In May 2017, Tokyo-based musician Momokusu Iwata entered the Tsugaru Shamisen World Championship, held in northern Japan's Aomori prefecture. The region is home to a traditional folk music played on the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument similar to the banjo. The genre of Tsugaru shamisen evolved in the early 20th century when blind performers incorporated improvisation, fancy fingerwork and loud playing as a signature style.
At the end of the two-day competition, judges awarded Iwata first prize. Not everyone was pleased with the 24-year-old musician's performance, however.
"I was criticized by the Tsugaru shamisen orthodoxy because of my penchant for the instrument's delicate nuances, instead of the traditional manner of strong, loud and emphasized play," Iwata says. "Finding my interpretations 'too delicate,' some old-fashioned players told me: 'Your shamisen is not Tsugaru shamisen. Your shamisen is Tokyo shamisen.'"
Iwata not only embraced this aspersion, he adopted it as the title of his next musical project: Shamisen Tokyo. Like its namesake city, the music of Shamisen Tokyo is a hybridized mix of modern styles that simultaneously remains deeply rooted in tradition.
On July 28, Iwata's Shamisen Tokyo will perform at Sundin Music Hall at Hamline University in St. Paul for the annual Harukaze ("spring breeze") concert organized by the Japan America Society of Minnesota (JASM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering cross-cultural exchange.
Iwata, a native of Osaka, comes from a long line of musicians and composers. He first became enchanted with the shamisen after a group of performers visited his elementary school. By good fortune, he picked up a shamisen at home that belonged to his great-grandmother — a teacher of Japanese folk songs — and started practicing.
"Traditionally, people acquired shamisen skills by watching and listening to their master's performance. There was no music score up until 50 years ago," he says. "When I took lessons from my master, there was no score, either. I learned how to express my feelings through the various timbres of the instrument."
While studying traditional shamisen repertoire and technique, Iwata also enjoyed the wide variety of genres that surrounded him at home and later at Tokyo University of the Arts: classical, jazz, rock and pop. He admired the music of the Beatles and Queen, in particular.
"My favorite guitarist is Brian May — his timbres are polished and smooth," he says. "I would like to make such sounds."
These diverse musical influences and sonic explorations can be heard on Iwata's debut album, which was released in early 2019.
"The fact that he's using a traditional instrument while bringing in rock and jazz elements is very unique," says Rio Saito, executive director of JASM. "I'm glad that we can introduce him here in Minnesota. We're also hoping the concert attracts a younger group of people."
This year's concert was nearly canceled following the death of Takuzo Ishida, former president and emeritus director of JASM, in April. Ishida played a key role in promoting Japanese arts and music through the annual Harukaze event, which he helped establish in 2014. He also served on the board of the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota and as vice president of the Bach Society.
"Takuzo was a huge music fan — he introduced us to Momokusu," Saito says. "To carry on Takuzo's legacy is very important. This year's event is a tribute to his memory." Sunday's concert will mark Iwata's first visit to Minnesota. Accompanied by his close friend and pianist Ayatoshi Oikawa, he plans to perform a mix of Japanese folk tunes, original compositions and popular music. The duo also will premiere two new works for shamisen and piano by St. Paul-based composer Asako Hirabayashi. The pieces are part of a larger chamber opera for which Hirabayashi received the 2019 Schubert Club Composer Award.
"This is the first time I have composed for Shamisen," says Hirabayashi, who also was introduced to Iwata by Ishida. "I was so inspired by Momokusu's playing. I cherish this opportunity."
Iwata is excited to share his music in a live performance setting, where audience members can experience the shamisen's full range of expressiveness, including sounds that can't be accurately captured on a recording.
"Shamisen is unique — it's both a plucked string instrument and a percussion instrument. Only at live concerts can you enjoy the whole sound from the strings as well as the body," he says.
Exploring the shamisen's timbral possibilities — and sharing these new sounds with listeners — is what Iwata enjoys most about performing.
"When I discover the timbres of shamisen, I'm thrilled," he says. "And when I feel the hearts of the audience, that's the moment I truly love."
Shamisen Tokyo performs at Hamline University's Sundin Music Hall on Sunday, July 28, at 3 p.m. Tickets are available on the Japan America Society of Minnesota website.