Japan from the inside out

Appalachian shamisen

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 6, 2007

I DISCOVERED Kunimoto Takeharu and his Appalachian shamisen while listening to Night Essay on NHK AM as I worked late on a translation. Any fatigue I felt from the time and the task evaporated when I heard Kunimoto describe how he spent a year in Johnson City, Tennessee, playing shamisen with bluegrass musicians in a barbershop, whose proprietor he described as a man more interested in pickin’ than cuttin’. During a sojourn sponsored by Japan’s Culture Agency, Kunimoto gave about 90 bluegrass performances during his stay in the States.


His brief segment on the program ended with the lead track from his first CD, called Appalachian Shamisen. That really woke me up. Kunimoto can play–he sounds as if he’s been picking Tsugaru style on a Tennessee back porch all his life. The compatibility of this Japanese instrument with American country music is not so odd, considering that some musicologists think the shamisen and the banjo have a common ancestor in the Chinese sanxian.

Kunimoto turns out to be as fascinating as you might expect, as you can see from his English-language website. He’s released a second disc, and there are plenty of sound clips from both (though you need Quicktime). Here’s a suggestion: place your palm under your jaw and prop it on a desk in advance, because you are not going believe either of your ears. One ear will be impressed with his superb musicianship, and the other will be fascinated by how well the shamisen fits into bluegrass.

And that’s just the trick up one of Kunimoto’s sleeves. He’s got another surprise for you waiting up the other one.

He’s not just a bluegrass musician—he’s released several other CDs featuring his performances of rokyoku, or naniwa-bushi. Originally street music performed by a single shamisen player with a chanter narrating a story based on history or folk tales, rokyoku originated in the Kansai area during the Edo period.

But pickers with his kind of talent and imagination just can’t play it straight. Kunimoto combines the roles of musician and chanter, accompanying himself as he tells the story…with a rock band. That combination works just as well as the shamisen in bluegrass, but you don’t have to take my word for it–try this YouTube video for yourself:

World music fans, take note—this is a perfect example of how a musician can stay rooted within a tradition while incorporating elements outside that tradition, transforming both in the process. You might say Kunimoto has one foot in two camps—except that he’s planted his feet in the campgrounds of two very different traditions, which means he’s spread-eagled over the musical map.

The man deserves to be heard, and if you give those clips a try, you’ll be glad you did the hearing.

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One Response to “Appalachian shamisen”

  1. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    No one has pointed out so…. the middle section narration is from Chuushingura, or 47 Ronins, dialogue between Asano and Kira, Asano being humiliated by Kira, resulting casuality on Kira and later harakiri by Asano.

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