It's the ancient shamisen, and it rocks

Plucked from Japanese history, it comes to Towson with Hiromitsu Agatsuma

February 08, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The stage is filled with the trappings of a regular rock concert - there are the beams of red, yellow, blue and green flashing through the machine-generated smoke as a drummer, bass guitarist and keyboardist jam away at a thumping number.

There is one key difference, however, and the stark white spotlights are focused upon it. In the hands of band leader Hiromitsu Agatsuma, where there usually would lie a guitar, instead there is a shamisen - the three-stringed traditional Japanese instrument synonymous with geishas and kabuki theater for more than 300 years.

After decades of waning popularity among the younger generation in Japan, the shamisen has made a comeback, but in an altogether different form. Instead of providing melodies for ancient Japanese folk songs and narratives, the shamisen gives musical backbone to bands that dabble in rock, jazz, blues, even disco. Instead of gently plucking at the strings, these new shamisen masters strum aggressively and pound out beats on the instrument.

Agatsuma, 29, is one of Japan's leaders in this new music trend. And tomorrow, as part of his first U.S. tour, he comes to Towson University to share his rocking vision for the nouveau shamisen.

"I want to cast a new beam of light on the shamisen sound," Agatsuma said through a translator during a stopover in New York before heading to Baltimore. "I wanted to give the opportunity to as many people as possible to hear the sound of shamisen firsthand.

"When I am on stage, I feel like I share the same emotions, the same feelings, the same excitement as my predecessors who played this instrument that has been handed down hundreds of years in Japan."

The shamisen, which is 3 to 4 feet long and resembles a banjo, made its first appearance in Japan in the 1600s from China, and it became one of the most important instruments in Japanese classical music.

Players traditionally use a 5-inch-long pick, called a bachi, to strum - and also to bang - on the instrument.

About 100 years ago in northern Japan, a new shamisen - called Tsugaru-shamisen - was born, a hardier version of the instrument made of dog skin instead of the lighter cat skin. Because this shamisen was heavier

and slightly larger, musicians could strum harder and make louder percussive noises. This instrument became popular among buskers and, later, with musicians like Agatsuma.

Paula S. Lawrence, director of performing arts at the Japan Society, which sponsored Agatsuma's U.S. concerts, said this is the first time a rock shamisen band is performing on American soil. She planned the Agatsuma tour - which also takes him to Boston and Connecticut - after hearing a CD of his work more than a year ago.

"I just think it was hearing the beat and the sound and realizing that this is shamisen, which I happen to love in the traditional form," Lawrence said before Agatsuma's New York debut on Thursday. "But this was shamisen in a way that I had never heard before. I was struck by the feeling and the mood and the timbre of the sound."

Agatsuma said that, at first, he didn't envision using the shamisen as a rock instrument. He grew up about 90 minutes north of Tokyo surrounded by the sounds of Tsugaru-shamisen when his father began playing as a hobby. At 6, he began lessons himself and focused on traditional songs and techniques - which didn't exactly make him popular among friends.

"I remember when I was in elementary school, I was teased by classmates for playing an old guy's instrument," he said.

By the time he was 14, however, Agatsuma was winning national competitions. Soon, he was experimenting with ways to better acquaint his friends with his passion. He discovered idols like Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana, branched out of the circle of traditional shamisen players and began jamming with jazz bands, eventually joining a local rock group named Musashi at age 17.

"After World War II, people had an inferiority complex" about traditional Japanese music, Agatsuma said. "They felt that the Western sound was the cool sound, and Musashi among other bands changed that. I joined the band because I really agreed with that."

But Agatsuma didn't gain fame until the release of his first solo album in 2001 - Agatsuma - which blended pop, jazz and rock with classical shamisen sounds. He won the Japan Gold Disc - the country's equivalent of the Grammys - album of the year. Beam, his second album, is available in the United States.

Beyond commercial success, observers of Japanese culture and music are marveling at the impact musicians like Agatsuma have had. Japanese music expert Larry Stockton, chairman of the music department at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., said teens and twentysomethings in Japan have been inspired by hearing shamisen players like Agatsuma on the radio and television. Many have begun to take shamisen classes or attend kabuki theater as a result of this new interest.

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