The Japan Society: 'Shamisen Sessions 3: A Salute to Tradition' - 20 November 2014

Japanese music, specifically a shamisen performance, can be a hard sell initially, but a Westerner might find some similarities with Appalachian folk music.

Shamisen Sessions 3: A Salute to Tradition

City: New York, NY
Venue: The Japan Society
Date: 2014-11-20

Last year around Thanksgiving time, I was visiting Japan. I didn't attend any kabuki or any noh performances nor did I check out any music (though Paul McCartney played there days before I arrived). I did however check out something that does translate well, giant robots. It's not just that I'm not familiar with many Japanese bands, though few if any cross over into the US market, it's that those theater productions are often lengthy which makes it difficult to approach (which section of the performance should I see?) and, in this case, the instrumental music doesn't have a specific rhythm or catchy chorus for one to grasp onto. So I didn't risk a show in Tokyo, but I was lucky to catch a rare and masterful set of shamisen performances in New York at the Japan Society.

The performance on November 20th was dubbed 'A Salute to Tradition' and it was divided into four segments, excluding an intermission, with three different traditional styles of shamisen performances being featured. The first was titled "Kanjincho", the second "Zangestu" (a solo effort from Hirokazu Fujii), the third "Tamagawa" and the finale, "Komochi Yamamba, Kuruwa-banashi no Dan". I was most excited by the third and fourth pieces. The third was indicated as a piece about the titular river running through Tokyo which had the feeling of tranquility at times and the rush of the water making rapid headway down stream at others. The final work was an entertaining story about a courtesan who comes across her husband at a palace and his deeds and quest to avenge his father. It apparently is the second part of a five part play but the show notes indicate only this part is still performed. The story was recited by one of Japan's Living National Treasures, Komanosuke Taekmoto, whose telling was translated into English over her head on the wall. At a couple of humorous moments, a coy dancer was helping to embellish the story during this section, I could sense the audience repressing laughter in order to not interrupt the performance.

While I didn't understand the language and the lyrics (exception noted above), I still felt some connection to the music as it felt similar to Appalachian folk music. Sometimes the vocals hummed like a drone forming guttural sounds similar to yodeling. The shamisen itself had a sharp twang that made me think of a banjo but with more nuance. If the audience hadn't been utterly silent (as they mostly were), then the contrast of the stark strumming wouldn't have been as powerful as it resonated around the cozy auditorium. The The show was thrilling to observe and everyone in the audience seemed particularly transfixed -- there wasn't a bad seat in the house. It's worth noting that the Japan Society will present The Shamisen Sessions 4: 'SAKISHIMA meeting duo from Okinawa' on December 12th. But more info regarding The Shamisen Session 3: 'A Salute to Tradition' can be found here.

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From The Japan Society Page: "Artists include: Fujii Hirokazu (jiuta chanter/shamisen), Takemoto Komanosuke (gidayu chanter, Living National Treasure), Tsuruzawa Yumi aka Yumiko Tanaka (gidayu shamisen), Tsuruzawa Tsugahana (gidayu shamisen), Imafuji Chotatsuro (nagauta shamisen), Kineya Katsujuro (nagauta shamisen), Kineya Mitsuya (nagauta chanter) and Hanayagi Genkuro (nihon buyo traditional dancer)."

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