“Artistic skill that cannot be appreciated by young people is bound to fade away.”

— Legendary Tsugaru shamisen player Chikuzan Takahashi, in his autobiography, published in 1975

It’s one thing to popularize music, but it’s another to ensure that it lasts. For the past decade, Shinichi Kinoshita, known as the king of Tsugaru shamisen, has been exploring the never-ending possibilities of this musical style while riding the crest of a veritable shamisen boom.

However, though Kinoshita is often associated with cross-genre experimentation that marries the shamisen to such as rock or jazz, he returns to traditional shamisen music on his latest album, “Show,” released this spring, as if to remind listeners of his roots.

Kinoshita was born in Wakayama Prefecture in 1965 to parents who both played shamisen, and he grew up listening exclusively to Japanese traditional min’yo folk songs. Naturally, he learned how to sing Japanese folk songs, but it wasn’t until he turned 10 that he seriously began shamisen lessons under his father, who was himself a professional player.

While Kinoshita is amiable and talkative in person, when it comes to music, he becomes stern and almost stoic. He could be mistaken for someone from an older generation, and indeed his father may be responsible for this somewhat old-fashioned side to his character. “As a father, he was strict, but even more so when he was teaching me shamisen,” Kinoshita said. “During lessons, I always thought of him as shisho [master]. He was already in his 50s when I was born. He was a man of the Meiji Era, so I might have that in me, too.”

Kinoshita’s initial attraction to the instrument grew from this father-son bond. “One day I tried to get up on the stage with my father, but the young attendants stopped me and told me that kids can’t go up there,” Kinoshita recalls. “I was waiting for my father, alone and lonely, until he finished his performance. Then, as he came down from the stage, he said to me, ‘If you play the shamisen, you can go up there, too.’ “

Change of direction

From that day on, the young boy pursued his shamisen lessons not so much out of love for the instrument, but more from a desire to join his father on stage. However, Kinoshita soon developed an interest in Tsugaru shamisen rather than the kind his father played, called hosozao, which is used more in accompaniment for traditional songs like nagauta and kouta.

Tsugaru shamisen is unique for a number of reason. For starters, its performances are rich in improvisation, so much so that its music is often called “the jazz of Japan.” Second, it is played at a quick tempo — which was one of the aspects Kinoshita loved as a young boy. Other types of shamisen are played rather slowly and quietly, and the young Kinoshita often became bored with the attendant ma (silence between notes).

A third unique characteristic of Tsugaru shamisen is its highly rhythmic and dynamic flavor. A shamisen player called Nitabo (1857-1928) is said to have established this style. He emphasized the importance of imagination and creativity, saying: “Even a monkey can copy another one. You must play your own shamisen.” Previously, the strings were simply “played” (hiku), but Nitabo would hit (utsu) and even beat (tataku) them.

Originally, Tsugaru shamisen was an accompaniment for min’yo or other enka songs (as Kinoshita demonstrated in his 2002 NHK “Kohaku” TV performance). Over time, though, its min’yo intro and accompaniment parts were expanded, so that the style eventually evolved into a predominantly solo performance art.

Up until the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), performers of Tsugaru shamisen would often go door-to-door and play their music in hopes of receiving money. These itinerant minstrels were often blind shamisen players called bosama, which means “monk,” because monks, too, often used to go from door to door, offer a prayer, and receive some food or money. But what the minstrels did was considered a type of begging (hoido), and so they were often not well received. Even their musical techniques were disdained as “the skills of beggars.” Nonetheless, their art was secretly passed on through generations of blind children.

Part of the power of Tsugaru shamisen derives from this music’s development under such harsh circumstances. After all, it takes something special to attract attention outside the gates of an unwelcoming stranger’s house.

Then, after players began to perform in public halls around the end of the Meiji Era, a competitive aspect was added to the performance. One character trait, called joppari (stubbornness), that was thought to be common in the Tsugaru region, encouraged this competitiveness.

“There would always be several performers on the stage, and they would all do their improvisations,” Kinoshita explained. “If you were popular, you would obviously get more applause. The promoter would notice this, and your pay would either be raised or cut depending on that applause. It was a matter of life or death, so the art was maintained at a high level, and the music was constantly developed.”

Kinoshita went further, explaining that the traditional Tsugaru music underwent constant change through the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras, but by the mid-Showa Era, folk music was crowded out by the popularity of many other kinds of music.

Despite the changes, Kinoshita says that improvisation remains the most critical skill for a Tsugaru shamisen player. Improvisation, of course, isn’t something you can easily teach. “At first, you copy the master’s improvisation and throw that into your piece,” he explained. “Then you slowly learn how an improvised part is made or what it consists of. This takes a long time.

“Finally, you make your own and play it on the stage. But even at that point, it is not really improvisation, because you are not making it up live onstage. The real improvisation has to be done right onstage, and to do that, your basic skill and knowledge of tradition are crucial. In addition, you need to have lots of ideas.”

Image problem

Although Kinoshita was amused and fascinated by the Tsugaru shamisen throughout his childhood and into his teens, he has suffered from a kind of complex, feeling that he plays an old-fashion instrument. “[As a young boy and later as a teenager,] I wasn’t able to tell my friends that I was playing shamisen,” he said. “I was sure they’d laugh at me and say that was for old people.

“But then, when I was in my early 20s, I was invited one day to play at a public venue with other musicians. I was the only person playing a Japanese instrument that night, but the young people were dancing to my music and having fun. I then realized that maybe it was me who had the wrong image fixed in my mind. My audiences taught me that.”

After this epiphany, Kinoshita made it his mission to wipe out the dusty image of the shamisen. ” ‘I want to change; I have to change.’ That’s how I felt then,” Kinoshita said. “I myself know how great this instrument is and how cool it is. And I didn’t want young players to have the same complex that I did.”

Nevertheless, even when he was trying to overcome the inferiority complex that Japanese traditional music is not as cool as Western music, he faced another obstacle: He was not originally from the Tsugaru region, the eastern part of Aomori Prefecture, where this style of playing originated.

“When I first came to Tokyo, a lot of people said to me, ‘You are not from Tsugaru.’ It was like, ‘Here we go again.’ And there were times when I thought I wanted to be like people from Tsugaru, but there are subtle accents or musical scales that are unique to Tsugaru, and I thought rather than trying to be someone I am not, I will just be me.”

With this in mind, Kinoshita set out to find his own style and collaborated with masters from various genres, including jazz guitarist Kazumi Watanabe and wadaiko drummer Eitetsu Hayashi. In 1993, he even established his own rock band, called Kinoshita Group.

“If I had been born in Tsugaru, I might have been more protective, and I might not have tried all these things. I might have been bragging that ‘I am from Tsugaru.’ “

By then, Kinoshita had already been the all-Japan Tsugaru shamisen champion two years in a row, in 1986 and 1987. In 2002, though, when he was once again named champion of the A-class players at the prestigious All-Japan Tsugaru Shamisen Awards and received the Chisato Yamada Prize named after an esteemed Tsugaru shamisen master, this confirmed that his explorations with musicians from other genres had not tainted his joppari soul.

At this point in his career, Kinoshita says his only rivals are people who are much older than him. As for the next generation, he has his worries. “The art and technique is no longer a matter of life and death [among shamisen players], so unfortunately the performers’ general level of skill is going down,” he said.

“Many players are treated like pop idols. As long as they play a little bit of shamisen and are young, they can make a living. They play in concerts and become the teachers of hundreds of students. In the old days, that would never have happened. Nobody would have listened to you [with that level of skill].”

“But I always have this strong desire to improve. While I keep up these sessions doing new music, I would also like to excel at traditional pieces.”

Immediately after our interview, Kinoshita went on stage at Ebisu Garden Hall for a preconcert rehearsal. As soon as he sat under the spotlights he was transformed into a serious, almost intimidating musician poised, so it seemed, like a fighter against invisible foes — someone you wouldn’t want to get too close to for fear of breaking his concentration.

That was when I realized that the joppari soul is not just about a rebellious spirit, but rock-solid confidence: You know you can play better than anyone else.

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