In the Audible Arts Studio, Robert plays my new samisen, using the traditional bachi or plectrum. Click the player below to hear Robert and Sammy going to town.
A couple of years ago, when I first began hanging out with the Mercer Street irregulars after a magical Clementines gig at The Room Upstairs in Princeton, W.Va., I fell in love. It was an odd love affair. She was ungainly. Thin. With an odd, twangy voice. She was Japanese, which added to her exoticism and allure. I was smitten. I had to have her.
Problem was, she was owned already. Robert Blankenship of the band Option 22, and co-founder of The Room Upstairs, played her all the time. “Robert,” I said. “WHERE did you get that samisen?” For that was her name – samisen (or also shamisen). You can call her ‘Sammy.’ She has three strings that produce a banjo-like twang. Courtesans in old Japanese society used to train on the instrument, as a means of entertaining their clients before the evening’s other entertainment. That was all I knew. I had to know more. I couldn’t wrest Sammy from Robert’s arms – he had, well, a fixation on her, too. He would lend her to me, but it was a fleeting thing.
Hence, I went to the Man, the man who had made Robert’s Sammy. The Professor, we’ll call him, a fellow of great accomplishment in both making music and making the instruments of music. Plus, The Professor is one of the few mature males who can get away with wearing a black bowler hat in the year 2010 and not look absolutely ridiculous. But that’s another story. So, I tossed the Prof two sawbucks as a measure of my commitment to the creation of something like Robert’s sammy. He demurred – this would take work. He had Other Things To Do. It Could Take Awhile. I said, Fine. I. Can. Wait. The sawbucks disappeared into his pocket.
Later, hungry for a little sammy action, I cut him a check, a bigger downpayment. This got his attention. He began work, e-mailing me photos of her creation. Then, the day came. He showed up at my house with her. She was done. Initially, I was intimidated. She was so exotic, so strange. I would run my fingers along her as she hung beside my Taylor Guitar on my guitar rack (they needed to get to know one another). Then, one day, I took her up.
There are many ways to love a samisen, literally scores of ways to tune her. I began by creating an octave between the bottom two strings, tuned to an F-sharp, with the top string raised a fourth above that. I am still getting to know how to play my sammy in my completely unlearned, non-traditional fashion. (If you want to hear a rocking, contemporary samisen-powered group, check out the Yoshida Brothers). But now that I have her (well, when I can get her away from Robert, who has a serious crush on her) we have much to learn together. Wish us well. Sammy will be showing up on some tunes we Mercer Street Irregulars are now cooking up. Stay tuned. Sammy is in the stadium.