Lisa Ruping Cheng
Momotaro is an iconic Japanese folk song that my father and my grandmother can sing to this day.
I grew up in Taiwan where Japanese culture became prevalent after the Chinese Chin dynasty lost the the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and ceded Taiwan islands to Japan. As a result, Japan had ruled Taiwan for fifty years until the new, modern China won the World War Two in 1945.
Under this historical background, many elder people in Taiwan are fluent in Japanese and still remember the Japanese folk song Momotaro they learned to sing as a kid. This helps us understand how and why Japanese culture has been prevalent and popular in Taiwan. I have known the song Momotaro since I was a kid too, although I may not be very familiar with the lyrics, which are in Japanese and have not been translated into a Chinese version in known publications.
Having living in Canada for more than twenty years, I observe and wonder why that numerous western folk songs have been adapted into eastern languages but rarely the other way round.
To talk about and sing the Japanese folk song, I will need to introduce the original Japanese language lyrics.
The lyrics and the story of Momotaro, the Peach Boy
A childless old couple found a giant peach by the river while washing clothes. They were in awe of the size of the peach so they brought it home. When they were excited cutting the peach open, they were amazed to see a baby boy popping up from the peach. The boy said he was sent by god to be their son.
The old couple called the boy “peach boy”, and happily accepting him as their son. In Japanese his name is pronounced as “mo-mo-ta-Lo”. The familiar title we know of now in the English world is “momotaRo”.
Momotaro grew to be a couragious worrior and was determined to conquest an haunted island with his followers.
The Japanese Lyrics
Meanings of the Japanese Lyrics
The meanings of the the Japanese lyrics are as follows:
Peach boy, peach boy,
Hung on your waist there are delicious rice cake*
Please give me one of them to eat
Now I am going to conquer the ghost island
Come with me, come with me
I’ll give you the delicious rice cake to eat
Let’s go, let’s go
As long as I am following you (peach boy)
I will go any where
We will conquer the ghost island together
in just one war
We can see that the lyrics are organized as a dialogue form and the theme is about camaraderie.
* the rice cake refers to golf ball sized, shaped dessert made from sweet rice powder.
The tune of this song is brilliant in that it is bright, easy to remember with arched shape with bold interval, making the singing very satisfying and emotional. The range of the pitch spreads 8 degrees from do to do if you think of it in solfege.
If we were to look at it from the perspective of music theory, the tune is based on a scale called or defined by the western music intellectuals as “pentatonic”, in which the pitches of sub-dominant and subtonic do not exist.
Let me map out the solfege of the tune as follows:
so la so so mi | so so mi do re
do do re re mi mi re | mi mi la so
do do so mi mi la |so so mi re do
(To listen to my demonstration and live podcast recording, please look for the same title episode in WowoSpot Kids Podcast, to be released on Sep 7.)
Pentatonic scale refers to a scale containing five pitches only: C, D, E, G, and A. Tunes made out of the pentatanic scale create special ambience and color in harmony with oriental imageries and settings. Modern music master Claude Debussy (1862-1918) composed abundant works applying oriental music concept, creating an incredible texture and atmasphere. His famous piano solo piece La felle aux cheveux de lin, is a significant representation.
The Pentatonic concept, in essence, is not owned by the oriental culture. It is a common early music form across cultures. Now they are considered as oriental because the oriental music has not experienced the same level of development as the western music, thus creating such contrast today!
Momotaro adapted to English
As mentioned previously, rarely do we see oriental folk songs evolve into English. It is a pity. If I were to adapt Momotaro into an English version, my challenge would be to create English lyrics that go well with the melody. The story could be similar, modified, or newly created. Here is my experiment: (Please listen to my live recording in the podcast episode!)
“Mo-mo-ta-lo is the boy we call peach boy
He is brave
He is bright
He is kind
Can I have a rice cake?
Yes you can he says
Momotalo is the boy we call peach boy
He is found by a lady
In a giant peach
He is loved as a son
and becomes a hero”
I wonder if Italian opera composer Puccini would consider the Japanese folk tune Momotaro an inspiration for his operas, if he ever heard the song. What we know for certain is that he adapted a Chinese folk tune, Jasmin Flowers into his hit opera Turandot. I am curious about how he used the tune in his adaptation. We shall explore this topic in our following posts!