The Japanese shamisen in the west has a number of images associated with it: the delicately robed geisha entering a quiet chamber, seating herself before the patron, and setting the instrument gently on her body, plucking strings with the bachi (plectrum, or pick) and singing before moving on to other diversions; there’s also the image of the blind shamisen player in black and white films playing for money on a doorstep or in a Yakitori-ya (a tiny Japanese restaurant specializing in yakitori, or skewered grilled chicken meat) with yakuza nearby harassing them or while the manic, soft, or melodic strains of the instrument ring out as background music and the patrons grow wild with drink, passion and despondency before succumbing to oblivion.
It had been my dream to see Sukeroku from directly in front of the hanamichi. Sukeroku is the name of the main character of Sukeroku Yukari no Edo-zakura, the most popular of the Kabuki Juuhachiban plays that form the repertoire of the Ichikawa Danjuro family. The setting is the Yoshiwaradistrict of Edo, and even last year the play was performed to great acclaim at the name-taking ceremony of Ichikawa Ebizo XI. The roots of Kabuki lie in the Kyoto area, but this play takes place around Edo, and its lively depiction of the character and spirit of the Edokkohave made it synonymous with Edo Kabuki as a whole. In order to see Sukeroku from directly in front of the hanamichi, one must be on the actual stage itself. Thus it was that I decided to apprentice myself to a master of Kato-bushi, the style of music which accompanies Sukeroku.
KATOH-BUSHI Concert programm front cover by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi
Kato-bushiis a style of Japanese traditional narrative music, called Joruri, accompanied by the shamisen, which is three-stringed banjo-like lute. It was created in 1717 by Masumi Kato (1684-1725) of Tokyo, which was called Edo at that time. He first studied Handaya-bushi, an earlier style of Joruri, under its originator Handaya Edo (who died around 1743).
Because of its stylish, sophisticated and delicate melodies of pure Edo origin, Kato-bushi was favored by intellectuals, the wealthy, as well as some government officials and their samurais of the Edo period. Competing with other Joruri styles of that time, Kato-bushi flourished in Edo and influenced other music styles of that time.