Folklore that transcends borders
Amitabh Sharma, Contributor
"We sing happy songs - songs that bring hope and talk about goodness in life," says Kinzaburo Abe, founder of Abeya, one of Japan's best Tsugaru-Shamisen performance ensemble.
Shamisen, which is derived from the three-string musical instrument, is the focal point of these renditions; and Abeya is resonating the notes in the crests and troughs, bringing the folklore of the Tsugaru, a city in the northeast of Japan.
"We started the group, which comes from the family name Abe, 10 years back," said Abe, the patriarch of the ensemble.
Abeya consists of brothers Kinzaburo and Ginzaburo Abe, winners of Japan's National Tsugaru-Shamisen Competition; Maya Nemoto, a prodigy of folk songs; and Tatsumasa Ando.
Dressed in traditional work clothes, Samui and Zouri (traditional Japanese slippers), brothers Kinzaburo and Ginzaburo, and Tatsumasa wore a mix of well-gelled, highlighted and spiked hairdo - confluence of Shamisen with rock star looks.
This fusion traditional customs with the modernity of the contemporary world, according to the elder Abe, has been one of the keys to success for the group.
"Like all traditions across the world, Japan is facing the dilemma of its folklore diminishing," said Hiromoto Oyama, first secretary, Embassy of Japan in Jamaica. "It is commendable that Abeya has been able to infuse modernity in the folk form to keep it alive and spread across the world."
FOCUSED ON COMMUNITY
The songs that Abeya sing are focused on the community, and they tweak the music with the demands, tastes and preferences of the audience in mind.
"These (the constant innovations) appeal to the wider audience," Hidesaburo said. "There is always room for development and we are not restricted to one localised audience."
Their performance style of this creative confluence has appealed to Japan's younger generation.
While the Abe brothers Kinzaburo and Ginzaburo naturally followed in their father's footsteps, Maya grew up hearing her mother play Shamisen.
"It was natural for me to be inspired by her and I followed her footsteps," she said coyly.
Tatsumasa Ando, on the other hand, stumbled into this folklore after being coerced to taking a lesson in kindergarten by his grandmother, who is Shamisen master.
"But," Ando said, "Shamisen grew into me, and I formed a club in high school and took up singing professionally."
Though Abeya infuses fusion in its approach, the heart and soul remains the Tsugaru-Shamisen, with its powerful vibrations produced by its three strings.
"The Tsugaru-Shamisen has a larger body and thicker strings than the usual Shamisen," Oyama said. "This enables the sounds to resonate to a wider audience."
Percussive beats are produced by striking the body of the instrument with the plectrum. This gives a distinctive character and resonance, distinctive of Japanese traditional music.
For Abeya, these time-honoured beats have converged with some of the well-known popular renditions across the world, as Ginzaburo belted out No Woman No Cry, with his brother Kinzaburo and Ando giving the background score.
This Japanese ensemble is one of the living examples that music is universal, which resonates from the heart.
"Shamisen is all about people's dreams and their aspirations," Kinzaburo Abe said, emphasising the fundamental principles of this folklore - that of love and bonding.
"The songs are like rays of sunshine, which bring warmth, hope and spreads light," he concluded.