Monday, October 8, 2012

Vocab: the Shamisen

Since Asian music is popular topic at the moment, I thought I might introduce an instrument that you might not be aware of—the shamisen.

A shamisen, from Flikr

It's a Japanese traditional instrument, and you play it by plucking the strings, like a guitar. Instead of plucking with fingers, though, the player uses a large plectrum. The plectrum makes the shamisen's sound more twangy than it might normally be. I'm not talking a country or spoken "twang," but the onomatopoeic "twang" sound heard when releasing an arrow from a bow. The shamisen only has three strings, no frets, and traditionally the body is covered with a skin: dog, cat, or snake. Like many Japanese traditional objects, the shamisen originally came from China. Here's a video of some famous contemporary shamisen players, the Yoshida brothers:

This is a great opportunity to talk about folk-popular hybridity (of the many things I could say about this video). The above musical object (a technical term for what we are studying, in this case the music video), is a combination of folk music and popular song construction. Music can also go the other way, putting a popular song in a folk music setting. Like this second musical object:

In both cases, the instruments and styles used are different from what you might expect. The second is an extreme (and funny) example, but it might provoke a question: What is the difference between folk and popular musics? The answer would be a large enough subject for a book, but in the interest of time, I think the two above objects show that there are less differences than you might think. At one time, folk music was popular music. We might say that folk music is the popular music of the past, though of course it is more complicated than that.

What do you think about the shamisen or popular/folk hybrids? Do you enjoy it when musicians mix up genres?

Vocab: plectrum, musical object, onomatopoeic

Special thanks to Megan Hill for introducing me to the Yoshida brothers.

1 comment: