God of Shamisen: Metal Makeovers of Japanese Folk Traditions

God of Shamisen: “Last Shamisen Master Attack” (Smoke Monster Attack, 11/23/2010)
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God of Shamisen: Smoke Monster Attack
God of Shamisen: Smoke Monster Attack

Despite a predilection for combining the shamisen — a fretless, three-stringed Japanese lute — with any dissimilar musical style, God of Shamisen’s Kevin Kmetz is very much the traditionalist. Kmetz is a student of Tsugaru-shamisen, a striking, percussive style of performance developed during the late 1800s and early 1900s in the northern region of Honshu (the largest island of Japan). Evolved in part by players such as Takahashi Chikuzan, who contributed to the “Tsugaru boom” of the 1950s, Tsugaru-shamisen eventually adopted long improvisations and began to reflect American influences such as the burgeoning free-jazz movement.

The name Tsugaru-shamisen, however, didn’t gain popularity until the ’50s and ’60s, an era when America again declared itself protector to Japan. Military bases had sprouted up in the region, and with them came American music suddenly filtering through the radio. Influences of jazz, blues, and rock ’n’ roll were added to the Tsugaru repertoire, and just as quickly, the shamisen community named the folk-infused improvisations as the true tradition of Tsugaru-shamisen — a tradition that must stay rigid, according to some.

It is particularly apt, then, for an outsider who spent his youth in the 1980s going to school on an American military base in Japan to advocate a tradition of change inherent in the beginnings of Tsugaru-shamisen.

“I feel like if you’re pissing people off, you’re making an impact.”

Kmetz had a desire to play the shamisen during his early teens — something that he says was impossible for a gaijin, an outsider, to do at the time. “There was no way I could have gone into a shamisen school,” he says. “It was just closed off to foreigners. You just wouldn’t see a gaijin going to a shamisen master and learning. I had to wait until I was an adult to go into shamisen.”

Since picking up the instrument, Kmetz has become the first foreigner to win the honorary Daijo Kazuo Award in 2005, as well as finish as a runner-up in 2006 and in second place in 2007 — honors that he hopes to surpass by becoming the first foreigner to win first place in a Tsugaru-shamisen tournament.

Apart from the tournaments, however, Kmetz leads God of Shamisen (www.godofshamisen.com), a conduit for the change that he sees as paramount to Tsugaru-shamisen’s continuity. Dragon String Attack, the band’s 2008 debut, deftly weaves metal, funk, ambient electronic, and even a sense of the 8-bit-music renaissance into an effluent, funny, intelligent mess of Eastern and Western influences.

The album, including contributions from Trey Spruance of Secret Chiefs 3, fellow shamisen player Masahiro Nitta, and bansuri maestro Deepak Ram, has at its center the shamisen — with a rhythmic, buzzing, and tonally striking sound that is never out of place yet always surprising in its context.

For Kmetz, the band’s changes in style — from blast beats to reggae jams to Turkish folk — are a natural progression for Tsugaru-shamisen.

“I feel there’s a duty to keep adding to it,” Kmetz says, “because that’s what it was originally about. People forgot that you could add a phrase and still call it Tsugaru-shamisen. You’re going to make people mad, but that’s really what it’s supposed to say. To me, that’s the only way to keep a tradition alive.”

Those whom God of Shamisen are angering, surprisingly, are not the Japanese masters — a group, Kevin admits, that is not the most vocal in its true opinions.

The most outspoken individuals come from the USA. “I’m thrilled to report I’ve actually been making a lot of fellow American shamisen players quite upset,” Kmetz says. “I’m really taking huge authorities with the instrument, which is one of the major complaints I’m getting from a lot of fellow American players. They’re saying, ‘You can’t really call yourself Tsugaru-shamisen, because you’re not sticking to the language.’ It’s been sort of a satisfactory moment for me, because I feel like if you’re pissing people off, you’re making an impact. Finally, I’m considered worthy enough to get upset about.”

It’s been two years since the release of Dragon String Attack, and despite the distance between players, God of Shamisen has released a follow-up digital album titled Smoke Monster Attack. Kmetz, after spending most of his adult life in the States, has moved back to Japan to study under the current masters of the shamisen.

Bassist/producer Mark Thornton and guitarist Karl Schnaitter reside in California, and drummer Lee Smith — a fellow alumnus, along with Kmetz, of genre annihilators Estradasphere — resides in Seattle, where some of the recording for Smoke Monster Attack was completed.

Produced by Thornton and Billy Anderson, a name very familiar to metal heads, Smoke Monster Attack continues to blend the shamisen’s unique sound with Western music. Anderson has produced for the likes of Sleep, Secret Chiefs 3, and Mr. Bungle, and he brings to Kmetz’s instrument a frantic immediacy that hits at every note. The rhythmic, acoustic strikes somehow fit right in with heavy riffs and video-game covers.

The metal influences heard on the first album take center stage with Anderson’s production, and Smoke Monster Attack is less likely to bound from one genre to another. The music loses none of its spontaneity or humor, and if anything, it feels like a stronger, more cohesive release than the first.

Within the time between albums, God of Shamisen has been as active as a band can be with its members spanning the globe, playing Japanese-American festivals, dive bars, and concert halls. The band plans, however, to accomplish one elusive goal: to tour Japan. “We’ve never done that, and that’s always been weird,” Kmetz says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, you’re doing this thing that’s mixing Japanese culture with American culture, and you’ve never gone to Japan and showed that to anyone.’”

This means that Japan has something wholly original coming, derived from the best that American and Japanese culture could birth, flitting between two worlds despite the tendency for stagnation in the name of tradition. As Kmetz so rightly says, tradition is about keeping things alive enough to change.

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