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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

The Japanese Shigin Vocal Tradition—and Electronics

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

I have lately become fascinated with a style of Japanese traditional folk singing called shigin. You’ve heard it before, I’m sure. It often comes up as part of the background sound or ambience of science fiction movies and anime films. Shigin is rooted in a vocal tradition around the chanting of poetry. The poems can span hundreds of years. They can involve any topics, from legendary wartime battles to love affairs or the pure appreciation of nature. Shigin was originally developed around the end of the Edo period, in the mid-1800s, and practiced by members of the samurai class. Shigin can be performed by a man or a woman and may be sung solo or accompanied by an instrument, which is usually a bamboo flute or koto. The singing style makes heavy use of vibrato and other expressive characteristics to give the singing its distinctive personality. While being a Japanese invention, it has been adopted by others from time to time, as you can hear in the background right now. The piece you are hearing is “Nuages” by Ryuichi Sakamoto as sung by the Algerian berber vocalist Houria Aïchi from the album Heartbeat in 1991. This struck me as a cross-cultural adaptation of Shigin singing and although not purely Japanese, I just had to share it.


I want to share this link to an informational video about the art of shigin which explains the history and characteristics of the music.


The first part of this program includes Shigin from vintage recordings that I’ve mixed with electronic music, also of Japanese origin. The middle portion features some contemporary Japanese artists who combine Shigin singing with electronically-flavored rock or instrumental music. Finally, the last section of the program features various experimental vocal techniques that are reminiscent of Shigin from groups such as After Dinner, Wha Ha Ha, and Otomo Yoshihide. Plus there are a couple of goofs by me, a track with an LP skip that I captured and remixed and a vintage recording of a traditional Japanese instrumental ensemble that I double tracked and then added delay and some droning tones. This all seemed appropriate for the theme of variations on the traditional Japanese art of shigin.


Please see the playlist for details about all of the tracks. You’ll see information about the electronic music that was mixed with the shigin recordings.

Episode 126

The Japanese Shigin Vocal Tradition—and Electronics



Track Time

Start Time

Introduction –Thom Holmes



1.     Mix of Susumu Yokota, “Saku” from Sakura (1999 Skintone) plus Abe Shũfu II, “Mount Fuji” from Music Of The Shigin: Chanting To Chinese Poetry (1975 Folkways). Album of electronic music from the late composer Susumu Yokota and a track from Folkways of Japanese shingin folk music.



2.     Mix of Shiro Michi,“マドンナの宝石 (Intermezzo From "The Jewels Of The Madonna)” from エレクトーン 名曲アルバム (Electone Masterpiece Album)(1965 Polydor). Plus a female shigin performer accompanied by koto from a Japanese collection of shigin singers (1973 Toshiba TY-40077), side 2, track 6. Shiro Michi, Shiro Michi, was a popular Japanese Hammond organist in the 1950s, and Electone artist from the 1950s-2000s since 1958. This track was performed on the Yamaha Electone.



3.     Mix of Shiro Michi, “ドナウ川の漣 (Danube Waves Waltz)” from エレクトーン 名曲アルバム (Electone Masterpiece Album)(1965 Polydor). Plus a male shigin performer accompanied by bamboo flute and koto from a Japanese collection of shigin singers (1973 Toshiba TY-40077), side 1, track 2.



4.     Mix of a fragment of Shiro Michi and shigin, which I have called “Shigin Skip Organ” because of the prominence of the LP skip throughout. “ドナウ川の漣 (Danube Waves Waltz)” from エレクトーン 名曲アルバム(Electone Masterpiece Album)(1965 Polydor) plus a skipping record of a male shigin performer with koto.



5.     Omoide Hatoba, “Alternative Funkaholic” from Kinsei (1995 Earthnoise).



6.     Omoide Hatoba, “Satellite Groove” from Kinsei (1995 Earthnoise).



7.     Neohachi, “Dog More Than Cat” from Lovecadio Hearn (2013 White Paddy Mountain). Neohachi is a Japanese female duo, formed in 2005 and featuring Lily (Shigin Vocals) and Elly (Synthesizers).



8.     Neohachi, “Eternal, Eternal, Eternal” from Lovecadio Hearn (2013 White Paddy Mountain).



9.     和楽器バンド (Wagakki Band), “Akatsuki no Ito”from    八奏絵巻(Wildflowers Scroll). Bass, 亜沙 (Asa); Drums, 山葵 (Wasabi); Guitar, 町屋 (Machiya); Koto, [箏], いぶくろ聖志(Ibukuro Masashi); Shakuhachi, [尺八], 神永大輔 (Kaminaga Daisuke); Shamisen, [津軽三味線], 蜷川べに(Ninagawa Beni); Taiko, [和太鼓], 黒流 (Kurona); Shigin Vocals, 鈴華ゆう子 (Suzuhana Yuko). Suzuhana Yuko provides the shigin vocals in this convergence of hard rock and traditional Japanese music. The whole outfit is outstanding but I like the pre-eminence of female musicians. For example, check out this Japanese video of Ninagawa Beni shredding the Shamisen. Here’s a 2023 performance by Wagakki Band featuring a vocal by Yuko.



10.   和楽器バンド (Wagakki Band), “Nadeshiko Zakura” from 八奏絵巻(Wildflowers Scroll). Bass, 亜沙 (Asa); Drums, 山葵 (Wasabi); Guitar, 町屋 (Machiya); Koto, [箏], いぶくろ聖志(Ibukuro Masashi); Shakuhachi, [尺八], 神永大輔 (Kaminaga Daisuke); Shamisen, [津軽三味線], 蜷川べに(Ninagawa Beni); Taiko, [和太鼓], 黒流 (Kurona); Shigin Vocals, 鈴華ゆう子 (Suzuhana Yuko).



11.   Shigenori Kamiya(神谷重徳), “ファラオの墓 (Farao (Pharaoh) No Haka)” from Digital Trip ファラオの墓 シンセサイザ ファンタジ (Digital Trip Pharaoh's Tomb Synthesizer Fantasy). Composed By, Synthesizer, Shigenori Kamiya (神谷重徳).



12.   Gagaku Shigenkai, Ryōō from Unesco Collection, A Musical Anthology of the Orient: Japan II (1962 Musicaphon). "Ryōō" was recorded in Tokyo in 1962. Shigenkai, was a traditional Japanese music ensemble attached to the Imperial Household Agency, playing flutes, drums, and string instruments. I did a remix of this, adding delay and some droning tones and then double-tracking the whole piece as a way to transforms these lovely, acoustic tonalities into an electronic mélange.



13.   Otomo Yoshihide (大友良英), “Film Maker From Kreuzberg,” from We Insist? (1992 Sound Factory). Turntables, Sampler, Tapes, Guitar, Otomo Yoshihide.



14.   After Dinner, “An Accelerating Etude” from After Dinner (1984 Recommended Records). Engineer, Producer, Voice, Synthesizer, Tape, Koto (Miniature 13 String, Taisho-goto), Plastic Flute, Percussion, Haco. Vocalist/lyricist-composer/multi-instrumentalist/sound-artist. Album compiled for the UK release from the original Japan records known as the Glass Tube LP and an After Dinner 7.”



15.   After Dinner, “Sepia-Ture II” from After Dinner (1984 Recommended Records). Alto Saxophone, Kaname Nakagawa; Arranged by, Y. Utsunomia; Bass, Drum, Miyuki Komori; Bass, Violin, Tadahiko Yokokawa; Koto (Taisho-goto), Yasushi Utsunomia; Snare, Masaaki Kawaguchi; Soprano Saxophone, Masaharu Ito; Tenor Saxophone, Seiichi Kuroda; Voice, Haco.



16.   Wha Ha Ha, “Keiro No Hibi” and “On The Floor” from 死ぬ時は別 (It’s Different When You Die) (1981 Better Days). The second part of this combination track is a different of “On the Floor” that is sung by Mishio Ogawa. The version I am most familiar with was sung by a man so this is a refreshing variation. Computer, Takafumi Fuse; Effects [Sound Effects], Fujio Akatsuka; Engineer, Kazuhiro Tokieda, Takafumi Fuse; Guitar, Shigenori Kamiya; Keyboards, Shuichi Chino; Percussion, Kiyohiko Senba; Saxophone, Voice, Akira Sakata; Voice, Mishio Ogawa.



Opening background music: Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Nuages” from Heartbeat (1991 Virgin Japan). Written by Sakamoto, the vocal is delivered by the remarkable Algerian singer Houria Aichi (2:15).


Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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