Waseda WeeklyWaseda University

Student Reports

Shamisen and Wadaiko Mystery and Enthusiasm in the Tone of Japan’s Souls

The Mystery of Shamisen that Changes the World in a Moment

Waseda Weekly Reporter (SJC Student Staff)
School of International Liberal Studies
Rachel Sherman (Graduated September 2018)

Rachel will experience the Japanese drum. SJC Student Staff from May to September 2018

Hello everyone. I had never seen tsugaru jamisen, or shamisen, performed live before coming to Japan—it has always been a dream of mine to witness some of that ancient magic of the Japanese style instrument that I had heard of used by nagauta performers and wandering blind musicians, a famed musical instrument of lore used to tell stories, a lonely, mysterious profession. The power of drumming had always captivated me, and as I have always wanted to experience the pulsing magic they bring to shrine festivals, I was delighted to have the wonderful opportunity to go see tsugaru jamisen,and wadaiko performed at Waseda by the Waseda Tsugaru-jamisen circle and the Wadaiko circle.

The first time I was exposed to shamisen was in a movie called Kubo and the Three Strings, in which the homeless child main character uses his three-stringed shamisen to tell stories on the street. When he strums his magical shamisen, a power comes forth that allows him to animate paper figures to tell his stories, transporting his audience to another world.

Ever since I saw this movie two years ago, I was inspired by the powerful magic of shamisen storytelling and wanted to come to Japan and witness the magic of shamisen storytelling live. It was a great treat to see this magic realized, as the Waseda jamisenkai took to the stage, in what I believe may have been their greatest performance. The Jamisen circle performed many incredible pieces, however, I would like to detail their final piece, one which they composed themselves, and received the help of their mentor at Waseda.

A sea of performers, brightly clad in kimono, were spread out before me on three rows of chairs upon a brightly lit stage. They began to gently strike the shamisen to the same smooth, gentle melody full of flowing musical intervals. Their gently moving hands and sweet lullaby-like sound lulled me away to a world full of nostalgic memories of a summer night. And then, suddenly, every performer`s hand froze over the shamisen, and one performer on the right took the lead. She struck a fast, loud verse on the shamisen, charged with fire. Suddenly, every performer began to strike their instrument with lightning fast speed, their hands as one being, moving in complete unison.

Mitsudomoe playing shamisen. There was also a nagauta performance by the official circle “Chikuyukai” (right of the photograph).

As the sound of the shamisen surrounded me, I was suddenly transported with them to an ancient battleground, running alongside these ancient warriors of Japan, iron-clad and atop galloping horses, headed off to battle. It is here that I witnessed the true power of the tsugaru shamisen— the spirit of the shamisen players and their vibrant intensity on this unique and dynamic instrument, in tandem with the musical and storytelling skills of these performers, transported me to a dynamic, deeply feeling and intense, vibrant world.

Japanese drum performance

As for the wadaiko drummers, clad in traditional bright red festival clothes, I found their performance similarly charged with the spirit of Japan. Wadaiko, a traditional form of Japanese drumming, is often used in performances that cheering on the shrine-carrying festivals that often occur in Japan during summer. As a result, their performance was very fiery and charged with a physical energy that inevitably reached the audience. In a face-paced drumming exercise that alternated between two sides of the stage, one side of performers would take their massive sticks, raise their arms, and beat their drums in unison. While alternating, they would send energy-charged shouts    into the audience. Their energy reached me, and as the beat of the drum reverberated throughout the room, I could feel the beat of the drum resonating throughout my body.

Later in the performance, a couple of members on the stage asked that those who are interested in wadaiko to raise their hands. I looked around, but much to my dismay, no one moved. Was there no one who had felt that fiery energy? I quickly raised my hand. I thought that someone would simply come over to tell me more about their club, but much to my surprise, they led me up on stage before a massive wadaiko drum. I was suddenly handed two sticks, and it turned out they were going to have me perform! I must have started something, because the stage soon filled with people excited to try their hand at this interactive experience.

A performance by Sakigakehibiki with a smile and a plectrum. Rachel (Picture on the right:Second person from the left) is also excited about the Japanese drum experience.

The key to beat the massive wadaiko drum, as they instructed us, is to alternate between hands and raise one stick far above your head, and bring it down powerfully down upon the drum. Then, as we would alternate from one stick and repeat the process with the other, we would get faster and faster, and as the distance from our highest reach of the stick above our heads and how far we bend down to beat the drum gets closer and closer, they instructed us as to suddenly lift our sticks, point forward into the audience with an L-shaped figure, and, smiling, look straight ahead. The smile, they said, is the most important part. I tried it for myself, taking the heavy sticks and beating the drum, faster and faster. I got to the climax and, charged with the powerful fire of wadaiko drumming, in a soaring motion, lifted my sticks, looked up into the audience, and grinned. In a moment charged with the powerful energy of being connected with the audience, I understood the meaning of the smile—it gives others energy. Because as the audience members cheered, they smiled back.

From this experience, I learned about the power of wadaiko drumming and Japanese culture. More importantly, I learned about the importance of the smile— the energy we each have within us, if we work hard, can be shared and given to others. I believe this is the goal of the energetic performance and the smile during the Japanese festivals, to cheer on those who transport the sacred shrine and lend them necessary energy and fiery spirit to transport their sacred gods.

an audience who takes commemorative photographs

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to have witnessed the power of Japan`s spiritual and powerful wadaiko drumming that lends fiery soul to others, and witness the magic of Japan and power of musical storytelling that transports me to another world portrayed through tugaru jamisen music. I found that the music of the shamisen and its style is like the heart of some of my pieces—a spiritual strength and vibrant intensity, complete with nuanced subtlety. In a final interactive experience, I picked up the tsugaru jamisen myself. It was no surprise, as I stroked the strings with a fan-shaped pick and carved out a powerful sound, that I felt as if the instrument was made for me. Before I leave Japan, I will be picking up one of these incredible instruments to experiment with storytelling on my own for when I head back to America.

I hope I have been able to pique your interest in the traditional Japanese musical forms of wadaiko and tugaru shamisen, beautifully and passionately performed by the Waseda Tugaru Jamisenkai and Wadaikokai. I hope that you will be able to find some of these performances and research the instruments on their own. In this season of summer festivals, I hope that those of you in Japan can go out and experience some music charged with the spirit of Japan!

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