Music of the SHAMISEN

     The shamisen (三味線) is a 3-string, long-neck banjo-like instrument which was originally developed from the sanshin (or sanxian), an Okinawan Ryukyu Kingdom instrument.  Like the biwa, it has a unique percussive attack and an unmistakable "twangy" texture, called sawari in Japanese.  However, instead of bending strings (as in biwa) for articulation, rapid finger-slides are much more common.  Shamisen music (especially in tsugaru shamisen) is also often able to impart a distinct percussion part because the plectrum can be used to strike the shamisen body in rhythmic accents.  Three basic tunings are used: Hon-choshi (solemn music), Niagari (happy/gay music) and Sansagari (melancholy music) on three types of shamisen: Hosozao (thin neck), Chuzao (middle neck) and Futozao (broad neck).
     Shamisen music is used in two main settings: as theater music (such as Gidayu Joruri for Bunraku puppet theater, and Nagauta for Kabuki theater), and recital music with vocals (such as Jiuta, Kouta, Nagauta, Hauta, etc). These two settings can also be further categorized based on whether the work focuses on lyric song melody (Utaimono, '歌いもの) or story narration (Katarimono, 語り物).

Utaimono: Lyric Styles

     The use of shamisen to accompany vocal folk songs led to the development of the simplest Utaimono (lyric) form, Kouta (小唄, wistful “short” songs).  Sets of poetic Kouta folk songs were combined to create suites called Kumiuta (組歌, which are also found in koto music).  Different Kouta styles were developed and made popular, most notably in the geisha world of the Edo period.  In Kouta technique, the shamisen has a softer tone (fingers are used instead of picks), and the shamisen melody often leads or lags behind the vocal line. 
Kouta hara no tatsu toki jimaku-iri

Kouta offshoot styles include:
  • Hauta: 端歌, a modern Kouta lyric song variation, more rhythymic, and usually tells a story (Ume ni mo Haru, Harusame, Kii no Kuni, Satsumasa, Yugure, Binhotsu), sometimes with shakuhachi, and sometimes as part of Noh Kyogen performance.  Hauta can also be the first song in a jiuta sequence ("Kurokami"). 
  • Zokkyoku: 俗曲, a modern variation of Kouta, witty and more elaborate, borrows from other styles (such as folk songs or shinnai shamisen).
  • Utazawa: うた沢, a refined form of Kouta/Hauta with less erotic text, but using pick.
     A more developed utaimono form is the jiuta (地唄, “earth/fundamental song”), a lyric form also found in koto music.  A Hosozao or Futozao shamisen (thick neck/strings) is used in this form to accompany deep, expressive singing (sometimes with added koto accompaniment).  Often, abrupt swooping melodies are used to express suppressed emotion (atari).  As in kouta, the vocal and shamisen melodies follow, but "dance around each other", so to speak.
     Structurally, instrumental interludes (often thematically unrelated to one another) divide up songs and poems, somewhat combining elements from both kumiuta and shirabemono (solo instrumentals).  The structure of a jiuta can sometimes be split up into the Maeuta (fore song), Tegoto (interlude), and the Atouta (after song).  "Onoe no matsu" is a well-known jiuta where songs and interludes alternate in "tegoto-mono" form, and whose added koto part was developed by the famous modern composer Michio Miyagi.
     The Sakumono (作もの) is a lighter, more playful sub-genre of jiuta, in which shamisen may sometimes imitate animals.  The jiuta below however, accompanies a Geisha dance performance:

     The most complex and  important utaimono lyric form, however, is Nagauta (長唄, or Edo-nagauta).  This “long song" style was developed in Edo (Tokyo), and was intended to accompany dance sequences in Kabuki theatre.  However, it also later became an independent genre as banquet recital music (Ozashiki-nagauta, or "seated" Nagauta).  The Nagauta ensemble eventually expanded to also include additional shamisen and Noh hayashi instruments (flute & percussion, singers).  Utilizing the Hosozao shamisen (thin neck, thin string, bright tone), this form takes elements from both Osaka jiuta song repertoire and the narrative Joruri form (see below).  Nagauta structure is usually in 6 basic sections:
  • Oki: sets the scene, recitative, sometimes instrumental
  • Michiyuki: instrumental introduction of characters
  • Kudoki: dance section for female impersonators
  • Odoriji: features taiko
  • Chirashi: “scattering” of tempo, increasing speed, free development
  • Dangire: finale
     In Nagauta, the voice and shamisen take the lead melodic role (sometimes with flute), with the o-tsuzumi and ko-tsuzumi drums playing a supportive rhythm.  The flute, on the other hand, plays a counter-melody which is supported by the taiko drum.  In some sense, the flute and taiko layer provides a layer of dynamic tension which could be comparable to harmonic chord movement in Western music.  Melodically, Nagauta uses a vocabulary of patterns and phrases to impart specific emotional settings.  Nowadays, Nagauta is also performed outside Kabuki performances with added elements from jiuta, Kyogen comic songs, and other short forms.  In the performance below, the music begins at around 1:45:
Genroku Hanami Odori (Cherry Blossom Viewing Dance)
More about Nagauta can be found in the Kabuki chapter.
More on Nagauta form here.
"Nagauta: The Heart of Kabuki Music" (Malm)

Katarimono: Narrative Styles
     Narrative styles of shamisen music are referred to as Katarimono.  For example, Katarimono focuses on the story, whereas Utaimono focuses more on the melody.  In this narrative form, a tayu (chanter) narrates a story (sometimes including exaggerated puppet dialogue), accompanied by shamisen.  There are numerous Katarimono schools and these schools are distinguished by their performance style or specialized subject matter.  Historically they have also competed for attention in the marketplace.

Main Schools/Styles (bushi):
  • Naniwa-bushi (浪花節), or Rokokyu, is the earliest, "roughest" form of shamisen-based Katarimono narrative music, but still survives today.  This style is analagous to the music of the folk troubadour, in which songs are concerned with current affairs and trends.  The playing style features bursts of sound between lighter passages on the high strings, and vocal shouts are employed as signals (such as in Noh theatre drummer calls).  The vocal line is often nasal or shouted.  This form is typically broken up into an overture followed by mood music, songs and instrumental interludes, all dependent on the story itself.
  • Gidayu-bushi (義太夫節) is music from Osaka developed mainly for bunraku (文楽, puppet plays), though it can also be found in Kabuki theater.  Gidayu-bushi employs the Joruri (浄瑠璃) form, which was developed from Utazaimon, a "tabloid-ish" ballad folk form accompanied by shamisen.  Joruri is the most important style of narrative shamisen music, and features heavy string tones in dialogue with wild, unfettered, multi-character vocal solos.  The shamisen commentary of Gidayu-bushi is somewhat similar to that heard in biwa music, but features more instrumental interludes.  The Gidayu-bushi Joruri narrative form can be split into roughly 8 sections (and, like Noh, grouped into 5 dan):
    • Oki: mood/scene-setting
    • Michiyuki: introduction of characters
    • Kudoki: lyric laments of heroine
    • Monogatari: story heads to crucial point
    • Uta: “song” musical climax
    • Odori: “dance” musical climax
    • Miarawashi: climax of central problem
    • Chirashi (or seme): solution, often tragic
  • Kiyomoto-bushi (清元節) is often used for Kabuki dances.  It's light attack is refreshingly unrestrained, and though it is a narrative form, it features chic, rubato, lyrical singing. 
  • Shinnai-bushi (新内節) was created in the late 18th century (Edo period) for concert recitals.  It is typically lively and upbeat, with a more direct narrative style using less patterns.  It often includes an obligato higher second shamisen, and vocally features frequent falling melodic ornaments.  There are less dialogue sections here than in Naniwa-bushi. 
  • Tokiwazu-bushi, (常磐津節) from Edo (Tokyo) is found in Shosagoto Kabuki (所作事歌舞伎) dances.  Although a narrative style, it is also both sensual and severe.  The vocals are less intense than those of Shinnai-bushi, but the music follows a more strict tempo than Kiyomoto’s more rubato style.

To some up these shamisen forms, a rough analogy to some western forms can be drawn:
  • Kouta: wistful short song in lyric style = a Schubert song
  • Jiuta: long song in lyric style = chamber music
  • Nagauta: vocal with shamisen, flute and percussion ensemble in lyric style = song with orchestral accompaniment
  • Gidayu/Joruri: puppetry drama in narrative style = romantic opera

Instrumental Shamisen: Tsugaru-Jamisen/Shamisen
     One of the most popular instrumental shamisen styles is Tsugaru-shamisen (津軽三味線), which falls under the category of folk music (more or less).  This style of folk shamisen music originated from the Tsugaru peninsula (Aomori prefecture) and is played on a Futozao (broad neck) shamisen.  It features percussive strikes in it's articulation to impart a layer of rhythmic activity (a "groove", of sorts).  Tsugaru-shamisen frequently employs virtuosic technique and improvisation as signature parts of its style and is highly popular with contemporary audiences.  Some pieces are also arranged for vocal chamber ensembles.  Takahashi Chikuzan is an important Tsugaru Shamisen player historically, but nowadays the rock-influenced Yoshida Brothers (below) are probably the most famous Tsugaru-Shamisen duo today.
Japanese Music & Musical Instruments, William Malm, 1959
Shamisen Wiki