Biwa hōshi , also known as “lute priests”, were travelling performers in the era of Japanese history preceding the Meiji period. They earned their income by reciting vocal literature to the accompaniment of biwa music. Often blind, they adopted the shaved heads and robes common to Buddhist monks. It arrived in Japan in two forms. Since that time, the number of biwa types has more than quadrupled. Guilds supporting biwa players, particularly the biwa hoshi, helped proliferate biwa musical development for hundreds of years. Biwa hōshi performances overlapped with performances by other biwa players many years before heikyoko and continued until today.
By the late 1940s, the biwa, a thoroughly Japanese tradition, was nearly completely abandoned for Western instruments; however, thanks to collaborative efforts by Japanese musicians, interest in the biwa is being revived. Japanese and foreign musicians alike have begun embracing traditional Japanese instruments, particularly the biwa, in their compositions. While blind biwa singers no longer dominate the biwa, many performers continue to use the instrument in traditional and modern ways.
The biwa came to Japan in the 7th century and it was evolved from the Chinese instrument pipa, while the pipa itself was derived from similar instruments in Western Asia. This type of biwa is called the gaku-biwa and was used in gagaku ensembles and is the most commonly known type.Before long, as the Ritsuryō state collapsed, the court music musicians were faced with the reconstruction and sought asylum in Buddhist temples. There they assumed the role of Buddhist monks and encountered the mōsō-biwa. They incorporated the convenient aspects of mōsō-biwa, its small size and portability, into their large and heavy gaku-biwa, and created the heike-biwa, which, as indicated by its namesake, was used primarily for recitations of The Tale of the Heike.Read More
Through the next several centuries, players of both traditions intersected frequently and developed new music styles and new instruments. By the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the heike-biwa had emerged as a popular instrument. The heike-biwa could be described as a cross between both the gaku-biwa and mōsō-biwa.While the modern satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa both find their origin with the mōsō-biwa, the Satsuma biwa was used for moral and mental training by samurai of the Satsuma Domain during the Warring States period, and later in general performances. The Chikuzen biwa was used by Buddhist monks visiting private residences to perform memorial services.
There are said to be three main streams of biwa emerged during that time: zato (the lowest level of the state-controlled guild of blind biwa players), shifu (samurai style), and chofu (urban style). These styles emphasized (biwa-uta) — vocalization with biwa accompaniment — and formed the foundation for (edo-uta) styles such as shinnai and kota [Allan Marett 103]. From these styles also emerged the two principal survivors of the biwa tradition: satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa [Waterhouse 156].
By the middle of the Meiji period (1868–1912), improvements had been made on the instruments and easily understandable songs were composed in quantity. In the beginning of the Taisho period (1912–1926), the Satsuma biwa was modified into the Nishiki biwa which was popular among female players at the time. With this the biwa met a great period of prosperity, and the songs themselves were not just about the Tale of the Heike but songs connected to the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War such as “Takeo Hirose”, “Hitachimaru”, “203 Hill” gained popularity. However, the playing of the biwa nearly became extinct during the Meiji period as Western music and instruments became popular, until players such as Tsuruta Kinshi and others revitalized the genre with modern playing styles and collaborations with Western composers.
- Hogaku – Japanese Traditional Music:
The characters together are thought to be an abbreviation of the term 本邦音楽, which literally means “music of Japan.” The term Hogaku is also derived from 近世邦楽, which translates as “national music of modern times.” It is usually defined as traditional Japanese Music. Japan`s Ministry of Education classifies Hogaku as a category separate from other traditional forms of music, such as Gagaku (court music) or Shōmyō (Buddhist chanting), but most ethnomusicologists view Hogaku, in a broad sense, as the form from which the others were derived [Sosnoski 34].
- Gagaku – Japanese Court Music:
Gagaku literally means elegant music and generally refers to musical instruments and music theory imported to Japan from China and Korea from 500–600 CE. Gagaku is divided into two main categories: Old Music and New Music. Old Music refers to music and musical compositions from before the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618–906), and New Music refers to music and compositions produced during or after Tang, including music brought from various regions in China and Korea [Randel 339]. Gagaku was usually patronized by the imperial court or the shrines and temples. Gagaku ensembles were composed of string, wind, and percussion instruments, where string and wind instruments were more respected and percussion instruments were considered lesser instruments. Among the string instruments, the biwa seems to have been the most important instrument in gagaku orchestral performances.
- Shomyo– Buddhist Chanting:
Shomyo is a translation of the Sanskrit word, sabda-vidya, which means “the (linguistic) study of language”. Shomyo is a kind of chanting of Buddhist scriptures syllabically or melismatically set to melodic phrasing, usually performed by a male chorus. It is said to have come to Japan in the early 9th Century [Randel 270].
While biwa was not used in shomyo, the style of biwa singing is closely tied to shomyo, especially moso and heike style biwa singing [Matisoff 36]. Both shomyo and moso are rooted in Buddhist rituals and traditions. Before arriving in Japan, shomyo was used in Indian Buddhist. The mōsō-biwa was also rooted in Indian Buddhism, and the heike-biwa, as a predecessor to the moso-biwa, was the principle instrument of the biwa hoshi, who were blind Buddhist priests.
- Biwa Aesthetics:
Generally speaking, biwas have four strings. That being said, modern satsuma and chikuzen biwas might have five strings. The varying string thickness creates different timbres when stroked from different directions. In biwa, tuning is not fixed. General tones and pitches can fluctuate up or down entire steps or microtones [Dean 157]. When singing in a chorus, biwa singers often stagger their entry and often sing through non-synchronized, heterophony accompaniment [Dean 149]. In solo performances, a biwa performer sings monophonically, with melismatic emphasis throughout the performance. These monophonic do not follow a set harmony. Instead biwa singers tend to sing with a flexible pitch without distinguishing soprano, alto,tenor, or bass roles.
Biwa music is based on a pentatonic scale (sometimes referred to as a five-tone or five-note scale), meaning that each octave contains five notes. This scale sometimes includes supplementary notes, but the core remains pentatonic. The rhythm in biwa performances allows for a broad flexibility of pulse.The plectrum also contributes to the texture of biwa music. Different sized plectrums produced different textures.
- Yukio Tanaka:
He studied under the satsuma biwa master Kinshi Tsuruta, whose status he inherited as a leading figure of Japanese traditional music. His honours include First Prize at the Japanese Biwa Competition, the Minister of Education, Science and Culture Prize and the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) Prize.
- Kumiko Shoto:
Kumiko studied biwa under Mr.Yukio Tanaka and classical music at Tokyo College of Music. In 1998 she graduated from the 43th NHK Japan musical technician academy with first prize, in 2001 she joined the Japanese instrument orchestra Pro Musica Nipponia. In 2002 Placed 1st in the Japan Biwa Music Contest, won Ministry of Education Prize and NHK Prize. Since then she has been performing as one of the most acclaimed Satsuma Biwa players in Japan and abroad.