Jamisen

Purchased in Kyoto, Japan, 1977

From Graciela's Notes

 The Shamisen is a long-necked plucked lute played in many kinds of Japanese music, from folk to popular music to theatrical and experimental art forms.  It is made of wood and the three strings have various tunings, including one especially for comic music.  A Shamisen is held upright in a seated position.  It has three strings running over a slender neck running from a reverse pegbox to an ivory or wood (now plastic) bridge.  It is played with a large plectrum.  However, sometimes the bare fingers, or sometimes the fingernails, pluck the strings producing a lighter, less percussive sound.  A Shamisen player usually accompanies a singer, using the plectrum to strike both the strings and the belly of the Shamisen at he same time.  A rather unusual sound in the Shamisen confirms the importance of unpitched sounds in Japanese music.  This is a special buzz or hum called sawari (literally, “touch”), which is purposfully added to the instrument when it is made.  The lowest string does not rest on the upper bridge but resonates against a special cavity made near the top of the instrument’s neck.  This string sets a noise in motion, to which the other strings can contribute in sympathetic vibration.  The result is a pitchless buzzing sound that is essential to the tonal flavor of the Shamisen.  Whereas such buzzing noises are avoided in instruments used in Western classical music, Japanese instrument makers intentionally build such timbres into their instruments.  (Buzzing is also deliberately built into many African instruments.) The original form of this chordophone, the jamisen, came from China around 1400.  The Japanese and Chinese have many interesting folk instruments.  Some of them are quite difficult to play.  I bought several while I was there so I had to have them shipped to Spain, as I was unable to carry them back.  I bought the Shamisen in Kyoto, Japan during my visit there in 1977.  Saw it played while attending Japanese Opera – Kabuki.

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