Preserving a piece of Japanese musical history

Published 26 May 2008

Yoshiyuki YamashikaAn academic from the University of New England has been recognised by the Japanese government for his efforts to preserve a crucial part of Japan’s musical heritage.

Associate Professor Hugh Deferranti spent four years researching and producing Rites and Tales with Biwa, an audio compilation of traditional stories sung and chanted to the accompaniment of the biwa (a lute-like traditional instrument) by Yoshiyuki Yamashika, Japan’s last great biwa minstrel.

Rites and Tales with Biwa won the Prize for Superior Achievement in Recording at the Bureau of Cultural Affairs’ 2008 Awards for Performing Arts.

Combining music, ritual and poetic recitation, Japan’s biwa tradition stretches back more than 1000 years, and biwa performers – invariably male and usually blind – were in demand for centuries as entertainers and religious celebrants. By the late twentieth century, however, biwa was a dying artform. Already in his 90s, Mr Yamashika was Japan’s last remaining active biwa performer when Dr Defferanti met him in Kyushu in the early 1990s.

“Most Japanese think of biwa players as something medieval. But here was a man who continued to make his living in this way until almost the end of the twentieth century,” Dr Deferranti said. “Since the 1970s, all sorts of people had been documenting him. He had been written about in dozens of books, and was the subject of TV specials and an award-winning documentary film. Yet, to my amazement, there were almost no recordings of him available anywhere.”

In 2002, Dr Deferranti approached the Japan Traditional Cultures Foundation (a sub-label of Victor Entertainment) with the idea of compiling a CD of Yamashika’s recordings. He was met with an enthusiastic response by the CEO , but knew even before he began that producing the CD would be no small task.

“There were maybe 50 people across Japan who had recordings of this guy’s stuff, and many of those were of poor quality. First we had to locate them, and get the permissions, and then we had to sift through them for a selection of pieces that would give a representative overview of his repertoire.”

This editing process took Dr Deferranti about two years; it would be another two years before Yamashika’s biographer, Riro Kimura, finished transcribing them. The CD was released in mid-2007, and Dr Deferranti said he was delighted when he was invited to attend an awards ceremony recognising the achievement in Osaka earlier this year.

“I was thrilled,” Dr Deferranti said. “When you have devoted the last 20 years of your life to Japanese culture, it is highly gratifying to get this sort of recognition of your work.”