Japanese musician brings taste of orient to Trastevere bridge

Hideshi Kibi (right) and his student Ukyo Sasagawa. Photo credit: Philip Willan.

 ROME—Romans are not best known for discipline and tidiness, while Japanese football fans won international acclaim at the World Cup in Qatar for their habit of cleaning rubbish from the stadium at the end of their matches. For the last two years the contrasting cultures have been meeting on Ponte Sisto early on holiday mornings in the shape of Hideshi Kibi, a Japanese accordionist who insists on cleaning the bridge before beginning his busking session.

 Kibi, 58, has actually been playing his accordion on Rome’s most beautiful bridge for the last 17 years but began sweeping it himself in May 2021 before beginning his concert. Armed with a broom, dustpan and large black garbage bags, he started out on his own but is often now accompanied by a team of half a dozen helpers, Japanese friends with the national propensity for tidiness.

 “The bridge is my stage and I don’t want to operate in a dirty environment,” he said. “Friends from a Japanese travel agency give me a hand. They started during the pandemic when they didn’t have any work. They have enjoyed the beauty of Rome and they wanted to do something to say thank you. They come every Sunday.”

  The entire family of six often join him early in the morning to pick up the debris from the previous night’s revelries, long before the official AMA cleaners might appear on the scene. Among them is Ukyo Sasagawa, 16, who was so impressed by Kibi’s performances that he bought an accordion himself and is now taking lessons from the maestro on the bridge.

 Ponte Sisto was built by Pope Sixtus IV between 1473 and 1479 on the foundations of an older Roman bridge. Sixtus was a noted patron of the arts, leaving the city some 30 restored or rebuilt churches, the Sistine Chapel and Kibi’s bridge.

 He is also known for his nepotism, six of the 34 cardinals he created were his nephews, for confirming the right of Portuguese traders to acquire slaves in Africa, provided they were not Christians, and — according to the Protestant polemicist John Bale — for “authorising the practice of sodomy during hot weather”.

 Kibi cuts a distinctive figure in a Mexican sombrero decorated with three coloured pinwheels. “The power blades on the sombrero are to sound the alarm for all the generations that have become dependent on electronic devices. These only move with the wind, like the accordion,” he said.

 The sombrero itself is important. His lips were ruined by the sun when he first started playing. And he doesn’t want to emphasise his nationality. “I want people to appreciate the music without prejudice.” Many night clubs have closed since the pandemic, forcing a growing number of musicians to seek public spaces where they can practice their profession for the gratification of passersby.

 As the day wears on space is at a premium and Kibi is sometimes forced to team up with his Italian colleagues. “We don’t quarrel, I know them all,” he said.

  Trastevere is becoming increasingly known for the far from urbane behaviour of some of its nocturnal revellers. Kibi prefers to give them a wide berth.

 “I don’t like the people who pass by in the afternoon. Some of them are already drunk. And there is no way I would want to play here at night.”

 He has an excellent relationship with the morning regulars, though, even keeping treats at hand for familiar dogs.

 In the past some of them have invited him to play at birthday and wedding parties after seeing him in action on the bridge. Among them was the actress and writer Adele Cambria, who lived in a top floor flat in the neighbouring Via dei Pettinari. Bernardo Bertolucci, the film director, would sometimes stop for a chat.

 Kibi originally came to Rome to work for Hama Sei, a Japanese restaurant, eventually peeling off to work for an Italian wine producer and a company that produces animated films.

 In 2019 he and his Japanese girlfriend, Miyuki Nakajima, who also plays the accordion, were invited to perform at a music festival in Colombia.

 Provided it’s not raining, Kibi will be present on the bridge every weekend and holiday morning. This year he published a video showing the plastic cups, bottles and pizza boxes left on its parapet by new year’s eve partygoers, before he got to work with his broom.

 On one occasion he was angrily berated by a woman resident who insisted he shouldn’t be leaving his large black refuse bags next to the council’s small trash bins, apparently oblivious to his voluntary civic service.

 This year’s new year debris was less bad than the previous year, he said. “Last new year I cleaned from 7 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. and then went home, because the slots on the bridge were already occupied by two jazz bands.”