Plugged-in samisen rocks Edo-style traditionalists
BY YOSHIKATSU NAKAJIMA STAFF WRITER
Hiroshi Kitagawa plays one of his custom-made electric samisen. (Yoshikatsu Nakajima)
YOKKAICHI, Mie Prefecture--Just like the day Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar in the folkie 1960s and shocked the world, the idea of playing an electric samisen strikes some traditionalists as unholy.
But Hiroshi Kitagawa, 45, the eighth-generation owner of Cosmo Gakki, a shop in the city's Suwasakaemachi district that has sold samisen since it opened in 1853, thinks that plugging in seems the only way to save the traditional instrument.
His music shop sells custom-made electric samisen in addition to guitars and other musical instruments.
The Cosmo Gakki store dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when it sold the three-stringed instruments to geisha. Back then, Suwasakaemachi was part of the Yokkaichi-juku post station, which was on the way to Ise Jingu shrine in Ise, also in Mie Prefecture. The station prospered from the many pilgrims that passed through on their way to the sacred shrine.
But as times changed in the Showa Era (1926-1989), Cosmo Gakki began selling guitars and other instruments.
Kitagawa taught samisen lessons at his shop until about three years ago. Most of his students were people in their 80s. He worried that the instrument's image was akin to gateball--it was viewed as something only old people play.
But in this rock 'n' roll era, he figured, there had to be a way to entice young people to try their hand at samisen. Why not a better electric version?
Since spring 2009, Kitagawa has sold nearly 50 of his three models of "Ben-Ten" series electric samisen, priced from 70,000 yen ($842) to 120,000 yen. Most were sold through orders taken via the web.
In fact, he has sold more electric samisens than traditional acoustic ones, which start at around 50,000 yen apiece.
Why would people pay more? It's the sound quality, Kitagawa says.
Most other electric samisens on the market depend on signals generated by the vibration of strings. Kitagawa was not satisfied with that sound.
"They were all flat and sounded much different from a 'real' samisen," he said.
He began looking at technology used in electric acoustic guitars, in which a pickup device is used to convert sounds into electrical signals.
Kitagawa mounted a pickup underneath the skin of a samisen, which blends the vibration from the skin with the resonance inside the box of the samisen.
"That's how it can generate such natural-sounding music," Kitagawa said. "It was an idea only someone who deals in both Japanese and Western musical instruments could come up with."
The pickup doesn't get in the way. In fact, when unplugged, a Ben-Ten samisen sounds much like a conventional one.
His Ben-Ten samisen has been well-received by Japanese musicians who play traditional music.
Mikan Nitta, a 40-year-old shakuhachi (bamboo flute) player based in Komono in the prefecture, was amazed by the excellent sound. He has worked with Kitaro, the Grammy-award winning synthesizer artist, and musicians across many genres.
"The sounds are so realistic. It almost sounds like an ordinary (traditional) samisen being amplified through a microphone," Nitta said.
Kitagawa plans to upload a video clip to the web of himself playing "Oise Mairi" (Visit to Ise Jingu shrine), a traditional song about pilgrimage, on an electric samisen using a contemporary arrangement.
"Okinawa's 'sanshin' (samisen that was created in the island prefecture) raised its profile thanks mainly to the hit song 'Nada Soso,'" Kitagawa said. "I'd like to promote the samisen (with my electric version of the instrument) because it has a long, distinguished background, even though people from traditional samisen circles might be annoyed by the idea," he said.
Kitagawa says electric samisen orders he receives take about a week to deliver. Visit (www.cosmogakki.com) for more information.