My Instrument – Mutsumi Aragaki

Here’s another new one for the Features Archive. The UK magazine Songlines has a regular series on musicians and the instruments they play. Earlier this year I met up with Mutsumi Aragaki and we had a long and fascinating talk about her sanshin playing and about music in general. The article below covers just some of the interesting things we discussed.

MY INSTRUMENT

Mutsumi Aragaki & her sanshin

John Potter speaks to the Japanese sanshin player and singer about her connection with this most Okinawan of instruments

The banjo-like twang of the three-stringed snakeskin-covered sanshin is intimately associated with the subtropical islands of Okinawa. These small islands, stretching from southern Japan to Taiwan, were once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. The sanshin was adapted from the Chinese sanxian after its introduction to the islands in the 14th century. It was first played only by the Ryukyu nobility but after the kingdom was invaded and abolished by Japan in 1879 the sanshin was introduced to ordinary people and it soon became (and remains) the most popular instrument of the people.

Okinawan singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki grew up in Nagoya, Japan and first encountered the instrument as a high school student. “The very first day I held a sanshin was when I went to my grandfather’s”, she says. “When you’re 17 or 18 you start to think about your identity and I became interested in Okinawan things so that’s why I wanted to touch a sanshin. After I returned to mainland Japan I couldn’t forget the sound and the feeling when I held the instrument.”

“My grandfather gave me my first sanshin which was roughly 200 years old from the Ryukyu Kingdom era, after I passed my first minyo (folk song) test. The neck is Yaeyama kuruchi (ebony from the Yaeyama islands), the best quality material.” She then went on to make a sanshin by herself using the one her grandfather had given her. “Ever since I could remember I was always making something. I became an artisan about 20 years ago and those precious years of experience have led me to a much deeper understanding of the sanshin.”

The sanshin comprises a soundbox or drum covered with snakeskin, usually python. The neck is often made of ebony wood coated with lacquer and the three strings (sanshin means ‘three strings’) are made of nylon.

Aragaki uses seven different sanshins, each different in size and in the quality of the neck and soundbox or drum. “I maintain all seven myself – sensitive maintenance really makes a difference to the sound. The tension of the skin influences the sound itself. The one I use depends on the kind of music I’m playing. It’s interesting that for a classical player there’s a typical sound they want to have but for folk music it depends on the islands. Miyako and Yaeyama people love a higher tension and a very sharp sound but Okinawan islanders mostly like a more relaxed sound.” As for maintenance, she says: “To fit my unique fingering and picking style, I adjust the curve of the area touched by the fingers, the angle of neck and drum, and the tip of the bachi (pick) to the appropriate shape and keen edge.”

She is also a sanshin teacher, leads the experimental trio MKR Project, and performs solo and in collaboration with Malian kora player Mamadou Doumbia. “I did African Studies at college in Japan and studied Swahili. I could see the world through African cultures and political things like colonialism, so now I can see Okinawa through this viewpoint as well.”

Songlines Magazine

Although the sanshin is an accompanying instrument, some sanshin players became known for their fast playing. The most famous is Seijin Noborikawa who died in 2013 at the age of 80 and was known as the ‘Jimi Hendrix of shimauta (island songs)’. Currently, Yukito Ara from Ishigaki Island has also gained a reputation for his flamboyant playing style.

Aragaki believes that the sanshin has great versatility and can blend well with other instruments despite its typical role as accompaniment to traditional Okinawan vocals. “Usually singers sing very technically but the sanshin is played very simply compared with the vocal style. The sanshin is important, of course, but it’s just a stringed instrument like a violin or any other instrument, so I feel it’s very strange if even a professional player doesn’t try to balance it with their beautiful vocal style. I think it can be more than just accompaniment. I’m trying to realise its potential with my original songs by using effects and so on. This is my vision for this instrument.”

“I hope that through my performances people will know a little bit more about diversity and that’s what I want to do with this instrument”. The pioneering early Okinawan singer, sanshin player and songwriter Choki Fukuhara was a big inspiration for her, she adds: “He was also a record company owner and it meant he could listen to music from everywhere and get to know other instruments. So I’m always trying to listen to different kinds of music and learn from other musical cultures.”

+ALBUM Mutsumi Aragaki’s solo album is released later this year

+WEBSITE www.aragakimutsumi.com

(Songlines Magazine, No.130, August/September 2017)

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