Tue | Aug 14, 2018

Shamisen - strings of tradition

Published:Sunday | October 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Ginaburo Abe affixes the stem to the base of the shamisen.
Tuners of the shamisen, originally made fgrom ivory.
Shamisen - traditional Japanese string instrument, used as an accompaniment in folk songs.
Shamisen - Traditional Japanese string instrument, used as an accompaniment in folk songs.
The shamisen
Tuners of the shamisen, originally made from ivory. Shamisen pick (bachi) - made from ivory and tortoise shell.

Amitabh Sharma, Contributor

What does one get when one combines ivory, silk threads, red sandalwood, dog skin and tortoise shell? No, it is not a part of any ritual or ingredients out of a horror flick. They are the raw materials for the traditional Japanese plucked lute - shamisen.

"The word 'shamisen' means three strings," explained Hidesaburo Abe, founder of Abeya folk music group.

In the land of the Samurai, the shamisen is an integral part of the country's traditional folk culture.

"There are a variety of shamisen in Japan," said Hiromoto Oyama, first secretary, Embassy of Japan in Jamaica. "The instrument has variants, according to the region and the kind of folklore that it is being played with."


Shamisen traces its origins to Okinawa, south
Japan, where it is said to have come from India. Musical instruments
similar to the shamisen have been excavated in

"The shamisen has a variety of sizes, but
the shape is almost similar," Oyama said. "Some variants are larger;
this is to create a louder sound that could resonate across a wider

Red sandalwood, which is imported from
India, is used to make this string instrument. Sandalwood is sacred in
Indian tradition, and the red sandalwood has beauty and therapeutic
uses. The base, which is hollow and round, which, again, can be similar
to the traditional Indian string instrument, sitar, is covered with dog

'Eeew!' might be the reaction from some, but the
canine species are not being slaughtered; this part of their mortal
remains is processed, treated, and

"Traditionally, cat skin was used," said
Abe. "And the reason for using their skin is that it is supple and
creates the desired notes and the pitch in the

Abe, who is the founder of Abeya folk music
group, said though deeply traditional, the shamisen his group uses has
been modified to make it detachable and


The neck
of the shamisen is usually divided into three or four pieces that fit
and lock together.

Attached to the base is the red
sandalwood stem, which crosses the drum-like base of the shamisen,
partially protruding at the other side of the body, acting as an anchor
for the strings.

The top piece, the headrests, the
tuners, their pegs - which are used to wind the strings - are long and
hexagonal in shape, and are traditionally carved out of

"Ivory has become rare, so nowadays, wood and
plastic are used," said Abe.

The traditional materials
extend to the pick, which is spatula-shaped - the handle made from
ivory, and the blade made either from tortoise shell or buffalo horn,
the former being the material of choice because of its

Abe's son, Ginzaburo, meticulously fixed
all the pieces which were wrapped in silk bags, stringed the samisen,
and did a test song … as he broke into No Woman No
, a convergence of Bob Marley's lyrical prowess with the
traditional Japanese folklore.

And, as its widely
known and acknowledged, music is the food of love, so play


Photos by Amitabh Sharma