I recently got two shamisen textbooks brought over from Japan, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this one as I’ve been sucked into it, and have been using it for about 2 months now.
I’ve been playing Tsugaru Shamisen for almost 3 years now. I started with a teacher, but now that I’ve moved away from Japan I needed material to teach myself. The book is in Japanese, and my Japanese level is about intermediate, however I haven’t needed much beyond the basic Tsugaru vocabulary when reading the tablature i.e. スリ、ハ、二上り、 and song names etc. I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t actually have a copy of Kyle’s famous book, [Whaaattt??? - Kyle] so I can’t compare the two. I did however get another book too called 津軽三味線入門 ALL IN ONE, and so I’ll talk a little about that book in the end for comparison.
About the book
This is Kuboki’s second tsugaru shamisen book, and is a higher level than the first (which I don’t have). It starts straight off with Jongara bushi, and so if you can play Rokudan comfortably this is a good next step for you. It is also cheap (about 2500Yen), a lot cheaper than other Japanese instructional books I’ve seen which are around 6000yen, and comes with an Audio CD.
- Jongara Shin Bushi
- Aiya bushi (Major)
- Aiya bushi (Minor)
- Ohara bushi
- Yosare bushi
- Tanto Bushi
- Tsugaru Ondo
- Kita no daichi (Original song by author)
- Yakugen (Original song by author)
Every song is played in the CD and in addition there are slow versions of Jongara, Aiya (major and minor), Tanto at the end of the CD. There is actually a minor bug in the CD printing that the Regular and Slow versions of Aiya major are reversed on the CD, but that’s not really a big deal.
I must admit my first gripe/disappointment is there are two slow versions of Aiya, which is a fairly slow song, but no slow version of Ohara, and Yosare which have much trickier rhythmical and technical aspects. I actually ripped the CD into MP3 tracks, and play them on VLC which has the ability to slow down music, and auto correct for frequency/tone. If you slow it down too much you get noise/artefacts but it’s usable for practice.
Otherwise the sound is very clear and it is easy to pick out the nuances, like the mae bachi, the dynamics of playing, and also the…Easter eggs/surprises I guess? Basically he doesn’t always necessarily play what is written in the notes. It doesn’t happen often, but if you read and play along with headphones you will notice things that aren’t quite right when he adds “flamboyant playing” frills (I can’t remember the exact word for it in Japanese, something with a K, similar to 派手なバチ?). They are easy to spot though and it encourages you to experiment to get it right. (for example see Track 1 @0:06)
Using the book
The beginning of the book lays out techniques, timing and the syntax the book uses in the tablature. All in Japanese. This is not a beginner book, and this should all be already familiar to the reader. There were some things I was unsure about, but understood through educated guessing. These were specifically when the tablature told you to repeat a section but halfway through skip to another bit marked by a strange symbol. I assume it explains it clearly in Japanese, but by reading the music and listening to the CD you understand where they’re going.
One thing I really like about the tablature is that they very clearly highlight the areas that should be mae bachi. This is something the other book I have doesn’t necessarily do all the time.
There is also a section that seems to talk about equivalence in timing when writing the tabs and that the same timing can be written a couple of different ways but the result is the same. I don’t know if that’s important to anyone, but it was interesting to get that information solid in my head.
Each song has the song lyrics written at the end of the song, and underneath the tab also has them including how long to keep each sound. What it doesn’t have which I have seen on Minyo Shamisen tabs, is what note the voice should be playing, which is usually quite different to what the shamisen is playing. Much as I’d like to though, I don’t sing since I’m terrified of it, so that aspect isn’t important. One day though I would love to play along with an actual singer so that could be potentially useful. The CD does not have a voice accompaniment.
At the end of each song there is a section where they talk about tips and techniques, about the oral mnemonics (口三味線）they use
4 3 0 0
III ハ ス ハ
チ ﾘ レ レ
This is quite a lot of Japanese which I haven’t devoted the effort to read so I must admit I don’t benefit from these as much as I could and it helps a lot that I had a teacher previously so I’m comfortable with most of the things they show.
Personally I know that I visualise the notes on paper a lot more than memorising the melody by ear. This is probably a bad habit I’m developing, but I assume if I ever wanted to start learning things by ear, then the mnemonics will become essential so it is very handy to have a reference for all the口三味線. It’s also probably really important if you ever go to a traditional teacher etc. My teacher definitely used them.
Comparison to 津軽三味線入門 ALL IN ONE
I got this other book, ALL ON ONE, for one specific reason; it had Akita Nigata Bushi, and my other book didn’t. Unfortunately I didn’t realise that the book doesn’t come with the DVD (which is annoying since from what I understand the DVD version is about 100yen more expensive). Not having a reference to what I’m playing makes it much more difficult for me, so I must admit I haven’t really sunk my teeth into ALL IN ONE. But brief impression of this book is, it is a much higher level of technique. It doesn’t hand hold you so much with things like mae bachi, and it also has fewer Tsugaru traditional songs (Rokudan takes up the bulk of this book, which from the technical level required to start the book seems weird because most readers will be quite familiar with it) .
On the other hand it has 5 modern tsugaru pop songs tabulated from Agatsuma and Yoshida Brothers, which is pretty cool, and is definitely on my to do list once I finished with the more traditional book. Another big difference is that along with the tablature this also has the notes written down on a scale. I’m not musically trained, but this could be a big advantage for those inclined and also for anyone wanting to play with other instruments who need to see it in this format.
As an aside, I’m not sure the DVD version has all the songs exactly. So a question to readers, does anyone have any experience of the DVD version of ALL IN ONE?
Kuboki Juuichirou’s Tsugaru shamisen famous songs compilation is excellent for the intermediate player wanting a self-study resource. It is very easy to use even by someone with no Japanese experience beyond the most basic shamisen vocabulary. The songs and the techniques they teach are exciting and interesting and I’m constantly playing the last track to psych myself up and motivate myself knowing one day I’ll be able to play it. The book is also substantially cheaper than other offerings on the (Japanese) market.