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World Music CD Reviews Asia & Far East

Agatsuma

By Derek Beres
Published August 1, 2005

Beams
Domo

The shamisen has had an interesting destiny. Originating in China, it reached Japan via Okinawa, first popping up during the Edo period (1603-1868) as backdrop for traditional kabuki theater. A one-meter, three-stringed lute-like instrument, it is the driving force of tsugaru shamisen, a style comparative to jazz due to its inherent improvisational textures. While revered in Asian classical circles, musicians like Agatsuma have taken it forward, melding its high-pitched, twangily melodic feel with digital jazz elements. Winning an All-Japan competition in the genre at age 14 in 1988, he's been forcibly active in spreading his muse to worldwide audiences. This enduring mission is highlighted best on Beams, his sophomore effort. An energetic album full of turns and swirls, Agatsuma tastefully touches with deft finger-plucking and admirable patience. Tracks like "Accustom" and the title track lull with hypnotic repetition, but he's best when leaning toward the melancholy, a trademark of Asian blues: "Fun" and "Solitude," the latter which had to be written after listening to Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us" a few hundred times.