Discovering Koto & Shamisen

…or the sound of birds and dragons. Last Wednesday was a busy day, but in the evening my girlfriend and I finally enjoyed dreaming away at a small, but very professional traditional Japanese music concert with shamisenkoto and Japanese singing. In hindsight, it was wonderful. We had the privilege to listen to highly skilled Japanese koto- and shamisen-players play melodies that are a famous part of Japan’s musical history, such as Rokudan no Shirabe (Melody of Rokudan) and two pieces composed by renowned koto player Tadao SAWAI, who really is a name to remember if you are interested in koto music.

There were also four singers, a violinist and a pianist, who performed their own pieces which were not always so traditionally Japanese, though the lyrics of the songs were Japanese, and at the end of the evening they all performed together to end in an apotheosis. For me, however, the real highlight of the evening was Fumiko WAKU’s solo performance.

plate, koto, musicians
From Left to Right: plate on the embassy of Japan in Belgium; koto; and a violinist, singers and koto players performing on stage – by Hänsel VB, 2015

Apart from two Japanese men, of which one was the pianist, all of the musicians were women, and everyone wore colorful, immaculate and probably very expensive kimonos. Two of the Japanese ladies were so kind to give us bits of background information with every piece that was played as well as about the music instruments, first in Japanese, then in French.

What I remember from the explanation was that the koto (center of the above three pictures) is said to resemble a dragon, and the hole on one side which lets out sound would represent its mouth. The lady who was telling us these things admitted that the resemblance might be a bit far-fetched, but it makes the design of the koto more interesting nonetheless. Each part apparently has its own counterpart on the body of the dragon.

While it looks like a dragon (depending on your imagination), the sound it makes when played is often very gentle and refined. But it depends on the piece and the musician. One of the pieces that were played was called Tori no yō ni, or “Like a Bird”. And it really did sound like a bird, fluttering graciously in the sky… I was baffled, and really touched by the sound of this song, especially since I was able to hear it being played by the very skilled Ms. Fumiko WAKU. Here it is, performed by a man who is seemingly not Japanese, but plays very skillfully nonetheless.


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