Issue 15.1: February / March 2012

The Sho Must Go On

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.


Gagaku, which literally means “elegant music,”
is truly ancient. It was brought to Japan from China in the sixth century but remained confined to the imperial court; ordinary people were forbidden to learn it. But when Japan underwent rapid modernization in the Meiji period of the late nineteenth century, the Ministry of Education required Western music in schools— and that raised a question, a surprising one for being so obvious.


“In India,” Shamato explains, “children learned Indian music. In China it was Chinese music. In the Meiji period Japanese had to ask, ‘What is Japanese music?’ There was no easy answer until it was decided that gagaku was the native music of Japan. That was when it started to be taught to ordinary people.”


Shamoto was exposed to gagaku from an early age after being born in 1934 into a family of Tenrikyo ministers in Japan. He arrived in Hawai‘i in 1959 to teach gagaku to Tenrikyo members in the Islands, married a Japanese-American woman and raised his family here.


Soon after his arrival in Hawai‘i, Shamoto met professor Barbara Smith. Smith, who had been hired in 1949 to teach piano in the UH Music Department, was surprised that her students knew so little about the music of their ethnic heritages. Just like the schools in Meiji Japan, Hawai‘i’s schools taught Western music alone. Smith decided to change that by establishing courses in ethnomusicology, and in 1962 she invited Shamoto to teach a class in gagaku. Knowing that gagaku had not been an important part of the Japanese immigrant experience, Smith expected the course to be taught for only a few semesters. Half a century later Shamoto is still teaching it; in 2009 he was honored for his work with the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government.


Eminent master though he may be, Shamoto does not carry himself as a revered sensei. He is animated in speech, informal in manners and full of quips and funny stories. When it comes to the music, though, Shamoto is a traditionalist, a conservator, a man committed to preserving sounds that are centuries old. He wouldn’t dream of emulating Hideki Togi (check him out on YouTube), who plays the likes of “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday” on the hichiriki, the traditional bamboo oboe. “Hideki is a descendant of the family of imperial court musicians,” Shamoto explains, “but he broke away.”


There is no written notation system for gagaku,
and it can only be taught by a teacher who is singing notes that have been transmitted orally over centuries. Students follow along, faithfully imitating their teacher’s voice, avoiding improvisation. “My daughter learned her first tune when she was 3,” Shamoto says, gently stroking his long salt-and-pepper beard. For a 77-year-old man, he has hair as thick as someone in his 30s. “I’d sing to her when we’d be in the car, and she’d repeat the tunes. Sometimes I tried to trick her by changing a note, but she’d stop and correct me.”


Given his relaxed manner, it’s easy to see how Shamoto is able to make his students feel comfortable and open to learning pristine sounds of long ago. Still, having been a classroom teacher myself, there is one thing I do not understand about Shamoto’s success: He barely speaks English, even after his long residency in Hawai‘i. How can he teach American students— and he has also taught in Germany —the arcane art of exotic instruments like the dragon flute (ryuteki), the hichiriki and the sho, a mouth organ of small bamboo pipes arranged in a circle?


To find out I attend one of his evening classes. Though I arrive late, Shamoto is still sitting with eight students on the floor around a low table filled with food. “I remember being a student,” he tells me, “always hungry.” He offers me a specially flavored rice ball wrapped in dried seaweed. “Made all the food myself,” he says without the slightest boast.


After the meal, the students group themselves according to their instruments. Shamoto starts tapping an irregular beat on the floor with his hand, and the students sing in unison, vocalizing syllables that do not make up meaningful words. These are voice sounds, all of them resuscitating an ancient past. Then the students stop, raise their instruments to their mouths and play.


To my modern ear, the music is short on melody and agonizingly slow. The oboes and the flutes drown out the quiet chords of the mouth organs, but the students playing the oboes and flutes pause frequently, allowing the ethereal humming of the mouth organs to be heard, a delicate reminder that they were always there. It is meditative and haunting, and I am transported back to medieval Japan or a Kurosawa movie.


After the class, I ask some students whether they like the music. I try to provoke them, pointing out how contrary it is to modern tastes, so slow, so weird, so stately.


“I love it,” one student replies, “because it’s so peaceful.”


“What’s so interesting,” another student adds, “is that it has no fixed beat. It’s so fluid, and once you get into it, it moves freely.”


“But it’s so structured and rigid,” I counter.


She smiles sympathetically, and I think perhaps she’s feeling that it’s futile to try to make me understand.


“Be sure to call me,” Shamoto says before I leave. “Let’s meet again.”


As I drive onto the sprawling grounds
of the Tenrikyo Cultural Center, I see Shamoto standing in a drizzling rain, waiting for me. We exchange quick pleasantries, and he launches into a story about making dragon flutes out of local bamboo. I am tempted to tell him about my biwa but spare myself the embarrassment of admitting my devious scheme. I shift the subject and ask him how he teaches American students without using much English.


As if he had anticipated my question, he points to charts he has laid out on a table. “This is my own invention,” he says as he launches into a long explanation of the numbers and symbols he uses to teach fingering. Having heard the students play so well, I am convinced of the effectiveness of his methods even if I don’t understand all the details. “It makes everything clear and simple,” he explains, “and teachers are using these charts to teach gagaku in Japan.” Call it the Shamoto System, devised in Hawai‘i.


Obviously the students get it, but what, I ask, is the greatest difficulty for them? “The music majors have the hardest time,” Shamoto replies, “because they expect a regular beat. Gagaku does not have a fixed beat. But once they get it, they have no trouble. Then it becomes ongaku, you know, the Japanese word for music, which means ‘the pleasure of sound.’”


That’s it. The pleasure of sound. That is what Shamoto teaches, across cultures and time, without a mastery of English or German.


“What was it like teaching in Germany?” I ask.


Shamoto flashes an impish smile, signaling a story. Professor Robert Guenther had come to UH and discovered gagaku. Guenther returned to the University of Cologne after a year in Hawai‘i and invited Shamoto to teach. “He is a German professor,” Shamoto says, “and he has a very formal relationship with his students. When we took a break in the class, I asked him if he had any food. ‘Food!’ he said. ‘We do not eat in the classroom.’ I finally convinced him to serve some tea during the next class. I took some chocolates. The students were so surprised but they loved it. By my fourth trip to Germany, we were eating all kinds of food.”


I laugh along with him and remark how food is so much a part of our local protocol.


“But,” he says seriously, “it’s also about gagaku. You see, in gagaku there is no conductor to set the beat. We all have to play like one family, and to become a family you have to eat as a family. That’s why I serve food.”


As if on cue, he gets up and brings over some éclairs. “Do you have a sweet tooth, too?” he asks, handing me one. “Ahh,” he says with the first bite, paying no attention to the crumbs falling into his beard. “Thank you for bringing these.”


“I have to tell you something,” I finally say. Shamoto pays more attention to his éclair than to my confession of why I chose the biwa as the instrument of my making. “But you,” I conclude with the obvious, “will be able to judge its sound.”


“You make it, I’ll play it,” he says, then throws himself back into the sofa and laughs.


“It’ll probably sound terrible,” I say quite honestly.


He pauses for a second and then laughs again. “In that case,” he says, “we’ll send it to Japan!”