The Tsugaru-shamisen is a unique type of shamisen (a traditional Japanese musical instrument resembling a lute) that originated in the Tsugaru region of the Aomori Prefecture. It is bigger than a regular shamisen and has a powerful tone. Unlike traditional Japanese folk music, that is played according to music scores, Tsugaru-shamisen music does not require scores. That's why the music created with the Tsugaru-shamisen is called "Japanese jazz," played ad lib just like American jazz. Wearing traditional Japanese kimonos and hakama pants, the Yoshida Brothers play the traditional Japanese Tsugaru-shamisen with a brisk rhythm as if they were playing jazz or rock. Their powerful yet relaxing music is popular, especially among young people in Japan. They also made their US debut in 2003. We have taken a close look at the real selves of the duo who are discovering new lures of Tsugaru-shamisen.
—— I’ve heard that both of you started playing the shamisen at the age of five.
Ryoichiro When I was five years old, some friends in our neighborhood started taking Electone or piano lessons, so I also wanted to learn something and I told my father. Unexpectedly, he suggested the shamisen, but I was just five years old. I knew what kind of instrument the Electone or piano was, but had no idea about what kind of shape or tune the shamisen had. Still, I thought, "Any instrument is fine, as long as I can take lessons." There happened to be a shamisen teacher in our neighborhood, so I started taking lessons from him. That's how I discovered the shamisen.
My father wanted to become a professional Tsugaru-shamisen player when he was young. So, he wanted us to realize his dream. Before taking lessons from the shamisen teacher, my Father made a shamisen for me. He tried to show me what kind of shape a shamisen had. He attached two washing washbowls onto the handle of a snow shovel and put strings on it, and said, "It looks like this." So I played with it for a while.
Kenichi I started taking shamisen lessons at the age of five, too. Two years after my brother started. Father drove my brother to the lesson hall and somehow I began going with them. "As long as you are there, it makes sense that you also take lessons," he suggested, so I started taking lessons lightheartedly. Actually, I enjoyed eating sweets and snacks or drinking beverages at the lesson hall, rather than learning the instrument. Early on, my brother and I took separate lessons, but later on we started taking lessons together and going to the hall together. The place was about fifteen minutes by bicycle from our home.
—— You've liked the shamisen very much since you were little, right?
Ryoichiro Well, when we were little, only our Father loved the shamisen (laughter). Like I said before, it seemed to me to be merely a once-a-week "lesson." But, Father was very fussy about it. He had a dream and a passion for the shamisen and tried to pass it on to us. He used to say, "You can play as much as you like, but after coming home, always practice the shamisen." Since I was five, I've played the shamisen, so it's a part of my life now. But, to be honest with you, I got tired of the shamisen when I became a first grader. I felt embarrassed about wearing kimonos and playing the shamisen.
Kenichi In those days, I always practiced for an hour or two a day. I rarely took breaks from practice. Like my brother, I felt embarrassed because none of our friends played the shamisen. There was a stereotyped image of shamisen that only senior citizens played it, and some classmates would ask me, "Why do you play such an old instrument?" When we were lower graders in elementary school, we realized that we were the only ones who took shamisen lessons. Moreover, it was novel that brothers played the shamisen together, so we were often asked to perform in festivals and events. But, the next day after performing in such events, our classmates would tease us. I hated that.... Also, to go to the lesson hall, we used the same route that we took to school, so our classmates could see us riding our bikes with our shamisens on our backs. I was so embarrassed about that....
—— When did you make up your mind to become a professional performer?
Ryoichiro When I was a sophomore in high school. Deciding whether to get a job or go to college, I realized that the shamisen was everything for me.... It was after I started participating in competitions that I came to enjoy playing the shamisen. I was in the sixth grad then. Participating in nationwide competitions, I saw those who were my age and slightly older received awards. I looked at them with admiration and said, "They are so cool!" That motivated me to become competitive, so I voluntarily started practicing the shamisen. I was twelve then. An upsetting memory was that my brother received an award in our first individual competition, but I didn't. I was thirteen years old. It was humiliating for me as the elder brother and the most upsetting event in my life.
Kenichi When I was a fourth grader, I had a different teacher, which made me switch from Minyo (folk music) shamisen to Tsugaru-shamisen. We started taking lessons from Mr. Takashi Sasaki, the leading master of our school of Tsugaru-shamisen. He taught us how fascinating the Tsugaru- shamisen was. Around that time, we started participating in competitions. I didn't expect that I would receive an award in my first individual competition. I just tried to play as usual. It was my father who was more delighted at my receiving the award than I. The more awards I received, the more professional I became. That was around ninth grade. While being paid for playing at weddings or other events, I came to have a stronger sense of professionalism. In those days, I traveled around Hokkaido every Saturday and Sunday.
—— What's the fascination of Tsugaru-shamisen?
Ryoichiro When playing solo, you can play anything you like, just like playing jazz. For example, "Jyongara Bushi" has its title, but no scores. Tsugaru-shamisen is a type of music that you make on your own. I can show my originality in it, like, "This is Ryoichiro Yoshida's shamisen music." In that sense, it is the same as jazz. Create music according to the atmosphere of the place or the mood you are in today; this is the fascination of Tsugaru-shamisen. My father used to say, "The instrument worthy of devoting a grown-up's life to is the shamisen." At that time, I didn't pay attention to what he was saying, but I've now come to understand what he meant. The shamisen is a difficult and profound instrument, even for those who keep practicing. We play "Jyongara Bushi" in almost every concert, but the performance is different each time.
Kenichi Playing the Tsugaru-shamisen, we get applause and chants in the middle of a performance. Fusing with the audience's response, our music grows bigger and bigger. This is one of the basics of shamisen music and its greatest fascination, I'd say.
—— Can you tell us about the background of your debut in America last August?
Kenichi When we made our debut in Japan, we kept in mind that we might perform outside Japan someday. Father told us, even before our debut, that we should perform overseas. Before starting to perform as pros in Japan, we had goodwill concerts in Denmark and Australia. But the shamisen is a Japanese instrument, so we wanted to first make our music popular in Japan, then go abroad to explore our potential. We felt that it wouldn't be too likely that our music would be accepted outside Japan, because the instrument is so unique. So we felt that becoming popular there first and then "exporting" our music to Japan would be putting the cart before the horse, which we wanted to avoid. We wanted to first work hard in Japan to lay the groundwork for our career. That's why we decided to go overseas four years after our debut in Japan. To be successful overseas, we believed we should start with the US.
Ryoichiro Tsugaru-shamisen music is called "Japanese jazz," so I wanted to try to make it in America, the birthplace of jazz. But, we don't consider arranging our songs just because we play in America. We'd like to express our style as it is.
—— What was your impression of America?
Ryoichiro American audiences responded quickly. I thought that was great. As soon as we appear on stage, they yell, "Yeah!" Their cheers turn me on. After every song, we receive cries of joy and roars of applause. That makes me feel good and increases my momentum greatly. It also serves as a transition into the next song. Japanese audiences give us applause after listening to each song, but American audiences are a little bit different. If the performance is good, they show their satisfaction; if it is bad, they show their disappointment. It's very straightforward.
Kenichi Like he says, American audiences are good at boosting a performer's morale. In playing the Tsugaru-shamisen, performers customize the atmosphere on stage according to the audience's response. So, it is wonderful that Americans, who don't know how the Tsugaru-shamisen works, respond so quickly. In that sense, America has a similar feel to Tsugaru. One thing that we didn't do well was that we couldn't express the Japanese concept of "Wabi" (austere refinement) and "Sabi" (quiet simplicity) well when we played with Americans in New York. It was during that big blackout that occurred last year, so we didn't have enough rehearsal. We had difficulty on stage.
—— How much do you practice a day?
Ryoichiro On average, I practice for two to three hours a day.
Kenichi I don't practice so much. I sometimes don't practice at all. If I do, I do it for an hour and a half per day.
—— Who’s had an influence on you in life?
Ryoichiro I am grateful to my father who helped me to discover such a wonderful instrument. When I was a child, I used to think that I didn't like it because it was such an old-fashioned instrument. But now, we can travel around the world thanks to this one shamisen. Speaking from a Tsugaru-shamisen player's point of view, the master Mr. Takashi Sasaki, who taught me shamisen, had a big influence on me. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years before our debut. He had created a beautiful tone. We learned everything about the Tsugaru-shamisen from Mr. Sasaki. He used to often say, "You guys should study English because you'll perform overseas someday." As a matter of fact, his lessons consisted of a two-hour shamisen practice session and a 30-minute training in English. He didn't speak English, but he taught us as much English vocabulary as he had. He would give us homework, like, "Memorize these words by the next lesson." Also, he suggested we learn to read musical notation.
Kenichi I took lessons from Mr. Sasaki for four years, through the ninth grade. It was like I started over in learning the Tsugaru-shamisen under his guidance. Those four years were fulfilling. Teaching us during our critical time, Mr. Sasaki helped us to get to where we are now. I am also grateful to our parents. Mother prepares our stage kimonos and father used to say, "Have fun and play the shamisen a lot." Our childhood memories of playing in nature in our hometown, the mountains, rivers, and beaches, must also have had a strong influence on our music.
—— What’s your motto?
Ryoichiro This may sound simple, but it's to "work hard." This is kind of sad, but I don't have anything I like other than playing the shamisen or anything that I could call a hobby (laughter). Pursuing the quintessence of shamisen music step by step that's all for me.
Kenichi It's important to enjoy something. I like cars, so I also enjoy driving. I don't drive in America, but in the Tokyo area, I drive to work by myself.
—— When you don’t feel well, how do you handle your stage performance?
Kenichi I keep a certain level of health, but I am just a human being and sometimes I don't fell well. When I don't feel well, it's difficult to motivate myself. If I paid attention to backstage noises or the audience's chattering, I could never hope for a high-quality performance. How much I can immerse myself in my world that's the key. So, I try to eliminate things that are not related to my performance. My body remembers how to play the shamisen, so I try not to think about anything unnecessary.
Ryoichiro I use mental concentration and place myself in a state of nothingness. As my brother says, immersing ourselves in our world is the key to creating a good show. So, when I am playing on stage, getting carried away, I sometimes can't tell if I am playing in Los Angeles or Japan.
—— When do you feel happy?
Ryoichiro After all, I feel happiest when I'm on stage receiving applause from the audience. I could say that I continue playing the shamisen because I know that feeling of pleasure.
Kenichi I feel happy when I'm enjoying the moment, playing on stage or just having fun.
—— Can you tell us about your recent and future activities?
Ryoichiro We had an outdoor concert at the Nisei Week Japanese Festival that took place in Downtown Los Angeles in mid-August and played five songs. We've seen many repeat audiences in Los Angeles. It seems that they bring new people to our concerts. Because the shamisen is vulnerable to humidity, it is difficult to have an outdoor concert in Japan. Unlike Japan, Los Angeles is dry, so we don't have to worry about humidity. We'd like more people in the US to listen to our music, so we'll have a nationwide concert tour in October. We'll visit Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York. On October 1st, we'll have a free concert in Pasadena, and another in Santa Monica on October 3. We are also going to cities that we've never been to. We look forward to finding out what sort of audiences we'll have there or how long we can attract people who just happen to be there.
Kenichi Usually, in a concert, we play fourteen to fifteen songs in two hours. Also, we don't take any breaks during our concerts. Considering the flow of the concert, we definitely don't want to insert breaks. We've got more American fans recently, I think. It's very nice that people here recognize our music. While keeping in mind that our first mission is to help Americans know more about the shamisen, we'll visit the cities and find out what kind of an impression our shamisen music can make on Americans' hearts.
—— You’ll soon release your new CD in the US, “Yoshida Brothers II.” What are the features to check out?
Ryoichiro We've arranged the songs in this CD so that they are easy for non-Japanese, including Americans, to listen to. It has the charming features of Tsugaru-shamisen, or I should say, the listener can enjoy the excellence of shamisen performance with this CD. I think there is a stereotyped image about Tsugaru-shamisen, that is, it's intense, but this CD rather emphasizes relaxation.
Kenichi When I compose music, I start with the rhythm. This means that I am also influenced by Latin music, which I like. I like songs that have drums or percussion. Meanwhile, the core of our performance is our shamisen duet, so instead of including actual percussion, we try to mimic such Latin rhythms by playing two shamisens in some of my songs. We'd especially like people to listen to the "Kodo (heartbeat)" in this CD.
—— Can you tell us about your future hopes and goals?
Kenichi Shamisen music is too profound to master. So, I'd like to continue playing while enjoying the sense of elation that I feel in each moment. In the near feature, I'd like to be able to launch a worldwide tour.
Ryoichiro We don't have particular goals, but, yes, I dream of a worldwide tour and hope it comes true.