BiwaVocab for Satsuma-Biwa

Sound Information System by Junko Ueda

A History: The Music of The Satsuma-Biwa (Tsuruta-ryĆ»)

The Satsuma-Biwa is a Japanese lute, which traditionally accompanies the story-telling. The Biwa in general, is a distant cousin of the European lute and guitar, the Arabic ud and the Chinese pipa. It is a pear-shaped string instrument introduced to Japan from mainland Asia since the 7th - 8th century period. After the period, the numerous styles of Biwa have been created in Japanese musical history.

The style of the Satsuma-Biwa is originated from the Satsuma -area, a region in southern Japan (the present-day Kagoshima prefecture in Kyûshû). In the sixteenth century, Lord Shimazu encouraged the warriors of the Satsuma clan to learn songs with a didactic content and to play a type of Biwa related to the ancient Môsô-Biwa. To produce a louder and more masculine sound, the instrument body was enlarged and made of a harder wood - a making which was survived in the present-day Satsuma-Biwa. At first, this instrument spread among the warriors who enjoyed recounting their heroic deeds. After the period, Satsuma-Biwa music entered in other social classes and they started playing and listening to the repertoires. In Meiji- and Taishô-period (1868 - 1926), this regional genre was still practised everywhere in Japan. However, by the end of World War II the Satsuma-Biwa had become scarce and the tradition seemed to end.

More recently, Ms. Kinshi Tsuruta restored the Satsuma-Biwa to favour, for example by interpreting compositions by the famous Japanese composer Tôru Takemitsu, like 'Eclipse' for Biwa & shakuhachi, 'November Steps' for Biwa, shakuhachi & orchestra, 'Voyage' for three Biwas, and brought the Satsuma-Biwa music into concert halls. A bigger concert hall situation, which was new for Satsuma-Biwa, demanded a bigger sound from the instrument. Traditionally, a Biwa was used to accompany the story-telling, so no real loud sound from the instrument was required. But, Tsuruta approached the Biwa music as an integrated art form of voice and instrument and regarded it as a pure sound syntheses. She started improving the instrument itself to create a bigger, deeper and balanced sound. The front board as well as the back board are thinned attentively, resulting in a bigger sound, specially for the lower strings. The plectrum is also considerably thinned, resulting in a pliable quality. This pliability creates a delicate expression in playing strings and a sharp percussion effect in hitting the body. The best quality of silk is chosen and a special attention is paid to the way of twisting the fibres. A thicker string is used for the lowest string and gradually thinner towards forth string. The fourth and fifth strings are the same. (Traditionally, the first string is the thickest and the rest much thinner, usually of the same thickness.) Like in pieces by Takemitsu, an extreme thick string is used for the lowest. And, also, a delicate attention is paid to the relation between the strings and Sawari.

Ms. Kinshi Tsuruta always showed a great effort and energy in her teaching, which she did mainly in Tokyo, but also in Kyoto. At first, she showed the student how to take care the instrument. Every lesson she inspected the instrument of the student, checking Sawari, the strings as well as the general conditions of the instrument. She spend quite a time for that. She told that a good instrument is not the one which sound on its surface, but the one which vibrates from the deeper inner side of the instrument. This sound will reach most far. She remarked the independent expressiveness of the instrument. In Tsuruta Biwa world, it is said that one of the highest aims of this music is to concentrate a musical world in one solemn sound. Nowadays, the “Satsuma-Biwa Tsuruta-ryû” is regarded as a most important genre in the Satsuma-Biwa history during the last century.

The part of story-telling in this music was also improved. In Tsuruta Biwa music, it is regarded that one of the most important elements of the story-telling is the voice and the breath which contain human thoughts, feeling and deep sense. The most impressive element is not the meaning of the words, but the sound of the voice and the timing of the breath.

We can regard a tradition as a continuous accumulation of efforts to create a refreshment through the time. And also, a tradition is a power to challenge the contemporary time. The expression which Ms. Tsuruta performed in her interpretations in traditional pieces as well as Takemitsu’s new compositions is certainly the opening for a new aestheticism in Biwa music.

More information about Biwa history, take a look at