Music

Departing from tradition with Hiromitsu Agatsuma and Akiko Yano

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Akiko Yano needs little time to know if a musical partnership will work. “I can tell from the first sound I hear from someone I’m thinking about collaborating with,” the 65-year-old singer and musician says over Skype from her home in New York.

Luckily for Hiromitsu Agatsuma, who, like me, is looking at Yano’s image on a large television screen in a downtown Tokyo office while she relays this info, she realized right away that the 46-year-old shamisen player would make for a good partner. The feeling was reciprocated.

“I don’t really want people to have a fixed image of Japanese traditional music,” Agatsuma says. “I want to show that it’s flexible. I think collaborating with Yano-san does that.”

What started as a special live performance at New York’s Japan Society in September 2014 has developed into Yano et Agatsuma, a project that will release its first album, “Asteroid and Butterfly,” on March 4. It captures a musical partnership between two artists who have long operated on the same wavelength, albeit in different realms. Yano comes from the world of Japanese pop while Agatsuma works with traditional sounds, but both have spent their decades-long careers seeing how the shape of their art can be bent and twisted to allow fresh ideas space to grow.

The arrival of “Asteroid and Butterfly” comes at a particularly celebratory moment for Agatsuma, and underlines his artistic ethos. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his solo career, and he’ll release a new album titled “Tsugaru” on the same day the Yano et Agatsuma LP drops. “Tsugaru” finds him exploring the shamisen with some help from a handful of other expert players, creating songs carrying its ancient spirit.

“I’ve been playing shamisen since I was six years old,” he says. “I wanted to look back on the origins of its tradition.”

“Asteroid and Butterfly,” though, highlights how that sound can play in the present, mixing with piano melodies and electronic backdrops to reveal depth from an instrument that can often feel more like a museum piece than a part of contemporary musical DNA. Agatsuma has done this frequently over his career, often marked by collaborations with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Miyavi, among others.

“Yano tries to catch many things. She listens to music from all kinds of backgrounds, from all different countries,” Agatsuma says. “If you don’t love music, you wouldn’t do that. That motivates her to create.” Yano’s career has been marked by a similar exploration of sounds, including frequent dips into minyō, or Japanese folk songs.

Agatsuma shares an interest in those traditional folk tunes.

“I think minyō really brings out the different colors and cultures of the place where it’s from,” he says. “Using minyō as a base, we wanted to work with different genres to bring out the good parts of traditional Japanese music.”

The two first encountered one another in June 2013, when Yano watched Agatsuma perform in New York.

“His shamisen skills were great, and even though he only sang on one song, I thought his voice was incredible, too,” Yano says. They met after the show, and started discussing a potential collaboration soon after. That lead to the 2014 show at the Japan Society and further live concerts in the years after.

Yano says she wanted what would become Yano et Agatsuma to record something, so that people could enjoy the collaboration beyond the ephemeral live experience.

“He’s a minyō specialist, and he can work with so many different genres,” she says. “The love he has for shamisen and the skills he has to play it are things I don’t have, so I really wanted to create something that brought both to life — my music and his skills.”

They started creating “Asteroid and Butterfly” in 2019, working partially from opposite sides of the globe before coming together in Tokyo.

“I remember eating nabeyaki udon (noodle soup in a clay pot), it was like a ritual,” Yano says, drawing laughter from Agatsuma, who adds, “We had to wait for her to finish to start recording. When she eats nabeyaki udon, her singing skills shoot up.” His routine, meanwhile, was to cut out drinking the days before recording.

While a good health guideline in general, this practice tied into one of the bigger surprises of “Asteroid and Butterfly.” While the bulk of the vocals appearing on the album come courtesy of Yano, whose singing ranges from a straightforward delivery to an enka-indebted waver that weaves through the shamisen playing, Agatsuma also handles voice duties throughout, which is something he’s not accustomed to.

“That was the most challenging part for me … I’ve never had to sing this much in my entire life,” he says. Yano, however, pushed him to do it, and this element adds extra texture to the album. “I just believed what she told me, that I could do it and that my singing skills were great. I just went along with that.”

“I had to encourage him a lot, many times,” Yano adds with a laugh.

This detail — Agatsuma pushing himself out of his comfort zone on Yano’s urging — is important for “Asteroid and Butterfly” itself, but also reveals a lot about the creators behind it. Both could easily rest on their past accomplishments — which is especially true for Yano, who is the latest Japanese artist to enjoy a critical re-discovery from Western listeners. The week of our chat, French label Wewantsounds reissued her 1980 album “Gohan Ga Dekitayo” as part of a series focused just on her.

“A couple of months ago I had a record signing … in New York,” Yano says. “The people who came out were 70 percent young Americans. It was really surprising, but at the same time it’s really encouraging.”

Agatsuma, similarly, has led a fascinating life on the road. While waiting for the Skype session with Yano to connect — turns out major labels face the same problems anyone calling up their parents do — he talks a little bit about the places he’s traveled to in the last two decades, sharing snippets of foreign languages he’s picked up like souvenirs.

His 20 years as a solo artist — and a lifetime of being a shamisen player — has allowed him the chance to both help preserve the traditional sound and make it come alive for new listeners. This dichotomy plays out between “Tsugaru” and “Asteroid and Butterfly,” both reflecting different sides of Agatsuma’s approach to the instrument.

“The fact that I had the chance to collaborate with people from so many genres … if I had only done folk songs, I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” he says. “That’s one of the treasures of my career.”

“Asteroid and Butterfly” and “Tsugaru” will be released on March 4. For more information, visit yano-et-agatsuma.com.

Coronavirus banner