Living in Japan, you quickly realize the country has its version of many things you grew up with in the West. Its own style of dress, customs around food, family, and death, and a host of other idiosyncratic aspects of the island nation. Music is similarly unique.

After a few Saturday nights out, any visitor will undoubtedly recognize the sounds of enka, traditional pop ballads, echoing from dimly lit karaoke bars. Yet, it takes a little more time to come across the genuine music stylings upon which the genre draws.

Nevertheless, it's worth the wait and the time spent exploring. Eventually, you'll stumble upon the biwa, a short-necked lute tightly associated with poetry and elegance in the island nation. It is thought to have arrived from China in the 700s during the Nara period. It is often incorporated into storytelling and was regularly performed at the Japanese Imperial court of yesteryear.

Kazuhisa OTSUBO, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kakushin Nishihara

Musician Kakushin Nishihara has devoted her life to the craft of performing and teaching the traditional instrument. The artist’s live performances showcase the dramatic narrative effect and atmosphere that can be elicited from the instrument. For instance, see this performance featuring her, Serge Teyssot-Gay, and Gaspar Claus

Throughout the piece, the stringed ambiance of Serge and Gaspar cradles the energetic biwa performance of Kakushin. The artist sings in the traditional min'yō style, making it easy to see the role biwa plays in narration.

When asked about this dynamic effect of biwa, Kakushin is quick to explain that the biwa occupies its own realm in the world of music. It is not strictly defined by rhythm but allows performers to find another way of expressing themselves as they change freely between silence and sound. This longer performance highlights this point nicely for those with the free time:

There are also moments of tonal dissonance. This is on purpose. The artist places an emphasis on exploration and in so doing is interested in performing with musicians who are creative and not bound by established harmonies. This aptitude is particularly apparent as she uses the biwa experimentally to create noise music:

The result can be abrasive at times. However, the textures Kakushin pulls from the biwa—with the help of some electronics—are captivating. It's another approach to using sound to stir emotion. This type of exploration also happily extends beyond the scope of more structured musical forms.

During the pandemic

Unfortunately, the pandemic has been challenging for artists and creatives. Kakushin was actively performing overseas before the outbreak. However, the current situation has made that difficult as travel has largely been limited.

Rather than perform, Kakushin notes that she has been mostly composing recently. The artist also maintains an active presence in social media, particularly on Instagram and YouTube. Finally, the performer offers online biwa lessons for those interested in picking up a new instrument and exploring a new soundspace. See her website for more information.

By - Luke Mahoney.