Finding inner silence in the shamisen


When Catriona Sturton first arrived in Japan in August 2000, she knew very little about Japan or its culture. Little did the 24-year-old assistant language teacher know that she would become a skilled shamisen player. But that is exactly what happened — her musical performances were recently broadcast on television in Hiroshima Prefecture and featured in an Asahi Shimbun article.

“It all started with Yoshio Watanabe, the English teacher at my high school here in Fukuyama, [Hiroshima Pref.]” Sturton says. “He invited me to get involved in a local old-houses restoration project. It was through this group that I met Danjo-san and Tanaka-san.”

Buddhist priest Soken Danjo and local shamisen master Chikuzen Tanaka were producing a nonprofit CD recording of traditional Japanese healing music, for distribution to hospice programs around Japan. When he heard that Sturton had been a member of a popular indie rock band in her college days, Danjo invited her to join the chorus featured on the CD recording.

“That was the first time I visited a Buddhist temple,” says Sturton. “It was a cold winter night, and the room was dark and mysterious. People involved in the recording were huddled around stoves, and when I heard Tanaka-san playing the shamisen for the first time, the experience left a profound impression on me.”

It took another eight months for Sturton to pick up the three-stringed Japanese instrument for the first time.

“At the time I was busy playing bass guitar with a punk rock band in Fukuyama,” says Sturton. “I was also jamming regularly with local country music, reggae and blues groups. Because I couldn’t speak Japanese, I thought it would be too difficult to learn the shamisen. But when I heard a young performer at a local festival the following summer, I knew I wanted to give it a try. As a bass player, what I found really powerful was the lower tone of the shamisen.”

Danjo, a skilled guitarist, sometimes invited Sturton to join blues sessions at his home. He suggested Sturton talk with Tanaka, who offered her a good deal on a used shamisen and began to give her lessons in the Tsugaru-jamisen tradition.

“A Japanese friend had warned me about studying shamisen,” Sturton says. “They said most teachers were strict and expected their students to be serious. I was worried about that, but my teacher later told me that the relationship between teacher and student is like that of a mafia boss and his underlings. He suggested I watch yakuza movies to understand this. When we were not practicing, his wife and he were very lighthearted. They have a good sense of humor.”

Music has been a part of Sturton’s life for as long as she can remember. She started violin lessons at age 6, followed by piano and then harmonica at age 16.

“That was a turning point for me,” says Sturton. “I fell in love with country and blues music and started reading every book in the library on the history of blues and its influences. That was the big reason I ended up majoring in American history at university.”

At Dalhousie University in eastern Canada, Sturton played bass guitar and harmonica in two bands. One of them, an indie rock group named Plumtree, enjoyed remarkable success on the Canadian independent music scene.

Plumtree toured regularly and one of their three CDs topped Canada’s college music charts. The band appeared on Canadian television, and their music video was highlighted on the Much Music program, the Canadian equivalent of MTV.

“In my senior year, we talked about going further with the band,” Sturton says. “But two of our members were offered great grad-school opportunities in the U.S.. It felt like the natural thing for us to move on with our lives.”

Immediately following Sturton’s graduation from university, Plumtree set out on a seven-week odyssey from Halifax to Los Angeles. It was their last concert tour together and the climax of the band’s career.

Two weeks after the band’s return to Halifax, Sturton flew to Japan as a participant in the JET program. Her musical connections with Japanese youngsters made her teaching job easier.

“Joining a local punk group was a unique chance to learn about Japanese teenagers’ interests,” says Sturton. “It’s helped to build a bridge between myself and the high school students I teach.”

In the English language club at Fukuyama Ichiritsu Senior High School, Sturton also teaches the members to play the guitar and shamisen. Her frequent shamisen performances at school and at local events have boosted the enthusiasm of her students.

Sturton comments: “I think that kids here in Japan are under a lot of pressure. Music can be a really important outlet for them.”

How has the shamisen influenced Sturton?

“It’s pretty difficult to describe how I feel when I play. In Japanese there is a word, mushin, that means ‘nothing heart.’ It’s a kind of inner calm that I experience when I play the shamisen. As for studying with my teacher, anytime you meet somebody who is doing what they love for a living, I think that it is a great positive influence. It reminds you that there are so many paths to choose in life. After finishing the JET program, I’d like to study with him full time for at least six months and then create the opportunity for us to go on concert tour around Canada.”