Biwa

Besides the large parades and processions that involve all the inner city and the Gion area in Kyoto, there are many small events taking place in July that are somehow connected to Gion matsuri. For example, last week there was a biwa recital at one of the stages of Yasaka shrine.

A biwa is a traditional Japanese instrument, a type of lute, originating in the 7th century. It is associated with Benten, the Shinto goddess of music, poetry, and education, and has seen a revival in recent years.The biwa is a lute with four strings which are struck with a large triangular plectrum, and it is held so that the neck is pointing upwards, with the body resting on the lap of the player, who has to sit in seiza, a kneeling position. a woman playing on a biwaSo I went to the recital last week and found it very interesting. I had not expected it to be such a drawn out affair though; there were 11 players, each of them playing a song of about 15 – 20 minutes. Interestingly, the order of the artists was according to increasing proficiency (or years of training), with the two masters at the very end. Just as with the Noh, I did not have that amount of time or patience, so I left long before their performance, but next time I’ll know what to expect.

Also, I did not know that the players had to sing as well – I expected a purely instrumental afternoon and was quite surprised when the first song started. Once again, it was highly formalized, but I cannot say for sure whether the songs were traditional or modern Japanese – I did not understand much of them in any case. I found the recital very interesting, but it is not one of those things for every day, just like the Noh. Nevertheless I will try to catch another performance at some point in the future – knowing that I’ll have to arrive towards the end to hear the really good players.

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