Old and New: Tsugaru-jamisen Rock

I will never forget walking down the streets of Turin, Italy, with my husband, in search of classical Japanese koto and shakuhachi music. One Italian music seller, eager to help us, got so excited she offered to track down an actual shakuhachi instrument. We explained we only wanted recordings of the instruments, so we could experience the sound. Importing an actual shakuhachi to Italy was a bit beyond our budget.

Although traditional Japanese recordings were tough to find in Italy, every corner newsstand carried Japanese manga, in translation. Italy was an interesting place to become Japanophiles. But you know a better place to indulge our love of all things Japanese? Tokyo. We were so thrilled to have the chance to visit there this May.

We’ve had some of the most moving entertainment moments of our lives with Japanese pop culture: manga and anime, video games and video game soundtracks.

And there’s something about traditional Japanese culture that’s so deeply peaceful and beautiful. Celebrating cherry blossoms in the spring, our experience at Mt. Takao, where we hiked amid shrines and temples to a beautiful vista at the summit.

It’s impossible to spend any time, either in Japan or with Japanese media, without noticing the striking juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, in Japanese culture.

The Wagakki Band goes all out to celebrate this juxtaposition of old and new. They play classical Japanese instruments– but don’t expect classical music. This band rocks.

Wait, can the koto really rock? Check out the video to their song, Senbonzakura.

Two of the instruments played in Senbonzakura are the classical Japanese instruments whose music we longed to experience back in Italy. The shakuhachi is the instrument with the beautiful, breathy sound, that looks roughly like a recorder. The koto is the horizontal, harp-like instrument that comes in several sizes. There are also special Japanese drums, wadaiko, which you may have heard referred to more commonly as taiko drums.

The instrument I didn’t know is the tsugaru-jamisen. It looks like a squared off guitar with small body, long neck, and wide tuning pegs. It’s known for its percussive playing style. I’ve known the sound for years, as played by the Yoshida Brothers. But finally seeing the tsugaru-jamisen jamming to the beat brings a huge smile to my face.

The blend of modern bass, guitar, and drum set with these traditional instruments makes a compelling sound. The video to Senbonzakura shows that this musical blend is no accident. From the instruments to the composition, from the dancing to the outfits worn by the musicians, it’s clear that The Wagakki Band is having a blast playing with the juxtaposition of old and new.

Band photo:

Author Daiima

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