Learning to play the three-stringed Japanese traditional instrument shamisen topped Canadian Maud Archambault’s list of things to do while in Japan. She arrived here in 2001 to explore one of her fields of study: Japanese culture.
Fast forward to today, where she is recognized as the first foreign official member of Japan’s professional folk singers and dancers association, the 36-year-old Archambault, who was born in Germany but to whom Quebec is her real home, introduces the fading tradition to people of its origin and her new home — Japan.
After successfully passing an audition, Archambault became an official member of the Nippon Minyo Pro Kyokai in April.
She said she was surprised “because lots of people are really well-known in the ‘minyo’ (Japanese folk music) world and some of those who apply get refused.” She added that she is particularly unique, given that many of the members decided to pursue the path of traditional folk music in order to continue their family tradition.
Wearing traditional attire when performing songs or dances from northern Japan — where folk songs and festival music still thrive — in front of Japanese audience, her looks and masterful skills may be deceiving, as they give out no clues about her real origin.
She came to Japan for the first time in 2000, while still studying at the University of Montreal, where she majored in psychology and East Asian studies. She selected the discipline after being inspired by her teachers, who sparked her interest in Japanese history and culture.
Archambault returned the following year, after graduation, with the aim of gaining professional experience here. The first job she landed upon arrival was a teaching job in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture. Warabi was also the place of her first encounter with minyo.
“I was working at the ‘eikaiwa’ (English conversation) school on the other side of the station and one of my students who was living around there (recommended to me) this shamisen school,” she said during an interview in her practice room in Warabi in September. “So I ended up calling here to learn some shamisen and that’s how it started.”
While practicing minyo and performing with other apprentices, Archambault continued teaching at public elementary schools in Tokyo where she became popular with the students. In recent years, she has been juggling her passion with work as a translator and interpreter for a number of Japanese companies.
Archambault performs solo or together with other minyo apprentices or her teachers. She offers live performances at private parties if she is invited by companies, as well as at “matsuri” (local festivals) and community centers.
“When you do it all together, when I dance and somebody sings and somebody plays, as a group, (you are) working or playing together,” she said. “Because the atmosphere is really nice, very lively, I think it energizes people. I would like this to be transmitted to the people who watch (my performance).”
Archambault has been enrolled since 2002 at a school headed by Kikunori Muramatsu and his wife, Kazue Kyogoku, both highly acclaimed minyo musicians, where she has been learning to play not only the silk-stringed shamisen but also taiko drums and other instruments.
Archambault, who was raised in a Francophone community near Montreal and was not so fluent in Japanese upon arrival, has since mastered the traditional singing technique with high-pitch sounds and a rapid change of vocal register.
“”What is the most difficult is the intonation, because I’m not Japanese and I’m not from Tohoku, so if I sing a song from Tohoku, I don’t really know the (correct) intonation,” Archambault added.
She also revealed the difficulties that would sometimes make her feel discouraged from continuing along the path, as “I felt at some point that I was not really good or fit to play shamisen so I decided to stop playing (it)” and started learning taiko drums.
“And recently I started (learning) shamisen again,” she added.
Her passion for minyo has also led her to develop an interest in and explore “Nihon buyo,” Japanese traditional dance, which can be traced back to ancient times and which has been recognized as a traditional performing art along with noh, kabuki and bunraku.
Since 2008 Archambault has been practicing traditional Japanese dance, under the guidance of Toshiko Matsuura, one of Japan’s best known buyo teachers. She says that although dance, some sequences of which are performed on one’s toes, may be tiring at times, she feels confident about dancing to the booming noise of taiko drums.
“When I play shamisen or when I sing, I feel nervous sometimes. But when it’s dancing or (when I play) taiko . . . I feel like I can feel the music more easily,” she said.
“I’m not really good at shamisen, though,” she added, explaining the way of using “bachi,” the plectrum for the shamisen, would often cause her pain, which is very common for beginners or “when you play too often or for too long.” Archambault specializes in the “hoso-zao,” (thin-necked) — the smallest and the highest-pitched type of shamisen.
“And you can’t really see the second string, so when you play, sometimes you hit the first string instead of the second (string),” she continued, adding that the instrument often gets out of tune.
Archambault, who has already sparked her friends’ interest in Japan’s folk tradition, suggested that dances from Tohoku may be particularly interesting to watch. They are characterized by the use of a wide range of instruments, such as Japanese-style umbrellas or hand-held fans, and their fast rhythms, she said.
In her repertoire she has a number of songs and dances representing different styles, such as Aomori Prefecture’s “Tsugaru minyo,” where songs are accompanied with “tsugaru-shamisen,” a bigger type of shamisen that features a louder, echoed sound.
“Lots of Japanese people do not know about folk music or think it’s boring, so I think maybe they don’t really know much about it. They should see what it is all about,” she added.
Having revealed that in the future she might consider opening her own school if she manages to acquire sufficient skills, Archambault said she is also thinking about performing on stage abroad, as “I could explain (it) in English or in French.”
She also said that performing on stage or becoming a folk singer or dancer was something she never dreamed about as a child.
“First when I was in high school I wanted to be a doctor, but then in the end I was thinking that instead of healing people’s bodies I should heal people’s souls,” she said, explaining why she selected psychology as one of her majors.
Since 2012 she has offered classes for children, familiarizing them with Japan’s traditional arts — from dance to shamisen — while offering her students a chance to practice English as “many come here because they want to learn English.”
The key to a good performance is truly enjoying what you are doing, she said, that such an attitude will inspire others.