The origin of shamisen can be traced back to China’s sanxian, which was brought to Okinawa during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). Here, it was modified to a smaller instrument called sanshin.
Shanshin was first introduced to Japan during the Eiroku era (1558 – 1570) of the Muromachi period (1338 – 1573) when it was brought to the port of Sakai City. At first, the instrument was played by biwa (Japanese lute) minstrels but was modified during the early Edo period (1603 – 1867), and the current form of shamisen was created. Since then, shamisen has been used to accompany jyōruri (Japanese ballad drama) as well as shamisen-kumiuta, a genre of songs that are sung while playing the instrument.
Shamisen music flourished the most during the mid-Edo period, and many new genres that are still being performed to this day, such as nagauta and jiuta, were born. In Osaka, Gidayū Tekemoto created a very popular form of jyōruri called gidayū-bushi, which has been performed in puppet theater.
Currently, there are three types of instruments – hosozao (small), chūzao (midsize) and futozao (large) – and various genres were developed to utilize the strengths of each instrument. Shamisen has been one of the most beloved Japanese instruments not only because of its versatility as an accompaniment for songs and jyōruri but its appeal as a virtuosic instrument.
Shamisen is consist of a drum-like body and a long neck. Three strings are strung to the instrument, and a bridge is placed on the body. The vibration of the strings is transferred to the body, and the whole instrument resonates. When the strings are plucked with a plectrum, it also strikes the body at the same time and creates a unique percussive sound.
Different types of bridges and plectrums are used to perform various genres. Most of the strings are made of silk, but recently, more durable strings that are made of nylon were developed.
Sawari – the lifeblood of shamisen
Sawari is comprised of overtones that create shamisen’s unique “buzzing” sound and is one of the most important aspects of shamisen music. The word also refers to the instrument’s structure that produces these sounds.
Sawari is created because the 1st (lowest) string slightly touches a small bump called the sawari-yama at the top of the neck. The overtones resonate with the 2nd and 3rd (highest) strings, and the whole instrument resonates to produce a more vibrant sound.
I hope you will discover this “buzzing” sound and enjoy the richness of shamisen music.
Written by Yoko Reikano Kimura / Translated by Hikaru Tamaki