BiwaVocab for Satsuma-Biwa

Sound Information System by Junko Ueda

The Instrument Satsuma-Biwa

It is said that the musical characters of the Satsuma-Biwa are its lively and soul-stirring expression, like striking strongly the body of the instrument with the plectrum, on the one hand, and the delicate and most subtle expression, controlling the sustain-sound with fine motion, on the other hand. These characters are closely related with the instrument construction.

The male expression is a result of the percussion playing technique. The hard and thick wood for the front board of the Biwa, and the large plectrum of hard and flexible wood make this expression possible. The fingers of the left hand are placed on the strings and in-between the high frets (about 25 mm till 45 mm). In this way it is possible to control the tension of the strings constantly, resulting a fine sound expression.


The Main Body

The Satsuma-Biwa is a pear-shaped lute. Its body consists of two pieces of wood which are glued together, leaving a narrow air chamber. The front board is called 'Hara-Ita' or 'Omote-Ita', which literally means Stomach Board or Front Board. It is made out of the hard Mulberry wood and is slightly curved, which allows the player to use the 'Bachi' (plectrum) to strike the body. The back board is called 'Ura-Ita' made out of the Mulberry, Karin or Zelkova. Three acoustic holes are drilled into the front-board. The two of them are camouflaged by moon-shaped ivory or silver plates, so-called 'Han-Getsu' (half moon) or 'Mikazuki' (crescent).
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The third acoustic hole is located under the bridge (Fukuju), called 'In-Getsu' (hiding moon).

The Gen or Ito (strings)

The five strings of the Satsuma-Biwa (the top strings are double, originally there were four strings) are made of silk fibres plied together with rice paste. The strings are tuned in a pitch chosen by the performer according to the range of his/her voice. Melody-lines are played on the thin double top-string. The bottom-string is the thickest and is usually used as an open-string drone.
The strings are tied by a special knot to a whole in the bridge or 'Fukuju'. These holes are called 'I-no-Me' (literally wild boar's eye) and are camouflaged by ivory. On the top side of the instrument the string are connected with tuning pegs or 'Ito-Maki'.

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The Fukuju (bridge) and strings. On the right the Tenjin.

The top of the neck is bent 90 degrees backwards, giving the instrument its 'crane-neck' characteristic and is called 'Tsuru-Kubi' or 'Kaku-Shu' (literally crane neck). The bent part of the neck is called 'Tenjin' (heaven god). The top-end of the Tenjin is decorated with a shape called 'Ebi-O' (shrimp tail). The block, located where the neck is bent 90 degrees and which is guiding the strings, is made out of ivory and called 'Ito-Kuchi' or 'Tori-Kuchi' (mouth of the string or mouth of bird).

The Chû (pillars or frets)

To control the tension of the strings, consequently the pitch, the left-hand fingers are placed on the strings and in-between the 'Chû' (literally pillar). The five Chû are extremely high (about 25 mm till 45 mm) and wide (about 12 mm). Width is necessary to create the special buzzing effect called 'Sawari' (a similar effect is known from the South Indian vina). The height allows for controlling and varying the tension of the string by pulling, pressing or loosening the string in a most flexible way. The highest located Chû (fret) is called the 'Kan-no-Chû'. This fret is made out of ivory. The Chû 2, 3, 4 and 5 are made out of a special wood called 'Hô-no-ki'. On top of each fret is a harder wood (usually cherry-wood), so it can resist the pressure of the string and sustain the vibration.

The neck and the five Chû's

The Bachi (plectrum)

The strings are plucked with the sharp top angle of the triangular 'Bachi' (plectrum), which is held in the right hand. The Bachi allows to produce a wide variety of dynamics and timbres, as well as arpeggios and scraping effects. Likewise, the Bachi may be used to strike the body of the Biwa. The fan-shaped Bachi of the Satsuma-Biwa is the largest plectrum in Biwa music. It is made out of the rare boxwood from Ibusuki (in the south of Japan, Kyûshû), which should dry for more than ten years to possess both hardness and flexibility. The part you hold the Bachi is called 'Bachi-O' (tail of Bachi), the base of the triangle (about 25 cm till 27 cm) is called 'Suso' (hem), the two sides of the triangle are called 'Fuchi' (edge) and the two angles are called 'Boushi' (cap).


The Sawari

'Sawari' is certainly one of the most important sound effects of the Satsuma-Biwa. The wide fret or Chû located directly below the left-hand fingers, when depressing a string, doesn’t touch the string at one clear point (like on a guitar). This makes the string ‘clatter’ over the fret, creating the Sawari. A similar buzzing sound effect is known from the South Indian Vina. For performing the Sawari with a refined sound colour, you need a specific treatment on the frets, cutting the flat surface of the fret with a special knife. This work is called 'Sawari-o Toru'. The wood of a fret is relatively soft, so after every performance, one needs to refine the surface of the frets. This work of 'Sawari-o Toru' requires a delicate attentiveness and experience. The sound colour, the volume and the sound sustain of the instrument are changed significantly depending on the way how you work on cutting the surface of the frets.

How Sawari is created

The "Two-Parts" Biwa

This story explains some of the history of how a two-part Biwa has been created as a result of problematic air plane transport. Most of the time, a Biwa is transported in a soft-case. However, especially when travelling by air plane, this can be quite risky. For that reason, the author of the Biwa Vocab, Junko Ueda, developed a hard case.

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The first hard case of Satsuma-Biwa

Nowadays, with air travel regulations getting stricter, also this hard case was refused aboard and created lots of complicated discussions. To solve this, Junko Ueda worked on the project to create a Biwa in two parts, so that it can fit into a square box which can be checked-in when travelling by air plane without risk. Actually, in old times there were some type of two-part Biwa, however these instruments had the problem that they could not be played immediately after setting up. Silk strings simply need a certain time to stretch and to accommodate to the tension. Because of the tuning problem, the two-part Biwa has disappeared.

However, since the tuning problem can be overcome by setting up the instrument well in advance, Junko Ueda asked the Satsuma-Biwa builder Mr. Katsuo Ishida to build a two-part Biwa. As you can see on the photo below, the Biwa has been separated between the main body and the neck. The parts now can fit into an airtight and waterproof case which can be checked-in without risk.

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Inside of the hard case: on the left the main body, on the right the neck.

The hard case