MEMO: “Kodo – Inside The Sun Remix” is the theme song for Nintendo’s “Wii” game console. (Yoshida Brothers II)
Superstars in their native Japan, young Tsugaru-shamisen virtuosos Ryoichiro and Kenichi Yoshida-The Yoshida Brothers-have effected nothing short of a cultural revolution with a muscular reinvention of the ancient three-stringed instrument, giving it the fiery passion of a rock ‘n roll guitar. Online world music portal World Music Central notes, “Clad in formal, ceremonial attire of kimonos and hakama pants, but sporting the dyed light brown hair that is trendy among Japan’s savvy youth, the Brothers play the age-old Tsugaru-shamisen-an instrument akin to a rustic three-stringed banjo-with the fervor of Jimi Hendrix.”
Beyond the rock star status these Pacific Rim mavericks have achieved at home with their signature East-meets-West interpretation of a time-honored musical form, they are fast winning major international acclaim as well. By coaxing startlingly vivid sounds out of their timeless instruments, they have reinvigorated Tsugaru-shamisen for a new generation, incorporating elements of jazz, American folk, pop, Latin music, blues and more into their unique musical tapestry.
Following the release of their self-titled U.S. debut album in 2003, Interview Magazine wrote, “The duo’s approach…has less to do with upholding traditions than exploring new ones.” And, in a 2005 New York Times review of the Brothers’ performance at GlobalFest, Jon Pareles said, “…their set, like a shredding heavy-metal solo-was all about speed and twang. They played fast unisons that would have ruthlessly revealed any mistakes; they played solos that stayed close to the tunes and built pitiless crescendos. It was music of pure sinew.”
On the all-new III, their third U.S. album release on Domo Records, the charismatic duo’s fusion of the ancestral and the avant garde innovates further with thirteen tracks ranging from the stunningly shredding to the masterfully serene. The disc was produced by veteran American producer Tony Berg (Edie Brickell, Michael Penn, Charlie Sexton, Lisa Loeb, Nickel Creek, etc), who also plays multiple instruments, including steel string guitar and percussion, throughout. III adventurously expands on what Ryoichiro calls the Yoshida Brothers’, “dualistic exploration in music, both traditional and western. I believe that our world audiences will be expecting that in our future. I think incorporating western music attributes will further the popularizing of the Tsugaru Shamisen outside of Japan.”
Stand-out tracks include “Erghen Diado,” written by famed world musicologist Marcel Cellier (Zamfir), and athletically arranged with drums, bass and strings. A potently hypnotic and psychedelic take on Brian Eno’s “By This River” is the only song featuring vocals, fluidly delivered by former from Remy Zero frontman Cinjin Tate, whose brother Shelby mans the keyboards. Many other ace guests add to the album’s complex texture, including Mitchell Froom, who co-wrote and plays keys on the robust “Hit Song,” and Oscar Castro Neves, whose guitar virtuosity enriches the cinematically scored and aptly titled “Passion.”
The Yoshida Brothers work magic completely on their own with a minimalist and beautiful version of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Oh My Love.” Ryoichiro says that Berg, “thought the Japanese-like melody would work with the Shamisen,” while Kenichi adds, “Tony selected this track with the same sensibilities he had in mind with ‘By This River.’ There are no cultural references here.” Either way, one can imagine the song’s composers being moved by the Brothers delicate, elegant economy in interpreting it.
The roots of the Yoshida Brothers’ music are found in an historic, five centuries old genre first developed by in a snowy, rural region of northern Japan by itinerant street buskers, who earned spare change playing melodies and rhythms reflecting their tough lot in life. The words Tsugaru Shamisen denote both the ancient folk idiom and the primitive, banjo/lute-like instrument on which it’s played. The Tsugaru is the largest of the three principal types of shamisen, giving it the fullest sound. As modernity and western influences swept Japan’s young people over time, this spare and evocative art form fell out of favor.
Its recent hugely popular revival-and the subsequent renewal of interest in other traditional forms, including Kabuki theater and Tanka, classic Japanese verse–is due in large part to the Yoshida Brothers’ surge in popularity. Ryoichiro and Kenichi have been practicing the art of Tsugaru-shamisen since age 5 when, in their northern Hokkaido home, their father first fashioned them crude instruments made from wooden bowls. They went on to win top awards in many prestigious National Tsugaru-Shamisen Competitions, and their first album in Japan, 1999’s Ibuki, has sold over 100,000 copies. Considering that historically, shamisen albums sell in the 5,000 units range at best, it was a truly auspicious debut.
Since then, the Yoshida Brothers have scored three more hit albums in Japan: 2000’s Move, 2002’s Soulful, and 2003’s Frontier. In North America, Yoshida Brothers (2003) and Yoshida Brothers II (2004) have brought their mesmerizing and energetic, epically historic yet intrinsically modern and visionary sound to a new world of fans. One of their early songs, “Sprouting,” was recently used in the promotional campaign for the film Memoirs Of A Geisha.
With the 21st century’s unprecedented pan-cultural exchange of art and ideas, there is a global sensibility seeking transformative musical experiences, setting the stage perfectly for the Yoshida Brothers upcoming international tour and their cross-culturally pioneering album III, the making of which, says Kenichi, “broadened our musical sensibilities.” “I have a renewed appreciation of the Shamisen when I step out of Japan,” adds Ryoichiro. “It is still a rather rare instrument in foreign countries and we would like to be pioneers in spreading the Shamisen sound.”