Faculty, staff and alumni bring Centre to Japan for Kentucky Bluegrass Week

The fall semester may have ended, but half a world away, thirteen members of the Centre College and Danville communities are taking part in an important cultural exchange.

The delegation—comprised of Centre faculty, staff, students and alumni, along with representatives from local businesses—is in Japan for Kentucky Bluegrass Week, an opportunity for those in the Yamaguchi Prefecture to learn about the culture of Kentucky, including its traditional music, food, drink, pastimes and customs.

“This interactive exchange of arts and culture helps us all to see that, while we are different, we are very much the same,” says Steve Hoffman, executive director of the Norton Center for the Arts and a key organizer of Kentucky Bluegrass Week.

Many of the events will take place at Yamaguchi Prefectural University (YPU), Centre’s exchange partner in western Japan since 1999. Over the years, Centre and YPU students have studied abroad on each other’s campuses—and professors from each institution also participate in an annual faculty exchange.

Robert Schalkoff, a former faculty member at YPU who joined Centre as director of the Lincoln Scholars Program in the summer of 2016, has played a key role in putting together Kentucky Bluegrass Week. He looks forward to the genuine cultural exchange the events will allow.

“This is an opportunity for us to educate the general public about each of these cultures,” Schalkoff says. “We wanted a multi-media approach—public speaking engagements, performances, collaborations and exchanges—that wouldn’t limit itself to just the universities.”

One major event, taking place on the YPU campus, will feature booths explaining Kentucky businesses and their connections to Japan, as well as aspects of local culture. Visitors will also hear a discussion between the members of the Centre and YPU communities who collaborated to create Kentucky Bluegrass Week.

That event will be topped off with performances by the Kentucky Music Ensemble (KME), a group of musicians comprised of Centre faculty, students and alumni who play bluegrass music representing the unique culture and traditions of Kentucky. They will also perform bluegrass arrangements of traditional Japanese folk tunes.

The KME is led and was founded by Associate Professor of Music Nathan Link, a Yale-trained musicologist who specializes in 18th-century opera. Link plays guitar in the group and often also sings lead vocal.

As this marks the first time the KME will perform for audiences who do not speak English as a first language, Centre students currently studying Japanese will introduce the group at each show, giving them an opportunity to apply their knowledge of the language in a real-world setting.
These and other members of the delegation will also give lectures and demonstrations throughout Yamaguchi. Danville resident and tea expert Bruce Richardson will present about the “tastes of Kentucky,” including bourbon, and will also discuss the import of Japanese tea to America.

Kensuke Yamada, visiting professor of art at Centre, will visit the studio of a master potter—a rare and exciting opportunity to learn from one of the greats.

“[The master potter] is what the Japanese call an ‘intangible cultural asset’ of the state of Yamaguchi,” Schalkoff explains. “He’s agreed to welcome Kensuke to his studio to get to know one another, to show him what they do. We’re hoping that this kind of meeting might spark some inspiration between the two.”

The KME will also have the opportunity to “jam” with Japanese musicians—and will even perform alongside a traditional Japanese dance company, providing the accompaniment to a new piece of Japanese choreography created by the group.

Kentucky Bluegrass Week was inspired by and grew out of the success of the Japanese Winter Plum Festival that took place in Danville in 2015. Organized by Hoffman and Schalkoff, YPU students and professors and a traditional theatre troupe traveled to Centre to share Japanese culture with Kentucky.

“At that time, Steve and I started talking about what this would look like as a flipped event,” Schalkoff says. “We talked about the kind of educational opportunities that would open up for the community as a whole.”

Along with those educational opportunities, this cultural exchange also gives local businesses and supporters—some of which have ties to Japan—to introduce their services and products to a new audience. Those local partners include the Japanese-based company Denyo, Japanese-owned bourbon distilleries Four Roses and Maker’s Mark, Corning (which has plants near Yamaguchi), Kentucky Soaps & Such, Wilderness Trail Distillery, both the Danville/Boyle County and Lexington Convention & Visitors Bureaus, the Kentucky Horse Park, the Heart of Danville, Keeneland, the Kentucky Department of Travel and Kentucky for Kentucky.

Kentucky Bluegrass Week and the participation of so many Centre and Danville community members were also made possible through several grants, including $30,000 from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission; $3,000 from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership Grassroots Exchange and Education Program; and The Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ Cultural Exchange Fund.

“With many thanks to our grantors, this excursion truly is a cultural exchange,” Hoffman says. 

This visit across the world to facilitate learning is only an expansion of the global citizenship Centre consistently promotes, supports and provides.

“Steve and I have learned through this how receptive people are to this type of collaboration if you only suggest it,” Schalkoff adds. “It broadens and deepens our capacity for exchange and education.”

by Elizabeth Trollinger
December 14, 2016