency, and Australia gained another fine musician.

Tadano now works steadily as an independent musician and this month she will be performing in the Adelaide Folk Festival in addition to her tour with Kamikawa. When asked about how she started she modestly replied “in the beginning I started with open mics, I needed to promote myself. If they don’t know me, they won’t hire me. I just applied for many events and festivals regardless of the fee. Year by year, I raised my fee and negotiated [with clients]”.

In addition to this, Tadano describes how she observed audience tastes for live entertainment. “I tried to see what people are interested in. If I play a super traditional piece for ten minutes, [audiences] will probably be sleeping in a chair. I balance my set with excitement and I try to explain what I’m singing when I sing in Japanese. I tell stories beforehand so they can connect with me and my performance”.

Having benefited from the mentorship of musicians Kamikawa and Sakamoto, Tadano also acknowledges the support of arts organisations such as Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP) founded by Annette Shun Wah, and Nexus Arts directed by Emily Tulloch, for giving her a platform to hone her skills as an artist. “I’m still learning from other artists. CAAP and Nexus Arts are amazing!”.

The On the Road tour for the Adelaide Guitar Festival will be running from Friday 8 July to Sunday 24 July in various venues across South Australia. George and Noriko will be performing between Friday 15 July and Sunday 17 July. More information about the duo can be found here. Tadano also features in the lineup for the Adelaide Folk Festival here.

The full On the Road program is available here. The Umbrella Festival will be running between Friday 1 July and Sunday 31 July in various venues across South Australia. You can check out the full complete Umbrella Festival program here.

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