Last week I saw an unusual busker at the railway station.
Taro Hakase is a household name in his native Japan. As a violinist, he is equally at home in the worlds of classical and pop music.
He’s best known internationally for playing on Celine Dion’s song ‘To Love You More’, and he has played with many well-known Japanese pop artists. A composer himself, he has recorded many of his own tracks, as well as writing theme tunes for popular TV dramas, All Nippon Airways and Shinsei bank.
So it was a rare privilege to be standing less than ten feet away from him at St Pancras station last Tuesday, as he played an impromptu free concert in aid of the Japanese disaster relief effort. Every day last week he played at a different venue in London.
A crowd gathered to hear him play, including plenty of Japanese, but also – to judge from the messages in different languages on the Japanese flags spread at his feet – people of many nationalities. While he played, collections were taken for the British Red Cross relief effort in Japan.
Hakase-san’s playing was superb, accompanied by another violinist and a keyboard player. He didn’t speak much, but he didn’t need to – you could feel the emotions through his music.
Standing there among the crowd in the middle of a busy station was an odd experience, as if an invisible cathedral had materialised in the middle of the evening rush-hour. Most people stood and listened silently. A few were in tears.
I was there because I’d heard about Hakase from my wife, who is Japanese. We’re lucky that our family and friends in Japan are all OK, but we are obviously particularly concerned about the situation.
Hakase said in a BBC interview that when he heard the news of the earthquake and tsunami, he spent two days passing on useful messages on Twitter (@tarohakaseHATS) but then realised he wanted “to do something for Japan as a musician“.
It’s easy to be cynical about the value of the arts in the face of a disaster on the scale of a 9.0 earthquake. We even have a ready-made phrase for dismissing art as impractical: ‘Fiddling while Rome burns.’ But reflecting on the railway concert, it struck me that Hakase’s concerts are valuable in several different ways.
On a practical level, he is raising money for the relief effort. Yes, Japan is a rich country and much better prepared than most for earthquakes and tsunamis. But it’s clear that the sheer scale of the disaster has stretched the infrastructure beyond breaking point, and thousands of people have still not received the help they need.
Secondly, the music itself offers a form of consolation to the listeners, or at least a way of tuning into feelings that are hard to express.
It also provides a focal point for people to come together for mutual support. Hakase said in the BBC interview:
I started off thinking “What can I do? But now I feel “What can we do?”
And maybe it’s not too romantic to say that by sharing their art at a time of crisis, musicians – or any artists – can reaffirm the human spirit, by providing us with a touchstone for beauty as a counterweight to horror and destruction.
What do you think?
What value – if any – does art have in the context of a great disaster?
Is there a piece of music, art or writing that has helped you at a time of crisis?
If you’d like to contribute to the Japanese disaster relief effort, you can do so via this page. And if you’d like to help spread the word, maybe you could share that link with your friends, Twitter followers, blog readers etc.
About the author: Mark McGuinness writes about creativity, productivity and creative entrepreneurship at Lateral Action.