Traditional Instruments in Modern Japanese Music

December 24, 2017 | By

Japan has a rich and varied musical history including many beautiful instruments unique to the country. Many modern Japanese musicians are still using the instruments of their ancestors today to make contemporary music that appeals to a wider audience. This practice has the added benefit of continuing hundreds of years of tradition and keeping Japanese music culture alive in the present day. Here we’ll take a look at a variety of different modern-day musicians and the ways that they incorporate traditional instruments into their music.

The three main categories of traditional Japanese musical instruments are percussion, strings and wind. Some of the most well-known instruments include the koto, a stringed instrument with a wooden body that is played with picks similar to guitar plectrums; the wadaiko drum, which is very large and played energetically with wooden sticks; and the shakuhachi, a large flute made from bamboo. Many traditional instruments play an important part in various festivals or ceremonies held in temples and shrines. For this reason, mastering an instrument can involve years of training and earn the musician a lot of respect.

A koto performance

Curtis Patterson & koto

Curtis Patterson is something of an anomaly in the world of traditional Japanese music. He is originally from Chicago, USA but has now lived in Japan for over 30 years. He trained with master koto player and maverick composer Sawai Tadao himself, and subsequently became the first non-Japanese student to graduate from the NHK masters course for traditional Japanese music.

Curtis now teaches students of the koto himself as well as performing all over the world with his performance partner, Bruce Huebner, on the shakuhachi. Patterson enthusiastically encourages modern koto players to compose for themselves and push the boundaries of the instrument beyond what is traditionally played. This is often made much easier by access to modern technology.

With the advent of smart phones and devices, pretty much everything is now accessible online. If you wanted to check the latest weather, you could use Accuweather.com; if you wanted to relax with a few spins you could use Pokerstarscasino.com; or if you wanted to book holiday accommodation you could use Airbnb.com. Just like with these common functions, it is also possible to compose music on the go. There are some great websites out there like MuseScore.org and NoteFlight.com that help to get down ideas as soon as they come to mind and preserve them for future work.

Kodo & taiko

Kodo are a drumming troupe who play a range of traditional Japanese drums, or taiko, as an ensemble, or kumi-daiko. Their name means “heartbeat” but it also means “children of the drum”, conveying their relationship with these traditional instruments as the enduring “heartbeat” of Japanese culture. Since 1981, the band have performed around 4000 times and are actually much closer to a musical community than a standard music group.

Based on Sado Island, prospective members spend two years in training before standing a chance of joining the group. There is then further training during a probation period before they are established as full members of the troupe. As you can imagine, this is a prestigious and impressive position to hold, and one that can open doors to many opportunities. They spend about a third of the year on tour across the globe, performing for audiences of all kinds.

Performances by Kodo are rousing, disciplined and awe-inspiring. They are the recipients of several awards due to their composition and drumming prowess and play an important part in the continuation of the taiko drumming culture. They remain in high demand across the globe and have both tours and record releases planned for the near future.

Kodo perform

Yoshida Brothers & shamisen

The Yoshida brothers both play the traditional 3-stringed guitar-like shamisen instrument, sometimes accompanied by more modern instruments to create rock or pop-like music. They have been playing the shamisen almost their entire lives and have released nine studio albums of their work. Their shamisen music has even been featured on tv adverts for the Nintendo Wii in the USA.

The shamisen looks a bit like a banjo but with a square body and is played with a large plectrum or bachi. Due to its similarity to the guitar, it can be played in a comparable way and the Yoshida Brothers in particular demonstrate their skill by playing fast-paced, complicated solos. In fact, the instruments ‘cool factor’ has even been demonstrated by Hollywood recently in the animated film ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’. Following the story of a young shamisen player, when the film was shown in Japan it used a recording from the Yoshida Brothers of George Harrison’s ‘Whilst My Guitar Gently Weeps.’

In conclusion, the use of traditional Japanese instruments is openly encouraged and welcomed in the modern music scene. From lessons in how to play the instruments, to marvelling at the skills of those accomplished masters, to watching it all combine in very contemporary ways, it is easy to see how tradition still plays a major part in Japanese music culture. There can only be more to look forward to in the future as the newest up-and-coming musicians embrace time-honoured ways of making music.

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