Best Celebration Melodies Performed by Japanese Musical Instruments

Best Celebration Melodies Performed by Japanese Musical Instruments

Product Description

While Japan might have an almost futuristic image to some in the west, it’s also a country steeped in tradition. There are hundreds of ceremonies, rituals and celebrations. Some of these celebrate a harvest and others the changing seasons. Each of the 47 Japanese prefectures host their own different festivals (matsuri), usually during the summer. Music and dance play an integral part of many festivals, in particular those summer obon festivals, but in many other celebrations too.

Perhaps the biggest celebration of all is Shogatsu, the Japanese New Year. Unlike much of East Asia, Japanese do not celebrate the Lunar New Year, but since 1873, on January 1st. Japanese New Year traditions run deep. Shogatsu stretches out for several days before and after. People eat a variety of dishes called osechi-ryori and make rice cakes (mochi). Millions of people go to a Buddhist Temple or Shinto shrine (hatsumoto) over the shogatsu period, either at midnight when a bell is rung 108 times, or over the following days. Others watch the first sunrise of the new year (hatsuhinode). Before dawn on January 1st the Emperor prays for the nation (shihouhai or yohouhai) while on January 2nd, the public are allowed access to the inner grounds of the imperial palace in Tokyo. New Year cards (nengajo), sent to family and friends are designed to arrive on January 1st. The biggest TV show of the year, Kohaku Uta Gassen on national broadcaster NHK, is aired on New Year's Eve, featuring two teams, red and white, of the year’s most popular musical artists and top enka singers, competing against each other.

Generally, shogatsu focuses on new beginnings and bringing prosperity in the upcoming year. Compared to the boisterous summer festivals, the mood is somewhat more plaintive. The sounds of Japanese traditional music emanate from TV, radio and as background music on streets, shops, hotels and other public places. Probably the most common piece is Haru no Umi, usually played as a koto (floor zither) and shakuhachi (bamboo flute) duet composed in 1929 by Michio Miyagi. Other well known compositions include Rokudan no Shirabe and Chidori no Kyoku, also both of which are played primarily by koto and shakuhachi.

This album reimagines New Year and other celebratory occasions from a previous era of several centuries ago. The main instrument on this album is not koto and shakuhachi, but the shamisen, a three stringed lute. The shamisen has the greatest variety of uses in Japanese traditional music. It is the backbone of kabuki music, is played by geisha and for all sorts of minyo music. It’s believed the shamisen was first introduced into Japan around 1562, at the port of Sakai near Osaka. The earliest version was the Okinawan sanshin, which itself was derived from the Chinese sanxian. The Japanese version of the instrument changed in shape, materials and playing styles.

Shamisen became an indispensable part of the development of theatrical arts, kabuki and bunraku puppet theatre. Bunraku adopted gidayubushi, the main form of narrative shamisen music (katarimono) centred around Osaka. Kabuki meanwhile adopted five or more types of shamisen music, but primarily nagauta (long song) a product of Tokyo and the main type of lyrical shamisen music (utamono).

New genres for shamisen music were continuously being developed. Around the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867), shorter lyrical songs developed called kouta (short songs) and hauta (regional songs). These songs were developed among the restaurants and brothels in cities and along the pilgrimage roads of Edo Japan. Kouta and hauta recreate the atmosphere of Edo and Meiji periods in a similar manner to the famous ukiyoe woodblock prints of the same era.

The hauta songs on this album were sung primarily for celebratory occasions. The sound recreates the atmosphere of a bygone era of the Edo and Meiji periods. The original lyrics convey the lives of ordinary people, human feelings, and love songs, in contrast to the more well crafted music of nagauta. The popular songs of hauta have been handed down through ordinary people as well as the masters of their era. The songs are like a treasure trove of the lives and sounds of people from centuries ago, some with elements that still resonate today. At the beginning of Hatsude Miyotote, is the lion dance accompaniment that is still heard today at New Year. On Kappore, it’s easy to visualise people singing and clapping through the shoji screens of a tatami room. While Takasago contains elements of yokyoku, the singing part of noh theatre. Many sounds could be familiar for most Japanese people today; festivals, sumo wrestling ceremonies, rakugo storytelling or geisha.

The vocals on this album have been omitted to create instrumentals played by a trio of shamisen, traditional flutes (shinobue and nohkan) and various Japanese traditional percussion instruments. The songs reflect both the celebratory and more plaintive sides of New Year and other celebratory events, to give a flavour of the New Year. Prior to 1873, the Japanese followed the lunar calendar, meaning aspects of spring, such as plum blossom or bush warblers have become New Year traditions, such as on the opening of this album.

In addition to the celebratory hauta songs are two nagauta, most commonly associated with kabuki, and it ends with one original tune. The album represents both a trip back to an old Japan, that of ‘the floating world’ and at the same time gives a flavour of New Year today.

1. Harutsugedori

This is the sound of the New Year as heralded by the uguisu flute, mimicking the song of the nightingale, the bush warbler. The beautiful song of the uguisu also announces the arrival of spring. During the Edo period, someone was designated as an otorigake, responsible for raising uguisu to sing in the best possible voice to please the shogunate. The thin bamboo uguisu flute is notoriously difficult to play to successfully imitate the voice of the nightingale.

2. Hatsude Miyotote

This tune is for the New Year firefighters ceremony. The tune starts with the lion dance instantly raising the mood. It relates to hashigo-nori, a traditional performance that passes on the techniques and methods of firemen in the Edo period, using tall ladders supported only by a ground crew using hooked wooden poles.

3. Shishiwa (Setsuhonkaina)

Originally a dance in the Edo period, developed during the Meiji period, a celebratory song and dance performed at drinking parties. Originating in Kamigata (Osaka), it became popular as an Edomae (Tokyo) hauta.

4. Asakusa Mairi

Asakusa is the centre of Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown) which still today retains an atmosphere of old Tokyo. It has for centuries been a centre of pilgrimage and trade. The main attraction is Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple (also known as Asukusa Kannon Temple). Visitors enter through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) and approach the temple via Nakamise a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with traditional snacks and souvenirs for centuries. The melody is similar to a nagauta song, Echigo Jishi, to which it is thought lyrics were later added, and dates back to the beginning of the Meiji era.

5. Oedo Nihonbashi

Edo is the old name of Tokyo, and Nihonbashi is the bridge at the centre of Edo, the starting point for the Nakasendo and Tokaido roads, that connected Edo to Kyoto. It is the bridge featured in the famous ukiyo-e picture by Hiroshige. It was a custom in the Edo period, that travellers would leave Nihonbashi just after sunrise. It began as Kochae Bushi originating in the pleasure quarters of the Yoshiwara district in the middle of the Edo era. It was later revived as Hakone-Bushi which became extremely popular with new words added to the melody with Oedo Nihonbashi becoming the most popular of all.

6. Hatsune Kikasete

On Hatsune Kikasete the sound of birds and insects announce the new year. In the first month of the lunar calendar, the beautiful song of the nightingale creates an emotional response in the listener. The shamisen's plaintive tone is accompanied by the haunting sound of the uguisu flute.

7 Shi-chome

This song is usually associated with music for festivals, but this time is performed without the shamisen in the form of kabuki geza music performed on the side of the kabuki stage. it is used for a dramatic fight scene in the precincts of a shrine or temple. It is also played by chindon-ya, (street advertising groups) on the streets of Japanese cities.

8. Oise Mairi

A playful drinking party song. These types of songs are based on themes from Kabuki and joruri, a form of narrative shamisen music with its roots in Buddhist sekkyo, scripture narrators. Pilgrims have been making the journey to the sacred Ise shrine for centuries. Mass pilgrimages of the Edo period were known for their carnival atmosphere.

9. Yakko-san

Yakko were low-ranking footman serving a high-ranking samurai. This song was performed in the Edo period by gannin bozu, a group of religious performer practitioners. The gannin were active during the Edo period, in Kyoto, Osaka, Edo and rural areas, providing the public with rites exorcisms and entertaining performances of music and dance. They appeared near major bridges, at temples and shrines, and on major roads and intersections.

10. Ume wa Saitaka

This is a famous hauta song, with its opening line ‘Have the Plum Flowers Bloomed?’ widely known. It is based on the celebratory folk song Shongae Bushi, which has been sung with varying lyrics and melodies since the early Edo period. The song is also related to Shongaina sung by goze, Edo period blind itinerant women musicians. The instrument at the beginning is a kind of orgel music box.

11. Kappore

Kappore is a very famous traditional folk dance, that originated during the Edo period. It is a comical dance music, popular in all parts of Japan, performed widely at banquets and other cheerful occasions. It was performed by gannin bozu, as sumiyoshi odori, lively folk dances, as a means of propagating their religion.

12. Ume Nimo Haru

New Year's Day in the lunar calendar is from the end of January to the beginning of February, and plum blossoms symbolised the new spring. The lyrics are filled with scenes of towns and its people during the new year. These include Wakamizukumi the custom of drawing the first water at the New Year, and Torioi, a procession held at the New Year to chase away the birds and animals to promote a rich harvest. The song begins with the sound of a tsuzumi, a hand drum.

13. Shichifukujin

Shichifukujin, Japan's Seven Lucky Gods are Hotei, Fukurokuji, Jurojin, Ebisu, Daikoku, Benzaiten and Bishamonten. The seven, according to tradition, visit towns at New Year distributing gifts, and this belief is retained in the custom of giving children gifts of money at New Year in envelopes marked with an image of the Takarabune (treasure ship). Different songs with the same name are found in various traditional Japanese music such as nagauta, koto music, and tokiwazu shamisen.

14. Yatai

A yatai is a mobile food stall, selling ramen and other food. Yatai date back to the Edo period but became especially popular during the Meiji period, when they were usually two wheeled wooden pushcarts. As with Shi-chome, a tune with the same name is a staple of festival music. Yatai-bayashi is a taiko drum piece, originally inspired by an annual festival in Chichibu. This tune is also used in Kabuki during a fight scene.

15. Matsu Zukushi

Pine trees, (matsu) are iconic cultural symbols in Japan. Evergreen, they are associated with endurance and eternity and are often featured in Japanese gardens, art and literature. Pine trees have also been used as a yorishiro, an object capable of attracting spirits called kami. The song
names different types of pine trees one by one and particular pine trees in specific regions.
The sound of a noh flute can be heard in the middle part of the tune, adding to the combination of sounds.

16. Rokudan Kuzushi

This tune is related to Rokudan no Shirabe, a famous piece for koto, that was later adapted for shamisen. Difficult to play, this version features two harmonising flutes.

17. Takasago

Takasago is a song originally from the noh play masterpiece of the same name, portraying the idea of blessing and celebration, and the atmosphere of nobility, dignity, and purity. Tomonari, a Shinto priest from Aso Shrine in Kyushu, stops at a scenic beach, Takasago-no-ura, in Harima Province (present Hyogo Prefecture) on his way to sightseeing in Kyoto. An old couple appear who sweep up the needles under a pine tree The couple explain that the pine is the renowned Takasago Pine, which is paired with the Suminoe Pine growing in distant Sumiyoshi; together they are called Aioi-no-matsu (Paired Pines). He explains that pine trees, evergreens which grow for one thousand years, are especially blessed and tells the historical story of the pine. Finally, the old couple reveal that they are the incarnation of Takasago Pine and Sumiyoshi Pine. They promise to see Tomonari at Sumiyoshi again and board a boat from the shore washed by the evening tide. The boat follows the wind and eventually disappears beyond the horizon. The hauta version is based on the noh song, and celebrates the longevity and harmonious relationship of the old couple.

18. Hatsu Haru

This is a song that depicts New Year during the Edo period, with various customs and lucky charms, such as the spiny lobster symbolising longevity, since it lives so long and because of its trailing ‘whiskers’, and the lion dance to exorcise demons. Urajiro is an evergreen fern used for New Year decorations. Daidai is a member of the mandarin orange family, and since it grows old with its fruit on, it is said to be an auspicious plant for generations. The music has a festive atmosphere featuring shime-daiko, okedo and tsuzumi drums.

19. Sawagi (Sansagari Sawagi)

A song with a cheerful and joyful rhythm, associated with geisha of Edo Yoshiwara. Sansagari Sawagi is one version of the song. A type of song called zokkyoku often sung at Yose, small halls mainly used for rakugo, ryokyoku and other similar entertainment.

Bonus track

20. Hidamari

"As warm and gentle as the sun.
May your loved ones smile.
Let's hold hands and take care of each other.
May the world be peaceful. “

An original tune for this album, composed by Junnosuke Uehara. Combining melodies and chord progressions of western music, with the harmony of the shamisen, flute and percussion.


Junnosuke Uehara (shamisen)

Plays a variety of shamisen in different styles including minyo, hauta, nagauta, tsugaru, gidayu, and Okinawan sanshin. Plays concerts of traditional Japanese musical instruments for children. Has played with famous enka singers such as Sayuri Ishikawa, Kiyoshi Hikawa and Yukino Ichikawa, pop artists such as EXILE and AKB48, and for the online game, Genshin. Has recorded albums and instruction books including Okinawa sanshin playing Okinawan shima uta, J-pop and Studio Ghibli. Runs a studio, teaches and is a college lecturer.

Wasshu Yoneya (shinobue, noh flute)

Born in Yame City, Fukuoka Prefecture (real name, Kazuyoshi Nakamura). Moved to Tokyo in 1991 to study shakuhachi (bamboo flute) under Iwao Yoneya, a major figure of the minyo world. Studied other techniques under another shakuhachi great, Kohachiro Miyata and classic honkyoku. Studied shinobue and nohkan flute from various masters. Has appeared on numerous TV radio programmes as a shakuhachi and flute player and on many recordings. Has performed overseas, and for ten years has been a member of Orchestra Asia, combining instruments from Japan, China and Korea.

Kisaburo Umeya (Japanese traditional percussion)

Graduated from the Department of Japanese Music, Tokyo University of the Arts. Studied Nagauta-Bayashi under the late Fukusaburo Umeya III and Nogaku and Koryu school Kotsuzumi drum under Masahiro Sowa. Has performed in Japan with renowned kabuki actors Nakamura Kankuro and Nakamura Shichinosuke. Has performed with the National Theatre sponsored buyo (classical dance) tour to USA, Europe (Russia, Slovenia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania), Asia (Bali, Kazakhstan, South Korea, China). Has appeared in various TV Taiga and other historical dramas. A member of the Nagauta Association spring performance committee and director of Minato Ward Japanese Music and Dance Federation, Tokyo.