*First broadcast on Dec. 22, 2022.
Hanawa-bayashi is the name both of a parade of floats in Kazuno, Akita Prefecture, and of the traditional music that is performed all night at the festival. These days, the performers include Colleen Schmuckal, a musician, composer and researcher from the USA. She plays the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that was once a feature of everyday life in Japan. In a Japanophiles interview, Schmuckal tells Peter Barakan about the unique appeal of the shamisen and of Hanawa-bayashi music.
Hello, and welcome to Japanology Plus.
I'm Peter Barakan.
Today we present one
of our Japanophile profiles.
I'm in a place called Kazuno
in Akita Prefecture in northern Japan.
Kazuno is well known for a festival
that's held here every August
called “Hanawa Bayashi.”
The festival was begun
by some wealthy merchants
who made a fortune trading copper
and gold from a local mine.
The festival features
a particular kind of music,
and I'm going to be talking today
to a woman who's a researcher and composer
who knows a lot about this music and
is going to share her knowledge with us.
What a great setup!
Sitting all by yourself in the middle
of this great big space wearing a mask.
ーNice to meet you.
ーNice to meet you too.
Is the tune that you were playing the,
as it were,
the theme tune for the festival?
Yeah. So I was playing
the tune “honbayashi,”
which is probably
used 90% of the festival.
So it's the one that's played the most
and kind of the theme song
of the entire festival.
In August each year,
Colleen Schmuckal, a shamisen expert,
performs in Hanawa-bayashi, a parade
of floats in a leading regional festival.
The name Hanawa-bayashi also refers
to the festival music.
On board each float
is a group of musicians.
Shamisen and flute players
provide the melody,
while hand gong and taiko players
contribute a rousing rhythm.
The musicians perform through the night,
to a total audience
of over 200,000 people.
Hanawa-bayashi is among Japan's
intangible forms of cultural heritage
that have been recognized
by UNESCO and the Japanese government.
So when the festival's on, you ride
in the float to play your shamisen, right?
Yeah. So you can see
we have multiple tiers,
so the very back row is usually
where the shamisens sit.
And then in front of that,
we have the flutes, the shinobue,
a bamboo transverse flute.
And then in front of that, in the very
middle, is where all of the taikos play.
And every float
has a similar sort of lineup?
Exactly. So every float
has their own ensemble,
which means every once in a while,
when two floats greet each other,
if those particular neighborhoods
have had a rough year,
they might decide
to start battling each other.
So, like the floats
start attacking each other
and then all the ensemble people
have to start playing harder
and try to win out.
It's really quite exciting stuff.
It must get quite intense
at times I'm sure.
Are you a regular participant
in the festival here?
Yeah. So I first appeared in 2018,
and then I got to play again in 2019,
and then, sadly, the pandemic happened.
But this year I got to perform again.
Was there something
that appealed to you particularly
about the music used in this festival?
Yeah. When I heard this music,
I thought it was so beautiful
and so fascinating,
and I could see the really delicate
techniques the shamisen was doing.
This is not normal music,
while it's also really exciting
and fun music at the same time.
Colleen Schmuckal was born
in 1985, in Colorado, USA.
She was the second of four children,
and very energetic.
As a teenager,
she became fascinated with the
sound effects she heard in Japanese anime,
such as the swishing of swords,
and the rattling of paper doors.
she enrolled in the music department
of Northern Illinois University.
There, she majored in musical composition,
traditional Asian music, and the bassoon.
a desire to learn more about Japanese
music prompted Schmuckal to come to Japan.
She began to study
traditional Japanese music in earnest.
And that is how
she first encountered the shamisen.
Had you ever seen a shamisen
before you came to Japan?
No. So actually,
when I first had the opportunity
to study abroad in Japan,
I just wanted
to study some Japanese instrument.
Anything would be fine;
as long as there's a teacher willing
to teach a foreigner
who was not very good
at Japanese at that time,
I was happy.
the first connection
I found was a shamisen teacher.
And I'm a little embarrassed to say
I'm like, “Okay, cool. What's shamisen?”
I had no idea what I was in for.
Other than it was a stringed instrument,
that was about it.
The shamisen is
a traditional Japanese instrument.
Its three strings are played
with a plectrum.
The shamisen emerged around 500 years ago
and became a much-loved folk instrument.
For the next two to three centuries,
it was a hugely popular instrument.
But after that,
as Western instruments
entered Japan and spread,
interest in the shamisen declined.
Shamisen presumably was quite different
from all of the instruments
you'd come across up to then.
Yes, well, one,
because it was a string instrument,
but two, one of the things
I really struggled with it at first
was simply being able
to hear it correctly.
So I came from the Western tradition,
I played bassoon.
I was very used to tuning
to other instruments
and knowing how to tune,
and what's incorrect.
And so, of course,
to play a string instrument,
you have to tune the three strings.
And I remember
when I first started playing,
I just couldn't hear if it was
in tune or not.
And it was driving me insane cause like,
I have good ears, I'm a musician,
I should be able to do this.
But I just, I didn't know,
I couldn't hear the right harmonics.
I didn't know what to listen for.
I just couldn't tell if it was actually
in tune or not.
And so it felt very awkward.
But then, you know...
Also the way it's played,
ーalthough it's in tune, of course, but
ーIt's in tune.
to an untrained Western ear,
or rather a Western ear
that's not trained to Japanese sounds,
you can't tell from the playing sometimes
if it's in tune or not.
Yeah. So what
I eventually figured out is the shamisen
puts what we call a sawari or a buzz
on the first string,
which causes this weird harmonic
dissonance going on inside the sound.
And so that also affects
the other two strings.
And it was that dissonance
that I kept hearing
that made me lose
the sense of tonal center
and so I couldn't hear
the tonal center anymore,
so I didn't know what to listen for.
Like, which tone in the wider tone
should I be listening for to be able
to tell if it's in tune or not?
And it's a totally different sound
from any Western instrument, I suppose.
Western instruments are really focused
on chords and being able to tune
and play harmony and beautiful melodies.
But shamisen is really focused on
being able to express music
all through one tone.
And so that tone has to be able to change
the timbre to it, the tonality to it,
to be able to express lots
of different emotions.
And so they purposely,
which I find really fascinating,
make the three strings sound different.
So it's not a pitch difference,
it's a sound timbre type of difference.
If I did a really simple example:
Sakura, Sakura. Right?
The popular everyone
knows melody. “Sakura.”
Cherry blossoms. Yeah.
Yeah. So if I just play
that first three notes,
sa-ku-ra on the three different strings,
just on the different strings,
you can really hear
how different the timbre is.
So usually when we play,
we play on the third string.
It's bright, it's satisfying.
You get this sound.
Sounds satisfying. Good.
Then you could also play it
on the second string.
And the second string
has kind of a more muted...
it doesn't buzz nearly as well
as the other string, kind of sad sound.
And you get this.
Right? So it's the same pitches,
but the sound is different. Once again.
Right? And also add a slide in there,
'cause it feels really nice.
And then if we did this
on the first string,
which, this is really high
on the first string,
it gets even more you know, constricted.
Right? And so when shamisen plays,
it doesn't choose notes based on melody
or what's the next nice pitch.
They choose strings based on
which sound would best express
the emotion at that moment.
Do we want a bright, satisfying sound?
Do we want kind of “I'm kind of sad
and confused” type of sound?
Do we want a very resonant , dark sound?
Right? We have all these different sounds
that we can use on this instrument,
which is really, really fun and exciting.
Entranced by these unique sounds,
Schmuckal devoted herself
to mastering the shamisen.
And in 2017, she completed a PhD
at Tokyo University of the Arts,
Japan's leading institution
for the study of music.
To deepen her understanding,
she even began composing
for traditional instruments.
It's interesting that you actually compose
for the shamisen.
Yes. To really understand the instrument
I really felt like just reading books
and listening to recordings wasn't enough.
And then you know, playing it,
of course you understand it,
but when you actually have to compose
for it and kind of deal with the sounds,
and you'll figure out,
how do I use these sounds
to express the music I want to express?
You really start seeing
what this instrument is all about.
You're a musician and you're a composer,
but you also do a lot of research, right?
What kind of research are you doing?
So right now, I'm really focusing on
how to analyze the shamisen
in both traditional music,
in modern music,
trying to explain
why does it play the way it plays,
why does it have that particular sound,
why do players do
these particular techniques,
and how do we analyze that in music?
Clearly, this isn't Western music,
so using Western musical techniques
would bring about really weird results
that don't really reflect
what the culture, the history,
and the mindset behind it.
So trying to find a better way
to analyze it,
as well as make this music kind of easier
to understand on a broader scale,
from a Japanese traditional perspective.
Even after receiving her PhD,
Schmuckal continued to press forward
with her studies.
Then, in 2018,
a friend approached her about
performing in the festival parade,
and she made her debut
as a Hanawa-bayashi musician.
What was it like the first time
you did it?
It was really exciting. I mean,
it was frightening, of course.
Can I remember all the music?
And the general rule is you have
to memorize all twelve pieces
before you even touch the float.
ーThere are twelve different pieces...
There's twelve pieces
for the entire festival. Yeah.
It's also a very long period
of time to play.
There's two days of performance
and we start at 5 o'clock in the evening,
and we go to about 5 o'clock
in the morning.
So it's like 12 hours straight
of just performing.
Can I actually physically survive this
for two days?
And then, can I remember all the music,
and know when I have
to make all the switches
and hear all the cues of
when to stop and when to go?
But it was exciting too.
What's really nice is all the town people
coming out and just cheering you on.
And like, they're just so happy
that the floats are moving
and you're still doing it this year,
and just so much thankfulness
while you're performing.
So you just really want to give it
your all no matter what.
I'm assuming you were the
only non-Japanese performing?
Yeah, especially riding the floats.
So traditionally, only the best of
the best were allowed to ride the float.
And for the term of shamisen,
those would be the geinin.
So the shamisen...
Usually it's a professional
who's paid to lead the shamisen group,
and they choose
who actually gets to perform.
I didn't want to just jump on the float
and, “I'm a foreigner, here I am.”
I wanted to do it properly.
So to learn all twelve and really know
what I'm doing was quite frightening.
But it was also a huge honor that I was
even trusted to give the opportunity.
Colleen Schmuckal currently lives
in Chiba Prefecture
with her partner and child.
Once every few weeks,
she makes the 500-kilometer trip to
Kazuno to practice for Hanawa-bayashi.
She's the first foreigner to take part.
But we have something
in common: a love of the music.
That feeling inspired her to join us,
which is fantastic.
She's more than a guest,
being invited to simply have a go.
Here in Kazuno,
she's an indispensable presence.
She's a performer,
just like the rest of us.
And without her, well…
we'd be in big trouble!
Besides performing, Schmuckal continues
her research into Hanawa-bayashi.
This is Hanawa-bayashi from Kazuno City
in Akita Prefecture.
She has started presenting her findings
to people in other countries,
and these days
she is eager to share the unique appeal
of Hanawa-bayashi with the world.
Why is this music important?
I mean, if you want to give
a reasonably short answer
to somebody asking that question.
The simplest answer would be,
every music you hear around the world
is just a new way of expressing yourself.
If we only had Western music,
we would only have the Western way
of expressing ourselves
and would really limit a lot of people
and their ability to express who they are.
So that's a really simple way...
a reason why it's important.
I think it's also important because from
a cultural and historical point of view,
the music itself
is not considered that special.
It's recorded only from the Edo period.
So that's considerably
a short length of history...
because it has shamisen,
which is not a religious instrument,
it's not considered even necessarily
a noble instrument.
It's just a popular instrument.
That kind of downgrades
the level of the music.
And there's been a lot of issues
even since the Meiji period
because the shamisen
was part of this ensemble.
Even in this town, historically,
shamisen was used to entertain businessmen
and take them away from their wives.
So why would you want that?
Floats are holy, right?
They're basically moving shrines.
And the drums represent that,
the hand gongs represent that,
the flute represents that.
We see that throughout Japan,
but shamisen is not traditionally
representing of that sort of music.
And so there's been
this huge conflict of,
is this musically a high art
or kind of a traditional low rural art?
And then if it's a low rural art,
you have to be original—the first—
to ever...to be considered of value.
But this has clearly been a mix of lots
of cultures and lots of things.
And so it's put it...
the music in a really complicated place
culturally and historically.
We have no way of analyzing
the music to actually see
what brilliant things are happening,
all we have is archival records,
When you actually listen
and understand what's going on
this music is doing
such fascinating things that...
the idea of incorporating “ma”
in a festival genre,
it's like going to nogaku,
noh uses a lot of “ma.”
This is a high art type of thing.
You're going to have to explain “ma”.
Very briefly for people
that are not familiar with it.
“Ma” is this holding
of this living silence.
Space, yeah, but you're holding it.
It's living, it's vibrating.
We're not resting.
It's not that type of space.
When the hayashi,
the Hanawa Bayashi drummers,
are pushing against the drums
and not moving anymore,
they're not resting,
they're holding that moment, that sound,
for whatever is going to happen next.
And that can be stretched and condensed.
And it leads to my favorite part
of Japanese music,
of feeling it, not counting it.
You're waiting for that moment.
There it is.
ーTension and release.
Very simple concept,
but that's what makes music any music
around the world.
How do you create tension
and how do you create the release?
Hayawa-bayashi has a special rule
that has been observed for generations.
With just a few exceptions,
everyone must retire before they turn 41.
We spoke about that rule
with the former leader
of the Hanawa-bayashi under-40's group.
I think that 41 represents a kind
of barrier in terms of physical strength.
In our festival,
there are almost no breaks;
people have to keep going.
Beyond that age limit,
I don't think they'd have the necessary
stamina to be a frontline participant.
Former participants support the festival
by working behind the scenes.
One thing they do is hold shamisen
or flute classes for younger players.
The festival veterans pass local
traditions on to the next generation.
These classes are
held throughout the year.
It's important for children
to have fun at the festival.
they'll always treasure the memory.
So we have to make sure
it's an enjoyable occasion for them.
That's how we keep the tradition alive.
Successfully passing on the tradition
to each new generation
has contributed to the widespread
recognition of the festival's importance.
With traditional music,
probably in many countries
around the world,
especially developed countries I guess,
it tends to be thought of
as something in the past, I think.
And younger generations,
if they think about it at all,
probably don't see it as being anything
that's relevant to their lives.
Yeah, I definitely see
that a lot in Japan as well,
where traditional music is really...
it is important for history,
it's important for a museum,
but it has nothing to do with me.
Why should I care today?
Especially if you are
under this assumption
nothing has changed
for the last 100, 200 years.
Why should I care?
And when I came
and first discovered Hanawa Bayashi,
what I was really moved by was the people
who are performing are not
old grandmas and grandpas trying to work
really hard to keep this genre alive.
Most of the players,
most of the people pushing
and pulling the float
have to be under 40 years old
to be able to do this festival.
And so it's really the young people
who are protecting and passing this on
and really finding enjoyment
in this music,
which shows that there is a place
for traditional music today,
right now, for the next generation.
And I think, specifically with this music,
the reason why it works is it does change.
For every generation it changes to work
for that generation,
and it's flexible for that, because
that's what a living music needs to be.
We need the next generation.
There's always this push that
if the next generation is not there,
it will die very quickly.
We can't rely on the older generation
to protect it.
It's the younger generation protecting it.
So this is something that you
anticipate continuing to take part in.
So I also, every year,
have to make the time
and make the journey down here
because it's important.
It's important for everyone
to be performing it
and to be promoting it
on a very local stage as well.
As for me, I'm hoping to promote it
on a much larger stage around the world.
These types of music
that tend to be overlooked
because of their history,
because of their location...
we're a very rural, small town.
It's just fun music, fun entertainment.
And I want to show
that that's not always the case.
Sometimes musics can be really brilliant
and really well thought out.
in the case of Hanawa Bayashi,
there have been
and still are amazing musicians
that keep inspiring the music,
changing the music, driving it forward,
to make it what it is today.
And it's very, you know, deep.
It's very fascinating,
and it's just gorgeous,
and it's kind of fun to just listen to.
It's just fun music.
So on these Japanophile programs,
the last question is always the same one.
What is Japan to you?
I think Japan to me, one part,
it is my home now.
I've been living here for over ten years.
Another part, it is my family.
Everyone here is so important to me,
The good, the bad, the frustrating,
And another part,
it is my means of expressing
If I didn't have Japan's way
of thinking about music
and constructing music and their sounds,
I think I would be lost as a composer
of exactly how can I express myself,
what I'm feeling, and the kinds of stories
I want to tell?
So that's really what Japan is to me.
Okay, thank you very much.
ーThat was a lot of fun.
Before we go, Peter is going
to try his hand at taiko drumming.
So I have to make it clear
that while I've been studying
and working really hard on the shamisen
taiko is not my specialty.
But the little that I know,
I will teach you so we can
put a little bit together and have fun.
Sounds good to me.
Cha ta ta ta...
And the last one's two. Right?
Let's do it again.
Cha ta ta ta...
I got it all wrong.
But you have the right...
Want to try again?
Sure, why not?
Cha ta ta ta...
You're getting it.
Starting to feel the groove.
you're supposed to walk while you're...
Oh, you gotta walk while you're doing it?
Don't worry about that now.
You're doing a great job.
ーI kind of want to see...
ーYou're a good teacher.
I kind of want to do it again
because it's fun.
Well, that was a lot of fun.
I don't know
if people watching this program know,
but most of my work relates to music,
so I always enjoy talking to musicians,
and especially somebody
who's as passionate
about what they do as Colleen is,