All the Buzz in Japan

The shamisen makes a comeback. 

  When I visited the workshop where Mr.Kinji Katoh builds shamisens, he had just finished putting the skin on a small, wooden, banjo-like rim. "This one goes to Vienna after I complete it,'' he declared.

 I was a little surprised; I did not expect his first words to be about shipping a shamisen to Vienna, but, in today's multicultural world, perhaps I should not have been shocked at all. It was just interesting to hear the words "shamisen" and "Vienna" in the same sentence. A shamisen is a very traditional Japanese stringed instrument, and Vienna is a capital of European classical music, which is completely different from traditional Japanese music. Indeed, the world is getting smaller.

 When lived in Japan, before l became a luthier in the United States, it never occurred to me to visit shamisen shop, because my life did not have much connection to traditional Japanese music. Neither my family nor my friends were deeply involved in traditional music when I was growing up, so it is not surprising that my musical interests would follow a different path. I grew up amid the culture and educational system of post-World War UJapan; traditional Japanese music was never included in the curriculum and not considered important.

  Instead, we were given instruction in Western classical music. Outside of school, we listened to pop and rock music on the radio and television. I was typical: I enjoyed that kind of music, picked up the electric guitar and learned to play rock. Later, my musical interests would shift to jazz, but still my preference was for Western forms.

   Mr.Katoh also remembers those days, when playing the shamisen fell out of fashion - it was not cool - but today, things are beginning to change in Japan. Though progress is slow, some traditional Japanese music is being taught in schools, and appreciation of tradition is coming back. Mr.Katoh says there are more than a few guitar players who come to his shop wanting to take up the shamisen.

  It seems natural to me that you cannot realize the beauty of your own culture without first stopping outside of it. You need to experience something antithetical to understand it.
I make a living as a guitar maker, far from Japan , but I have become interested in knowing more about my own cultural background.
 So I decided to visit a traditional Japanese musical - instrument shop. I got the name of a master shamisen luthier in Tokyo from a well - known shamisen teacher in the San Francisco area, and that is how I finally had the chance to visit Sharnisen Katoh, Mr.Katoh's shop.

 At first, I felt a little intimidated about visiting him, because people in traditional businesses are sometimes tough on customers and visitors at least that was the stereotype. But the people at Shamisen Katoh were very friendly, and they showed me a lot of interesting things and told me fascinating stories.

  A shamisen is made differently than a guitar; it's much closer in style to a banjo. If you trace its history, the shamisen was introduced from China via Okinawa in the 16th century. It has three strings (traditionally made of silk, although today you will also find synthetic strings), a long, narrow neck and a relatively small, square body. There is some variation in materials, but red sander wood is commonly used for the neck, and Karin wood (Burmese rosewood) is used for the body on high - end shamisens. There are three big friction pegs on the head and a fretless neck; cat or dog skin is used for the top and back of the body, and there is a small bridge on the sound face.

  While the shamisen is structurally similar to a banjo, its sound is unique. There are many variations in music and playing style, but in most cases they are played with large picks, called bachi. Some people may disagree, but in my opinion, the characteristic sounds of the shamisen are the percussive component that comes from forcefully striking the large pick on the top skin and the resonance of sustained noise, known as sawari..

  Sawari is a buzzing sound that resonates around the nut under the lowest string and is similar to the buzzing sound produced by Indian sitars. These distinctive tones add to the shamisen's sonic richness. Originally, newly built shamisens could not produce sawari. These instruments would first have to be played long enough to wear down the fingerboard, which would naturally acquire grooves and dips from the player's fingers and nails. Only then would the instrument create the characteristic buzzing sound.

  Shamisens are not constructed by one maker from beginning to end. The process is roughly divided among three craftsmen: those who make the neck, those who build the body and those who skin and assemble the entire instrument. Mr. Katoh, a master at skinning the body, orders necks and bodies from other specialty luthiers, according to a customer's musical preference; he then selects the skins, glues them to the body and assembles the pieces to complete the shamisen.

  When I visited his workshop, Mr. Katoh showed me a neck he had just received. It had been constructed from three pieces of wood, but neck craftsmen do not use bolts or glue to connect the pieces. Rather, they use complicated wood joints to make the neck into one piece. I was very impressed with their woodworking skill; once assembled, you cannot see or feel any of the joints at all.

  Mr. Katoh started working in the shamisen-making business just after he finished junior high school. His father, who was a shamisen-neck master, advised him to study skinning. (Since shamisen music was losing popularity at the time, his father thought skinning skills could still be usefu1 for a shamisen-repair business.) Mr. Katoh followed his father's suggestion, and after long apprenticeships and much hardwork, he opened his shop in Machiya, Tokyo, in 1989.

  His workspace, in the corner of his shop, is set up in the traditional style. There are no workbenches; instead, he sits on a tatami mat and is surrounded by all the necessary tools. As with other stringed instruments, Mr. Katoh noted, the top skin of a shamisen is the most important part for the production of sound. The process of evaluating, selecting and finally attaching skins is very important. Each skin is unique; different sections of the skin have particular properties, and the tanning process can be used to influence its character. Mr. Katoh takes time to gather requirements from his customers, and he selects a skin according to their playing style and sound preference. He then decides which part of the skin to use, how to position it and how much clamping pressure to apply - which determines how much tension is applied to the skin.

  Mr. Katoh gave me a demonstration of his skinning process. He worked surprisingly quickly, with no wasted time or movement. It was probably less than an hour from the time he had finished making the glue (from rice powder) until he finished applying the rope clamps. During that short time, he had to take into account a number of details: how much moisture to apply to the skin, where to attach the clamps and how much pressure to apply. These considerations also depend on the temperature and humidity, so he had to account for those factors, too. Mr. Katoh still uses a time-honored "rope and wedges" clamping technique -from the Edo period (16oo-i867) - that involves using both hands and sometimes both feet as well. The process is beautiful to watch. After he removes the clamps, he dries the skin a little, and then he is ready to proceed to the next step.

  As a luthier, Mr. Katoh is quite an innovator in a very traditional business. While he has a deep respect for the shamisen-building tradition, he sees the value in departing from established ways. Mr. Katoh is constantly thinking about the shamisen players of today, not those from hundreds of years ago. These days, musicians play to large audiences, in large performance spaces; in some cases, they play alongside Western instruments in Western ensembles. Because of this, the volume of the shamisen has been an issue for modern players. As Mr. Katoh noted, there are no problems plqying without amplification in a traditional ensemble - that is how shamisens have been played for the past 4oo years - but once you add drums and keyboards, it is a different story.

  Consequently, it was only natural for him to design acoustic/electric shamisens. Without them, shamisen players would not be able to enjoy playing with Western instruments. Some players have taken matters into their own hands and attached pickups themselves, but at a professional level, Mr. Katoh is the first shamisen maker to design and develop a methodology to produce amplified shamisen.

  "It must have been tough for you to introduce such innovations into such a traditional world," I remarked to Mr. Katoh.

  "Not at all," he answered simply.  "If a player asks me to make a modification, I will do everything I can to accommodate him. It is important for me to make the pla{yers happy." He admits, though, that there are limits to what he feels are appropriate modifications; despite his experimentation, Mr. Kotoh still wants to "respect and preserve" the sound of the shamisen.

  "The most important thing that I always keep in mind," he said, "whether the shamisen is amplified or not, is to take great care to make a shamisen with a sound that is faithful to its rich, historical tradition. For example, the sawari, the buzzing sound, may clash with modern popular music, but it is fundamentally a characteristic sound of the shamisen. You cannot find any other instrument like this with such enormous overtones. And the reason why it has a nice pronounced sawari sound is due to the skin.

  "Today, you can find shamisens whose tops and backs are made of synthetic laminated material. You may be able to produce a big sound from such instruments, but you will not be able to create the sweetness of sawari. Also, if all you are looking for is a big sound, you do not need any skin on the top or back. You could just put three strings on solid wood and amplify it. That might be better for using pedals and effects, but that is not what I want, and that is not what you want." 


THE Fretboard JOURNAL Spring 2009