The Monsters of Shamisen rock, even though they're playing a traditional Japanese instrument, a three-stringed lute that's plucked with a plectrum that looks like an windshield scraper. The shamisen usually is heard playing traditional Japanese folk songs, and as accompaniment for kabuki and bunraku theater. It has an instantly recognizable single-note sound that's similar in tone to the banjo.
It's a folk instrument.
But the Monsters of Shamisen don't play just old-time folk music. You won't hear only a Japanese version of banjo-y, bluegrassy songs. Sure, you'll hear that, but the MoS puts their instruments to use on Western classical music, pop, and rock and roll (where else are you gonna hear Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" played on two shamisen?) European folk songs, and yes, bluegrass too.
Last night, two of the three Monsters, Kevin Kmetz and Mike Penny, performed at the King Center on the Auraria Campus in a concert sponsored by the Japan Foundation and the Consulate General of Japan in Colorado. (The third, Masahiro Nitta, is in Japan.)
The concert was too short. It was set up like a classical music recital, with two chairs on stage and microphones for the musicians to speak into and to pick up the sound of the shamisen as they strum and pick at the strings. After a brief introduction by the always affable Consul General Kazuaki Kubo, Kmetz and Penny walked to their seats and played straight through for an hour, with brief explanations of the songs.
Kmetz, who looks like a young Jerry Garcia, especially when he wears a tie-dyed shirt, grew up near Tsugaru, the epicenter of shamisen culture in Japan, while his father was stationed at the Misawa US Air Force base. At the time, he wasn't allowed to study shamisen because he's a gaijin -- foreigner. He persevered on his own, when he came back to the states and learned shamisen well enough to compete and become the first-ever gaijin to win the top award at Tsugaru Shaimsen competitions in 2005. Kmetz has a degree in composition from Cal Arts, and he's all about mashing up musical styles: he plays with his own group God of Shamisen, and also JS Bach Experience, Carne Cruda and Fishtank Ensemble, a Balkan Gypsy folk group.
Penny is the second foreigner to win an award at the national Tsugaru Shamisen Tournament, where he placed third in 2006. He splits his time between MoS and Shamalamacord, a duo where he plays shamisen with an accordionist. He's a former Fishtank Ensemble member.
The two have different playing styles that complement each other. Kmetz is flashier and likes to play fast runs up and down the fretless neck of the shamisen. He played most of the solos during the show. The Jerry Garcia image pops up again, with its loose improvisational approach.
Penny is more precise -- his fingers hammer down on the frets of his instrument like a machine. While Kemtz sometmes looks like he's sliding up to a note like a ballplayer sliding in to home base, Penny knows exactly where his fingers need to be and plants them down like fence posts. He more often plays the bass runs and repeating riffs while Kmetz plays around the notes.
Both play chords by holding down two or all three strings, and moving up and down the neck. The shamisen is usually played with a single string, or by plucking an open string for a droning effect while the melody's picked our on one of the other strings, so hearing the fuller chords and harmony notes from these two instruments was a cool experience.
Both are fabulous musicians, and they weave their talent together seamlessly. The slightly different playing styles makes them fun to watch -- especially when they turn the shamisen into instruments of multicultural musicality, and play Led Zep or Ventures (they played the instrumental oldie, "Pipeline"), or play from the classical canon (they impressed with Bach and Brahms) or just get funky and riff off each other the way only close musicians can.
Yeah, it's a folk instrument. But the Monsters of Shamisen rock it.
Here's their take on "Black Dog":
Here's the closing number, "Kita no Hibiki," a traditional Japanese song:
Check out both musicians' CDs: