“Japanese Banjo”

Sato Chouei plays the shamisen

Chouei Sato (Photo: Ian Hutchinson)

Folk music of northern Japan comes to Eugene in a rare USA performance


Renowned “shamisen” virtuoso makes his American debut at UO

“A three-string fretless Japanese banjo.”

That’s how local composer and University of Oregon (UO) doctoral candidate Simon Hutchinson describes the shamisen.

For those who’ve never seen this instrument played live by a master musician, Chouei Sato will perform for the first time in the U.S. at the UO School of Music and Dance on Saturday, February 18 at 8 p.m.

Together with his students, Hutchinson and Chieko Shirogane, Sato will perform tsugaru-jamisen (a style of folk music native to the northeast Japan region) at a 4 p.m. Lecture Demonstration at Thelma Schnitzer Hall and at an 8 p.m. concert at Beall Hall. Both events are part of the 2012 Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM) Northwest Chapter Meeting.

Chouei Sato is a renowned shamisen virtuoso and folk singer who made his recorded debut in 1984 (on the album “Kitauni wo Utau”). Sato has received numerous awards for his live performances, including the 1989 competition at the Tokyo Budokan, and the 2006 Tsugaru Jamisen National Competition. He has accompanied numerous vocalists on recordings and television performances, and released his most recent album of solo and group arrangements for shamisen, titled “Tamashii no Hibiki,” in 2006. Along with teaching private students, Sato leads two shamisen groups, “Towa Sangenkai” and “Choueikai.” He performs regularly with these groups and as a soloist, and has recently appeared with them on TV Iwate and the Japanese Public Broadcasting Station NHK.

The style of music Sato plays, called tsugaru-jamisen, is a sub-genre of min’yō (folk music) that grew out of a tradition of folk songs accompanied by the shamisen. This unique style was developed in the late 19th century in and around Tsugaru, a city on the northernmost end of Honchu (Japan’s largest island), and has since gained both national and international recognition for its energy and accessibility.

Hutchinson calls tsugaru-jamisen “a great window into Japanese music,” perfect for beginners without the “high buy-in” that other forms of Japanese music might have for Westerners. Its lilting rhythms and strophic folk-song-based structure make it readily approachable to just about anyone. He compares it in its accessibility to taiko, which has been popular in this country since the early ‘70s, and thinks that tsugaru-jamisen could catch on in the same way.

“When I started out, I needed this genre to bridge the gap between my experience as a jazz musician and Japanese music,” Hutchinson explains. “Now I like it all.”

The comparison to jazz is apt, given Hutchinson’s description of Tsaguru-jamisen:

“The rhythmic shamisen playing was so interesting that it developed into a solo repertoire. Even the solo shamisen music comes from a folk songs. There’s one piece we’re going to play, titled ‘Jonkara Bushi.’ We’ll probably play about twelve minutes, but of that maybe two minutes will be sung and the rest will be an introduction and an extended solo.”

Hutchinson first met Sato in Japan in 2002 when he was working as an international specialist in a small town called Towa in northeast Japan. At the time, he was interested in Okinawan shamisen music, which he describes as “a kind of island music.” He decided to study shamisen in Towa to prepare for further studies in Okinawa after his year-long contact with the local government ended. Instead, Hutchinson fell in love with the northern style of tsugaru-jamisen. When his contract expired, he stayed in Towa to continue studying with Sato, taking a part-time job teaching English to pay the bills and devoting the rest of his time to learning the shamisen.

“I really liked this northern folk-music style,” Hutchinson says. “And of course, the fact that [Sato] is a fantastic teacher and a hilarious personality as well. He’s worried that his jokes won’t translate into English very well for the performance but he’s going to do his best, or maybe I’m going to do my best in translation.”

Tickets for the February 18 concert are $12 for general admission and $8 for students and seniors (available online or at the Beall Hall ticket office). The “Lecture Demonstration” is part of the SEM Conference and is free to attendees.

Registration for the conference is $5 for students and “independent scholars” (aka the public) and $10 for faculty. And though the Lecture Demonstration is part of an academic conference, Hutchinson doesn’t expect the level of discussion to go over anyone’s head:

“We’re going to give a sizable demonstration and maybe a bit of historical background, but we’re hoping its’ going to be mostly questions from people attending. It won’t be a specialist talk because even the specialists in musicology are unfamiliar with this particular style of Japanese music. It’s very rare to have performances in the U.S.”

UPDATE: ceased operations in May, 2012. The site is down and currently for sale. I have reposted my complete articles on this site. (11/6/2012)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s