Smooth as Silk
My first encounter with Matsutoyo Kai was a little over seven years ago. I first saw and subsequently performed with them playing taiko drums, at a new years concert. I’m sure I stood out like a sore gaijin (foreigner) but my focus was on playing the taiko drum, so during the performance the thought never crossed my mind.
I’ve always felt like a stranger in a strange land, when it comes to music, as I didn’t begin listening to music on my own until I was a junior in high school. I remember thinking it was a waste of time and that that time could be put to better use. A plethora of instruments and a studio later, I realize I was wrong.
I was attracted to Minyo music for a few reasons. The purity of the shamisen and musicianship, being the first. No effects, amplification, or tricks—just three strings plucked with what looked like a spackling knife. The simplicity of the drums and the lack of western drum gear was also a bonus. Lastly, I liked that Minyo utilizes the same call and response techniques as most western folk music, just without the improvisational freedom introduced by Black American Music such as Jazz and Blues.
Since my first concert with Matsutoyo Kai seven years ago, almost all the members I knew well have moved on and have [fortunately] been succeeded by a new group of formidable players. This alone is a testament to the staying power of Matsutoyo Sensei herself and the spirit of Minyo. There are many Japanese Angelenos but compared to what it could be, the sheer number of Japanese residents carrying on the tradition of this traditional music in Los Angeles is [sadly] dwindling.
Minyo requires an intense dedication and commitment, as well as an undying love for performance. One must learn to play the instruments, sing the songs, learn the language, and know how to wear and maintain their kimono. For those who are interested in enjoying Minyo but are not that gung-ho about joining a Kai of their own, there is always room for you in the audience!