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MUHS student takes traditional American music to Japan

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Posted on December 21, 2017 |
By John Flowers



Romy3877.jpg
MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School sophomore Romy Munkres recently returned from a trip to Japan during which she and fellow young musicians performed traditional American songs. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

CORNWALL — Romy Munkres enjoys marching to her own tune, which last month led her from her native Addison County to the Japanese prefecture of Tottori. There, she and four other Vermont youths spent nine days performing traditional American music for their Japanese peers at a major art festival.

The trip was organized by a group called “Young Tradition Vermont,” or YTV — a non-profit organization that seeks to inspire young musicians to embrace traditional forms of music and dance. Participants are urged to share their artistic gifts with others, which has resulted in YTV members traveling to other nations for performances.

Munkres, a 15-year-old Middlebury Union High School student, is tailor-made for YTV. She’s been playing the flute since she was in 5th grade and began playing violin at age 6. The Cornwall resident also studies and performs traditional Irish dance at the McFadden Academy in Colchester.

“I really like using music as a way to communicate with other people who might not speak a common language,” Munkres said.

It also doesn’t hurt that her parents play music in the Red Dog Riley ensemble and her younger brother is also an accomplished musician.

When YTV officials invited Munkres to make the trip to Japan — her first ever to Asia — she accepted without hesitation. Mark Sustic, YTV’s touring group manager, had helped organize the nine-day sojourn through a cultural exchange with the Tottori Prefecture in southwestern Japan.

Tottori Prefecture and the state of Vermont have had relations for over a decade, including activities associated with Middlebury College and the Shoreham-based nonprofit Green Across the World. GATW collaborated with YTV and the Tottori government to make arrangements for this trip. 

The Tottori Prefecture paid for everything except the students’ air transportation. Munkres saved up to help pay her airfare.

Munkres and her crew left Burlington on Nov. 13, stopping in Beijing and Tokyo before arriving in Tottori.

They had a busy itinerary, replete with musical performances at two Tottori high schools and at a local festival that celebrates musical diversity. They also found time to visit cultural and recreational sites, including some hot springs and the region’s most famous tourist attraction: The Tottori Sand Dunes. Located just outside the main city of Kurayoshi, the dunes span roughly 10 miles of coast along of the Sea of Japan and are up to two kilometers wide and 160 feet high.

Munkres was impressed with the dunes, as well as the related sand museum and sand sculptures that had been expertly crafted there.

Group members were warmly greeted wherever they went — particularly at the high schools, Munkres recalled. Since Tottori is one of the least populated areas of Japan, some of the Japanese students had never met Americans before. So the YTV visitors, and the traditional music they performed, provided “first-ever” experiences for the local students.

“They were all really nice and generally excited to meet us,” Munkres recalled with a smile. “This is a type of music they have probably never heard before. But they were still able to find joy in it.”

They were also intrigued by Sustic’s beard, and ended up nicknaming him “Dumbledore” — the shaggy-chinned headmaster of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter book series.

One of the YTV performers had long hair, which earned him the moniker “Justin Bieber,” according to Munkres.

“It was kind of an interesting insight into what part of our culture is over there,” she said.

They mostly played traditional American tunes, along with a mixture of Cape Breton, Scottish and Irish music. They also sang some songs.

“People seemed to really like them,” Munkres said of the performances. “Traditional music is designed to be very ‘happy.’ And people seemed happy when we were playing for them.”

Each high school visit saw the YTV group play a few musical selections — usually to a music class. Then, in the spirit of exchange, the Japanese students would play a selection for their American guests.

At one of the high schools, Vermont group members were invited to play a Japanese instrument called the Koto — a sort of harp. They first heard the Japanese music teacher play the Koto.

They were blown away.

“It was incredible,” Munkres said. “It was something I had never heard before. It was beautiful.”

   ROMY MUNKRES, A Middlebury Union High School sophomore, plays on the left with other Vermont youth at a music festival in Japan. Above, she and poses with a new friend made on her trip.

Courtesy photos

Munkres and her colleagues also got to play an original classical musical selection with a school orchestra.

“It was a song written by a man from Tottori,” Munkres said of the selection, which included choir singers. “It was really cool that they were having us play on this song about their prefecture.”

Young Tradition Vermont visitors got a taste of what their Japanese hosts consider to be the flavors of Vermont. Munkres sampled what their hosts called “Vermont Curry,” consisting of apples and honey.

They also met the governor of the Tottori Prefecture.

“He talked about how important music is in connecting people, when there is somewhat of a language barrier,” Munkres recalled. “He was very welcoming.”

YTV organizes trips each year, and Munkres is eager to continue to be a part of exporting traditional American music to all corners of the globe. Last year, she accompanied the group to Cape Breton in Eastern Canada. She made a recent performance trip to Ireland, and is scheduled to participate in a YTV odyssey in Scotland next April.

“It helps youth keep traditional music going,” Munkres said of the group’s efforts.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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