Yoshida Brothers: Cross-Continental Shamisen Fusion

The striking, twangy, percussive sound of the Japanese shamisen has attracted listeners around the world, fascinated by what the slender, three-string instrument can produce.

Though many players adhere to the traditional Tsugaru-shamisen repertoire — a complex, improvisational style popularized in northern Japan — others have stretched the instrument’s boundaries.  The Yoshida Brothers are one such set of risk-takers, meshing a fast, traditional style with rock, bluegrass, and cinematic styles.

Separated by just two years, Ryōichirō and Ken’ichi Yoshida have found success in their homeland, but they’ve become just as popular in the USA, where they began touring as a duo before even doing so in Japan.  Amid the brothers’ current US tour — a trip that they take each year — they spoke to ALARM about what is “proper” for the shamisen, being seen as a novelty, and the differences in US and Japanese audiences.

(Answers translated by Tatsuya Hayashi)

What do you accomplish together with two shamisens that you could not with just one?

We have more variety of music by playing two.  Basically, a shamisen is a unison instrument, so by using two shamisens, we can divide the parts into two.  …  Sometimes one plays lower and one plays higher.  We can sometimes harmonize, but sometimes one plays a rhythm part and one plays the melody.

Have you encountered people who view your music as a gimmick or novelty?  How would you respond to that?

Sometimes it is good for us, because the shamisen has a lot of potential for many genres of music, and that’s our mission – to show the potential of the instrument.  There might be [criticism], but we don’t really care. (Laughs) The main thing is that we enjoy the music, and we want our audience to enjoy the music.

I interviewed an American shamisen player, Kevin Kmetz, who has a band called God of Shamisen.  The band combines Tsugaru-jamisen with heavy metal and dozens of other styles, and he talked about traditional shamisen masters being upset at what he does.  Have you encountered the same type of anger or opposition?

Heavy metal is going a little far.  (Laughs)  Some people think that our music is not proper for the shamisen.  In our music, we always try to leave some elements that can be performed only by shamisen.  That is something we always keep in mind, so that’s why we really don’t care what people say.

When you recorded Prism in LA, you worked with a number of great American musicians, including Matt Chamberlain and Jesca Hoop.  Who else would you like to collaborate with on future albums?

We don’t have many ideas for vocalists.  [Ken’ichi] mainly listens to jazz and respects artists like Pat Metheny and Chick Corea.  Someday in the future, [we’d love to] collaborate with them.

We haven’t done any shows with a full band yet.  So in the future, if we have a show with a full band in the States, we’d like to have [Matt Chamberlain] as the drummer.

Ken’ichi has said that eating local foods are the “only way to feel or enjoy cities.”  What food have you enjoyed in Chicago, and what do you like about playing in America?

Pizza!  More than food, we really enjoy the reaction from the audience; it’s very different and depends on the location.  It’s very different from Japan too.  We sense a freeness from the audience [in America] – clapping hands and shouting.  Tsugaru-shamisen music is very improvisational, and it’s fun to [communicate in this way] from the artist to the audience.

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