The shamisen is a Japanese instrument similar to a lute, but thanks to the Yoshida Brothers, its traditional sound is gaining exposure among modern audiences. The particular type of shamisen the brothers play, called the Tsugaru shamisen, has a large body with thick strings. A pick, or bachi, is used to strike the strings and create a powerful percussive sound.
One of the most fascinating things about the Tsugaru shamisen is that its music is played entirely without scores. Similar to American jazz, musicians often ad lib on stage, which lends an exciting energy to their performances. Ryoichiro shares (San Diego Yuyu):
“When playing solo, you can play anything you like… Create music according to the atmosphere of the place or the mood you are in today; this is the fascination of Tsugaru shamisen. We play ‘Jyongara Bushi’ in almost every concert, but the performance is different each time.”
The Yoshida Brothers’ music would feel right at home illustrating an intense action scene on film or pumping gamers up for a boss fight. The sound of the shamisen is rooted in history, yet easily lends itself to the brothers’ pop/rock fusions.
This is quite a departure from the sad history of the instrument: Originally, Tsugaru shamisen was played by blind beggars who would perform at small villages or festivals to survive. Due to their difficult lifestyle, many musicians didn’t make it beyond the age of 30, but their teachings were passed down through the ages.
It turns out that the idea of “passing on your passions” was a large part of the Yoshida Brothers’ story as well.
When Ryoichiro and Kenichi were very young, they grew interested in learning an instrument after their friends started taking lessons. Their father steered them away from common choices like piano in favor of the shamisen, since he himself had wanted to play professionally in his youth.
As kids are wont to do, the brothers found themselves teased by peers since they were the only ones playing such traditional music. They followed through on lessons in obligation to their father, but when they reached the 4th and 6th grades (respectively), they came around to the shamisen naturally.
Ryoichiro saw older kids participating in nationwide competitions and realized that it really could be “cool” and admirable to focus on music. Kenichi ended up winning an award, and shamisen started feeling more like a potential career path thanks to the work he received playing at weddings and events.
After continuing to dominate competitions, the Yoshida Brothers made their local debut in 1999 and went on to wow Western audiences during the U.S. release of their album.
If you want to hear a particularly unique collaboration, check out the song “Nabbed” from the 2008 album Nightmare Revisited. The Yoshida Brothers worked in conjunction with Disney to remake an original Nightmare Before Christmas song using both shamisen and electronic additions.
Ryoichiro and Kenichi tour fairly frequently, and if you’re interested in the Tsugaru shamisen yourself, keep an eye on the Yoshida Brothers Facebook page to check when they might be hosting their next workshop.
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