Takeharu Kunimoto is a popular personality in Japan, where he performs on the shamisen in the traditional rokyoku style, and works as an actor, storyteller and narrator for children’s movies. He is also an accomplished bluegrass musician, both on the mandolin and on the shamisen.
The shamisen is a somewhat banjo-like instrument, native to Japanese culture, with three strings stretched across a small skin head. Takeharu has developed a fascinating style which draws heavily on Earl Scruggs’ banjo playing, though using a flatpick rather than fingers. He traveled to the US in 2003 to study in the bluegrass music program at East Tennessee State University, which is where he first attracted some attention in this country.
This next two weeks, he is again visiting in the United States, and touring with the bluegrass band from ETSU, The Last Frontier. Takeharu joins the band on shamisen, on a blend of familiar bluegrass songs and his own unique bluegrass instrumentals. They have shows in New Jersey this weekend, and in Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee next week before heading to Japan for two weeks of performances there.
This morning’s edition of The Roanoke Times has a story about him and this tour which can be accessed online.
Kunimoto heard bluegrass on a Japanese radio station as a teenager in 1973, and he saw the genre’s progenitor, Bill Monroe, during a tour of Japan the next year. Bluegrass has a small but passionate following in Japan, where several festivals bring as many as 100 Japanese bluegrass bands together.
You can find their tour schedule on Takeharu’s MySpace page, along with audio samples of his “Japanese banjo” playing. The shows are sure to be lively and entertaining, and worth your time if you live near one of their tour stops.