We had the pleasure a week or so ago of a concert, and small workshop, with the Tsugaru Jamisen group Abeya, who came here to Hawaii as the last stop on a tour of the Western United States in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the gift of cherry trees from the government of Japan to Washington DC. Here in Hawaii, where the cultures of Okinawa, and of “central” Japan (i.e. the “mainstream” or “core” cultures of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka) are so often the focus, this felt like a particularly special opportunity. The Abeya troupe is based in Tokyo, but the Tsugaru jamisen they play, the instrument, the music, and the style, derives from northern Japan, specifically from an area called Tsugaru near the northern tip of Honshû, in the Tôhoku region. Being that I’m practicing Okinawan sanshin (though I’m still pretty bad at it), and have an interest in nagauta and gidayû shamisen (the styles of shamisen played in kabuki, bunraku, and by geisha), this was a really fun opportunity to learn about, and experience, a shamisen on a different end of the spectrum.
Have you heard of the Tsugaru shamisen? Even if you think you haven’t, you might be familiar with it because of the work of the Yoshida Brothers, who play Tsugaru shamisen, using the instrument, its playing style, and elements of traditional Tsugaru music to create amazingly energetic and powerful new, non-traditional music:
Abeya, I think, sticks to more traditional sounds, though they also compose new pieces and sometimes improvise entirely; they stick to more traditional sounds even in doing this, but still, to my ear, what the Yoshida Brothers are doing isn’t really that far off… at least in some pieces.
Someday maybe I’ll do more research on the Tsugaru shamisen (keep an eye out on the Samurai-Archives Wiki!) – I know I certainly intend to read up a bit on the more standard forms of shamisen, and on the Okinawa sanshin – but for now, here’s just some of the basics I gathered from watching the concert, and from the workshop:
The tsugaru shamisen takes the same basic form as other forms of shamisen – it has three strings, three long, straight tuning knobs at the top, a long neck, a roughly rectangular body, and is played with a large plectrum (J: bachi) that looks not entirely unlike a rice scoop. However, while I’m not sure if the Tsugaru shamisen is larger overall (i.e. longer), it’s definitely much thicker in the neck, and looks heavier and thicker overall, and the catskin used for standard shamisen is replaced with dogskin (is dogskin thicker and more resilient, perhaps?). As you can see, the style of playing is much faster, more energetic and powerful than in many other forms of traditional shamisen/sanshin playing. Yes, it’s true that the playing can get quite fast in Okinawan folk music, or at times in kabuki or bunraku music, but for the most part, I think that overall it tends to be slower and more sedate. Especially when you consider the volume, power, and deepness of pitch with which Tsugaru players shout. Kabuki and bunraku shamisen players shout too (yoo!), as do Okinawan sanshin players (ii ya sa-sa!), but with a very different kind of energy.
I was going to try to insert a pictorial comparison of three kinds of shamisen here. But I think what might be more useful, so you can see how they’re played, and the size relative to the person playing it, and hear what they sound like, would be simply a series of videos of performances. The Tsugaru example I’m showing here is just a silly parody sort of thing, but I think that, visually, it’s excellent for showing how large and thick the Tsugaru shamisen is.
The Internet meme “Bed Intruder” song on Tsugaru shamisen.
A traditional song played on nagauta shamisen (the shamisen used in kabuki, and the one use most commonly by geisha)
A good friend of mine performing a classical (not folk/pop) Okinawan song on Okinawa sanshin, the instrument from which the Japanese shamisen was developed.
Tsugaru players also hit the body of the instrument with their bachi a lot more, and perhaps harder, using the body of the instrument as a percussion instrument to a much greater extent than in other shamisen/sanshin forms; this is done in nagauta & gidayû shamisen as well, though not as much, and is not done at all with Okinawa sanshin, which have a much more delicate snakeskin that wouldn’t hold up to such a beating. Because of the power with which the body, and the strings, are struck, the instrument often has to be re-tuned mid-song, though, admittedly, this happens with other forms of shamisen as well. One final distinction of which I am aware is that Tsugaru shamisen is often played by strumming the strings with the left hand (the hand not holding the plectrum, the hand that normally handles the fingering). “Normally,” on many string instruments, from the Okinawa sanshin to the guitar, the left hand simply handles the fingering, holding down the string in different places to lengthen or shorten it, so that when it is strummed with the pick in the right hand, it makes a higher or lower sound. Yet, here, often, the right hand will simply beat on the strings or the body, making percussion sounds, while the left hand actually strums the strings. It was so unexpected to me that I did not notice it at all until it was explained to us as something distinctive about the Tsugaru style (I asked, and they said this is done in nagauta and other styles as well, though not nearly as much).
The Abeya troupe consists of the leader/sensei Abe Hidesaburô, his sons Abe Kinzaburô and Ginzaburô, a young woman named Nemoto Maya, and two younger performers, Andô Tatsumasa and Gokita Ryû. I was really curious to ask 19-year-old Andô in particular how he got interested in this, and so dedicated to it. He must have been practicing for years already to be as good as he is, meaning he must have started at age 12, or 15, perhaps earlier, or elsewhere in that range. … The answer may very well be something pretty straightforward; all things considered, while many traditions do lament the lack of interest among young people, and the worry of not having people to inherit and continue the tradition, it’s really not at all out of the ordinary that there should be someone, an Andô, who is interested, even if 20 or 50 or 100 other kids are not. So, maybe he’s just that interested, as I am, as this guy or that girl may be as well; maybe he grew up participating in local festivals (matsuri) as many kids do, and maybe it simply grew out of that. [EDIT: Now that I look at his profile on the Abeya website, I see that he was surrounded by folk music from a very young age, due to the influence of his grandmother. He grew up practicing various instruments, songs, and dances, and became National Champion of yasugi-bushi (a song often associated with the dojô sukui dance) even before meeting Abeya, with whom he started performing in 2010. Gokita Ryû has a similar story.]
Above: Abeya, performing “Tsugaru Jongara Bushi,” the most representative, most well-known, mainstay of the Tsugaru repertoire.
One of the things I thought most interesting about the Abeya troupe – other than the main aspect of simply enjoying their music and being interested in the music, and the instruments and all of that – is that they represent a side of the Japanese performing arts world that we don’t normally hear about, or talk about, much. Focusing on the more formally incorporated and organized arts such as Noh and kabuki, where there are a very limited set of schools or lineages, and where status or promotion, recognition of your skill, is handled and designated entirely within the established hierarchies, we miss that there is another type of performing arts that functions quite differently. Many performing arts throughout Japan, including Tsugaru shamisen, Okinawa classical sanshin, Okinawa folk music, Okinawan dance and certain Japanese folk dances (I mention all of these Okinawan examples only because I’m familiar with them and how they function), while they may have schools and lineages of sensei to one extent or another, are on the whole much more disparate than something like Kabuki or Noh. Especially given that most of these traditions are *folk* traditions, and are therefore played by more or less anyone who can find someone to teach them. Tsugaru shamisen is, I gather, played throughout many villages, at various festivals, for private parties…
And so, since basically anyone can learn it, and play it, there has developed a system of competitions. I guess I’m getting into too much complexity here, since in some arts (many of the Okinawan folk arts), there are in fact official “exams” that one has to pass in order to officially be allowed to call oneself shihan (師範, “teacher”), or to earn certain ranks. In Tsugaru shamisen, so far as I understand, winning these competitions is merely a matter of pride (and a sizeable monetary prize), and doesn’t really connect in with rankings or qualifications. One does not have to pass through certain levels in order to be permitted by “the school” to teach, or to be considered to stand at a certain rank or anything like that. There are two competitions each year, I think, one in Tokyo and one in Tsugaru. Kinzaburô, Ginzaburô, and Nemoto Maya have all won the top prize, after which one is not allowed to compete again. Tatsumasa Andô has apparently been named National Champion, not in shamisen (yet), but for his performance of a particular folk dance, the dojô sukui, or “fish-catching” dance.
I’m not really sure what more to say about these competitions, but only that it is a different side of the performing arts world of Japan – a much more “popular”, or folk culture, level as compared to the more stratified, “traditional,” and self-contained forms we normally think of when we think of “traditional performing arts,” e.g. the worlds of the geisha, and of Noh, bunraku, and kabuki.
The informality, or “folk” quality, of the performance was very much in evidence, in a good way. Classical concert music (e.g. on koto, or for that matter on nagauta shamisen) is wonderful, and it has its own beautiful, formal, high-class sort of feel to it. But this was different. Here, we were encouraged to applaud right in the middle of pieces, whenever we were particularly impressed by something, and one particularly enthusiastic audience member even shouted out things like “ganbare, 19-sai!” (go for it! 19-year-old!) during a section where the members of the troupe “competed” in improvisational riffs. There was a fair bit of joking around, as the two brothers Kin and Gin postured at being better than the other one, and in a few other bits, and audience participation was very much encouraged as we moved into the matsuri bayashi section, where the group played festival music and asked us to shout out certain parts (don koi sho! souran souran!).
Though I was disappointed to not get to try my hand at the Tsugaru shamisen itself, as I have gotten to do with instruments at certain other workshops, it was a really great experience, and I look forward to more concerts like this. It’s kind of rare, I think, that we get such kinds of performances (sponsored by Japan Foundation, complete with their own banners and flyers and seemingly the full and complete set dressing, instruments, and costumes) by a group from Japan, rather than by a local group (though I love the local groups, too!), and I look forward to seeing more of these kinds of events back on the mainland, after I leave the islands in a few weeks.