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The Opening Pluck

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

In Kabuki theatre the opening pluck of a shamisen signals the beginning of a performance. The sounds of excited chatter and laughter among audience members fades to silence. The house lights are dimmed and 2,000 people are plunged into darkness. The atmosphere is charged with a heightened sense of anticipation and ecstasy, as if bracing yourself in an aeroplane moments before lift-off. This feeling of elevation is intrinsic to Kabuki, for the Japanese regard theatre art as the difference (not the closeness as we do in the West) between real life and the stage. After a moment, the stage curtain (jyoshiki-maku) is drawn revealing a group of kimono-clad musicians who once again begin to play the shamisen. The sounds reverberating through the auditorium feel at once both delicate and piercing.

A musical ensemble in Kabuki also includes a variety of drums such as the ôtsuzumi, kotsuzumi and the o-daiko which is a large barrel drum used for highly dramatic scenes. There are different types of traditional Japanese flutes and depending on the play being performed a koto (13-stringed Japanese harp) may also be used. However, the instrument most closely associated with the art of Kabuki is the shamisen which is what I decided to further explore in my research and reading over the last couple of weeks.

Young Lady Taking a Lesson on the Shamisen, Nishikawa Sukenobu, Edo period (1615–1868)
Young Lady Taking a Lesson on the Shamisen, Nishikawa Sukenobu, Edo period (1615–1868)

The history of the shamisen (also spelt samisen or jamisen) goes back about 500 years. It is a three-stringed lute that has its roots in Okinawa, Japan’s most southernly region. The Okinawan instrument called the sanshin was the precursor to the shamisen and was also a three-stringed instrument which originally came from China. In the 16th century the sanshin reached Sakai in Western Japan (then the nation’s largest trading port). The body of the sanshin was covered in snakeskin but on the Japanese mainland there were no snakes large enough so the skins of other animals were used, and the shamisen was born.

There are different kinds of shamisen instruments and shamisen styles such as the Tsugaru shamisen style, which in comparison to the Gidayu style, is louder and played much more percussively. The Tsugaru style was originally developed by street performers in the Tsugaru area who were visually challenged (bousama). In order to earn money they would perform on the street or at shrine festivals and played with a livelier style to attract audiences. In recent years, thanks to the many talented musicians who perform the Tsugaru style (Hibiki Ichikawa, Yoshida Brothers, Wagakki Band) and to movies such as Kubo and the Three Strings, the style has been brought to popularity on the world stage.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Hibiki Ichikawa who is the only professional Tsugaru shamisen musician in the UK. Hibiki-san performs internationally and leads shamisen workshops in cities across Europe including Berlin, Düsseldorf and London where he is based. In December 2019 Hibiki-san and I performed together at Kabukimono and I was curious to learn more about his creative process as an artist and what inspired him to become a professional player of the Tsugaru shamisen.

Tsugaru shamisen artist, Hibiki Ichikwa. Photo by Nocturna Photography.

Suleiman: Hibiki, where were you born in Japan?

Hibiki: I was born in Kanazawa which is quite a small city on the completely opposite side of Tokyo.

Suleiman: Do you have any siblings? Are they musical?

Hibiki: Yes I have three older brothers but I am the only musician!

Suleiman: When and what was your first encounter with shamisen music like?

Hibiki: I discovered the Tsugaru shamisen when I was twenty. I started playing the guitar in high school when I was about seventeen or eighteen and had a band. It was very hard to develop the band so I kind of gave it up – I wanted to learn something new. One day I saw an advertisement for a shamisen school. I was curious to learn about this traditional Japanese instrument. This was not Tsugaru shamisen, this was the Hosozao ‘thin-neck’ shamisen (the ones that geisha play). I studied this instrument for one year. Then one day on my way to class a lady saw me walking by with my shamisen – she invited me to come to the Tsugaru shamisen school to have a look. When I went down to the Tsugaru shamisen school I was immediately impressed. The moment I heard the sound of the Tsugaru shamisen it felt as if lightning had struck my body.

Suleiman: Wow that’s beautiful. Were there any key artists who inspired you growing up?

Hibiki: Yes. I was passionate about Rock and Punk music from the UK, particularly Radiohead. I would watch them perform on TV and often visited my local library or bookshop to read about British music artists and the UK music scene.

Suleiman: I remember you mentioning your shamisen collection to me a while ago. Can you tell me how many shamisens you have and the different situations you use them?

Hibiki: I currently have five Tsugaru shamisens in London, two I keep for my students when they come to practice. I also have an electric shamisen which I use when playing in gigs with synths, bass guitar or the drum kit. The electric shamisen is still evolving so I have had to make some technical adjustments to the instrument myself. For example, I have attached a jack and customised the pegs (itomaki) which are made of blue crystal. The final two are my main shamisens which are premium quality and I use these for acoustic concerts, recordings and performances.

Suleiman: David Bowie would have loved your electric shamisen…He has a song called Crystal Japan!

Hibiki: Ah yes!

Suleiman: If you could have dinner with one composer or musician, dead or alive, who would that be and why?

Hibiki: I love British musicians so I would probably have to say Thom Yorke, the lead vocalist from Radiohead.

Suleiman: Have you had any recent experiences which has influenced work?

Hibiki: When I returned to London from Japan in the end of January (2020) I felt inspired to activate my full potential as a music artist and also to develop my new project, DENSHONEN. DENSHONEN are a folklore duo involving young British musicians, Joshua Green (Tsugaru shamisen and guitar) and Luke Burns (Tsugaru shamisen and taiko). They both studied the shamisen with me and very quickly became really good and so I am keen to promote their work as a producer. We have performed together at various events in London and moving forward we plan to present performances both across the UK and in Japan.

DENSHONEN, from left, Josh, Luke and Hibiki. Photo by Nocturna Photography, styled by Mai Yoshizaki.

Suleiman: What’s one record you would recommend to anyone who wants to understand more about your work?

Hibiki: I don’t own a huge collection of shamisen music but one of the greatest shamisen artists I have ever played with is my own teacher, Akihiro Ichikawa. I received my name ‘Ichikawa’ from him in 2008.

Suleiman: There was another big ‘Ichikawa’ name change in the Kabuki world earlier this month… Ebizo Ichikawa XI became Ebizo Danjuro XIII Hakuen, succeeding his late father.

Hibiki: Ah yes that’s right.

Suleiman: What drives your work? Why do you wake up every morning to do it?

Hibiki: The daily practice of shamisen. I play in the evening and usually finish at about 8pm. Afterwards I have dinner and relax etc. The following morning when I wake up, I still remember practicing what I did. I have this sudden feeling “Ooh I have to continue, I don’t want to forget that last skill. This sense of building, block by block, my craft as a Tsugaru shamisen artist is what drives me. If I skip one day, I feel terrible for it!

Suleiman: What would you like to do more of in 2020?

Hibiki: I want to promote DENSHONEN as a producer. Of course I also want to continue playing Tsugaru shamisen to live audiences but I think it is possible to be successful in both.

Suleiman: Do you have a favourite temple or garden you would recommend visiting in Japan?

Hibiki: Ryōan-ji in Kyoto is beautiful. The garden is made entirely of stone in this wave like formation. I have been there a few times.

Suleiman: What do you like most about Spring? What’s your favourite bird, flower or tree?

Hibiki: The temperature is good and my birthday is at the end of March! (27th). I don’t know if I have a favourite bird or flower but I love watching trees and seeing how they move.

Suleiman: Musically what do you think is distinctive about your performance style?

Hibiki: A lot of people living in Japan have not travelled or lived in other parts of the world. I have lived in London for almost nine years now and am able to infuse this experience in my own shamisen playing. I have had many great experiences in this country, for example performing with you at Kabukimono. In terms of what is specific about my music style. I have worked a lot with people in theatre and I think that has also really helped me to adapt to different situations and work with different people.


Suleiman Suleiman gives his warmest thanks to Hibiki Ichikawa.

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