Review by Mike Adcock
Hazama is the second album from Mitsune, a Berlin-based band featuring an all-female trio of shamisen players who also provide the vocals, supported by double bass and percussion. Whilst it has its roots firmly in Japanese traditional music, Hazama presents a decidedly modern take on that tradition, not in its technology - the instrumentation is purely acoustic - but in its brazen eclecticism. The band members hail from Japan, Germany, Australia and Greece and that is reflected in their global approach to things.
"Hazama" (full video below)
The first sound we hear on the album, after a short intake of breath, is that of the small shinobue flute on the title track. The melodic figure is then repeated, with the addition of the three-stringed shamisen, then a rhumba rhythm kicks in and the action starts. And is it just me or is there a touch of James Bond in there somewhere? There's certainly a cinematic quality to several of the tracks here. In a further twist the piece closes with some dreamy vocal harmonising.
"Fusako no hula" (excerpt)
What is so endearing about this album is its sheer energy and rapid changes of direction, the unexpected shifts continually taking the music into new territory while at the same time remaining cohesive throughout. Nowhere is this more evident than on the wonderful 'Fusako no hula' which, in its take on the sound of Hawaii, also manages to conjure up echoes of Hank Williams, 50s doo-wop and the spirit of Dick Dale before concluding with a short rendition of an old Japanese song.
"Tosa Tango" (excerpt)
The Tsugaru shamisen used by Mitsune is a folk instrument from the north east of Japan, heavier built than the courtly version used in Kabuki theatre, with a more strident sound and with the three of them playing, sometimes in unison, it packs quite a punch. But this music is about contrast, about light and shade and there are also lyrical moments, particularly in the vocal sections. The percussion, while at times powerful and insistent, is nevertheless used sparingly, making its presence felt strongly in some sections and then holding back. Structurally this feels in keeping with the Japanese tradition, but the actual rhythms take us somewhere else entirely, though exactly where that is is usually ambiguous. What at first can feel like an African influence can then recall music from South East Asia, musical punning that defies attempts to categorize. With 'Tosa Tango' there's a clue in the title and the rhythm is unmistakeable, with some suitably melancholic soaring violin adding to the effect, though the substitution of a shamisen for a bandoneon tells us we are unlikely to be in Argentina.
There's another example of musical punning to be heard on 'Berlin Lullaby.' As if three shamisens didn't provide enough in the way of plucked strings, they've decided to include a banjo as well. Blending almost seamlessly into the sound it nevertheless brings in a different cultural reference when, after a rather beautiful slow melody sets things off, it helps to push things into a kind of bluegrass workout, until of course everything changes again. The more you listen to Hazama the more there is to discover and you may find the world of Mitune well worth investigating.