Roots and Grooves

Roots and Grooves

Set to perform at Hanami Night on April 5, Masaru Yamakage explains his journey from heavy metal axeman to shamisen disciple.

Masaru Yamakage meticulously unpacks his disassembled shamisen from its case. He rejoins the segmented neck to the body and begins to tune the three strings. With dark, untamed curls to his shoulders, he looks more devil-may-care front man than traditional instrumentalist.

When Yamakage is satisfied with the sound, he begins to play. His fingers fly across the shamisen’s fretless neck and the bachi pick weaves among the strings. All you can wonder is how devoted a student he must have been. 

Despite learning the shamisen as a child, Yamakage would go 15 years without touching one as an adult.

“Now, I feel more like myself when I sit down and play,” the 49-year-old says. “But when I started, I really hated it.”

Yamakage didn’t choose to pick up the traditional instrument. His mother, a native of Akita Prefecture in northern Japan, would sing the region’s soulful minyo folk songs in the family’s suburban Tokyo home. She played no instruments herself, but for her son, she decided, it would be the shamisen.

Introduced via China in the 1500s, the shamisen and its indelible timbre became quintessentially Japanese as the centuries wore on. In the country’s northern regions, itinerant musicians developed a uniquely lively playing style—Tsugaru shamisen—embraced by locals, according to legend, in celebration of good food, drink and company, and in spite of harsh weather and harsher rule.

All that history meant little to 10-year-old Yamakage.

“‘Why?’ I thought. I wanted to learn piano at the time. But my mother said, ‘No, you have to play this.’ Maybe she thought I’d become a teacher or minyo expert later in life,” he says.  

He practiced dutifully and played occasional recitals. By his late teens, though, Yamakage had had enough. Just as the average American teen favors the top 40 over their parents’ oldies, 18-year-old Yamakage traded the shamisen for his first electric guitar: a Greco-replica Les Paul.

“It was hard to change gears,” Yamakage says. “I had to learn different fingering patterns, and I didn’t know a single chord. But some of the things I could do on an electric felt much better than on a shamisen.”

Within a year, Yamakage felt it was time to form a band. With some friends, he settled on a genre (heavy metal) and a name (Freaks). At a small, now-demolished venue in Shibuya, they played their first show.

“There were only about 30 people [in the audience], but it was amazing,” Yamakage says. “It was almost the exact opposite of the shamisen, from the rhythm to the feeling of playing on stage. You can really feel that with heavy metal.”

Freaks disbanded after five years, and Yamakage bounced from one group to the next through his 20s. On backing vocals and lead guitar, he was always instrumental in crafting the punishing power chords and pinch harmonic solos. But as his 30th birthday came and went, a nostalgia for the minyo songs his mother sang crept back into his ear.

“I started to miss hearing the [yo scale],” he explains. “That scale you always hear in minyo. I kept thinking, ‘Huh, that’s very Japanese that scale,’ and I think I started to play solos with that scale in mind.”

Yamakage was 33 when his last band broke up. It took an invite to play guitar at a friend’s house party to trigger a return to his past.  

“I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be cool to bring a shamisen instead?” Yamakage says.

The performance, if a bit rusty, was a hit. As a solo shamisen player, Yamakage could continue performing and forego the hunt for band members. Not unlike the Tsugaru players before him, Yamakage began to forge a playing style uniquely his own.

“There aren’t many players who begin on shamisen, move to guitar and then return,” Yamakage says. “There’s nothing wrong with traditional styles, but just because something isn’t traditional doesn’t mean it’s not shamisen.”

When Yamakage headlines the Club’s annual Hanami Night bash next month, the old ways will still be alive and well. Just as the festivities begin to peak, he will take the stage, and it’ll be up to the audience to decide whether what they hear owes itself to centuries past or those yet to come.

“A lot of young people I play for, it’s the first time they’ve heard the shamisen,” Yamakage says. “Maybe it seems like something completely new.”

Words: Owen Ziegler
Image: Yuuki Ide

First Friday: Hanami Night
April 5 | 6–8pm