Sanshin, the banjo from Okinawa

07 Oct 2016 in Discover Japan

Have you ever heard about sanshin, this unique traditional Japanese 3 strings banjo ?

Sanshin instrument

History let us know that the sanshin appeared about 600 years ago. This traditional string instrument can be found in the Ryukyu islands, an archipelago near Taiwan in the Okinawa prefecture. Its name may derive from the Chinese “sanxian”, a similar instrument brought over by immigrants in the second half of the 14th century. However, sanshin was originally reserved for entertaining the royal court. The instrument was eventually taken up by the general public, and remains very popular to this day.

Japanese sanshin

The sanshin’s shape is reminiscent of the banjo. It is composed of a small round voice box and a neck in a single piece that is about 60 cm long. The instrument could be manufactured of mulberry, rosewood or hibiscus wood, although ebony is often preferred for its acoustic qualities. The voice box is then covered with two python skins and sheathed with a band to hide the place where the skins are sewn together.

Sanshi player

Aside of  its unique shape the sanshin stands out by its use of three unique strings. Made from silk or nylon – for more modern versions – they produce unique sounds. Played in the G and B scales, the rather high-pitched notes are even more surprising when accompanied by a singer. Each afternoon, HOSHINOYA Taketomi Island invites a local artist to play the sanshin and sing in the hotel lounge. They often sing and play the same notes at the same time, which will invariably impress you. Do not miss it, the mastery of song and instrument is so astonishing!

Japanese sanshin musician



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