Birthday: November 1, 1960
Birthplace: Chiba, Japan
Main Instrument: Shamisen
Main Style: Bluegrass
Tears of the Samurai song sample
1 Tears of the Samurai
2 Gonna Paint the Town
3 No Use to Cry
4 Nanny Goat
5 The Next New Hartbreak
6 Cry from the Closs
7 Hikyaku's Love
8 The One Who Leads Me Home
9 Alcatraz Island Blues
10 I Live in the past
11 Chinese Caravan
Appalachian Shamisen (2004)
1 Appalachian Shamisen
2 Are You Missing Me
3 Tiger Creek
4 Lonesome Dreams
5 Lonesome Yokocho
6 It Was Your Love
7 Eureko's Breakdown
8 I'll Never Shed Another Tear
9 Ninja Rag
10 Little Girl And The Dreadful Snake
11 Earl's Medley
12 This World Is Not My Home
13 Dream of A Geisha
14 Pray For Asia
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Takeharu Kunimoto Interview
But no ordinary bluegrass player, for when Kunimoto traveled to the hill country of Tennessee to learn his chosen music from the masters themselves, he brought with him the traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument, the Shamisen, and ushered in a new type of music blending the sounds of East and West.
On January 4, 2009 Takeharu Kunimoto was kind enough to give an interview to Andrew from J-Pop World. All photos courtesy of Takeharu Kunimoto and The Last Frontier.
Let's start with life before bluegrass. Can you tell us a little about your life before high school? Were you a shy kid? Outgoing?
I wasn't a shy boy, but felt uncomfortable around strangers. I could get on with people I liked, but not with just anybody.
What was the neighborhood you lived in like?
There was an old temple and an elementary school nearby. It was the country, but no mountains.
What kind of music did you listen to back then?
I listened to cartoon songs on TV when I was in elementary school. After I entered junior high, I got to know rock and pop music from friends. I bought a very cheap acoustic guitar when I was 13.
How did you first discover the world of bluegrass music?
When I was standing and reading in a bookstore after school, this shocking music came on from the in-store FM radio. I instantly picked up a magazine there to check the program and found it was music called bluegrass played by Bill Monroe. The song was Bluegrass Breakdown if my memory is correct.
Some people have their life's course altered by a single event. Can you tell us how you came to attend Bill Monroe's concert in Tokyo when you were 14?
After hearing the shocking music at the bookstore, "bluegrass" and "Bill Monroe" were always in my mind. As I got information that he was coming to Japan for concerts, I checked out the venue, took trains and arrived at the hall 4 hours before the show. Of course no one was there yet, but soon Bill Monroe and Kenny Baker, his fiddler, came there for rehearsal. I luckily shook hands with Bill.
What affect did the event have on you?
By shaking hands with Bill Monroe, I came to believe I was fated to play the mandolin. I started saving my allowances (sometimes I got money from my grandma by massaging her shoulders) and finally bought a mandolin. The guitar I got first didn't do much for me, but as for mandolin... I listened to bluegrass so much that the records wore off. I copied songs and made rapid progress.
Did you take classes?
There was no one around who played bluegrass or even knew what bluegrass was at the time. I practiced the mandolin by copying songs from records, and one day I got a detailed text book for mandolin at a music store in Tokyo. It was a book written by Mr. Jack Tottle who would help me at East Tennessee State University 30 years later.
Tell us about the bluegrass band you played in during high school.
I first formed a band with one of my friends, but we only copied songs of Monroe Brothers as bluegrass cannot be played by 2 people. Then another member joined and we started a bluegrass band with guitar, mandolin and banjo. The lyrics to bluegrass songs are all in English and no one, including us, could understand the meanings. Therefore we started playing Japanese songs of different genres as well as theme songs of samurai TV dramas so that elderly people could enjoy our shows.
You were finally led to the shamisen, the traditional Japanese three stringed instrument. What type of professional training did you receive?
I first took lessons for Tsugaru shamisen, the same as Yoshida Brothers, when I was in high school, but quit in about a year. When I decided to enter the world of rokyoku, I realized the necessity of shamisen skills and started taking lessons for rokyoku shamisen.
What exactly is rokyoku?
Rokyoku is a traditional Japanese genre of storytelling with singing accompanied by the shamisen. There are no strict rules of performance, unlike other traditional music in Japan. Free script, free melody and free shamisen. Rokyoku was very popular up to 50 years ago, but the numbers of rokyoku performers and their audiences have decreased with times. I'm afraid it is not very popular nowadays.
Btw, what do you think of the Yoshida Brothers?
They are great artists who have been disseminating the shamisen, a unique Japanese instrument, around the world. Tsugaru shamisen is an especially unique music which used to be heard only in a certain area of Tohoku region in Japan. However, great shamisen players emerged successively and they made various efforts and added new twits to the music. Now Tsugaru shamisen is so popular that most young people learning shamisen want to be professional Tsugaru shamisen players. Yoshida Brothers are literally their leaders.
In 2000 you started performing in the musical Pacific Overtures. Tell us about the show and the influence it had on your life.
I participated in the musical and performed in Japan in 2000 and in New York and Washington D.C. in 2002. When I performed in the U.S., I experienced a standing ovation from the whole audience for the first time in my life. I was deeply shocked by such an enthusiastic reaction and came to think about studying performance in the U.S.
The Japanese Ministry of Education in 2003 appointed you their "Special Advisor for Cultural Exchange." How did that come about?
Since the musical, I became eager to study music and performance in the U.S. and applied for the overseas study program of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. The Agency was just making a new program called "Special Advisor for Cultural Exchange" and offered me the position. It was a great honor and I accepted it.
Where did you decide to go and why?
The musical made me want to go to the U.S., but what I was actually good at were shamisen, rokyoku and bluegrass. While I was searching for a place most popular for bluegrass, one of my friends told me about the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University. He also told me that the director of the program was Jack Tottle, the writer of the mandolin textbook I bought when I was in junior high! I still believe it was fated that I study at ETSU.
Tell us about the time you spent at East Tennessee State University.
My English skill was not very good (still not good now), but I took various bluegrass programs and storytelling classes that are unique in the Appalachian area. I also performed on many stages as a member of the ETSU Pride Band as well as a traditional Japanese storyteller.
How did you form the group "The Last Frontier" and what kind of music did you want to play?
Members of the ETSU Pride Band got together and Ken Thomas, a graduate of ETSU, joined as a bass. As it was the world's first bluegrass band with shamisen, I wanted to add a taste of Japanese melodies.
Tell us about writing and recording the music for their first album "Appalachian Shamisen."
While focusing on traditional bluegrass, I also selected various tunes of Japanese melodies with shamisen and original songs by other members. The tunes I wrote have Japanese and Asian tastes.
What was the atmosphere like during recording sessions?
We did recordings at the studio made in the barn located in the typical countryside in Tennessee. I had experienced recordings many times in Japan, but it was the first time for me to make a circle and record all together. Compared with a recent recording style with lots of dubbings, it was more enjoyable. I could feel the groove and power of the music directly.
Do you have a set process for writing music or is each song different?
There is no set process for writing music. As far as songs for shamisen, I usually come up with melodies when I was playing. Basically I don't write music unless I am pushed by something.
In 2005 the band took to the road performing throughout Japan. What was that experience like?
Bluegrass is not at all popular in Japan. Maybe most of the audiences at our shows heard bluegrass for the first time in their lives. However, their reactions were amazingly enthusiastic for Japanese audiences. I felt they were reminding me how wonderful the music I have loved is.
What did the other band members think of touring in Japan?
They enjoyed the enthusiasm of the audiences. They were also surprised that Japanese food is so good.
Of all the performances you've given during your career, what standout most in your memories?
When I played "Appalachian Shamisen" in the U.S., the audience gave me a standing ovation in the middle of the show. It was the first time for me to receive a standing ovation in the middle, not at the end of a show. I did not know what to do. I asked the other members and they simply told me to play the same song once more. It seems to be natural in the U.S., but not in Japan. I was really surprised and still remember that.
Your next album was called "Sushi & Gravy." How does the music compare to your first album?
The direction of the music is almost the same as "Appalachian Shamisen," but the originality may be stronger.
Tell us about the song Tears of the Samurai.
I expressed the manfulness and grief of the Japanese samurai. The stronger the samurai is, the more weakness he has. That's the beautifulness of samurai, I think.
What have you learned about music and life from your other band members?
Thinking about their age, they could be my children, but are all grown-ups and professional. I think I learn from them a lot more than they do from me, although I am a professional artist in Japan.
Are there any other musicians you'd also like to collaborate with in the future?
No one in particular. I'm interested in instruments and music from around the world. I want to try how my voice and shamisen react or fit in with various types of world music.
Can you tell us a little about Mr. Eiichi Sumi and what role he plays in your musical life?
I first ordered a mandolin from him several years ago. Now most of the instruments the members of The Last Frontier have are made by him (except shamisen, I'm afraid). I recently got a guitar made by him. He is a great maker who has an inquiring mind and fine sense.
What do you think of music in Japan today?
In Japan, people tend to listen to commercial popular music rather than traditional Japanese music. However, the real good music is often somewhere else, I think. I'll work toward the trend that people listen to music not just because it is popular, but because it is good music.
We've saved the big question for last. What does bluegrass music mean to you?
It's an important music that has broadened my life from Japan to the world. Not only my activities, but also the existence of the shamisen, I mean. It's my roots in music and blood that flows in my body, the same as rokyoku that came down from my parents.
Do you have a final message to all your fans?
Neither rokyoku nor bluegrass is a major genre of music, but both have got lots of excitement you have never felt. I hope this will be the opportunity for you to try listening to these great music genres.
For more info about Takeharu Kunimoto and The Last Frontier checkout their official site and MySpace page. Leave your comments about this interview and read what others had to say at the following link: Interview Comments