Tsugara–jamisen player, Noriko Tadano – exclusive to JIM, interviewed in 2009!
“From Melbourne to the rest of Australia”
Originating from Chiba prefecture, Noriko started playing the shamisen when she was 6. Coming to Melbourne as a Japanese assistant language teacher (ALT) she has been performing shamisen in order to let more Australians know about Japanese culture. Currently, Noriko actively performs live shows on the streets and is featured in various festivals and concerts whilst working with other musical instruments and music genres. In the past, she has performed in the Japan Australia Music Goodwill Mission Xmas Concert at Sydney Opera House on December 26th, 2009.
— Why did you start learning to play the tsugaru-jamisen?
I started when I was six years old. My father’s hometown is in a rural region in Fukushima prefecture and he grew up listening to folk songs whilst working in the fields. When he moved to Chiba prefecture, he joined the folk song club at work and started playing the tsugaru-jamisen. When I saw my father practicing, I thought it was really cool and begged him to let me learn how to play the instrument too.
I learnt how to play the tsugara–jamisen with a teacher up until I started junior-high school. The learning environment was a bit tough for a primary school girl as the other students were much older. Moreover, I was really into basketball then so I stopped playing the shamisen for a while.
— So why did you start playing tsugaru-jamisen again?
I came to Melbourne with a working holiday visa through the Japanese ALT program. I thought it would be interesting to let the children know more about Japanese culture through a shamisen performance so I brought it along with me.
Busking is very popular in Australia. I wanted to try it as well when I saw other people performing on the streets. But I had to obtain a photo ID permit from Melbourne city council first. Instead of just performing for the children at school, I also wanted to let more Australians see this traditional Japanese instrument. Moreover, I thought it would be a good way to earn some pocket money (laugh).
I received a lot of support from many people after I started busking. By the time I noticed, playing the shamisen has already become part of my job. Opportunities to perform outside Victoria have also increased, for which I am grateful.
— Have you always performed folk songs? Is there any original music from you?
I perform folk songs as well as some original pieces I have composed. Apart from that, I also work with many other musicians, so it’s not just limited to Japanese music. For my last concert, I sang folk songs and for the very first time, sang my original song. The song is called “Village of Yamatsumi”, and it is based on my own experience ever since I left Japan and started living overseas. In Japanese, ‘yamatsumi’ means god of the mountains.
Village of Yamatsumi
1：Do you remember that path way where we gathered the blessings from the mountain
We watched the night festival whilst holding hands, and you quietly gave me a red bell
Wherever I go, I could see that day once I shut my eyes. The Village of Yamatsumi.
Deliver this feeling, across the ocean and along with the wind.
2： I could hear the sound of your laughter and of the babbling stream,
I looked at the stars among the glittering night sky, and wished upon the one that dashed by
Wherever I went, I could see that day once I shut my eyes. The Village of Yamatsumi.
Deliver this feeling, across the ocean and along with the wind.
— Do you have a favourite piece to perform?
The piece that I always perform is “Tsugaru Jongara Bushi”. Jongara bushi includes a lot of versions such as kyū bushi (old song), naka bushi (middle song) and dance. I use the shin bushi (new song) as the base to rearrange the music I play. Usually it comes to a brisk stop towards the end of the performance.
— What was the story behind your performance at the Opera House?
Around 2 years ago, I started performing outside Victoria with Sydney being the main focus. I’d travel to Sydney and busk whenever I had time, and also perform at pubs and bars that run on the system of an “open mic” – where anyone can perform on a certain day of the week. I was determined to let other people see and know me. Afterwards, I started receiving offers to perform at gigs in Sydney through an event coordinator. After many performances and self-promotion, I received the Christmas concert offer through the same coordinator.
— What do you think is the most attracting point about your performance?
The feedback that I hear most from the audience is that the performance was able to surpass the language difference between Japanese and English. The audience also felt the music was at a level where they could feel the music with their heart. It is sometimes difficult to convey the message of the music with words when I sing in Japanese and play a Japanese instrument, but I hope to achieve some sort of expression through my performances.
— Is it possible to learn to play the shamisen in Melbourne?
Yes it’s possible. I currently teach shamisen one-on-one to those who are interested in it. Like many other things, tsugaru-jamisen is not something that you have to start learning from a young age. Instead, it’s something that requires daily practice. I believe that anyone will become skilled at it with passion and effort.
— Is it possible to buy shamisen in Melbourne?
No it’s not, which is a pity. It has to be ordered from Japan. It’s not often that Japanese shops are willing to ship shamisen overseas, but the owner of the place that I bought my shamisen from is very keen on supporting the promotion of shamisen outside Japan, so he always tries to help out.
— Apparently there are young shamisen players in Japan who have released CD albums?
Yes there are. For example, my favourite shamisen player, Hiromitsu Agatsuma, and the Yoshida Brothers. There are many other young players as well. They all play the traditional folk songs as well as rearranged songs. Mr. Agatsuma is also able to play movie soundtracks through shamisen too.
— When is the most enjoyable moment playing shamisen?
I always feel grateful during concerts, but busking is when I can really feel in tune with the audience’s reactions. People come to the city for different purposes, yet some are willing to take time off their busy schedules and watch the street performance, giving tips when they think it is good and even taking a step further by buying the CDs.
I feel like I’ve got my message conveyed every time someone stops to take a look at my performance, put in coins and say “I’d like to buy a CD”. It’s something that you have to experience for yourself. I’m really thankful for that and feel delighted during those moments.
Despite the language and culture differences, I felt as if I was able to convey something and they were able to understand it. I’m really happy when they approach and talk to me after the performance. It’s those moments when I feel that music can really overcome all sorts of barriers.
-What are some things that you want to convey through the shamisen from now on, and what are your dreams/goals for the future?
I’d like to let more people, not just Australians, know that such music and instrument exist through seeing the shamisen whilst listening to the traditional Japanese folk songs and my original creations. I aim to communicate with the audience from my heart to theirs through the use of music.