Te Papa, Soundings Theatre
November 15 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

INTEREST for this show put on by the Japanese Embassy was so intense that its free tickets were snapped up within half an hour. The big queue at Te Papa before the performance suggested that many were hoping to sneak in too, that some foolish souls who had reserved tickets would decide not to show up. Those who weren’t able to obtain a ticket, or relinquished theirs, missed out on a pretty incredible performance by the Yoshida Brothers, two shamisen players from Noboribetsu, Hokkaido. The brothers, Ryoichiro and Kenichi Yoshida demolished the audience’s expectations with their music, their playing breathtaking in its execution and its virtuosity. And their sound was so playful and joyful, that it was easy to forget how impressive their control of rhythm, melody and harmony really was.

It was a minimalist stage set-up. Drums were set up in the middle, a mix of conventional rock-band drum-kit and other percussive elements, with two seats in the foreground, all in front of a backdrop which resembled a mountain. The two brothers came onto stage in traditional clothing, but their music was anything but staid or minimalist. The shamisen sounded like a banjo, and had three strings, but they were able to elicit a wide variety of sounds from the instrument. Through the brothers’ control, rhythm and plucking were often able to be simultaneously played, and allowed for considerable variation. They cranked riffs like the best metal bands, threw in chord progressions and harmonies that were positively classical, and structured their songs like pop songs or jazz pieces. They also played some music which contrasted with these Western traditions, melodic progressions which were unusual and dynamic, and referred back to the traditions of the instrument. Each brother would take turn to solo, and they’d play with loud/soft dynamics, repeated riffs, or particular inspired melodic ideas.

They were supported on a number of songs by Ippiki Takemoto who played percussion. At first he appeared a little tentative, simply mirroring the rhythm of the brothers, but he came into his own to provide polyphonic and interactive musings as the set progressed. By the time he played his final song, he was an integral part of the sound, and it was a shame the audience weren’t able to thank him in the way they did the Brothers. But the Yoshida Brothers were something else – their stunning performance the perfect showcase of an incredible instrument and irrepressible showmanship.