Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Three String Theory: Japan's Shamisen Threads Culture and History

Shamisen building circa 1909. Via

The warmth of a calming resonance slowly spreads to each corner of the room. A shrill tapping quickens and that warmth turns to fire – a frenzied, wailing blaze, starting and stopping of its own accord. In an instant, as if all the oxygen in the room suddenly ran out, it is extinguished, though the reverberance remains. Reduced to cinders, the soothing warmth returns.

Such is the burning power of the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that has played an integral role in Japan’s historic entertainment culture.

The shamisen (literally “three strings”) originated from a Chinese instrument called the sanxian, which was exported to Okinawa in the late 14th century. It eventually became the Okinawan sanshin, which entered mainland Japan in the 16th century, when Japanese biwa players began using it for short songs. As the sanshin grew more popular, it was adapted to suit various Japanese performing arts and eventually became the shamisen we know today.

Those unfamiliar with the shamisen by name have likely heard its distinctive sound at some point. In the States, it normally accompanies popular American ideas of Japanese culture—think of samurai, geisha or cherry blossoms and you will probably hear the shamisen (perhaps with the koto or shakuhachi running counterpoint). While it may sound similar to a banjo, and is sometimes even called "Japan's banjo", it has fewer strings and a deep twang that differentiates it from the American instrument.

The shamisen has been used in performance arts such as kabuki theater, bunraku puppet theater, and salon music concerts for hundreds of years, and there are many different shamisen styles to accompany them. Nagauta (literally “long song”) typically accompanies kabuki, featuring singers and shamisen players performing behind dancers. Gidayu, named after its creator, Takemoto Gidayu, includes chanting alongside shamisen playing and is used in both kabuki and bunrakuJiuta is a style that was popular among blind musicians of the Edo period. It is a pure instrumental form of music that is relatively separate from the world of performing arts. In jiuta, the performer chants while playing the shamisen.

These three styles are featured as part of Japan Society’s Shamisen Series Vol. 3: A Salute to Tradition on November 20. Eight of Japan’s most respected traditional artists will appear, including Takemoto Komanosuke, one of Japan’s Living National Treasures – a group of people deemed by the Japanese government to be preservers of important cultural properties. Komanosuke, a gidayu chanter, makes her North American debut t alongside musicians such as Tsuruzawa Yumi (aka Yumiko Tanaka), an avant-garde shamisen expert who also performed in Volume 2 of the series.

With only three strings, the shamisen may seem simple – a relic of Japan’s past. But it’s still very much alive. Nowadays, it’s used in a wide variety of musical genres by contemporary artists such as Hiromitsu Agatsuma, who incorporates aspects of jazz, funk, and electro music into his songs. There’s also the electric shamisen and instruments such as the shaminome, a cross between a shamisen and Monome controller, invented in part by Yumiko Tanaka.

From its origins to its modern remodeling, the shamisen hasn’t merely survived – it’s undergone a rebirth.

--Mark Gallucci

World renowned contemporary shamisen-ist Agatsuma. Image courtesy of the artist.


Unknown said...

Amazing, I have heard about these instruments but never read this type of in-depth details of its uses. Thanks for updating the video to know it better.

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