What is the shamisen? I didn’t know much about it until I came across Hibiki Ichikawa, a Japanese shamisen player. “The shamisen is a three- stringed musical instrument originated from the Chinese instrument sanxian. It was introduced in 16th century and later developed into Okinawan instrument sanshin from which the shamisen ultimately derives”.

Hibiki was born in Kanazawa where, at the age of 20, he started playing standard shamisen. A year later, he moved to the tsugaru shamisen and trained under Master Akihiro Ichikawa. In 2005 Hibiki played with the Japanese indie rock band called Cazicazi. The group’s melody merged “traditional Japanese flute and Shamisen with Western bass and drum rhythm section.” The collaboration came to an end when Hibiki moved to the United Kingdom, where he currently teaches the shamisen to international students and performs across the country and Europe.

Hibiki frequently works in partnership with another talented artist, Akari Mochizuki, who is an active Japanese Enka singer in the UK. Enka is a popular Japanese music genre considerate to resemble traditional Japanese music stylistically. As Akari said “Enka suggests a traditional, idealized, or romanticized aspect of Japanese culture and attitudes. Most of the time Enka singers are accompanied by the shamisen or shakuhachi players. Sometimes, however, electronic instruments are used, such as synthesizers and electric lead guitar.

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Picture courtesy of Monica Sablone

I was delighted when I was able to meet Hibiki and Akari in person. They were both incredibly accommodating, amiable yet shy when I decided to have a chat with them in their private quarters. They made me feel welcomed, which turned the interview into a friendly chitchat rather than a formal conversation. Without any delay I commenced by looking into Hibiki’s discovery of the shamisen.

It all started when Hibiki began playing the guitar. However, one day he found out about the three- stringed instrument and, at the age of 20, he signed up for the shamisen lesson in Japan “I was curious about the instrument, and when I heard the shamisen sound I was really moved.” Has learning and playing the instrument changed him in any ways? Hibiki paused for a second, then without hesitation and a great passion in his voice he said that “The shamisen allows me to express myself better, I don’t know why but it does.” The artist shares his love for shamisen with his students here in the UK. What attracted his pupils to play it? “My students are interested in Japanese culture, and I think, through learning the country’s way of life they found the shamisen appealing. Perhaps they have seen me playing at Hyper Japan and simply wanted to learn how to play the instrument.”

Hibiki was timid. Whenever I asked him about his career and experiences he was rather reserved about it. I guess it wasn’t because of his knowledge of English language but because he was just a humble individual who doesn’t boast about his talent. However, I was very eager to hear all about it. To my surprise, Akari jumped to the rescue and decided to tell us about Hibiki’s experiences. It was endearing to see how excited Akari was while talking about the artist. They met back in 2011 when Hibiki arrived in the UK; “We had mutual friends which made it easier to get to know each other. I wasn’t aware of him playing the tsugaru shamisen. However, when I heard him playing the instrument for the first time, I was pleasantly shocked by its sound.”

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Picture courtesy of Monica Sablone

Akari continued with the insightful story about Hibiki’s journey in becoming a professional shamisen player. I didn’t expected to hear that the 2011 earthquake in Japan had an impact on Hibiki’s career. This was the time when he was invited to the affected area and played for a big audience in support for the victims of the earthquake. Hibiki slowly started to climb up the music ladder and became a skilled shamisen musician; “There was a lot of interest surrounding Hibiki. From that point he started to travel outside of Japan and has become widely recognized, not only in his homeland but also in Europe. Now, he is here in London, performing and teaching the tsugaru shamisen to approximately 20 students.”

Why did he decide to come to the UK? “For obvious reason, I wanted to improve my English language skills and I love Muse and Radiohead. That was a good excuse for me. I also think that these two bands might have influenced my sound too. I never really expected to be teaching shamisen to so many people. I am glad that I can share my love of the shamisen with anyone who is interested in it.”

With the huge popularity of pop culture in Asia and around the world, I was wondering if traditional instruments would have its place in 20 or 30 years’ time. In Hibiki’s opinion it will have its place as long as people are interested in it. It is also matter of promoting it and encouraging youngsters to play it; “The shamisen is a special and beautiful instrument. Surprisingly, it is slowly becoming more popular, particularly amongst younger audience”. All of a sudden Hibiki stood up and presented to me and Monica, a photographer, his 5 amazing looking shamisen instruments. I must admit that they were heavy. After his 5 minutes presentation, he decided to perform two songs, including one with Akari. I have never thought that the sound of the shamisen would cause goosebumps. I realised that as a solo instrument, pieces for tsugaru shamisen require very high technique for speedy playing, refined sense of dynamic and creativity for improvisation, like jazz music. Tsugaru shamisen and its music gave me an impression of the strength of human as well as tenderness. The second song that he performed with Akari was equally beautiful. I immersed myself in their short performance. While Monica and Hibiki talked about the shamisen, I carried on chatting with Akari.

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Picture courtesy of Monica Sablone

Akari started to sing Enka at the age of 3; “My father loves Enka. He used to sing to my mum’s belly when she was carrying me inside. My father is my greatest inspiration. Having said that, there are a few Enka singers who influenced me and my singing, such as Yoko Nagayama and Harumi Miyako. These two are the significant to mention.” When Akari worked for Cross Media Ltd, a Japanese publisher company in London, her employer recommended to her to try singing at Cocoro restaurant in Bond Street; “Since the restaurant owner liked my performance, he has allowed me to sing at Cocoro. The restaurant is a popular place among very important individuals. Because of that, my name and reputation spread around London and surrounding areas.” Enka singers require a lot of hard work and vocal training, it seems that there is no training limit for Akari when it comes to hers; “I am still training and I can’t see an end to it.” According to the artist, if you want to become a good and confident singer, it is important to take as many opportunities as possible to sing in front of an audience. As mentioned before, Akari and Hibiki have been collaborating for a few years now. They performed together at Hyper Japan, Japan Matsuri and Festival Asia.

Unfortunately, with a heavy heart, I had to end our conversation. It was a great pleasure meeting them both.

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Pictures courtesy of Monica Sablone

Written by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Jess Murray

Pictures courtesy of Monica Sablone

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About View of the Arts

We are both enthusiasts of the arts, passionate about cinema, theatre, and literature. Roxy is a successful Arts Journalist, who writes for several magazines and websites. Maggie is a freelance film producer and an associate producer. We Will Rock the World One Day!

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Art, General, Music

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