Anna Saeki, a tango singer, has been delighting audiences all over the world for 21 years. After being crowned Miss Sapporo, she made her debut as a tango singer and her talent has kept blooming as an actor, musical theater performer, and TV host since then. Through these experiences, she has established her own world of music by integrating different cultures’ music with her highly individual style. In this interview, she tells us about how she started promoting international exchange through tango, and thoughts about New York; as it was the first place she performed abroad.
Interview with Anna Saeki
– You have been singing on stage all over the world, and we heard that New York became a very special place for you; it was a turning point as a tango singer. Could you tell us about that?
Actually, going abroad itself was the turning point for me, but New York became special since it was the first place I went. S.O.B.’s was my first stage. I was very nervous before the concert because people told me that the audience in New York was very critical so they would boo or leave if they didn’t like a performer. But in fact, so many people came and enjoyed my performance. We all had a wonderful time. After that, I had another concert in New York and I think I got off to a good start. However, to tell you the truth, once I received a critique that my relatively clear voice was unsuitable for singing tango. In Argentina, most tango singers have a hoarse and croaky voice, so my voice is not mainstream. When I just started singing in Japan, some people disapproved so I gave some serious thought to it. A few years after the concert at S.O.B.’s, I performed in New York and Paris without a break. After the concerts, writers from both local newspapers said to me, “Your voice is really good”; it was as if ‘the scales fell from my eyes’ when I heard a writer saying, ” Your voice is very new and original unlike other tango singers.” I guess I always had the critique about my voice somewhere in my mind, but the compliment made me so relieved and pleased. At that moment, I felt I was right about not giving up being a tango singer. In my mind I was saying, “I wasn’t wrong! My voice wasn’t wrong!” That gave me a supportive push so I was determined more than ever to try my best as a tango singer. This is why New York became the special place for me.
–You have mentioned that you had another memorable concert before. Why is it so unforgettable?
I guess somehow I am closely connected to New York. I can’t forget the charity concert at Florence Gould Hall in 2001—the year that the 9/11 attacks occurred. On September 11th, I was having a recording session for my new tango album in Paris. I was recording an Astor Piazzolla’s song called “Las Ciudades” when the attacks occurred. To my surprise, the lyrics of the song were similar to what happened in New York City—”Let’s build a new city on this empty space.” We already scheduled the concert in New York so I was really shocked. Surrounding me, everybody had a different opinion about me going to New York, but a staff member in New York said, “Especially in this kind of time, people would appreciate your songs.” I thought about what I could do, and the answer was to go and sing for people in New York. So we changed the concert to a charity concert. Since people in New York embraced me whenever I went there, I was not afraid of going to Paris. Because of the success in New York, I could go to many countries with unshakable courage. That’s why I am really thankful for the people of New York.
– Your impression of New York must has been changed over time—before going to New York and after having done many concerts. Now, what do you think about New York?
For me, New York is a city where I am able to challenge something new. I always had some transitions in New York, and I have special feelings for the city in many ways. In fact, I’m going to sing both tango and folklore for the first time in my next performance in New York. I get a bit nervous when I think of the feedback, but anyway I am going to try. I want to try. New York lets me try. That is my impression of New York. Also I have to say that things change rapidly in New York. So many things come and go but people are used to it and live with it naturally.
They take such changes for granted and flow with it. This environment allows me to think that I could try something new without hesitation. It is the power this land has, or I could say, this place is the world’s leader of ‘movement’. And the speed of the ‘movement’ was faster than I imagined. In New York, once people like you, they treat you warmly. In time you might, if you will, change yourself or your style along with the speed of New York, and people will just accept you and the change naturally. They are always positive about changes. Whenever I try something new, I get positive remarks as, “Wow, how did you change your singing like that? You sing folklore, and salsa? Great! Cool!”
Today, while I was singing a salsa song for a TV show, everybody in the studio was dancing along. Their spirits are really different, really ‘New York’, and the energy is tremendous. However, this trait of New York can be very harsh when you look at it from another point of view. If I make one false move, people would dislike or denigrate me. I would say that I was fortunate to be welcomed by people in New York. I am really glad and appreciate it. I am always thankful and that is the same for my staff. Because they love me as a singer and work with me with warm feelings, I could establish my world of music. There are many things I can’t achieve alone. So wherever I go, I am always thankful to be working with such wonderful staff members.
–As you work abroad, you must have found something you hadn’t known about Japan. How does Japan look from your point of view? What do you say about the way foreigners think about Japan?
If I divide Japanese culture in two parts, calmness and movement, calmness takes the greater part of it. I learned Ikebana (flower arrangement) and Koto (Japanese harp), and I felt such a tradition and culture are something comforting. I think we find the ‘movement’ part of culture more in others, so that makes Japanese ‘calm’ culture stand out and I really like that. In fact, there are many foreigners who are interested in the ‘calm’ culture of Japan. There is the world’s largest Japanese garden in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There are many people that are interested in Zen (the practice of Buddhism in Japan). I think the beauty of Japanese culture is the ‘calm’ part of it. Japanese animation for example, is popular in many other countries. That’s what people are intrigued by, since it’s different from what they have. But actually there are people who still think that all of Japan is like Kyoto, so I tell them it isn’t so. Now Sushi is very popular in most parts of the world and Japanese people are considered as health-conscious and hard-working; overall, we have a good reputation.
– You have been promoting international exchange through tango. Could you tell us about that in detail?
In my 20-year anniversary CD “CONCIERTO DE ANNA”, I made Japanese lyrics to a song called “El dia que me quieras” which is very famous among people of all ages. Everybody was really surprised and said, “This song was reborn in Japanese lyrics. You have created a new style in tango.” I believe that blending tango with the Japanese language can be one kind of international exchange or cultural exchange I can bring. Some Japanese people said to me, “I like the way you sound with Japanese words”, “I rediscovered the beauty of Japanese” and some foreigners said, “You made me want to learn Japanese”, “I’d like to visit Japan now.” Such compliments make me really happy. I feel that my mission is to be a bridge between Japan and other countries through tango music. Sometimes I wear a Kimono on stage and by doing so, people living in foreign countries can see how the Kimono, a part of Japanese culture, looks. Also, language is the other example of this. Japanese is a language of a small island and sort of monolingual so I’d like to spread the beauty of this language. So when someone says to me that the person likes the sound of my Japanese, I am really pleased. That’s why I always use some Japanese words when I sing, and wear a Kimono in foreign countries. I’m going to continue doing such things to show our beautiful culture to the world.