Nobuko | The Biwa Performer
“The beauty of this instrument is not merely its tone, or its shape, but its ability to create visual scenes through its sounds. In ancient Japan, there was something called “katarimono ongaku”, or spoken music, the practice of accompanying oral storytelling with the music of the Biwa. So through encountering the Biwa, people can learn not just about the instrument itself, but the stories and words that have been passed down through generations in Japan.”
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Nobuko Kawashima’s practice studio is a spacious, warmly lit room covered wall to wall with carpet. A feeling of anticipation fills the room, and the moment Nobuko begins to play the biwa, a traditional Japanese lute, it’s like every particle hushes to hear this sound and make sense of its story.
The biwa is not Nobuko’s first love; She used to be an actress in love with musical theatre. Western style music was where she found comfort, beauty, and inspiration. While she became more familiar with Western music, she began seeing a gap in her knowledge of Japanese music.
“I am Japanese”, Nobuko recalled thinking, “but I am not familiar with the sound of Japanese traditional music”. As the realization settled in, she began paying more attention to the music of her culture. After meeting a biwa teacher, she was drawn into Japanese music and the biwa.
The beauty of the biwa is not merely found in its tone, but in its unique shape and its ability to tell a story through sound as well. In ancient Japan, stories were often performed aloud, accompanied by a biwa, known as “katarimono ongaku” or “spoken music”. These stories and languages of the music were passed down through generations in Japan.
Despite the biwa’s long tradition and history, biwa professionals are not widely recognized in the performing art world Nobuko envisions biwa eventually becoming recognized as a part of performing arts, where it can tell stories across all cultures and languages. She dreams of a day when biwa will be known and understood by more people.
Until then, Nobuko will continue telling her own story through her biwa and spread its haunting plots as far as its frequency will carry.
Author: Megan Liu