Wagakki (I): Japanese Traditional Instruments
Wagekki refers to the traditional Japanese musical instruments used in hogaku, the traditional folk music of Japan. They include a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments. They are still played today in traditional concerts, recitals, festivals, and other events.
The biwa is a string instrument similar to the lute. It has four strings (sometimes five) stretched over four (sometimes five or six) frets on the neck. It's an instrument that originated in China and was introduced to Japan in the Nara period (710 -794). It was first incorporated into the Gagaku orchestra and was one of the most important string instruments in the orchestra. In the Heian period (794-1192), it became popular among Buddhist monks and was used as a solo instrument. Biwa Hoshi (the traveling performers) brought their biwa with them and earned money by performing with their biwa skills. The gaku-biwa (the biwa used in the gagaku orchestra) was transformed into the moso-biwa used to accompany Buddhist sutras (chants).
Biwa has many variations. In addition to gaku-biwa and moso-biwa, there are heike-biwa and satsuma-biwa. Heike-biwa was used to accompany the recitation of stories, the most famous of which was Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike), hence the name Heike-biwa. Heike Monogatari was a poetic poem adapted from the Heike War, with each verse phrased in a characteristic style. Satsuma-biwa is the most famous variation of biwa. It was developed from moso-biwa in Kyushu in the 16th century. It features a wide vibrato, pitch bending, left-hand pizzicato, and striking tremolo. It sounds more melodic than the Heike biwa.
The shakuhachi is a wind instrument similar to the flute, except that it is held vertically and is made of bamboo. It is the most modern of the four main types of Japanese flutes. It has four finger holes on the front and one on the back, and produces different sounds by covering the holes. It was introduced from China in the late 7th century. At that time, it was used for gagaku, a type of music performed at the imperial court. In the Edo period (1603-1867), it began to be used to support sutra chanting.
There are three traditional genres of shakuhachi music: honkyoku, sankyoku, and shinkyoku. Honkyoku refers to the original Zen religious songs, and also includes some theater melodies and folk songs. They are played only by the shakuhachi. Sankyoku refers to the ensemble music played by shakuhachi, koto, and shamisen. Shinkyoku are the new pieces composed for shakuhachi and koto. It is a new form influenced by Western music and has a more complex structure.
The shamisen is a string instrument derived from the sanxian (a Chinese instrument) that came to Japan in the 15th century. It is one of the most famous traditional Japanese instruments. It has three strings and an unstrung neck and is played with a wooden plectrum. It can be used as a solo instrument as well as an accompanying instrument. In the Edo period (1603-1867), it was popular in traditional theater and was used to accompany vocal performances such as kouta, jiuta, and nagauta.
Shamisen music can be categorized according to whether the work focuses on utaimono (lyrical song melody) or katarimono (story telling). Utaimono is a style of music that focuses on the melody. The aforementioned kouta, jiuta, and nagauta all belong to utaimono. Among them, nagauta is the most complex and important form. The vocal melody and the shamisen take the leading roles, with the playing as a supporting rhythm. They are similar to songs accompanied by an orchestra in Western music. Katarimono is a narrative style that focuses more on telling stories. There are five main styles of katarimono: Naniwa-bushi, Gidayu-bushi, Kiyomoto-bushi, Shinnai-bushi, and Okiwazu-bushi.