Chikuzan Takahashi (1910-1998) was one of the foremost shamisen (see photo above) players in Japan. “Tsugaru Shamisen” is the name of the ancient, localised folk music which he performed. Though it consists of a recognised repertoire, this is somewhat misleading in that the repertoire has in fact expanded over the centuries, growing and sprouting unseen, like a jasmine tree; also, it is improvisational, so while a player may perform a given song from the canon, it will inevitably be a highly individual take on the piece. My ignorance knows few bounds here and I may have got some of these facts wrong–so don’t quote me.
A live recording taped in Japan in the 70s, though you certainly won’t confuse it with Cheap Trick at Budokan, this solo concert was performed in front of an audience of what sounds like 40 people; while respectful silence reigns for most of Tsugaru Shamisen, Takahashi does manage to crack a few jokes, judging by the occasional laughter (my Japanese is not so good).
In a kind of world-folk crossover, Takahashi extemporises extended pieces which, though literally from the other end of the world, are not a million metaphorical miles away from the nasal, droning mandolin/guitar Mountain Music of my West Virginian kin. Coincidentally, Takahashi named many of his improvs “Iwaki” after the tallest mountain in Tsugaru. With a (not very sustained) drone produced by what must be the equivalent of the power chord on the shamisen, there are a significant resemblances to Indian classical music as well.
Despite a hypnotic effect, this is not some blanded-out Music For Meditation nonsense; it’s earthy and harshly percussive, the plectrum striking the instrument itself with the clack of a manual typewriter. Nonetheless, it can be dreamy, the shamisen trilling in mostly 4/4 time, from what I could tell, though I did notice one unaccented waltz time number.
Though performed in concert, this is a master’s private music, not for dancing or partying, but reflective listening.
Attracted by the arresting image on the cover, I bought this on the way down to Cornwall last summer–yes, we literally stopped at a bootfair during the 10-hour drive!–from a guy who said it had been a gift from a Japanese friend a couple decades ago. I don’t think he played it once in the intervening years.