A trio of local musicians adopt Japan's national instrument.

If you encounter the Columbus Koto Ensemble, you'll notice that the musicians produce music as traditionally Japanese as the kimonos they wear. You will also notice that the women themselves are not Japanese. Instead, they are a trio of white Central Ohioans who happen to be committed to this Eastern art form and to an instrument unfamiliar to most Americans.

For many listeners, the trio's performance is a respectful tribute to another country's culture. For others, it may raise questions about cultural appropriation.

“It's something we always think about and try to be sensitive to,” says Julie Palmer, 35, one of the group's original members. “The right answer is not always very clear.”

The koto, a 6-foot-long instrument with 13 to 17 strings, is not easy for a Westerner to learn and master. In fact, Palmer and bandmate Jessica Entis, 39, began taking lessons while working in Japan. Though they didn't know each other at the time, both spent a year teaching English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Back in Columbus, they started playing with an existing koto ensemble, through which they met and decided to perform as a duo at events such as the annual Columbus Asian Festival.

The third ensemble member, piano and yoga teacher Lori Fannin, 56, had to learn the instrument without the benefit of visiting its home country. Palmer, one of Fannin's yoga students, recruited her in early 2014 to fill in for a pregnant Entis, whose due date conflicted with a scheduled gig. “She said, ‘You've got six months to learn the stuff,'” Fannin recalls. “And I said, ‘Sure, let's do it!'”

Even with Palmer's help, Fannin adds, learning the instrument was difficult because the instructional materials were in Japanese. But her musical background helped her to rise to the challenge of playing a seemingly simple instrument that requires complex techniques to bring out its subtle nuances.

Why take on an instrument that is so difficult to learn outside of its native land? Ensemble members say the challenge is part of the appeal, along with the opportunity to share the foreign music with American audiences. For Entis, playing the koto is also a way of remembering the time she spent in Japan. “I loved being part of that culture even though I was only there for a year,” she says. “So playing the koto kind of reconnects me to that experience.”

Since its formation in 2014, the Columbus Koto Ensemble has become a staple at the Asian Festival and at Ohayocon, an annual celebration of Japanese anime. At such events, the members' ethnicity has not been a problem—they are simply seen as honoring another country's culture. But when they scheduled a 2017 appearance at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, campus sensitivities over cultural identity forced them to adopt a cautious approach. At an organizer's suggestion, they decided to forgo the kimonos traditionally worn when playing Japan's national instrument.

Entis explains that performing in street clothes was an attempt to avoid the kind of protests that had arisen over an unrelated previous event at Antioch. However, she stresses that the ensemble practices cultural “appreciation rather than appropriation.”

“My feeling is it's not appropriation in the sense that we're mocking or making use of another culture out of context,” she says. “We honor the culture.”

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Top to bottom, Jessica Entis, Julie Palmer and Lori Fannin

Photo by Tim Johnson