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Shamisen is an old Japanese musical instrument. It looks like a banjo with a long neck. You might have heard of shamisen music in connection with geishas, the kabuki theater or the Japanese bunraku puppet theater.
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The shamisen is a lute instrument with three strings. It has a very long neck and is about 30 inches (one meter) long.
Its body is made out of wood and covered with cat or dog skin ( Pet lovers excuse! I hate the idea myself. ). In the historical beginnings, snake skin was used ( not much better ). The body is stuck on a pole, the neck. Body and neck can be taken apart. Thus the shamisen is easier to transport.
Over the course of time, different forms of the musical instrument developed. The main types are the futozao, the hosozao and the tsugaru. The difference is in the thickness of the body and thus the typical sound of the instrument. As with all Japanese art forms like the tea ceremeny or martial arts, dozens of different styles emerged - taught in numerous schools.
As often to be found in Japanese arts, also the shamisen has its origins in China. From China the instrument came to the Southern Islands of Ryukyu (Okinawa). Around the late 16th century it arrived on the Japanese main island and soon became popular. It was first used by street singers and geishas and considered a lower class instrument.
It was and is still used as principal instrument for background music in kabuki plays. And with the rising attraction of kabuki during the Edo period, the popularity of this musical instrument soared. In a bunraku play, the shamisen player has to accompany the narrator, the man who tells the story.
During the 19th century, the shamisen rose to a classical concert instrument.
Articles about Japanese music often use dozens of Japanese terms. When I arrive at the fourth term, I usually forgot the first three. For the ambitious ones among you, here are a few special terms.
The shamisen is still a very popular musical instrument in Japan and now even outside the country. Its use spreads from a classical solo, chamber or concert instrument to folk music and to contemporary versions of some kind of improvised jazz music.
The shamisen is often used in an ensemble with two other Japanese instruments - the bamboo flute ( shakuhachi ) and the koto - a flat floor 13 string instrument. This three instrument ensemble is called sankyoku.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(November 2002, updated October 2009)
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