Kyoto ‘Biwa Hoshi’ Musician: Kyokusei Katayama

Kyokusei Katayama is a master of the traditional Japanese musical instrument called the biwa. The biwa is a relative of the Western lute that made its way to Japan via the Silk Road.

Kyokusei Katayama was born in Ehime Prefecture (Shikoku) in 1955 and resides and teaches in Kyoto. He studied chikuzen biwa under Kyokusui Yamazaki (living national treasure), Kyokuzui Yamashita and Kyokkou Suga since 1977 and studied higozato biwa under Yoshiyuki Yamashika since 1990. He also studied shinnai (shamisen and narrative vocal) under Bunya Okamoto (living national treasure). Through a wide range of activities from traditional songs sung with the biwa, modern music, folk songs, jazz, interdisciplinary performance with dance, to music creation for plays, Kyokusei seeks new musical possibilities making the most of the sound particular to the biwa.

Kyoto Biwa Musician: Kyokusei Katayama

Kyokusei Katayama (片山旭星)

Kyokusei Katayama and Biwa Story
Kyokusei started playing piano when he was a primary school student. In junior high school, he was enthralled by The Beatles and The Ventures and played guitar and saxophone. During his university days he was a member of the Japanese traditional music society and played shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute).

After graduating from university, Kyokusei worked at a company in Osaka. At this time he became fascinated by the sound of the echizen biwa and started learning to play it. After 3 years he quite his job to devote himself to mastering the biwa. In 1987, after 10 years of practicing, he received a cassette tape from a friend in Kyushu. Upon hearing the tape Kyokusei thought, “What a thick, powerful and keen voice, the overall performance so moving!” It was the first encounter with the master higo-biwa player, Yamashika.

Echizen biwa songs and the music style is refined, but higo biwa does not have a set style. It sounded unconventional to Kyokusei and made him wonder how this kind of performance could be possible. To find out the answer, 2 years later he visited Yamashika’s house in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu. Kyokusei was 35 years old.

Kyoto Biwa Musician: Kyokusei Katayama

Yoshiyuki Yamashika

The 88 year old Yamashika was living in a simple one story house in a mountain village. Upon meeting, the very first thing he said was, “I don’t like echizen (biwa)” but when he saw Kyokusei’s gift of sake, he warmed up and eventually accepted him as a disciple.

Kyokusei then began to visit Yamashika’s house once every two months and stayed for 10 days at a time. He also looked after his needs, cooking, cleaning and doing laundry for him.

The higo biwa tradition does not have text books or written music because historically most of the masters were blind. The disciple must learn directly from the master. Kyokusei was eager to learn, however, Yamashika’s temperament was such that he only played biwa when he felt like it. If he start working in his garden, taking nap or watching his much loved sumo on television there was no chance to speak to Yamashika, much less hear him play. When the mercurial Yamashika did start to play Kyokusei rushed to record his music and annotated it in a method of his own invention. Kyokusei sometimes gave Yamashika sake, after drinking and in good spirits Yamashika often took up his higo biwa for long periods.

Yamashika never taught technique in words. He would bluntly and gruffly say, “I don’t play like that.” Once he said, “Don’t play without ‘iroke!” (iroke 色気: sexiness, sex appeal, tender passion, amorousness) Kyokusei asked, “What is iroke (in relation to the biwa)?” Yamashika’s reply was, “I don’t know.”

Yamashika lost sight in his left eye when he was four and his right eye was nearly as blind as well. He started learning biwa from his master when he was 22. Yamashika made his living traveling around Kyushu as a performer and minstrel. His life was exceedingly difficult and he lost 5 children to poverty. Once when Yamashika was teaching Kyokusei a song about a son and father being apart, he cried in front of him asking why father and child must be separated. Yamashika often told Kyokusei that it was not possible to make a living as a biwa performer, but he persisted. After World War II many blind biwa players became massage therapists but Yamashika persisted in playing the biwa. For Yamashika, to make a living was to perform.

Kyokusei sometimes felt that he did not have sufficient earnestness in his own performance, but once after a lesson, as they chatted, Yamashika murmured that they were both artists and masters of the biwa. It was 4 years after he started visiting his house. Yamashika was called ‘the last biwa player’ because he was the only person who could perform Oguri Hangan, a story that takes over 6 hours to perform. Kyokusei estimates that if Yamashika preformed the more than 50 stories he knew, it would require some two hundred hours.

Kyokusei Katayama was the only biwa performer to inherit Yamashiki’s lineage.

About the Japanese Biwa
The biwa came to Japan from China during the Nara period in the mid 700s. The biwa usually has four strings but sometimes five. The body, neck and frets are constructed of wood and the strings are usually wound silk. The strings are plucked with a huge plectrum made of ivory, bone or wood.

The biwa was a court musical instrument in the classical period and until modern times was played by wandering minstrels, called biwa hoshi in Japanese. The songs performed by the biwa hoshi included poetic stories and are considered by some to have fullfilled the function of disseminating news of other regions of the country.

Me and Kyokusei
A few years back, I produced an acoustic music concert series here in Kyoto, Kyokusei performed a number of times and we got to know each other. He played alone, traditional ‘biwa hoshi’ style (like in the photos below) and in an A-M-A-Z-I-N-G duo called Symbiosis with soprano saxophone musician Kosei Yamamoto. They do improve, biwa and sax – very, very cool. Speaking of cool, Kyokusei is one of the coolest, most handsome men I have ever met. I think that he easily could have been a rock star.

Last year a well known feature film music director visited Kyoto and asked us to arrange for him to meet some traditional Japanese musicians. Kyokusei kindly offered to give a private concert at my house. Our guests were moved, one literally to tears!

Kyokusei Katayama at Acoustic Cosmos

Kyokusei Katayama at Acoustic Cosmos

Kyokusei Katayama at Acoustic Cosmos

Kyokusei Katayama and Michael (and fans) at Acoustic Cosmos

One Response to “Kyoto ‘Biwa Hoshi’ Musician: Kyokusei Katayama”

  1. Fritz Robinson says:

    Can you tell me where I can obtain an antique Biwa plectrum? I have a Biwa and no plectrum.

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