12. The Shamisen World Championship

May is the month of shamisen in Japan. During the golden week (first week of May), the most important shamisen festival in Japan is held. That’s why today I want to talk to you about how it works, the ins and outs and my experience of the two times I’ve been able to participate.

The Tsugaru Shamisen Sekai Taikai, literally translated as Tsugaru Shamisen World Championship, is held in the small town of Hirosaki, in the northern prefecture of Aomori.

As you may know, Aomori is the birthplace of Tsugaru Shamisen and Hirosaki is the town where Chisato Yamada (1931-2004), the regular poster image, founded the festival. Through this competition, he wanted the Tsugaru style players themselves to motivate each other to achieve excellence in the sound of the instrument.

First of all I would like to tell you about the functioning of the championship, its different categories and some curiosities about them.

In the Hirosaki World Championship there are three main categories in which a musician can participate. These are: individual, group and accompaniment. Within these three there are other subdivisions numbered in letters: C, B and A, the latter being the highest level. In class C there are further subdivisions by age (up to 16 years, from 16 to 39, from 40 to 60 and from 60 and over).

There is no official information on this, but it is said that in order to choose the division you will participate in, you should take into account your experience and be honest with your current level. For example, Class C is normally for beginners, i.e. musicians with less than two years’ experience. In B, from two to five years, and in A, from five years and upwards. In general, this “rule” is rarely followed and there are musicians who participate in the C class with more than four years of experience… if you ask me my opinion, I would say that I find it a bit cheating and dishonest to take away from beginners the opportunity to win a small prize to stay motivated with the instrument and to improve.

The B class is usually the most crowded, many musicians don’t see themselves able to make the step up to the A division to compete with those of the same experience and prefer to be conservative by competing in the B division. This is more understandable, because in the A division there is a very high level and the jump is very big.

And now you may be wondering what this contest is about, well, basically it is about performing Tsugaru Jongara Bushi in the established time. No other song will do. As you know, this is the most important piece of the Tsugaru style. Each performer must play it in their own style and “play” the notes in the same key and sense of the traditional song. The judges will evaluate the technique, the composition and the overall performance.

It may sound simple, but in the end you have only one chance of two and a half to four minutes (depending on the chosen division) to prove your worth. The first few times, nerves always take their toll and performing your song in front of more than five hundred people is no easy task.

In my case, during my first participation, I competed in the C division. At that time (2018) I had been playing the shamisen completely self-taught for a little over a year and a half. A performance that makes me laugh today, but at the same time makes me feel proud of the enormous progress I have made with the effort of all these years since then.

In the group category the rules are different. Here you are not obliged to play Tsugaru Jongara Bushi, but original pieces are also accepted. It is very important to have a good understanding of the group and to play the shamisen in unison. In 2018 and 2019 I had the opportunity to win two times in a row in the C division together with my friend Shishido. It really made me feel a bit of a talisman, because until then, he and his group had never won. Here is the video of the song with which we won the first prize.

The third category in question is the accompaniment category. It consists of playing the shamisen together with the taiko and a singer. A few months before the championship, the participants are informed of the song that will be used. The musician must adhere to both the tuning and the piece chosen. This can vary from the five most famous classical songs of the Tsugaru style. Jongara, Aiya, San Sagari, Ohara and Yosare bushi.

This is a category I would love to participate in. Without a doubt, I find it the most beautiful and difficult of all. Many of the participants are musicians with a lot of live experience and are used to performing with singers. In my case, I’ve never had that opportunity, so the day I decide to do it, I’ll have to prepare myself very well.

I leave you with Tsugaru Ohara Bushi in accompaniment by one of the champions, Nakamura Yuta. If you notice, during the singing, the shamisen player himself gives shouting signals. The tempo and intensity of the shouting is highly appreciated, as it brings a lot of life and warmth to the song.

And that’s all for today! Did this shamisen festival arouse your curiosity?

As for me, I’m really looking forward to going back. In 2020 it was not held because of the pandemic and in 2021 and 2022, due to covid restrictions, foreigners could not enter Japan to compete.

I hope that 2023 will be the year and everything goes well so that I can travel again to Hirosaki and test myself. I leave you with my last participation in 2019, where I competed in the B category with only two and a half years of experience.

This week I would also like to tell you that, unfortunately and due to scheduling reasons, it is impossible for me to keep up with the fortnightly rhythm of the articles. From now on the blog will be monthly and you will have a new publication the first Monday of every month.

I am currently devoting all my efforts to the production and recording of my first shamisen album. It is a very important moment for me and I am very excited to be able to carry it out.

Anyway, I remind you that you can follow me on instagram to keep up to date with all the news and updates that I publish.

Thank you very much for your patience!


Si te gustó, compártelo!

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