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Shamisen (三味線): The Ancient Art of Japanese Music

The Japanese Shamisen instrument, also known as “Samisen,” has a rich history dating back several centuries.

We will explore its origin, materials used, playing techniques and how it is integrated into Japanese music.

Origins and History of the Shamisen (三味線)

The Shamisen has its roots in the “Sanshin,” a Chinese instrument introduced to Japan during the 16th century. Over time, the Shamisen evolved into its own style and became an essential element of traditional Japanese music, particularly in genres such as Kabuki, Nagauta and Jiuta.

The instrument consists of 3 strings, which give it its name (Shami means “three” and Sen means “strings” in Japanese). Originally, the Shamisen was played primarily in theater and folk music, but over time, its versatility led it to be used in a wide variety of musical genres.

shamisen
Origin of Shamisen

Shamisen Materials

  1. Resonance box: The Shamisen box is generally made of wood and is pear-shaped. Traditionally, kiri (Paulownia) wood was used because of its lightness and resonance. However, other woods such as tsuge (Japanese boxwood) and karin (Japanese hackberry) are also used.
  2. Cat skin or synthetic skin: The top of the soundboard is covered with a stretched skin, which can be cat skin or, more commonly nowadays, synthetic skin.
  3. Strings: The 3 strings of the Shamisen are made of silk or nylon. The thickest string, known as “dou,” provides the lowest note, while the thinner strings, called “ni” and “san,” provide higher notes.
  4. Plectrum (Bachi): The plectrum used to play the Shamisen is called “bachi.” Traditionally it was made of tortoise shell, but today, synthetic materials are used due to species conservation concerns.

Shamisen or Samisen Interpretation Techniques

Playing the Shamisen requires a mastery of various techniques to express the beauty and emotion of Japanese music:

  1. Striking: Refers to the technique of striking the strings with the bachi to produce clear and distinct sounds.
  2. Sliding: By sliding the bachi up or down along the strings while playing, smooth tonal effects and transitions can be created.
  3. Vibrato: This technique involves slightly oscillating the bachi over the strings to add an emotional and expressive touch to the music.
  4. Tremolo: It is performed by rapidly alternating between two strings to achieve a fast and vibrant sound.
shamisen
Shamisen

The Art of Performance: Shamisen is not just about playing the right notes; it also involves emotional expression and storytelling through music. Shamisen players must learn to infuse their performances with feeling and passion to tell stories and evoke emotions in their audience.

Shamisen learning: Traditionally, Shamisen learning is carried out through the “Iemoto” system, in which students study under the tutelage of a teacher, following a hierarchical structure.

However, nowadays, there are also options to learn through music schools and online tutorials.

Shamisen Song Types and Genres

The Shamisen has been used in a wide variety of musical genres in Japan, these are some of them:

Tsugaru Shamisen (津軽三味線)

Tsugaru Shamisen is a modern variant of Shamisen that originated in the Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan.

It is noted for its energetic and virtuosic style, and has gained popularity both in Japan and abroad.

shamisen
Japanese Shamisen

Unlike the traditional Shamisen, the Tsugaru Shamisen has more strings, usually 5 or more, and a larger soundboard, which gives it a more powerful and distinctive sound.

Tsugaru Shamisen players use complex and fast techniques to create dynamic and exciting rhythms.

Jiuta Shamisen (地歌三味線)

The Jiuta Shamisen is a variant of the Shamisen that is mainly used in the musical genre “Jiuta,” which is a more refined and elegant music.

The Jiuta Shamisen is characterized by a shorter neck and smaller soundboard compared to the traditional Shamisen.

Also, unlike the traditional Shamisen which is played standing up, the Jiuta Shamisen is played sitting on the floor, allowing for a more intimate and contemplative performance.

The Jiuta is used both as a solo instrument and to accompany vocalists in Japanese classical music recitals.

Nagauta Shamisen (長唄三味線)

The Nagauta Shamisen is a variant of the Shamisen used in “Nagauta” music, a traditional musical form that accompanies Kabuki theater.

The Nagauta Shamisen is intermediate in size between the traditional Shamisen and the Jiuta Shamisen, with a larger soundboard than the Jiuta, but smaller than the traditional Shamisen.

shamisen
Japanese Shamisen

Its distinctive sound and versatility make it ideal for accompanying actors and vocalists in Kabuki theater.

Nagauta Shamisen performers must have the ability to adapt their playing style to reflect the emotions and scenes in the theater.

Hosozao Shamisen (細棹三味線)

The Hosozao Shamisen is a variant of the Shamisen that has a thinner and narrower neck, making it lighter and easier to play. Traditionally, it was used in the Osaka region and in the musical genre of “Naniwa Bushi.” Although less common than other variants, the Hosozao Shamisen is still played in certain regions and specific musical genres.

It is important to keep in mind that these are only some of the main variants of Shamisen, and that other regional variations and styles exist throughout Japan.

Each variant has its own history, technique and associated music repertoire. Shamisen in all its forms remains a distinctive symbol of traditional Japanese music and continues to be a cherished cultural treasure both inside and outside of Japan.

The Evolution of the Shamisen

Over the years, the Shamisen has evolved and adapted to different musical styles and trends. In addition to traditional music, the Shamisen has ventured into contemporary music and has merged with other musical genres, creating a unique and modern sound.

shamisen
Shamisen

Let’s take a closer look:

  • Origins and Adaptation: The Shamisen has its roots in the “Sanshin,” a musical instrument introduced to Japan from China in the 16th century. As the Shamisen became established in Japan, it adapted to local preferences and tastes, leading to the development of its own distinctive identity and style.
  • The Shamisen in Kabuki Theater: During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Shamisen became an essential element of Kabuki theater, which is a traditional Japanese theater form known for its drama and stylization. In Kabuki theater, the Shamisen was used to accompany the actors and express the emotions of the scenes. Through this association with theater, the Shamisen became an important instrument for storytelling and conveying emotions in Japanese music.
  • Development of Musical Genres: Over the centuries, Shamisen was integrated into different musical genres and regional styles. Various performance styles emerged, such as Jiuta (court music) and Nagauta (Kabuki theater music). Each style had its own repertoire, performance techniques and forms of expression, which enriched the diversity of Shamisen in Japanese music.
  • The Meiji Era and Modernization: During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japan experienced significant modernization and an opening to foreign cultural influences. This also affected the Shamisen, which began to adopt elements of Western music and adapt to new musical trends. As Japan opened up to the world, the Shamisen also sought to incorporate new musical styles and fusions.
  • Tsugaru Shamisen and Modernity: Beginning in the 20th century, Tsugaru Shamisen emerged, a more contemporary and energetic variant of the instrument that originated in the Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture. This style of playing introduced virtuoso techniques, energetic rhythms and an increase in the number of strings to achieve a more powerful sound. Tsugaru Shamisen has won the admiration of both traditional musicians and modern music enthusiasts.
  • Shamisen in Contemporary Music: As Japan became a modern nation, the Shamisen also became integrated into popular music and contemporary culture. Artists and musicians began experimenting with fusions of styles and genres, incorporating the distinctive Shamisen sound into pop, rock, jazz and other modern styles. This evolution allowed the Shamisen to reach wider audiences and new generations.
  • Preservation and Renewal: Despite changes and adaptations, the tradition and authenticity of Shamisen remain central to many performers and teachers. Organizations and schools have strived to preserve and pass on the rich heritage of Shamisen through educational programs and cultural events. This dedication to preserving the tradition ensures that the Shamisen continues to be appreciated and respected in Japanese music.

Cultural Importance of Shamisen

The Shamisen is more than just a musical instrument; it is a symbol of Japan’s rich culture. Through its music, performers can tell stories and convey emotions that connect people to the tradition and history of Japan.

Shamisen festivals and events

Japan has several festivals dedicated to the Shamisen, where artists from all over the country gather to show their skill and share their love for this instrument. These festivals are an opportunity to celebrate Japanese music and culture.

Cultural festivals and musical events in Japan, including those related to the Shamisen, can vary from year to year and are held in different regions of the country.

shamisen
Shamisen Festivals

Some of the most well-known and popular Shamisen festivals that have occurred in the past are:

  1. Aomori Shamisen Festival: Held in Aomori Prefecture in the Tsugaru region, known for its distinctive style of Shamisen. The festival celebrates Tsugaru Shamisen music with live performances, competitions and workshops.
  2. Nagauta Shamisen Festival in Tokyo: On this occasion, Nagauta Shamisen musicians and performing artists gather in Tokyo to present recitals and live performances.
  3. Osaka Shamisen Festival: In the city of Osaka, a festival highlighting the musical and cultural traditions of the region, including Shamisen, is held.
  4. Kyoto Shamisen Festival: Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, has also hosted events highlighting traditional music, including the Shamisen.

Shamisen Masters

In Japan, there are Shamisen artists and master performers who have achieved a high level of skill and recognition.

These musicians have spent years perfecting their technique and preserving the rich tradition of the Shamisen.

  1. Takemoto Gidayu (1651-1714): He was a Shamisen performer and composer who excelled in the musical genre “Joruri,” a form of musical narration accompanying Bunraku theater. Takemoto Gidayu is known for creating the style called “Takemoto-bushi,” which became one of the main styles of Joruri.
  2. Tsurusawa Seiji (1915-2002): He was a master Shamisen player of the Jiuta school. He excelled in the musical genre of Jiuta Shamisen and passed on his skill and knowledge through teaching to a new generation of musicians.
  3. Masahiro Nitta: He is a renowned Tsugaru Shamisen performer who has brought this style to international audiences. He has been an ambassador of Tsugaru Shamisen and has collaborated with musicians from diverse cultures and genres.
三味線
Shamisen Masters
  1. Agatsuma Hiromitsu: He is another virtuoso master of Tsugaru Shamisen, known for his technique and contemporary style. He has performed all over the world and has contributed to bringing Shamisen to new audiences.
  2. Sato Michiyoshi: He is an outstanding Nagauta Shamisen performer, known for his skill and versatility. He has been recognized as a “Living Cultural Heritage” in Japan, a title given to individuals who have made a significant contribution to traditional Japanese culture.

Final conclusion of the article

The Shamisen is a magnificent and versatile musical instrument that has endured over the centuries as a mainstay of traditional Japanese music.

From its origin in the theater to its presence in modern music, the Shamisen continues to enchant audiences with its beauty and emotionality.

If you wish to delve into Japanese music and explore its rich heritage, learning to play the Shamisen is an enriching experience that will allow you to connect with a centuries-old tradition and express your passion for music through this captivating instrument.