Japanese Religious Biwa Music by Junko Ueda

Junko Ueda (born in Tokyo, Japan) is Japanese singer and satsuma-biwa player, presenting Japanese traditional biwa epic story telling and shomyo Buddhist chant. Ueda studied satsuma-biwa epic story telling with the Kinshi Tsuruta (Satsuma-Biwa Tsuruta-style) and Buddhist shomyo chant with Kôshin Ebihara (Tendai school). She studied composition (under Reiko Arima, Jôji Yuasa, Sei Ikeno) at the Tokyo College of Music. She has participated the project of Reigaku Ensemble (ensemble of reconstructed instruments from Shôsô-in Imperial treasure house of 8th century) directed by the Tokyo National Theatre, Japan.

Ueda has based in Europe and has been presenting biwa epic story telling as well as shomyo Buddhist chant concert in numerous situations and at music festivals. Her traditional biwa CDs “L’épopée des Heike” (CD650 VDE/AIMP Geneva) and “Satsuma Biwa” (ARN64577 Arion, Paris / Ethnomad, Geneva) received several prizes e.g. the Grand Prix du Disque, Academie Charles Cros, Paris and Choc Le Monde de la Musique, Paris. She has released her solo CD of shomyo Buddhist chant titled ‘Meditative Flowers’ (E-records, Granada, Spain).

Since 1995, Ueda has been presenting the shomyo chant workshop and lecture. In these events, participants enjoy exploring the 1200 year old shomyo melodies and its concept and seek the wisdom and power of the breath from this ancient tradition.


japanese biwa, junko ueda, terra magazine

The biwa is a string instrument related to the Arab ûd, the European lute and guitar, and the Chinese pipa. It was introduced to Japan from mainland Asia in the seventh century. A collection of ancient instruments brought from China (Tô era), including a beautifully decorated biwa, still exists in the Shôsô-in (Nara, Japan) which was the warehouse for the treasures of the imperial family of the eighth century. The biwa has been compared to the Shumisen, a mountain which, according to Asian (Buddhist as well as Hinduism) thought, rises in the center of the universe. The two acoustic holes in the sound board of the biwa represent the sun and the moon wishing to control the universe. The biwa was imagined to reflect the sound of the universe. Generally in ancient Asia, musical instruments were invested with metaphysical powers.

The style of the satsuma-biwa originated from the Satsuma 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’s 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. Around the turn of 20th century this regional genre was still practiced everywhere in Japan. However, by the end of World War II the biwa had become scarce. More recently, Kinshi Tsuruta restored the satsuma-biwa to favor, for example by interpreting Tôru Takemitsu’s famous composition for biwa, shakuhachi and symphonic orchestra, “November Steps”. Other types of biwa were created in response to the wished of certain performers. Today the satsuma-biwa and the chikuzen-biwa (which emerged in the late nineteenth century and is of a more feminine type) are the most popular ones.

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