Japanese Shamisen Player Takeharu Kunimoto and his Stringed Instrument, the Traditional Sangen

Takeharu Kunimoto is a Japanese musician who plays a traditional Asian instrument that is little known in Western cultures. This musical instrument is known as the shamisen or sangen.

It has three strings and is typically made of animal skin or plastic. Professional instruments, or those made for experts, are built using animal skin. This gives a different sound from plastic, which is generally reserved for students of music.

While the sangen may not be very popular in North America or Europe, it is well known in Asia. Some art, drama and music patrons are familiar with its use on stage. It has always served as an important part of theatre performances. For example, in Bunraku puppetry, it is not uncommon to hear the tones produced by the strings as they accompany a song or the spoken word.

If you don’t plan on attending a Bunraku performance anytime soon though, you still have a chance to hear the stringed instrument being played. There are several recordings available on YouTube. These cover more modern songs as well as ancient pieces by composers who have long since passed on.

Takeharu Kunimoto’s chosen instrument is also favored by the Yoshida Brothers. The brothers also have music available on YouTube that you can listen to and get an idea of more of what is possible when playing the sangen.

Takeharu Kunimoto and The Last Frontier

The Yoshida Brothers’ music is lively and attracts attention from a contemporary audience. If you really like their music, get yourself a copy of their songs on CD.

Yoshida Brothers Kodo Inside the Sun Remix

The two examples of shamisen players cited earlier have been men. However women also play this stringed instrument. Geishas in particular have usually been expected to be proficient at playing it. Numerous portrayals of women in Japanese art feature young girls or older women playing the sangen.

Takeharu Kunimoto’s instrument is used with musical styles that are considered more Western. The shamisen has found a place among the musical instruments that are utilized with bluegrass, rock and jazz. The instrument is considered to be a little more difficult to play than others in its category, because it does not have a fret. This makes it harder for the musician to find notes.

Kunimoto specializes in bluegrass music. He has spent some time studying it and is one of a few musicians who focus on playing bluegrass with the sangen. He spent a year in Tennessee honing his craft.