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Franz Navar­rete

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY FRANZ NAVAR­RETE

With eyes closed in peace, Niya en­joys the winds whistling through the slop­ing hills of Rebun Is­land. In syn­chronic­ity, he plucks the shamisen he’s ex­pertly cradling, bring­ing life to the beat of his soul. Niya fell in love with Tsug­aru shamisen as a young boy in Yag­ishiri. Buoyed by his pas­sion for his craft, the young mu­si­cian left his home in the

re­mote is­land of Teuri to build a ca­reer in the big city of Sap­poro. This hero’s jour­ney par­al­lels the hum­ble be­gin­nings of Tsug­aru shamisen. Its rise to ac­cep­tance was an up­hill strug­gle. The first per­form­ers of this in­tri­cate art were blind

men who went door-to-door play­ing their mu­sic, hop­ing for char­ity. De­spite be­ing shunned for ‘beg­ging’, the first play­ers per­sisted and passed the art on to blind chil­dren. It was these chal­leng­ing times that be­came the cru­cible that shaped the unique tex­ture and sound of Tsug­aru shamisen. Now known as the ‘jazz of Ja­pan’, it re­quires cre­ative

im­pro­vi­sa­tion—the true mark of a tal­ented mu­si­cian.


The stac­cato beat thumped, thumped, thumped in the court­yard as a group of se­nior stu­dents per­formed in front of their mid­dle school au­di­ence. The crowd cheered and clapped,

and the tra­jec­tory of a young girl’s life was set. Yayoi spent the walk home think­ing about the per­for­mance—the look, the feel,

the sound that re­ver­ber­ated on the pave­ments of Osaka. The de­sire to be­come a pro­fes­sional dancer did not fare well with her par­ents, how­ever, so Yayoi at­tended lessons in se­cret. And, as if liv­ing out a teen dance movie, Yayoi snagged a spot in

all-girl idol group, Rhyth­mic, af­ter eclips­ing dozens of other per­form­ers in Tokyo. With her bur­geon­ing ca­reer in the big city, Yayoi will of­ten seek so­lace in Chiba to re­con­nect with sim­pler roots. Here in this quiet space, un­adorned by the bells and whis­tles of the high life, is where Yayoi re­dis­cov­ered

her­self. And it was here that she de­cided to pur­sue a solo ca­reer as an R&B artist. Yayoi’s so­journs to Chiba re­con­nected her to her first love—rhythm and blues. As she ex­pands her mu­si­cal­ity, she be­gins to grow her song­writ­ing skills as well, bring­ing forth a new level of artistry in her ca­reer.


Niya en­vi­sions shamisen played in pop mu­sic just like other stringed in­stru­ments. He’s work­ing on bring­ing out Tsug­aru shamisen from be­hind the cur­tains of fes­ti­vals and

spe­cial oc­ca­sions and to the fore­front of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic. This dream may be seen as am­bi­tious as con­quer­ing the peak of Mount Rishiri but Niya will per­sist. He is a be­liever of Ja­panese mar­tial arts phi­los­o­phy Shu Ha Ri, which, in con­cept trans­lates to Pablo Pi­casso’s ‘Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them

like an artist’. And he in­tends to do just that.

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