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Posts Tagged ‘三味線’


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.

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I’m really glad my friend Jake called me and reminded me about this concert going on last night on campus.. actually, the group is doing a sort of residency for a week or two or three, doing all kinds of workshops and stuff within the Music dept, and playing a full three concerts. Last night was so good, I went again today. There is one more performance, on Tuesday March 9. If you’re in the area, and like music, I strongly recommend it.

I’ll admit I’d never heard of AURA-J before, but they’re an amazing ensemble/troupe of musicians who perform modern compositions for traditional Japanese instruments. Sure, some of the pieces were too experimental, too “modern” for my taste, and some, I think, (because, really, what do I know about music?) did indeed feel too much like they were written by Western composers, or for that matter by Japanese composers working too much in a Western mode.

But a lot of the pieces were really great – sounding and feeling like the kind of thing that instrument should be used for, not too experimental, but also not rehashing the same old themes. Like new traditional music – not old traditional music, not new new music or new modern music.. and not something that sounds like it was written for guitar and piano but played on shamisen and koto. These pieces, most of them, really took advantage of the strengths and character of each instrument, and sounded like they were really written for that instrument, something you don’t see (hear) all that often. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love hearing Western rock/pop hits played on shamisen, or stuff like that, for novelty value, and for the genuinely interesting, different sound it brings to it. But all too often, I feel (as if I’ve been to this kind of event all that often; I haven’t), people write for these instruments in a sort of generalized “Western music composition” kind of way, without really understanding what kinds of sounds sound best, work best, with these instruments.

The first piece of the night was a koto piece entitled Higashi kara (“From the East”), and was based on a five-note Indonesian scale. Well, the first half of the piece was, at least. I don’t know enough about music to say anything more about how it was structured or what, but somehow, whether purely because of that scale, or because of the actual themes and motifs and melodies included in the piece, it really strongly reminded me of Okinawan sanshin music. The five-tone sanshin scale happens to be the same as one of the two key scales in Indonesian gamelan, which differs from the scale of most Japanese music. So, playing something in this five-tone scale, somehow, just really brings forth that sound, that feeling of it being Okinawan “island” music. I love it.

The next piece, Toki no Majiwari (“The Intersection of Time”), was a piece for shamisen and biwa, and was also quite incredible. I’d never seen biwa played before outside of gagaku, in which it is more of a percussion instrument, played extremely slowly, totally lacking in anything resembling melody, and barely if at all playing according to a beat. … This was different. The two string instruments, very similar in a lot of ways (I’m always surprised to rediscover how big the bachi, the plectrum, is on a shamisen, at least ten times the size of a guitar pick, something like that, and the one for the biwa is much larger), and yet quite different, interact beautifully in this piece. Sometimes they play together, or repeat one another, and sometimes they just sort of bounce off one another in the way two different, separate instruments, generally do, playing different parts of a piece which in the end come together to form a whole musical piece. There’s something about shamisen that resonates with me, that I somehow identify more with it, than with other Japanese traditional instruments, but I’ve definitely gained a newfound respect for the biwa after this performance.

The next, entitled Porotokotan, and inspired by Ainu culture and music, was also played on koto, like the first. Admittedly, if I’d not been told it had an Ainu inspiration, I might never have imagined or sensed that, but having read that, I certainly could sense it. It’s exciting to see them drawing upon different traditions – not just the Kyoto schools of traditional music, and not just the “mainland” Japanese schools from other regions, but from Ainu and other influences as well.

The koto is a most interesting instrument. While it doesn’t call to me in the way shamisen does, perhaps largely simply because of its gendered associations (koto being generally played by women, and shamisen, though certainly played by women in many contexts, generally played by men on the kabuki and bunraku stages), it is interesting chiefly in that the way it is played does not resemble any major type of Western instrument. A shamisen is kind of like a banjo, or a guitar if you’re stretching the comparison. A shakuhachi or nôkan is a flute. Taiko are drums, and biwa is a lute (again, not too different from a guitar, if you’re stretching the comparison). But playing koto is like playing piano by ignoring the keys and reaching in and plucking the strings by hand (which I have seen done). It’s bizarre. It resembles peering over a machine and methodically plucking, picking, pulling, all the right spots, here and here and here and here, to methodically get the right sounds to come out. The music can be amazing, the movements beautiful, the kimono elegant, but it’s pretty much impossible to rock out on koto, or to otherwise really express your emotions (as can be seen in most videos of the band Rin’, which has sadly disbanded; incidentally, some good biwa and shakuhachi in that video too). … I can’t quite put it into words, but there’s just something about the plucking motion that’s really aesthetically interesting, and pleasing. That, and the fact that pretty much all Japanese string instruments – koto, shamisen, biwa – can, and often do, incorporate into pieces the sound you get by sliding the pick or plectrum along the strings, something which I think Western music (specifically guitar) does only as a sort of rock music trick, and which proper orchestra music never does so far as I’m aware. Another neat aspect.

Most of the rest of the pieces performed the rest of the night were, to my ear, too experimental or too typical & Western, not really evoking the aesthetic of it being Japanesey. But all were played masterfully and beautifully. About half the pieces were composed by UH faculty or grad students, which was pretty damned cool, too. Plus, as a sort of side note, I was very pleased to see the performers in traditional Japanese costume – gorgeous colorful kimono for the ladies, and dapper black and grey hayashi-style kimono and hakama for the men. These may be modern compositions, but they’re still traditional Japanese instruments, and I think the costume plays an important part in creating and maintaining that Japanese atmosphere – just because this is cross-cultural does not mean it has to be a-cultural, in artsy black tshirt and pants, or in pan-global modern formalwear, i.e. button-down shirt, suit & tie or whatever.

Today’s concert included some genuinely traditional pieces, where last night’s was just new modern pieces alone; and then yet another concert is being held Tuesday, featuring larger ensembles, where more than two or three instruments will play together. I’d be curious if it looks and feels and sounds more like a band or orchestra, or like a hayashi, which is what it really ought to be.

(One of the songs played last night, “Song of Autumn”. Easily the most traditional-sounding of light night’s pieces, so it doesn’t actually give a fair taste of what the rest was like, but it’s something ^_^)

(A piece not from last night’s performance, but with the shamisen player who was here. Gives a bit more of a taste of the kind of thing… Though I really wish I could find Higashi kara, Toki no Majiwari, or Porotokotan. Actually, the latter, along with two other pieces last night, were premiered at that time, having never been formally performed before. So that was quite a special privilege, in a way.)

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