Wednesday, January 15, 8572

Okuni (b. c. 1572) - Kabuki (1603) - Edo Period

Okuni (Izumo no Okuni) (b. c. 1572) was the main founder of Kabuki theater (1603). She was believed to be a miko at the Grand Shrine of Izumo who began a new style of dance in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto.

Miko ( "Shrine Maiden") is a Japanese term that anciently meant "female shaman, shamaness; medium; prophet" who conveyed divine oracles, and currently means "shrine maiden; virgin consecrated to a deity" who serves at Shinto shrines.

Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theatre. Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.

Female performers played both men and women in comic playlets about ordinary life. The style was instantly popular; Okuni was even asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance and drama was performed by women -- a form very different from its modern incarnation. Much of its appeal in this era was due to the ribald, suggestive performances put on by many troupes; this appeal was further augmented by the fact that the performers were often also available for prostitution.

For this reason, kabuki was known as "singing and dancing prostitute" during the Edo Period.

In kabuki's nascent period, women were the only performers in the plays. Soon women began attracting the wrong types of audiences and gaining too much attention from men. This type of attention raised some eyebrows and officials felt as if women were degrading the art of kabuki. In 1629, women were banned from appearing in kabuki performances.

Since kabuki was already so popular, young male actors, known as wakashu (or sometimes oyama), took over after women were banned from performing. These young men could take the role of women due to their less masculine appearance and higher pitched voices in comparison to adult men. Along with the change in the performers' gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance: increased stress was placed on drama rather than dance. Their performances were equally ribald, however, and they too were available for prostitution. Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favors of a particularly handsome young actor, leading the shogunate to ban young male actors in 1652.

Kabuki Music - Kineya Rokusaburo - Kanjincho (1840)


[Tokugawa Ieyasu (January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616), the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate]

The Edo period (Edo-jidai?), also referred to as the Tokugawa period ( Tokugawa-jidai), is a division of Japanese history running from 1603 to 1868. The period marks the governance of the Edo or Tokugawa shogunate, which was officially established in 1603 by the first Edo shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The period ended with the Meiji Restoration, the restoration of imperial rule by the 15th and last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The Edo period is also known as the beginning of the early modern period of Japan.


Koto Solo

[Contemporary Koto solo]

The koto is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument derived from Chinese zither (Ch'in, Guzheng). The koto is the national instrument of Japan.

The instruments are about 180 centimetres (71 in) long and have 13 strings that are strung over 13 movable bridges along the length of the instrument. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges before playing, and use three finger picks (on thumb, forefinger, and middle finger) to pluck the strings.

The character for koto is also read as sō in certain contexts. Though often called by a number of other names, these terms almost always refer to similar, but different instruments, such as the Chinese guzheng or guqin (called kin in Japanese).

The koto was introduced to Japan in the 7th to 8th century from China, and largely derived from the Chinese Guzheng. It was initially played only in the royal court, but this situation changed in the 17th century -- primarily because of the influence of Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1684). Though the koto, like many Japanese instruments derived from Chinese ones, has likely not changed much over the centuries, the guzheng has, and thus it is no longer valid to call them the same instrument. The koto used in gagaku is called gakuso.

Yatsuhashi Kengyo was a blind shamisen player who learned koto from an "official" court player named Hosui, in defiance of the rules which then stated that koto could not be taught to blind people (or women, incidentally). Possibly because of his personal experience with these restrictions, Yatsuhashi spent the rest of his life making the koto more accessible.

He invented a new "tranquil tuning" (hira joushi) to play the common people's songs more naturally. He composed (or is credited with composing) pieces that are still irreplaceable staples of the koto repertoire today, including Rokudan and Midare. (These compositions were partly responsible for the koto becoming respected as a solo instrument in its own right.) Perhaps most importantly, his example led other non-elite, including women, to learn the koto too.

Hira-Joshi and Kuma-Joshi Scales

Cherry Blossom Song

Sakura Sakura also known as Sakura is a traditional Japanese folk song depicting spring, the season of cherry blossom. It was first composed during the Edo period for children learning to play the koto. Originally, the lyrics Blooming Cherry Blossoms were attached to the melody.

The song has been popular since the Meiji period, and the lyrics in their present form were attached then. It is often sung in international settings as a song representative of Japan.

sakura sakura
no-yama mo sato mo
mi-watasu kagiri
kasumi ka kumo ka
asahi ni niou
sakura sakura
sakura sakura
yayoi no sora wa
mi-watasu kagiri
kasumi ka kumo ka
nioi zo izuru
iza ya iza ya
mi ni yukan

Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
On Meadow-hills and dale,
As far as you can see.
Is it a mist, or clouds?
Fragrant in the morning sun.
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Flowers in full bloom.
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Across the Spring sky,
As far as you can see.
Is it a mist, or clouds?
Fragrant in the air.
Come now, come,
Let’s look, at last!


Trio Music (Shakuhachi, Koto, Shamisen)

[Quartet Music...]

By the Edo period three instruments had emerged from various directions to become popular among common people. The koto, a 13-string zither, the shamisen, a 3-string banjo-like instrument, and the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute, eventually became a regular trio in ensemble music. This combination is called Sankyoku, or "three instrument ensemble."

The shamisen or samisen (literally "three taste strings"), also called sangen (literally "three strings") is a three-stringed musical instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi. The pronunciation in Japanese is usually "shamisen" (in western Japan, and often in Edo-period sources "samisen") but sometimes "jamisen" when used as a suffix (e.g. Tsugaru-jamisen).

The shamisen is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much slimmer and without frets. Its drum-like rounded rectangular body, known as the dō, is covered front and back with skin in the manner of a banjo, and amplifies the sound of the strings. The skin is usually from a dog or cat, but in the past a special type of paper was used and recently various types of plastics are being tried. On the skin of some of the best shamisen, the position of the cat's nipples can still be seen.

The three strings are traditionally made of silk, or, more recently, nylon. The lowest passes over a small hump at the "nut" end so that it buzzes, creating a characteristic sound known as sawari (somewhat reminiscent of the "buzzing" of a sitar, which is called jawari). The upper part of the dō is almost always protected by a cover known as a dō kake, and players often wear a little band of cloth on their left hand to facilitate sliding up and down the neck. This band is known as a yubikake. There may also be a cover on the head of the instrument, known as a tenjin.

In most genres the shamisen is played with a large weighted plectrum called a bachi, which was traditionally made with ivory or tortoise shell but which now is usually wooden, and which is in the shape likened to a ginkgo leaf. The sound of a shamisen is similar in some respects to that of the American banjo, in that the drum-like skin-covered body, known as a dō, amplifies the sound of the strings. As in the clawhammer style of American banjo playing, the bachi is often used to strike both string and skin, creating a highly percussive sound.

The shamisen derives from the sanshin, a close ancestor from the southernmost Japanese prefecture of Okinawa in the 1500's and one of the primary instruments used in that area), which in turn evolved from the Chinese sanxian, itself deriving ultimately from Central Asian instruments.


The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown flute which is held vertically like a recorder. Its name means "1.8 foot", its size. It is traditionally made of bamboo, but versions now exist in wood and plastic. It was used by the monks of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism in the practice of suizen (blowing meditation).

A recorder player blows into a duct, a narrow wind-way over a block called a "fipple", and thus has limited pitch control. The shakuhachi player blows as one would blow across the top of an empty bottle (though the shakuhachi has a sharp edge to blow against) and has substantial pitch control. The five finger holes are tuned to a pentatonic scale with no half-tones, but the player can bend each pitch as much as a whole tone or more, using techniques called meri and kari, in which the blowing angle is adjusted to bend the pitch downward and upward, respectively. Pitches may also be lowered by shading or partially covering finger holes. Since most pitches can be achieved via several different fingering or blowing techniques on the shakuhachi, the timbre of each possibility is taken into account when composing or playing. The shakuhachi has a range of two full octaves (the lower is called otsu, the upper, kan) and a partial third octave (dai-kan). The different octaves are produced using subtle variations of breath and embouchure.

A 1.8 shakuhachi produces D4 (D above Middle C, 293.66Hz) as its fundamental -- the lowest note it produces with all five finger holes covered, and a normal blowing angle. In contrast, a 2.4 shakuhachi has a fundamental of A3 (A below Middle C, 220Hz). As the length increases, the spacing of the finger holes also increases, stretching both fingers and technique. Longer flutes often have offset finger holes, and very long flutes are almost always custom made to suit individual players. Some honkyoku, in particular those of the Nezasaha (Kimpu-ryu) school are intended to be played on these longer flutes.

Much of the shakuhachi's subtlety (and player's skill) lies in its rich tone colouring, and the ability for its variation. Different fingerings, embouchures and amounts of meri can produce notes of the same pitch, but with subtle or dramatic differences in the tone colouring. The honkyoku pieces rely heavily on this aspect of the instrument to enhance their subtlety and depth.

Shakuhachi are usually made from the root end of a bamboo culm and are extremely versatile instruments. Holes can be covered partially (1/3 covered, 1/2, 2/3, etc.) and pitch varied subtly or substantially by changing the blowing angle. Professional players can produce virtually any pitch they wish from the instrument, and play a wide repertoire of original Zen music, ensemble music with koto, biwa and shamisen, folk music, jazz, and other modern pieces.

Due to the skill required, the time involved, and the range of quality in materials to craft bamboo shakuhachi, one can expect to pay from USD 300 to USD 5,000 for a new or used flute. Because each piece of bamboo is unique, shakuhachi cannot be mass-produced, and craftsmen must spend much time finding the correct bore shape for each individual flute to result in correct pitch over all notes. Specimens of extremely high quality, with valuable inlays, or of historical significance can fetch USD 10,000 or more. Plastic or PVC shakuhachi have some advantages over their traditional bamboo counterparts: they are light weight, extremely durable, nearly impervious to heat and cold, and typically cost less than USD 100. Shakuhachi made of wood are also available, typically costing less than bamboo but more than synthetic materials. Nearly all players, however, prefer bamboo, citing tonal qualities, aesthetics, and tradition.

The bamboo flute first came to Japan from China. The shakuhachi proper, however, is quite distinct from its Chinese and Korean ancestors, the result of centuries of isolated evolution in Japan.

During the medieval period, shakuhachi were most notable for their role in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komusō ("priests of nothingness," or "emptiness monks"), who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs (called "honkyoku") were paced according to the players' breathing and were considered meditation (suizen) as much as music.

Travel around Japan was restricted by the shogunate at this time, but the Fuke sect managed to wrangle an exemption from the Shogun, since their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms (one famous song reflects this mendicant tradition, "Hi fu mi, hachi gaeshi", "One two three, pass the alms bowl"). They persuaded the Shogun to give them "exclusive rights" to play the instrument. In return, some were required to spy for the shogunate, and the Shogun sent several of his own spies out in the guise of Fuke monks as well. This was made easier by the wicker baskets that the Fuke wore over their heads, a symbol of their detachment from the world.

In response to these developments, several particularly difficult honkyoku pieces, e.g., Shika no tone, became well-known as "tests": if you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn't, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed if you were in unfriendly territory.

With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the shogunate was abolished and so was the Fuke sect, in order to help identify and eliminate the shogun's holdouts. The very playing of the shakuhachi was officially forbidden for a few years. Non-Fuke folk traditions did not suffer greatly from this, since the tunes could be played just as easily on another pentatonic instrument. However, the honkyoku repertoire was known exclusively to the Fuke sect and transmitted by repetition and practice, and much of it was lost, along with many important documents.

When the Meiji government did permit the playing of shakuhachi again, it was only as an accompanying instrument to the koto, shamisen, etc. It was not until later that honkyoku were allowed to be played publicly again as solo pieces.

Shakuhachi has traditionally been played almost exclusively by men in Japan, although this situation is rapidly changing. Many teachers of traditional shakuhachi music indicate that a majority of their students are women.

[8575 Weelkes / 8572 Okuni Kabuki Edo / 8581 Praetorius]