The Nature of Tsugaru Jongara bushi

In recent years the Japanese Shamisen, much like its cultural counterparts of Karate, Anime and Taiko drumming, has become an international phenomenon. Thanks to the efforts of Kyle Abbott here at bachido and many other non-Japanese performers and enthusiasts the sound and feeling of Shamisen music is now resonating in places as far away as Brazil, Austria, Sweden, America and Russia.

Among the various styles of Shamisen music the most popular among younger audiences is Tsugaru Shamisen. The annually held Tsugaru Shamisen tournaments bring together the top players from all over Japan to compete for the position of “This years best!” Inevitably these tournaments are seeing more and more non-Japanese participants. This year alone quite a number of Bachido members are busy making plans to come out and perform on the same platform that gave rise to some of today’s most celebrated young Shamisen masters. It is for this reason that I’d like to address the topic of Tsugaru jongara bushi, by far the most popular choice for the tournaments, and look into some ideas for practice and preparation.

The tune is an expression of life in northern Japan. The lyrics have changed over the course of time (and continue to change to this day). The roots of The song have been traced in great detail in the book the Spirit of Tsugaru by Gerald Groemer . In essence jongara bushi emerged as a result of various folk songs and melodies entering the Tsugaru region by way of traveling musicians and story tellers who would often accompany themselves on the Shamisen. Over time the people of the region began switching the verses, melodies and lyrical content around in order to express and communicate their personal feelings “Ahhhh! Tsugaru ! Where the girls are pretty, the apples are ripe and we love to sing our great song Jongaaaara!” Over the course of many decades a number of different meters and rhythmic patterns were incorporated resulting in Jongara kyuu bushi (the old version), Jongara Naka bushi (the middle version) and Jongara shin bushi (the new version). Eventually there was a Shin Kyuu bushi and a Shin Naka bushi and pretty soon the the tune itself had split into an endless river of variations .

Because of this Jongara bushi, like all songs of the Tsugaru tradition can be thought of as essentially more of a musical gesture than an actual composition. Hasegawa Yuji, an original student of Kida Rinshoe has said that the same Jongara will never be played twice and it is for this reason that every single participant in the tournaments is expected to produce their very own original version.

The creation of one’s own Jongara bushi evolved out of the song accompaniment tradition known as Utazuke. To adjust to a singer each individual Shamisen player would add, subtract, expand and develop certain phrases to express their individual personality.

But we are looking more specifically at the instrumental interpretation, or Kyokubiki as it is often called. Here the performer aims to display their array of Tsugaru techniques and strives to move the listener’s heart by skillfully weaving a tapestry of sound that mysteriously captures the scent of Tsugaru. Although these techniques can be taught by any adequate teacher the performers who seem to touch the most listeners always seem to embody some kind of magic. Some sense of moving beyond the techniques and reaching an almost mystical dimension where the music appears to direct the player rather than the other way around.

For many of us who are practicing Shamisen outside of Japan the problems of holding the bachi, placing our fingers in the right positions and striking the strings with the correct amount of relaxation combined with forceful intent are enough to keep us busy but for those of you who wish to dive into the heart of Tsuagru Shamisen, a deeper understanding of the nature of Aomori prefecture will produce a tremendous increase in joy, excitement and insight as you pursue the development of your own Jongara bushi.

The first step is to clear your mind of any western notions of musical performance that might cause pre judgement and thus cloud your direct experience. This is not a “Song” to be learned note for note. There are no perfect examples for you to copy. Each perfect example will only be perfect for the individual performing. Yours will have to come from within you.

The next step is to understand that within each gesture is not just a musical phrase but a type of emotional release coaxed out of us by our own willingness to enter into a deeper and more expanded state of consciousness. Essentially the best Jongara bushi will transcend our own humanity and connect both the performer and the listener with the very spirit of the land.

Choushi awase “Calling forth the spirit of nature”.

There are stories told about the early days of Tsugaru Shamisen’s development in which an itinerant blind musician would wait patiently outside of a house for the sound of a door opening or voices indicating some townsfolk were approaching. To signal the start of their performance the bosama, as they were called, would then begin dramatically striking the open strings. As Shamisen strings have the tendency to slip from time to time, this also served the obvious purpose of confirming wether or not the instrument was still in tune. Yet in its development choushi awase has come to serve a deeper function. As you start your performance try to integrate into yourself the idea that as the strings are brought into alignment with each other so too is your connection to the spirit of nature. Let go of yourself and allow the heart of Tsugaru to enter into your heart as you feel the bachi strike the strings.

Fubuki, Striking the Ichi no Ito “Winter Wind!” or “Snowstorm”.

Most “Tournament” Jongara performances begin with a display of one’s striking technique . This is produced almost exclusively on the Ichi no Ito and usually involves an integration of repeated and sliding notes which hover up and down the fingerboard. As you perform this section go back, in your mind’s eye, to the lives of the early Tsugaru Shamisen masters as they huddled next to a small fireplace and listened to the wind and snow beat on their walls and rooftops. Now imagine you have become the wind. You have become the very force driving the snow. The embodiment of nature’s power to call forth a snowstorm and to spin a web of frost across the land with both harsh intensity and awe- inspiring perfection. Violent yet beautiful. Relentless yet poetic. Embody all of these images. Stay relaxed, especially in your wrist and let your bachi hand strike with that same relentless perfection.

Kyou jakku “The snow dies down only to return with force”

After you have displayed your striking technique it is good to contrast your next section with a display of Kyou /Jakku or strong/weak. In western terms we use the words crescendo and decrescendo. Once again imagine that you are not simply trying to create a phrase or melody that displays an ability to control your dynamic range but rather that you are now moving into a scene in which a snowstorm has begun to die down. Just as you think it has stopped, Wooosh! An unexpected burst of wind and snow! Imagine the shock on people’s faces as you perform this sudden burst. Keep this image in your mind. You are not just playing notes at different volume levels, but rather you are displaying something unexpected from deep within the soul of the storm.

Haru “melting snow” or “the melting of our heart”

At some point in your performance you will want to display the softer, gentler sounds of Tsugaru Shamisen. Instead of simply practicing a koma mute or a soft Mae bachi strike, be sure to create this section as a metaphor for both melting snow and the melting away of human emotions that may have caused harm in the past. As you create your gentle melody on the Shamisen, imagine the releasing of all regret and anger. Feel the sweetness there. Allow the ebb and flow of the notes you play to evoke an emotional catharsis. Keep working on this until you feel something inside of you becoming lighter. When you feel this you know you have found the right notes.

Ki “The seedling becomes a tree!”

This is another type of crescendo. The idea here however is not to dynamically bounce around or surprise the audience but rather to embody a long process in nature as it may be viewed on fast forward as in one of those time lapse camera techniques. Imagine the transformation of a seed in the ground into a full grown tree. As you find a phrase that can repeat, begin very soft and allow it to grow and grow and grow. Don’t be afraid to keep the phrase going longer than your human senses might feel is appropriate. Once you reach the peak of intensity release and develop the melody in such a way so as to express the complex beauty of the tree as it has now reached its full height .

Yo ga akeru "The sun through the clouds. "

Recently I was out taking my dogs for a walk in the mountains here in Aomori, Japan. I had been practicing all morning and was having trouble with a phrase that is usually played towards the end of a Jongara bushi Kyokubiki . Specifically the repeated ornamental trill executed on position 16 Which ushers in the final climax of the performance. I kept asking myself “What is the essence of this particular phrase?” As I walked down the mountain path I came upon a lake which was surrounded by an assortment of flowers and bushes all along it’s shores. The wind was gentle and the scene was covered up by an exceptionally cloudy and overcast sky. All at once as if to answer the very question I had been asking, the sun broke through the clouds and a boisterous wind swept across all the plants and vegetation lining the lakeshore. As the sun grew brighter illuminating the scene and transforming it from gloomy to brilliant I said to myself with a voice of quiet excitement “That’s it!” from that moment forward I always strive to become the sun breaking through the clouds whenever I play that 16 position trill.

Taiyo no odori. “Dancing in the sunlight!”

As you approach the conclusion of the piece you will want to express some kind of celebratory feeling. You’ve survived the Harsh blasts of winter and have moved deep within your heart to transform the darkness into light and you’ve become one with the sun as it broke through the clouds . At this point you will want your Shamisen to sound as if it is dancing in the sunlight and allow the phrases and notes you choose to lead you to Jongara bushi’s inevitable conclusion . This last section should be filled with excitement as well as anticipation. Try to choose notes that connect to summer or light heartedness. Suberi bachi phrases are typically used quite a bit during these moments. Don’t be afraid to rush the beat slightly as you are attempting to build momentum and are now coming closer and closer to the final strike across the strings that will bring your jongara to its end.

Satogaeri “Return to nature!”

Just as your phrases have anticipated the conclusion of the piece you now want to trick the listener by pulling back for just a moment. Then allow it to unfold. Naturally. As if the final layer of your humanity has fallen off and your spirit is returning to its home. In technical terms we refer to this last phrase as Kamashi. Basically you want to build your ending up with the most intense 4300 repeating over and over until it naturally falls off and you have nowhere else to go but across all three strings. You’ve now reached the final strike and with it bring your awareness back Into your body. You are human again. You’ve completed the journey. If you feel as though you are waking up from a dream or opening your eyes after a deep meditation then chances are you’ve just played an excellent Tsugaru Jongara bushi.

I wish all of you who are participating in the tournament both this year and in years to come the best of luck with your studies and progress in this amazing instrument and all of the magic and mystery that the pursuit of music can open you up to.

-Kevin Kmetz February 2013.

About the author

Kevin Kmetz

Kevin Kmetz has played Tsugaru Shamisen since the start of this century and is considered a ground-breaking new artist. His unique blend of East and West cultures brought him to the attention of record labels in both Japan and the U.S. such as Mimicry, The End records and EMI Japan. He’s been featured in over fifteen releases which include three solo albums. Kevin has collaborated and worked with some of today’s top artists including Taiko master Hidano Shuichi, Kamancha virtuoso Imamyar Hasanov and Michael Jackson’s guitarist Jennifer Batten. He is the highest ranking foreigner to play Tsugaru Shamisen having won the second place award at The Kanagi all nation tournament in both 2006 and 2007. Kevin is currently a featured member of the international world music group Monsters of Shamisen. He is also the inspiration for the first brand of premium shamisen coffee, “Creamy Kevin.”


I want to experience this live.

EDIT: And my 1000th post was right here. I would say that is a message from above to really get into the emotional aspect of shamisen playing.

What fantastic insight! The accompanying video break down was great; a peek into the space one enters while performing Jongara bushi. There are definitely times when playing improvised tunes that I feel more meditative than conscious of my efforts. But I have yet to reach this level of deep, intimate performance. I eagerly look forward to the day that I can summon up the spirit and have my own personal journey.

Thank you, Kevin, for composing and sharing this article.

Very good article, thanks kevin

awesome article . . . even though I don’t feel being at a playing skill level yet that would allow me to express anything in the context of jongara bushi :slight_smile: I found this article interesting enough as an insight into playing that particular and significant piece or musical gesture . . .

what I like even more about the article at this time is that I think the background philosophy and ideas as always put into words beautifully by Kevin can also be of inspiration in general also for coming up with and playing simpler tunes . . .

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cool stuff, i love your playing!! its really nice to see you playing jongara, after all those experiments…
thanks for the spiritual insides, will try to keep these visions in mind when practicing!! need to read it again now tho!!

Thanks for this great article Kevin!
I’ve been wondering countless times about Tsugaru Jonkara and the insight which you should be experiencing when playing it.
(Not sure if i said this thing right…)

But what i’ve understood is that everytime you play shamisen you try to picture something. It’s art. It’s like a painting!

Like in Kita no Hibiki. If i remember correctly Kyle says in the book that it’s about the waves crashing against the high shores and stuff. And well as i said i had been wondering what the “picture” is behind Tsugaru Jonkara.
It’s awesome to pick these pictures from your playing Kevin. It’s very inspiring. Waiting with great anticipation for the moment when i’m capable of making my own version of Tsugaru Jonkara!

Great article Kevin.
Am striving big time at the moment for that “loud-soft-loud” transition. It adds so much dynamic sound to the instrument.
More practice and bachi control needed!!

Amazing article! Thank you Kevin, it’s really interesting!

I just have to say. Thank you for this kyle. Ive been having a lot of trouble trying to perfect my own jongara bushi. All week i couldnt figure out what was going on and why i was struggling with my “yo ga akeru” after reading the peace you had wrote it brought a great vision to mind. I grabbed my shamisen. Took a deep breath. And just memorized everything you had said and took it into fruition. I dont think ive ever played better in my life then in that moment. Everything felt so right
Just want to say im fully self taught other then the amazing lessons i have learned on this website over the years from you and kyle abbott. Truly grateful im able to ply such an amazing instrument.