The Shamisen is a three-stringed lute like banjo. It is the Japanese modification of the Chinese San-hsien (three strings) which appeared in China in the Yuan dynasty (13th century) under the influence of Qubuz or Setar of Islamic West Asia. The Chinese San-hsien was introduced to the Ryukyu Islands, southwest of Japan, where the instrument was in turn brought to Japan ca. 1562. The San-hsien and the San-shin of Ryukyu is covered with snake skin, while the Japanese Shamisen uses cat or dog skin.
Japanese modification in many other points of the instrument together with a different playing method has brought about significant changes in the style of the music. The style of Shamisen music can be classified into three major groups: Uta-mono (singing style), Katari-mono (narrative style) and Minyo (folk song).
Minyo which is primarily in the singing style accompanied by Shamisen makes up the third genre, although some folk songs are in the narrative style and the basic nature of folk song is separate from other Shamisen art music. Because the genealogy on the chart can not be explained briefly, only the major genres which are in fashion today will be described here.
The oldest style of Shamisen art music was Shamisen-kumi-uta. As in the case of Kotokumiuta, each piece is a set of several short songs accompanied in this case by the Shamisen. It should be pointed out that singer and player are one and the same. This style appeared in the area of Osaka and Kyoto where it was called generally Kamigata as mentioned earlier, and it is the older of the two main branches, Kamigata and Edo (present Tokyo), of Shamisen music. Shamisen-kumiuta was succeeded by Ji-uta, literally meaning songs of the ground (Kamigata). As mentioned in the section of Sokyoku, Jiuta was combined with Koto and developed into the Tegoto-mono, while both Jiuta and Tegoto-mono were also composed with only Shamisen accompaniment.
A Shamisen player of the Kabuki Theater in Osaka, named Sakata Hyoshiro came to Edo to participate at the Kabuki theatre with Shamisen music resembling the early style of Jiuta. This actually created a new style in the Edo Kabuki and was called Naga-uta, meaning long song, which became more and more brilliant and took over as the major music of Kabuki, accompanying mainly dance programs. It has rather long instrumental interludes, and is accompanied by the Hayashi ensemble of Noh instruments (flute and three kinds of drums). This music uses a large number of singers, Shamisen players (in two parts, Honte, and Kaede or Uwajoshi) and Hayashi players (at times 30 members), who sit in specific costumes on a red-covered platform, giving a spectacular audio-visual effect.
The second major genre, Katari-mono, is the most characteristic of Japanese music and has a fascinating style of vocal music not found in European music. Katari-mono means narration style. It is also called Joruri, because the forerunner of Shamisen music was in narrative style and began with a story of a young lady named Joruri. However, at first the story of Joruri was not accompanied by the Shamisen. In the beginning of the Edo Period a pioneer of narrative Shamisen music whose name is unknown appeared in Kamigata. He was followed by many, others among whom was Takemoto Gidayu (1651-1714) who established a new Joruri named Gidayu-bushi for a puppet theatre (later called Bunraku) in cooperation with Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), the most famous writer of drama for the Kabuki and puppet theatre. The term bushi means primarily melody or tune, but here it refers to style or school of Joruri, as the general name of narrative Shamisen music. The term bushi will be abbreviated as the term is repeated many times or is not necessary.
Gidayu has been dominant in the field of Joruri in Kamigata, while in Edo, Kato-bushi and Icchu-bushi became the major music of Edo Kabuki. Icchu originated in Kyoto and moved to Edo keeping the mood of Kamigata. The predecessor of Kato also originated in Kamigata, but it developed in the Edo mood, which was much brighter than that of Kamigata.
Shortly after the mature period of Kato and Iccho, another style of Joruri appeared in Edo, Bungo-bushi, which originated in Kamigata, and had a sudden success in Edo. However, because of overly sensational texts and their strong influence upon the people, it was prohibited by the Government of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Bungo-bushi was followed by two of its students who established Tokiwazu-bushi and Shin-nai-bushi. A pupil of the founder of Tokiwazu then established Tomimoto-bushi which was succeeded by Kiyomoto-bushi. These successors of Bungo-bushi took the place of the older Edo Joruri, Icchu and Kato, on the stage of Kabuki, except Shin-nai which was in fashion outside of the Kabuki stage, mainly in the gay quarters.
Soon after the appearance of Kiyomoto, Tomimoto disappeared from Kabuki under the pressure of Kiyomoto and Tokiwazu. Thus, among the many kinds of Edo Joruri, only Tokiwazu, Kiyomoto and Shinnai have survived as major genres of the narrative Shamisen music, together with Gidayu from Kamigata.
At the end of the Edo period another genre of singing style Shamisen became fashionable among the lower classes of Edo. The music, Ha-uta, meaning short song was the revival of older popular songs from the beginning of the Edo Period. A retired Samurai devised a more sophisticated and elegant type of song by using the same text. This was called Utazawa. Soon after, as a reaction to the heavy mood of Utazawa, a newer, shorter and more popular song, called Ko-uta (small song) appeared, which became the most popular of the three. It is noteworthy, that despite the current tendency of decay in the traditional music of Japan, Ko-uta was revived after the Second World War to a remarkable extent among wealthy businessmen.
Zokkyoku (popular tune) is another genre of popular song accompanied by Shamisen. This genre covers miscellaneous popular songs which originated in older country popular songs, or folk songs. It was then refined to suit city life.
Finally, another Shamisen music should be mentioned because of its tremendous popularity. It is called Naniwa-bushi. It belongs to the narrative style and originates in Sekkyo-bushi, a combination of very old Joruri narrating every day news and Gidaiyu. The name comes from the name of the place Naniwa (present Osaka) where the music was established. The style and text of Naniwa-bushi was most understandable and enjoyable to the people of the common class. It favored stories based upon older Japanese customs and virtues, ("obligation" and "human nature"). It is interesting to note that Naniwa-bushi began to decay after the Second World War because the American style of popular song took its place.
Quite a number of Minyo, (folk songs) have been influenced by Shamisen music. This is especially true with the dominant mode of Shamisen music the In-mode.
The Construction of Shamisen:
The instrument consists of a body made of four boards of Chinese quince or oak, through which a stick (88 cm long) made of red sandalwood or Indian red wood is inserted. The skin covering both sides of the body is usually cat skin, but in Gidayu thicker dog skin is used as well in cheap practice Shamisens. A small piece of skin glued on the front skin is to protect it from the striking of the plectrum. Three strings of different thick nesses are strung between pegs and the lower end of the stick which appears at the center of the lower board of the body. The true length of the strings is determined by the upper gold bridge attached at the end of peg-box and the lower bridge, made of ivory, water buffalo horn or wood, inserted between the string and the front skin. The lower bridge varies in size and weight according to genre of the music, giving a variety of timbre of a delicate but distinguishable difference. The strings are struck and plucked by a plectrum shaped in the form of a leaf from the Ginko tree. The shape, size and weight of the plectrum also varies according the genre of music, giving quite a remarkable variety of timbre. These variations of timbre are a very important element of Shamisen music.
Another important point that should be pointed out is that every time the lowest string is struck in addition to the tone, one hears a trailing sound together with a slight noise. The trailing sound is also produced when the other strings resonate with the lowest string, especially when the intervals between the tone of the string played and the tone of the lowest string are an octave, two octaves, three octaves, a fifth, a fourth, etc. In other words, intervals that are consonant. This trailing sound is called Sawari, literally meaning to touch, and comes from the overtone occurring at the top of the stick. The lowest string which does not rest on the upper bridge touches slightly at the point of the "mountain" toward the end of the vibration and produces overtones, the pitch of which is determined by the ratio of the length of two parts of the string, one between the mountain and the upper bridge, and the other between the "mountain" and the lower bridge on the skin. This Sawari is indispensable to a good Shamisen tone and every player, as well as every maker, takes great care in controlling the delicate tension of the string to produce the Sawari.
The Shamisen is played by striking and plucking the strings with the plectrum held in the right hand and by stopping the strings with three fingers of the left hand on the fretless stick. The strings are also set in motion by plucking with three fingers of the left hand.
The thumb and small finger are not used.
To play Kouta and for other special purposes, such as practicing, the index finger is used instead of the plectrum. The most characteristic point of playing the Shamisen is that the plectrum (or the fingers) strike the skin at the same time of striking the string. This use of the plectrum is a very important factor.
There are many other important factors which determine the quality of sound, the thickness of the skin, strings and stick; the angle which the plectrum (especially which part of the edge) strikes the string.
The Shamisen is an instrument which primarily accompanies singing. As a rule, the melodic line of the Shamisen forms almost the same melodic line as that of the singing, but the Shamisen makes the rhythmic feature of the melodic line of singing clearer by the strong-beat of the plectrum. The most characteristic relationship between singing and the Shamisen, as in the case of Koto music, is that singing is a little ahead of the beat (approximately half a beat). This technique aims not only at more sophistication of contrast between singing and Shamisen, but also makes the text more audible and understandable.
The polyphonic feature of the instrumental ensemble can be most often heard in Jiuta and Nagauta which often have instrumental parts or interludes called Ai-no-te or Aikata. As in the case of Koto music, the original part is called Honte and the secondary part is called Kaede.
Generally saying Honchoshi represents the standard mood, while Niagari gives brighter atmosphere and Sansagari is effective for melancholic expression. In a piece tuning is often changed one or a few times according to the mood. Changing from Honchoshi to Niagari, by raising one whole tone on the middle string which means musically the modulation from tonic to dominant, effects strongly in changing the mood,
atmosphere and feeling. When the Niagari tuning is moved to Sansagari by raising one whole tone on the lowest string after the previous changing from Honchoshi to Niagari, this results the tonic being raised one whole tone from the Honchoshi. This occurs fairly often.
In Shamisen music, Uwajoshi is often used as the secondary part instead of Kaede. Uwajoshi, literally meaning high tuning or high pitch, is played on the Shamisen. A very small bamboo bar is bound to the stick together with the three strings in order to shorten the length of the strings by half. Usually this Shamisen has a different tuning from that of the original Shamisen part, and is played one octave higher. The polyphonic feature is very strong at times, for instance, in the simultaneous sounding of different melodies which are based on the tonic and subdominant keys.
The musical form varies with the genre. It is most noteworthy that the form of dance-drama of Kabuki accompanied by Nagauta or Tokiwazu or Kiyomoto is influenced by Noh. A piece of this form begins with Okiuta (introductory song) which is followed by Michiyuki (literally journey--music for entrance of actors), then Mondo (dialogue), then Kudoki (literally love song-expression of emotion of the main actor), Odorigi (dancing) and Kiri (end). This stereotyped form corresponds to a great extent to that of the Noh drama.
By Dr. Shigeo Kishibe