Whether I am in or outside of Japan, audience members often comment that they were surprised to hear singing in traditional Japanese music.
In koto and shamisen music, performers sing with their natural voice called jigoe using their belly, or tanden, while supporting their upper body. Melodies are typically melismatic – a style of music in which a single syllable is elongated while the pitch moves between several notes in a succession.
The lyrics are often quoted from classical literature such as Kokin Wakashū (an anthology of poems compiled in the 9th century), The Tale of Genji and The Tale of Heike. Subject matters range from impressions of the seasons, human emotions, dramatic stories and trips to famous temples or shrines. For example, Yamada Kengyō, the founder of the Yamada school, was known for his beautiful voice and developed a unique style of koto music that skillfully incorporates elements of noh and jyōruri (Japanese ballad drama).
These songs are difficult to appreciate even for native Japanese speakers because of their archaic language and subtle nuances. However, sometimes, I have received comments from audience members that they were touched by the music despite the language barrier.
Although I hope to continue to explore the instrumental possibilities of koto and shamisen, I equally hope to cherish song music that I believe is the heart and soul of Japanese music.
Written by Yoko Reikano Kimura / Translated by Hikaru Tamaki