Interview by Angie Hawn
Hey all! I’m Angie and a newb writer for GMA. I’m taking over Aomori Spotlight from our esteemed head editor. Thought it might be a good way to get me up and out of the apartment, meeting new people. I’m also taking the interviews in a slightly different direction. I want to know how my fellow Aomori JETs are involved with their Japanese community, whether it be a club or class, volunteering, festivals…anything really. My first victim is Aidan Morrison who rocks out with the tsugaru shamisen. And I do mean rock out. Make sure to check out this video of an arrangement of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” by Aidan and his teacher:
Give me the basics: Where are you originally from? What city, town, village do you currently reside in? What year JET are you? And anything else you feel the masses just need to know.
2nd year JET
Hometown: Vashon Island, Washington (about 20 minutes from Seattle by ferry)
Currently living and teaching middle schoolers in Misawa City
How are you involved with your Japanese community? Did you join a club or class? Do you volunteer, jump into festival season, or teach an eikaiwa?
I’ve been involved in a variety of things from interpreting at “Japan Day” on the American military base to assisting in the harvest of this year’s garlic crop. But my main passion has been the tsugaru shamisen (a three stringed Japanese lute originating from Aomori). I go to a class in Hachinohe three times a month and also take private lessons here in Misawa, plus the occasional gig. Taking both the class and private lessons has allowed me to experience the instrument from multiple perspectives. While my teacher in Hachinohe is an older Japanese guy who specializes in minyo (traditional folk songs) from the Nanbu region, my teacher in Misawa is a Japanese-American who plays everything from tsugaru folk music to heavy metal.
There’s a lot of opportunities to perform such as festivals, enkais and things of that nature. Highlights have included playing at American Day in Misawa and with a 300 strong ensemble in Hirosaki.
Why did you choose to get involved? What drew you to this activity? Did you want to try something new? Did you read about it when first researching your placement or get wrangled in by your JTE?
The tsugaru shamisen was actually what made me request Aomori in the first place. As a musician, I knew music was how I wanted to involve myself with the community. My main instrument being classical guitar, and having learned the sanshin (an Okinawan forefather to the tsugaru shamisen) the last time I came I to Japan, it seemed like a logical next step.
As luck would have it one of my co-workers at the BOE happened to be a shamisen player himself. He introduced me to the class in Hachinohe and has been letting me borrow one of his instruments until I can afford my own.
Is this a one time gig? Or something you do on a continuous basis? Is it a short or long term commitment? Are you gonna keep it up?
At this point I think it would be fair to say I’ve become a shamisen addict haha. No plans of stopping anytime soon.
What have you gained from this experience? Good, bad, indifferent…I want to know it all.
The tsugaru shamisen has been tremendous for my growth as a musician. Since coming to Aomori, I’ve been absolutely humbled by both the depth of the musical tradition and the tonal possibilities of the instrument. It sounds silly now, but before I had actually played a shamisen, I looked at it as a three stringed, fretless variant of the guitar. But I quickly discovered how far this was from the truth. The tsugaru shamisen is both a string and percussion instrument with a distinct set of techniques and timbres. Furthermore the sheer virtuosity with which the instrument can be played rivals that of a classical violinist. It’s been a great privilege to familiarize myself with the shamisen.
Perhaps more importantly though, the tsugaru shamisen has been a vehicle for me to experience the Aomori’s rich folk music tradition. The approach to music making here has it’s own unique conventions, often quite different from those in the west. It’s already broadened my musical horizons so much and I’ve only just scratched the surface.
Of course the shamisen is also a wonderful way to connect with people. Going to the class in Hachinohe I’ve gotten to know some older folks who I wouldn’t normally have a chance to interact with, as well brush up on the local dialect, Nanbu-ben. Performing around Misawa and elsewhere I can meet and collaborate with local musicians. The audiences here are friendly, and people seem very grateful to see a foreigner taking an interest in their traditions. It’s really made me feel like a part of the community.
What advice would you give to those who want to jump in?
In general I’d say don’t be shy about making your interests known. Japanese coworkers and acquaintances often have the information/contacts to help you find what you’re looking for.
For people interested in the shamisen, if you can’t find one to borrow, there are a few shamisen shops in Hirosaki. While professional grade instruments cost hundreds of thousands, you can get a learner-shamisen starting at around 40,000 yen. We are lucky to live in the birth-area of tsugaru shamisen so there are plenty of teachers and circles. You can ask around locally to find one near you (I learn from Kevin Kmetz in Misawa and Masayuki Kubo in Hachinohe). Good luck!
Anything else that you want to add about your experiences?
Music can be a powerful tool to bridge the gap between cultures and I recommend it to anyone looking to find their place in the local community. ^^