Crash Course: Shamisen

Last week, I posted about a great find of a restaurant in the Asakusa neighborhood where diners were treated to a shamisen concert during their meal. For those of you who may not be familiar with the shamisen, here is a brief introduction to this Japanese traditional instrument.

The shamisen is thought to have come to mainland Japan around 1562 on trade ships from the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the largest). Islanders referred to the instrument as the sanshin (meaning “three string”) but the name changed to shamisen sometime in the decades after it appeared on mainland Japan.

A traditional shamisen
A traditional shamisen

It seemed the shamisen was rapidly dispersed to both the Kansai region (around Osaka and Kyoto) and the city of Hakata (present day Fukuoka). It was quickly adopted by biwa (Japanese lute) players, who began to make adjustments to suit their own needs. Players abandoned the water buffalo “pick” of the Ryukyu Islanders in favor of larger, rice paddle shaped plectrum (fancy word for pluckers 🙂 ) Also, the original sanshin were covered with snakeskin, taken from the islands’ prevalent habu viper. On mainland, however, cat and dog skin became the covering of choice (and also allowed the instrument to stand up to more energetic strumming with the larger pick).

For centuries, shamisen was associated with kabuki plays, the drama of the popular masses that is still performed today in select theaters around Japan. In recent years, however, shamisen music has garnered a strong popular appeal due to the emergence of young rule-bending musicians like the Yoshida brothers, who blend the traditional shamisen with modern music styles. In fact, a Wii commercial that aired in the United States a few years ago featured the music of the Yoshida brothers.

Shamisen players at Waentei-Kikko
Shamisen players at Waentei-Kikko

If you have the chance to hear a shamisen performance on your travels, don’t pass it up. Otherwise, you can download music tracks from the Yoshida brothers and other young shamisen artists from iTunes. If you’re like me, you’ll be hooked before you know it!

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