“Sensei”, a diminutive older woman, teaches Janet Pocorobba how to play the shamisen, a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument. It is hard to tune and exactly how much “ma” or dead space to leave between the notes is constantly vexing. Sensei is of the view that the shamisen, and traditional music in general, is much neglected by the younger generation little interested their own culture. Disgusted by this attitude, Sensei turns to teaching foreigners to keep the music alive.

When psychedelic rock music came to Southeast Asia via American GIs during the Vietnam War, it greatly influenced the music scene in Cambodia. Cambodian Rock Band, a new play running in Chicago through May 12 celebrates this resulting music that not only abruptly went away in 1975, but for the most part hasn’t been performed since then. Playwright Lauren Yee centers her story around the interaction of fictional band called The Cyclos with the very real person who directed the terror of the Tuol Sleng torture center, a former school that was converted in a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Only seven people survived Tuol Sleng.

The Fourth String: A Memoir of Sensei and Me, Janet Pocorobba (Stone Bridge Press, March 2019)
The Fourth String: A Memoir of Sensei and Me, Janet Pocorobba (Stone Bridge Press, March 2019)

The word sensei in Japanese literally means “one who came before,” but that’s not what Janet Pocorobba’s teacher wanted to be called. She used her first name, Western-style. She wore a velour Beatles cap and leather jacket, and she taught foreigners, in English, the three-stringed shamisen, an instrument that fell out of tune as soon as you started to play it. Vexed by the music and Sensei’s mission to upend an elite musical system, Pocorobba, on the cusp of thirty, gives up her return ticket home to become a lifelong student of her teacher. She is eventually featured in Japan Cosmo as one of the most accomplished gaijin, “outside people”, to play the instrument.

Hong Kong is currently going through something of an identity crisis, both literally and figuratively. The literal crisis is the rise of a so-called “localist” political movement, some proponents of which have even called for Hong Kong independence. The more figurative crisis are the regular pronouncements that Hong Kong is having difficulty working out its place within China and the wider world.