Wasabi takes old sounds to a young audience

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

The members of Wasabi, a quartet who plays traditional Japanese instruments, are all used to fans and the politics of backstage meet-and-greets. However, they were surprised to see one particular fan after a recent 11 a.m. performance at a high school in Nara.

After the show, the band headed to the dressing room for a bento lunch box, when, according to shamisen player Ryoichiro Yoshida, “All of the sudden, the door to the dressing room opened without a knock and a young female student rushed in. She almost exploded, and said, ‘I was so moved by the show, your music is so cool!’

“I was a bit startled when she burst into the room, but I was motivated by what she said. I realized that if we give young people a chance to hear authentic traditional music, they could really get into it.”

If anyone is in a position to get Japanese youth excited about traditional music, Yoshida is a good candidate. The 35-year-old is one half of the Yoshida Brothers, an act he formed with his brother, Kenichi (33), more than 10 years ago. The shamisen-playing duo have done well, scoring high sales, commercial deals and the attention of young music fans both here and overseas.

Yoshida’s new project, Wasabi, debuted in March with an eponymous eight-track album. It consists of himself, Hiromu Motonaga on shakuhachi, Shin Ichikawa on so (17-stringed koto harp), and Naosaburo Bihou on taiko (Japanese drum). He says he formed the band as a way to increase the appeal of wagakki (traditional Japanese instruments).

“We decided on the name ‘Wasabi’ because we thought people overseas would be familiar with the word through its association with sushi,” Yoshida says. The name is a homonym, though, and its kanji does not refer to the spicy green paste eaten with sushi, but rather is made up of “wa” (Japanese) and “sabi” (hook).

Wasabi has been persistent in trying to appeal to listeners outside of the large, older Japanese demographic. Even before its official debut, the group was visiting elementary, junior and senior high schools. They’ve been to 36 schools thus far.

“Most children today have never seen or listened to the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments live,” says Yoshida, who also mentions that the band gives the kids a chance to touch and play the instruments, too. “I think a majority of the public feels that these instruments are something … unfamiliar. We’d like to restore their familiarity and appeal among people here.”

Yoshida started playing the shamisen at 5 years old, but like every other child his age he — and the other members of Wasabi — was raised on rock and J-pop, which may explain the youthful flourishes in the band’s music.

“We’ve grown up listening to J-pop, so we’ve naturally been influenced by the music,” Yoshida says. “Actually, I believe the barriers between J-pop acts such as Exile and Momoiro Clover Z, and the music of traditional instruments, are coming down. As part of the Yoshida Brothers, I’ve even had the chance to play with some of these pop artists. So I hope that our music is able to excite fans of Momoiro Clover Z as much as it does fans of traditional instruments.”

The band’s upbringing comes through on “Wasabi.” One track in particular, “Rekko” (“Light Explosion”), is able to match the speed and rebelliousness of a rock song. It begins with a fast-paced shamisen solo and soon an almost macho-sounding taiko enters to provide a steady beat. A powerful melody comes courtesy of the shakuhachi and the three instruments merge to climax. When the elegant sound of the so is suddenly introduced, the other three instruments allow it to shine before starting back up and uniting the quartet for an even louder climax. The various climaxes and solos create the atmosphere of a jazz gig when played live, with the crowd applauding after each musician’s efforts.

Yoshida, who composed “Rekko,” says he did his best to make all the music easy to understand for a listener who may never have heard the sound of such traditional instruments before.

“I’ve purposefully tried to compose something that produces an overwhelming power by condensing the best characteristics of each instrument,” Yoshida says. “As a result, ‘Rekko’ became a powerful piece and we have often played it at our concerts in response to audience demands for encores.”

Yoshida says the instruments Wasabi uses have special characteristics and limitations.

“A shamisen can only play three octaves and it’s difficult to modulate. But within that limitation, I try to create an atmosphere of various genres such as rock and jazz,” he says. “We are only still discovering the way to bring out all the potential sounds of the instruments.”

Shakuhachi player Motonaga explains that the shakuhachi, a vertical bamboo flute, was developed as a tool of ascetic training for Zen monks during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). He says it has the ability to replicate a sound that seems to “stop time.”

“The instrument, with its five holes, is so simple that players can express their feelings rather easily,” says Motonaga, adding that he hopes his audience can walk away with a new appreciation for the instrument and its rich history.”

So player Ichikawa says that his 17-stringed instrument tends to give the general public an image of elegance. That may be because of its association with traditional New Year’s celebrations and its history of being an instrument of the Imperial court.

“However, I want to create sounds that are suited to various music genres,” says Ichikawa, adding that he played the electric guitar in a metal band when he was in high school.

Ichikawa’s parents play the so, but when he heard an instructor play it like a guitar he got interested in taking it up himself.

Rounding out the quartet, percussionist Bihou comes from a family of taiko drummers as his grandfather founded the Bihou School of taiko. Bihou says that his drumming is different from wadaiko, big drums that are played by themselves without accompanying instrumentation. His approach to the taiko is similar to its traditional relationship with minyo (folk songs) and one that has also been used in kabuki theater.

“I think taiko plays the role of expanding the image of the song, which is created by other instruments,” he says. “The drum also creates a vibration that can directly reach the audience.”

While all the instruments are considered traditional, they aren’t all easily grouped into one easily definable past world. For example, Yoshida plays a Tsugaru shamisen, which originated in Aomori Prefecture in the north and is associated with minyo folk tunes. As mentioned before, the so was used as part of court music — a completely different social strata.

All four members play stand-alone instruments, too. It’s not simple to choose which player will shine in any given piece, but the quartet works it out during jam sessions in the studio. Motonaga says members take turn bringing core compositions to which the other three will add suggestions for their own parts.

“We’ll then play together and try different patterns,” he says. “We always alternate the positions of player and listener during the composing process until the song is completed.”

Yoshida adds that the process has made him think in grander terms.

“In recent years, I have become aware of the possibility of winning a Grammy Award,” he says. “So I have been keenly listening to the kinds of music that are popular in the world and I often think about their arrangements and how to arrange such tunes to suit the shamisen and other Japanese instruments.”

During its school-auditorium tour, the band has also been working on new material. Motonaga says that a lot of this material will be debuted at a concert on Jan. 13 in Chofu, Tokyo.

“We’re sure that we can change the audience’s image of traditional Japanese instruments at that concert,” says Motonaga, brimming with confidence.

Bihou wants to extend this education to listeners overseas. While Japanese pop acts have had little success in breaking markets abroad, there’s a chance that traditional artists may have an easier time due to their authenticity. A lot of money is made nowadays by musicians selling their music to commercials, films and television programs. A director looking for an authentic Japanese vibe may be more inclined to opt for shamisen over Vocaloid.

Bihou says he is keenly aware of Hollywood films that feature traditional Japanese music in the background using what sounds like low-quality instrumentation or even digitally created sound effects.

“I can tell when I hear it. I think, ‘This sounds like the koto, but it also sounds like it was made by machines,’ ” he laughs. “I’d like for us to be at the point where our music can be used — because we make the real thing. I want filmmakers overseas to automatically turn to Wasabi whenever they want authentic Japanese sounds for their movies.”

Wasabi play Tazukuri Kusunoki Hall at Chofu-shi Bunka Kaikan in Chofu, Tokyo, on Jan. 13 (4 p.m. start; ¥3,500 for adults, ¥1,500 for high school students and younger). For reservations, call Chofu Green Hall Ticket Service at 042-481-7222 or visit www.chofu-culture-community.org. Tickets are also available at the door. For more information on Wasabi, visit www.yoshida-brothers.jp.