The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
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Artist Interview
A shamisen player from the rock generation, Hiromitsu Agatsuma talks about taking his shamisen music to Europe


Eien no Uta
His 5th Album "Eien no Uta"
(Toshiba-EMI)
That is something that certainly required a lot of will power.
I’m glad now that I had set my sights high. When people told me that the Tsugaru shamisen could really be played only by people who grew up in Tsugaru, that just inspired me to try that much harder. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be playing Tsugaru shamisen for the rest of my life, and until I die people may be telling me that my music is Ibaraki shamisen, not Tsugaru shamisen. But I’ll never let anyone say that they love the Tsugaru shamisen and its spirit more than me. I believe that Tsugaru shamisen should not be limited to the category of Tsugaru folk song accompaniment. I believe anything I do as a Japanese performer to express music, in the universal sense of the word, on this instrument, as one of the many types of musical instruments in the world, is all valid.

Today it has become quite common for rock to be performed on the shamisen or for shamisen players to work with musicians from other genre, but at the time you first started playing rock it must have brought some criticism, didnít it?
People objected strongly, saying it wasn’t shamisen. And very few people came to our rock band’s live performances. There was a preconception that a shamisen player had to be wearing a kimono and the sound had to be a particular type. Anything that didn’t fit with those preconceptions would be criticized. It is only in the last four or five years that things have changed. Before that, there were certainly attempts by some to use the shamisen for new types of musical expression, but most of it was little more than adding drums to play the kind of beat that already existed in the background of traditional pieces like the Tsugaru Jonkara–bushi. They weren’t on the level of true ensemble performance. When I was in elementary school, I used to listen to rock, blues and Euro beat music on the late-night radio programs and I thought that it would be possible to put shamisen to that music. When I was 17, I was lucky to be invited to play with a rock band and I found that in fact you could play rock with a shamisen. Every live performance was an experiment for me at that time. Of course, shamisen had not been a part of rock from its inception, so there were some parts of the tonal quality and phrasing of traditional Japanese folk music that did not fit with rock. I was working to find my own style by seeking good balance within the band’s music and discovering the expanding musical possibilities that would result even by changing just one sound.

Was this the result of a shift on your part away from traditional shamisen music toward new musical activities?
Since traditional music is something that has been built up over such a long time, there are surely some forms within it that can’t be broken down. And there are some that we don’t need to break down. On the other hand, the process of breaking down old forms to create new ones is necessary to keep our music from becoming something that no longer fits the sensitivities of people living today. If you concentrate only on protecting the old forms, the audience who listen to your music is going to get smaller and smaller. My desire to study the traditional repertoire is still strong, but my desire to create music that the young generation can accept and feel an affinity to is even stronger. In any era, people who try to do something different have to accept the fact that they will face strong criticism. But, once someone sets a new precedent it is easier for others to follow. I feel that I must be one to set such a precedent.

Did your desire to perform overseas come after you began doing rock?
I thought I would like to study in the U.S. after I graduated from high school. American music was the first foreign music I listened to when I was young, and Japanese pop music has been strongly influenced by the West. I wanted to experience a country, people and an environment where original music was being created. I wanted to see what kind of an effect it would have on me and how the shamisen I play might change. In the end, I never made that first trip, though, because by the time I turned 18 I had already begun a full-fledged professional career as a performer. But, I still kept the dream of performing my own concerts abroad, and since 1990 I have been performing overseas once or twice a year. I have also gone to places like Hong Kong and Central and South America to perform as part of a Japanese folk music unit or in a rock band. And, wherever I have gone people have been very interested because they have never seen or heard an instrument like the shamisen before. And the responses after those concerts have always been good. I think what people overseas find interesting is that despite being a string instrument, the sound of the shamisen also has a strong percussion aspect. It is certainly an instrument with a uniquely Japanese sound.
 
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