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Phuket: Art, music and all that jazz

Phuket: Artist and singer-for-hire Mari Okawa, a Japanese-Parisian who has been on the island for more than 20 years, wipes a trademark tuft of blonde-black hair from her eyes and ponders the question of which art form she took to first.


By Jody Houton

Monday 22 October 2012, 09:17AM


“What came first was the art I suppose,” muses Mari in her distinctively French accent, “But I cannot really talk about style or what influenced me.”

Although born in Paris, Mari spent a good part of her childhood and adolescence travelling back and forth from France to her parents’ homeland of Japan, but she admits that she is much more influenced by Western music and art than Asian.

Her artistic expression began in much the way that many young artists start at home, although she admits this didn’t please her parents.

“I used to paint the walls just to make them pretty. But oh boy did this make my Mum and Dad angry.”

Mari admits however that the anger slowly subsided and was replaced by – at least at first – recognition. “Later on, my mum especially recognised that I had a talent for singing. I used to sing TV jingles and songs and things like that.”

However that recognition and approval were two vastly different things, she said.

“They said [singing] is not a job. Art is different, but they really weren’t into my pursuing a career in singing.”

But as a youngster Mari said that art, music and running were the only things she was good at, so at 15 years old, she started the first of her many bands called ‘Emassa’.

Over the years, she found herself in numerous jobs and professions before drifting back to ‘the arts’ a few years after arriving in Phuket in 1993.

“I came to Phuket as a fluke really, I was heading to Burma but I met somebody in the airport who talked me out of it and I ended up travelling to Phuket instead.”

She worked in the dive industry and in French travel agencies before traversing back to the singing business, which up until very recently, she found extremely lucrative.

“The phone would always ring back then and I’d often have to turn down gigs.”

Mari has played in venues all over the island, from Phuket Town club Timberhut to exclusive Kata-based restaurant Boathouse.

But things have drastically changed now. “Most hotels have DJs – they hire DJs. Now, I have nothing against DJs but...” here Mari trails off, but she doesn’t need to continue.

In an age where DJs, apart from perhaps the big-name superstar DJs, cost a fraction of what a four or five piece band would cost, many hotels are choosing to go digital.

“Nowadays it’s hard, for all the musicians on the island. This year was difficult,” Mari says.

Mari does have a few gigs though and a few artistic projects in the pipeline. Every Sunday she does a two hour set with her new band Ninjazz at Route 68 (a bar/restaurant on Thalang Rd), from 9 to 11pm but often stays to jam with guests and visitors until the early hours. She can also be found at Music Matter (on Chara Charoen Road in Phuket Town) most Wednesdays doing a similar thing.

For Mari, music, art and life are inseparable elements. This is reflected by her choice of subject matter when she has the time and inclination to paint.

“Most of my art is about music I suppose and things like that. A lot of my work hangs in Music Matter. I was also asked to paint a side of Soi Romanee but I am waiting until the wall is repaired, because it’s cracking.”

Asked why Mari feels such a fondness for jazz, she becomes buoyant and answers waving her right hand. “It’s freedom. Freedom of music. There are no boundaries in jazz. There’s no nationality, no gender – it’s universal. Regardless of whether people can speak the same language, it’s communication between people.”

Mari will also be performing at the Jazz Summit in Phuket Town on November 4.

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