Musical notes on Japan

Music is an amazing thing. Even if you don’t share a language with someone you can share music and appreciate it. I often use music in my classes to reinforce sentence structures or topics we have just studied, to introduce new vocab or cultural ideas and most importantly to show the kids English can be fun. Actually that’s what I tell myself but basically I love to have some extra music listening time! Nevertheless, I am still always pleasantly surprised when kids who struggle with English as a subject come and ask for the link details so they can go back and listen to the music at home.

When I travel I love to attend musical performances that use traditional instruments and play traditional music. The Bodhran, tin whistle and fiddle from Ireland, the porters from Mt Kilimanjaro singing folk songs at night, the flamenco and Jazz in Cuba are all unforgettable musical travel memories. There have been times I have come away feeling like I have been subjected to a cat screeching while suffering castration on a hot tin roof but more often than not I end up purchasing a CD or accessing ITunes and adding to my music collection. I have pan pipes from South America, drums from Africa, guitars from Spain, a catchy wee tune from Turkey called “Shika shika boom boom” which apparently imitates the sounds of the tassels on the bras of the belly dancers and the Shamisen and Sho from Japan.

Traditional Music from Japan

Japan has a rich musical history dating back to the Nara (645~710 and Heian (794~1185) periods. Music was played in the Imperial courts and was an important part of religious rites. Even before that there are figures that have been found in archaeological digs believed to represent musicians. The word for music in Japanese is Ongaku and in kanji is written 音楽. The first symbol means sound and the second means enjoyable. I love that kanji not only expresses a word but also infers a deeper meaning.

Wind Instruments – The Ryuteki, the Hichiriki and the Sho

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I recently was lucky enough to attend a mini concert by Hideki Togi a well-regarded musician of Gagaku, Heian Era court music. It sounds very dry but it was stunning. He played several wind instruments, the Ryuteki, the Hichiriki and the Sho. The Ryuteki is like a bamboo flute or recorder, the Hichiriki is made from bamboo and has a reed like an oboe and the Sho is a small instrument look like a circular Pan pipe. The sound he produced on them was stunning. The Sho wasn’t the thin reedy sound I was expecting but rather a rich deep warm sound that reminded of a massive church organ in one of the great cathedrals of the world. The music was haunting and mesmerizing. He played a mix of traditional Japanese, western classical and modern music.

String Instrument – The Shamisen

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The Shamisen is a three stringed instrument rather like a banjo. It is played by plucking the strings with a tool called a Bachi. I would call this a pick but while checking my knowledge of the shamisen I found it translated as a plectrum.

Like a banjo, the Shamisen has a neck, and strings stretched across a body which make a resonating sound hen plucked. TYPO!!!!! no hen being plucked! I meant to say when plucked. However while no hens were plucked a cat may have been skinned. The body is like a drum with traditionally cat skin stretched across it front and back, hollow in the middle. The neck is fretless and very skinny. The strings were traditionally made of silk but in this modern day nylon is common place.

The Yoshida Brothers take this ancient instrument and play it in a very modern manner. I love the juxtaposition of old with new and how well they fuse together. I like that they wear traditional garb while really rocking the heck out of this instrument.

I hope you enjoyed. I am always up for new musical forays and recommendations. Please feel free to recommend!

images (1) Yoroshiku Onegai shimasu


One response to “Musical notes on Japan

  1. Pingback: Modern take on the traditional | NihongoJapango·

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