Despite a day of torrential downpour to kick off Japan’s rainy season, Junnosuke Uehara is grinning from ear to ear. He’s got his shamisen with him and he says he’s excited to introduce a new person to the instrument. In fact, his love for the shamisen is so strong, he clings to it as if it were his child — barely putting it down to discuss his new album, “Wa Kafe: Wagakki ni yoru Natsu no Uta” (“Japanese Cafe Music: Summer Songs”), which is a collection of J-pop songs played using traditional Japanese instruments. Any chance he gets, he starts plucking the strings. I’m tempted to ask to have a go myself, but then his manager informs me his shamisen cost around ¥2 million. So I decide to pass.
Uehara and his band, Waraku Ensemble, are on a mission, one that Uehara feels few have accomplished: He wants to make the shamisen “cool” for younger audiences. The instrument itself resembles a guitar — the symbol of youth rebellion. However, it has a slimmer shape, no frets and is played with a distinctive heavy white plectrum instead of a pick. More importantly, the instrument is simpler and thus does not lend itself to the speed of modern pop songs.
Some Western artists have tried experimenting with traditional Japanese instruments. Heavy-metal guitarist Marty Friedman played the shamisen himself on his track “Nastymachine” from the 2003 album “Music for Speeding.” While not particularly mainstream, the album got rave reviews and fans reportedly liked the track’s “Oriental flavor.”
However, when it comes to winning over younger audiences, it’s the Yoshida Brothers who’ve had the most success. The duo have 10 albums (and nine international releases) under their belts, have toured overseas, and have collaborated with pop group Monkey Majik. However, Uehara bristles when I make a comparison between his band and the duo.
“The Yoshida Brothers’ fusion of Western music and Japanese instruments has been done many times before,” he says. “What we’re doing is quite different.”
Uehara’s new album is the second of four in the “Japanese Cafe Music” series. Each one is intended to create a soundtrack for a season.
Waraku Ensemble knew each other vaguely for more than a decade but came together only last year to create music they hoped would become Japan’s equivalent to the Brazilian bossa nova movement of the 1960s. Uehara said the concept of an album covering J-pop tunes came to him when he played to a younger crowd and they responded well to sets that included old Japanese hits. “Japanese Cafe Music” features 11 such songs including Yosui Inoue’s “Shonen Jidai” (“Boyhood”) and Tatsurou Yamashita’s “Ride on Time.”
Uehara says that “plenty of beer was involved” as the band worked tirelessly over a seven-day period in March adapting the complicated key changes of the pop songs to their shamisen, koto, Chinese violin, shakuhachi and Japanese drum. Whereas on Waraku Ensemble’s previous spring-themed album they played more experimentally with the sounds of the various instruments, on the followup they have attempted to rearrange the selected songs as simply as possible, says Uehara, “so it’s possible to hear the different characteristics of the various instruments. It’s important to feel the vibrations and to hear the subtle pauses.”
During the last day of recording, March 11, the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake occurred. The group had just two songs to finish, and despite seeing Tokyo Tower swaying from their studio window (and oblivious to the greater ramifications of what was happening), the band decided to use a rush of adrenalin to finish the album the same evening.
Waraku Ensemble’s first performance of songs from “Japanese Cafe Music” will be on July 31. Since their first album, Uehara says he has gradually begun to see a younger crowd appear. He even mentions how one fan interested in the shamisen contacted him after a live event and has since become his apprentice.
“I always have an open house when it comes to practicing the shamisen,” he says.
Waraku Ensemble’s “Japanese Cafe Music: Summer Songs” will be released June 15 on Respect Records. The band will perform at Spiral Cafe in Aoyama, Tokyo, on July 31 (4 p.m.; ¥3,600.) Uehara also appears on the new album “The Ultimate Sound Souvenir from Kyoto.” For details, visit www.respect-record.co.jp.
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