Improvised Music from Japan / Michihiro Satoh


Tsugaru-shamisen player

Michihiro Satoh was born in 1957 in Tokyo, Japan. His mother, who played shamisen and was versed in a type of traditional Japanese dance, was the influence behind his enrolling in a shamisen school in 1970. A month later, however, the teacher expelled him. Most students in shamisen schools are past middle age; young students are very rare, and Satoh was one of the few in his school. He learned the skills and music so fast that the older students, jealous of his talent, got angry at the teacher for teaching Satoh so quickly what they had spent many years learning. They threatened to leave if Satoh didn't, and in the end he was expelled. After that he continued to study out of love for the instrument, but he did not plan to become a professional shamisen player. The main reasons were the feeling of confinement he experienced in the world of traditional Japanese music, and the fact that none of his teachers fascinated or inspired him.

In 1975, Satoh enrolled at Tokai University, School of Marine Science and Technology, in hopes of eventually becoming a ship captain. In his junior year, 1977, he went to a concert by tsugaru-shamisen player Chisato Yamada, and was profoundly affected by the artistry of Yamada's performance. Yamada did not display a brilliant technique or fast fingering--his style, in fact, was rather simple--but Satoh felt that his music was truly art. He immediately decided to move to Hirosaki, Aomori prefecture (in northern Japan), where Yamada lives, and become his student. (Tsugaru is the former name of the area of Aomori prefecture where the tsugaru shamisen originated). In 1981, Satoh became a tsugaru-shamisen teacher of the Yamada school, and returned to Tokyo. In 1982 and 1983 he won the National Tsugar-Shamisen Contest.

In 1983, Satoh was playing and teaching traditional tsugaru-shamisen music of the Yamada school (as he still does today). In that year he started to play outside the shamisen community of musicians and fans, which was governed by the iemoto system--the licensing system for teachers of traditional Japanese arts. Under this system, each shamisen player is affiliated with a school, to which he or she is closely connected both socially and financially. Satoh's activities outside the community included solo and group performances in other musical fields such as jazz, rock and free improvisation. He played at concert halls, jazz clubs and other venues, mainly in Tokyo. The purpose was not only to seek his own musical style and new possibilities for the tsugaru-shamisen, but also to avoid being completely dependent on the iemoto system, which he felt was a major obstacle to the future development of shamisen music. Over the entire year 1984 Satoh gave monthly solo concerts, sometimes with guest musicians, at Kid-Airac Hall in Tokyo. In 1985 he started "Tsugaru-Shamisen NOW," an occasional concert series in which he performed with musicians from various fields. John Zorn was the guest musician at the first of these concerts. The guest musicians at the most recent one, held in November 1994, were sax player Kazutoki Umezu and violinist Keisuke Ohta.

To further this new stage in the development of his music, Satoh also went on concert tours abroad. He left Japan for the first time in 1983, to play in Edmonton, Canada, and from that year until 1991 he played outside Japan once or twice a year. He visited the United States to play solo concerts, mostly in New York, in May and November, 1984. After one of these concerts, John Zorn asked Satoh to record with him. They made a recording the next day at a studio in New York, and it was released in 1985 with the title Ganryujima. In October of that year Satoh returned to the U.S. and Canada to give 17 concerts. One of these, a concert with Zorn at Club Roulette in New York, was recorded and released as a cassette tape later titled Chushingura. In 1986 Satoh was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship to study music for a year.

In April 1988, Satoh participated in several studio recording sessions in New York with musicians in the field of free improvisation. These included guitarists Bill Frisell, Fred Frith and Elliott Sharp; also sax players Steve Coleman and Ned Rothenberg; turntable player Christian Marclay; and drummers Ikue Mori, Samm Bennett, Joey Baron and Gerry Hemingway. The recordings were released in 1989 in a CD titled Rodan. In the same year Satoh directed the music for a film called Tsugaru. In 1990 he held a series of six bimonthly free improvisation concerts called Rodan. And in 1992 he formed his own group, the Satoh Michihiro Super Band, which played improvisational music based on melodies written mainly by Satoh. The group continues to perform; its name was changed to Satoh Michihiro Tsugaru Shamisen Gakudan (Band) in 1994. Their studio recording of 1993-4 was released in 1995 as a CD titled Natsu Yoi Matsuri. Besides Satoh, the current members are shakuhachi (traditional Japanese flute) player Shozan Tanabe, bassist Joji Sawada, drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki, and taiko (traditional Japanese drum) players Shigeri and Kaori Kizu. Satoh also made two CDs of traditional Japanese music, in 1993 and 1994. Since 1995 he has given a series of solo concerts in Tokyo called Corridor of Sound. From May 25 to 27, 1996, he played at the International New Jazz Festival in Moers, Germany.

Last updated: August 16, 1996