I often comb YouTube looking for videos of Japanese ukulele players. Yesterday I decided to fiddle with my search filter a bit but got frustrated. I kept seeing dozens of videos of Japanese playing コーヒールンバ、"Coffee Rumba". Many had high view counts. The one I clicked on was played well and the tune was very catchy, but strangely I'd never heard it before. I doubt you have either.
I searched on the title, which lead to one thing, then another, and lo and behold I realized that I'd stumbled on an interesting story.
Coffee Rumba was composed by Venezuelan Hugo Blanco when he was just 18 years old. The tune soon became a number 1 hit in Argentina and Japan, where in 1961 it was recorded by singer Nishida Sachiko. (Click on the album cover above to hear it.) As a sign of just how insular Japan still was at the time, when asked if she drank coffee, Nishida replied, "What's that?". It's reported she did eventually pick up the habit.
A word about Blanco (1940 - 2015). At 15 Blanco taught himself to play the cuatro (you can read about it here), a ukulele-like 4-string instrument also hailing from Portugal. Three short years later he composed Moliendo Cafe, which became Coffee Rumba in Japan. After that tune climbed the charts Blanco went on to fuse Cuban and a popular Venezuelan style of music called joropo, into what is now known as "orquídea". You can hear Blanco's version of the tune here. I love the cool maracas in the background!
Here's my take-away from this. As an American I'm used to our music being the worldwide inspiration for almost everything musical. That this tune never made it to the US charts yet blossomed in Latin American and Japan shouldn't surprise me. Yet it does. But this too gives me hope.
Music is an international language in which we are all fluent. We may not understand the words but we recognize the emotions behind what is played and that brings us closer together.
Viva la musica! 音楽万歳！ Long Live Music!
I'm an amateur ukulele player who happens to be fluent in Japanese. I hope that I can inspire you to learn more about the ukulele, Japan, or better yet, BOTH!