On a different note: Japanese musical instruments

By Aimee Cook

I stood huddled outside the music room door in my socks, debating whether or not I really wanted to enter. Wide Island H.Q. had requested that I cover an aspect of Japanese culture; in particular, an aspect of culture that the busy gaijin about-town might like to get involved in to keep themselves warm during the winter of discontent. With that in mind, I had been asked for a few words about Japanese musical instruments. Keep you warm? Musical instruments? Perhaps they knew something I didn’t – after all, before coming to Japan a heated table was only the stuff of dreams. ‘Besides,’ I was told, ‘You might even have fun.’ It was with this damning prophecy ringing in my ears, and bearing about as much musical knowledge as there are copies of Mills & Boon publications in the Vatican library, that I stood attempting to infiltrate the secrecy of the music room.

Unfortunately, once inside, there was no instrument of ethnic-looking character to be found. More unfortunately still, neither the teacher nor the students seemed to have knowledge of any either. After many enthusiastic hand gestures on my part, the teacher started to pull something down from a top shelf. Oh dear. This did not bode well. Students gathered round and we all sat staring at the thing. No one, it would seem, knew how to play it. Not even which side to sit on.

The koto (for thus it was) is a long, rather handsome-looking piece of grained wood. It’s often described as a Japanese thirteen-stringed zither. That meant nothing to me either. Finally the music teacher forced three picks onto my fingers and thumb and showed me how to strum it. As I tentatively plucked at it she translated the sheet music into numbered fingering. This was easier than I’d imagined, rather like playing the bass guitar at school. And the sound? Pleasingly and reassuringly, oriental. Then, as I started to practice the same refrain over and over, a strange thing happened. I started to have fun. Maybe Wide Island were onto something after all.

However, one instrument does not a musical history make – clearly I required more information. Luckily, Brian Wood, a third year ALT based in Kurahashi (near Kure), was rumoured to be hot on Japanese instruments. Brian has been playing the shamisen for about a year. The shamisen is the most safe-looking of all Japanese instruments, a guitar-banjo cross-breed. It sounds, at times, like a sitar, at times like a twangy country and western guitar. It has three strings and numbers down the neck to indicate fingering positions, rather like fretless frets. Disturbingly, it is made from cat and, more recently, dog skin. There are also different styles, getting bigger the further north up the country  you travel; a smaller version is native to Okinawa and a much bigger style can be found in the north. This larger instrument is used to perform tsugaro jamisen, a more rhythmic, genki musical style designed, appropriately enough, to keep the player warm, replete with paddle slapping.

Brian tells me that while players of stringed instruments would be obvious candidates, the technique is very different from that used to play a guitar. Rather than strumming, the playing style involves a paddle, both to pick the strings and determine rhythm. Brian makes it look disgustingly easy. He lets me loose on it, only confirming my suspicions: If I thought I was bad on the guitar, this sorry little attempt sees me reach new depths of woefulness. The paddle technique is, indeed, difficult to attempt cack-handedly, let alone master.

Brian also plays the most iconic of all the Japanese instruments, the taiko. (Nobody likes a clever bastard.) Anyone unfortunate enough to witness the breathtakingly poor British Council party in Tokyo would appreciate the enlivening affect taiko can have on the spirits. This performance managed to turn what at first resembled a limp engagement party at the bowling club into a shindig. There’s a real sense of spectacle surrounding taiko, incorporating costume and dance. This is truly life-affirming stuff. As a clever man once said, the rhythm of life is a powerful thing.

As luck would have it, Brian’s group was performing that weekend. Ondo Kiyomori Taiko Hozon-Kai, as they are known, was fortunate enough to be on the bill with Imafuku Yu, a bit of a taiko celebrity in these parts. At one point, sweating and stripped naked to the waist, he was throwing everything into driving out a rhythm on a standing taiko drum the size of a wagon wheel (no, not the biscuity treat). During the mandatory audience participation moment, I was dragged up on stage to have a bash (literally). Under the glare of stage lights I gingerly hit the skin with what resembled large rolling pins. Luckily, it’s not difficult – I can imagine a beginner would pick this up quickly – and I believe I held my own not too badly. But the best commendation came from the old man sitting beside me in the audience when I returned to my seat: The same type of man who stares nervous JETs down in the street was smiling so hard his faced could have split.

So will I be taking up the pursuit of Occidental music? Well, no. But that’s not to say someone with a hair’s breadth more musical aptitude than myself couldn’t become skilled fairly quickly. What’s more, there’s an arsenal of instruments out there for the willing – the biwa, the shakuhachi… But, hell, I might once in a while even drift by the music department at school. After all, it’s the only room in the building with a carpeted floor. Enough to keep me warm in fact…