Traditional Stringed Instrument Enjoys Resurgence
March 25, 2002
It comes from the northern part of the country, has a dark sound, and is usually used by a performer in kimono to accompany folk songs and enka (a traditional type of Japanese popular music). Until recently this was the image that most people had of the tsugaru shamisen, but lately this image has undergone a rapid transformation in most people's minds. The ranks of tsugaru shamisen players now range from veterans that have been working to promote the instrument for decades to popular young stars. Classes that teach how to play the instrument have also become popular.
The tsugaru shamisen is atypical of traditional Japanese music in a number of ways: Its performances are rich in improvisation, it is played at a quick tempo, and its sound and rhythm are forceful enough that it resembles a percussion instrument. These characteristics have led many to reevaluate its appropriateness as a modern instrument. While other types of shamisen were used as accompaniments in chamber music, performers of the tsugaru shamisen would go door to door in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and play their music in the hopes of receiving money. Because they wanted to attract attention, a unique and lively style of music evolved.
Rising Popularity of Concerts and CDs
In addition to the classes offered at places like community centers, Kyushu Joshi High School in Fukuoka has become the first school in Japan to form a tsugaru shamisen appreciation circle. The base for this music appears likely to continue to grow. Even though the tsugaru shamisen is a Japanese instrument, its tone is rather exotic to most of today's youth and has the same sort of freshness as music from overseas.
Gateway to Success
Every May in Aomori Prefecture, the birthplace of the tsugaru shamisen, a national competition is held. This event has opened doors for most of the performers active today and is seen as a tremendous opportunity for young people. The competition was begun in 1985 by tsugaru shamisen great Chisato Yamada with his own money. Yamada has spent years teaching his craft to young people, and in addition to continuing to teach and perform, he manages the folk-music club Yamauta in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture. Yamada has been working to transmit not only the music but also the dialect and culture of the Tsugaru area. He was chosen as the "prime minister" of the "Tsugaru nation," an organization formed in 1993 that consists of some 200 people that love Tsugaru culture.