True To Your Crew:
LONDON’S TSUGARU SHAMISEN
“I was so shocked and moved when I heard it,” says Hibiki Ichikawa, recalling his first memory of the Tsugaru Shamisen: a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument that can be likened to the sonic union of a guitar and small percussive drum.
As the only professional Tsugaru Shamisen player in Europe, Hibiki sensei, and students: Luke Burns, Lux Sriranjan, Juliette Chatenier, and Alessandra Freeston, are part of a 40-strong London-based eclectic crew. It is their curiosity and affinity for the Tsugaru Shamisen that has unexpectedly brought them together.
Alongside ongoing collaborators Akari Mochizuki, and Takahiko Kiuchi, aka DJ Takaki, the crew are shredding conventional ideas of the instrument by experimenting and pushing its sonic boundaries. “The Tsugaru Shamisen represents evolution,” says Enka singer Akari. “Not changing the core philosophy of it, but adapting it.”
Tsugaru Shamisen is the most popular of the three types of Shamisen. With its reverberating tones and electric buzz, it has a unique rock meets folk energy. The crew shares the distinctive sound across London—thundering outside group practices in Clapham Common or near lessons in Finchley Central.
“Even if you haven’t heard of the instrument, it’s an instrument you’ve heard,” adds Luke, a talented yet humble player, who since starting the Tsugaru Shamisen seriously four years ago formed a duo called Denshonen. “It allows you to connect with people because we have this niche thing in common,” he says.
Fellow crew member Lux echoes that sentiment: “It was something that none of my mates did. It was a new thing I wanted to get into where I could meet new people.” Lux has been playing for two years now: “There's always someone new joining. So there's always someone who you want to pass on your wisdom to even though I've still got plenty to learn.”
Each personality brings something fresh to the Tsugaru Shamisen, because as DJ Takaki puts it, how you play reflects your “spirit and instinct.” No two sounds are ever the same.
“There are just three strings but so many different emotions,” says Hibiki. He explains: “The thick string is for a more dramatic, louder sound. Whereas the thinnest string is quieter and sadder.”
For Alessandra, the softly spoken one of the group who just turned 16, picking up the Tsugaru Shamisen two years ago has been a way to express herself, transmitting a hard-hitting, frenetic boldness. It’s a sound that resonated with her instantly—she heard Hibiki perform at a local music festival, and came straight home telling her mother she wanted to start lessons.
Likewise, for DJ Takaki, normally immersed in German techno beats, the surprising resonance and versatility of the Tsugaru Shamisen bring a fresh perspective to the electronic music scene.
Although professional shamisen players are still relatively rare outside of Japan, the Tsugaru Shamisen is currently experiencing ‘a Renaissance moment,’ as Juliette calls it. Her fondness for Japanese rock bands that feature traditional instruments led her to join the crew three years ago.
The crew are hyped about what the future holds, and if they’ve got anything to do with it, there is going to be a lot more coming from Tsugaru Shamisen–in the most unlikely of places. “I have a friend who plays the fiddle and the Northumberland pipes,” Juliette continues, “I’d love to get good enough to combine those two different sounds with the Shamisen.”
With such diverse groups and musicians being drawn to the Tsugaru Shamisen, it’s an exciting time to be part of the growing global community.