Japan Beat: The Yoshida Brothers

You've probably seen them—two young, hair-dyed Shibuya types in kimono holding shamisen—in one of the many advertisements they've done since bursting onto the scene a few years ago.

But what you may not know is that these guys are for real. Exponents of the ancient Tsugaru shamisen folk music of northern Japan, Ryoichiro and Kenichi Yoshida have through their combined efforts revived an art form that was nearly comatose.
Until the Yoshidas came along, Tsugaru shamisen, named for the Tsugaru area at the northern tip of Honshu, was music reserved mostly for elderly musicians recalling bygone days. But when the Yoshida Brothers, who began studying the three-stringed shamisen as small children, began to improvise with an unseemly abandon on their instruments, heads started to turn.
The Yoshidas had begun studying the shamisen in their native Hokkaido at their father's urging, but it wasn't until they began working with Sasaki Takashi, a Tsugaru master, that they began to take a liking to the dog skin instrument. The most impassioned and evocative of the three main types of shamisen, Tsugaru allowed the Yoshidas to express themselves freely. "We play with our whole bodies and spirits," Ryoichiro told Asiaweek.
Devoting themselves as students to their instruments five to six hours a day, the Yoshidas swept contests as teenagers, coming to national prominence when a New Year's Eve concert was televised nationwide in 1997. Their first CD, Ibuki (Breath) sold more than 80,000 in 1999, a remarkable figure for a recording of traditional Japanese music, and the year 2000's follow-up, Move, sold equally impressively.
Meanwhile, the Yoshida Brothers have sparked a nationwide surge in interest in shamisen music. The year 2000's All Japan Tsugaru Shamisen Contest included 280 contestants, nearly 10 times the number of aspiring players two decades ago.

Ibuki and Move are available on Victor Entertainment. For more information see (Japanese).

Image: JVC Victor