Story by George Tanabe
Photos by Davis Bell
Thirty years ago the president of the Japan Association for Gagaku Music commissioned a biwa lute. When he received the instrument, he played it eagerly—and was immediately saddened by its lackluster sound. Disappointed, he gladly let the Rev. Masatoshi Shamoto take it off his hands. Shamoto, who was visiting Japan from his home in Hawai‘i, brought the biwa back to the Islands, and when he played the exiled instrument, he couldn’t believe that it was the same one he’d heard in Japan: The lute that had sounded so awful there sprang to life with exquisite music when it was played in Hawai‘i. “It was beautiful,” Shamoto recalls, pointing upward to show its soaring quality. “But it was a mystery. Something happened to it on the way over, but only God knows what that was.”
I have come to talk to Shamoto-san about gagaku—the oldest continuing musical tradition in the world—for he is an eminent master of the music and has been teaching it at the University of Hawai‘i for fifty years. What I didn’t expect to hear, though, was this tale of the biwa—and what Shamoto doesn’t know is that I myself have been crafting a biwa for the past three years out of mango and koa woods. It wasn’t my first choice—my highest woodworking aspiration had been to make a violin—but I knew how hard it would be to make one that sounded good. In what I considered a stroke of selfserving genius, I had decided instead to make the exotic biwa precisely because no one would know enough about it to judge the quality of its sound. So much for that theory. Now I was sitting in front of a man who would know exactly.