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Shinnai Overseas Performance Tours 7: France – Part 1
Participating in the Avignon Festival: I

I’ve performed in America more than twenty times. I haven’t enough space here to write about my many memories of those tours, both good ones and bad ones. I’ll write about those interesting trips at some other time. In this issue, I’ll tell you about my performance tours in Europe.
I’ve been to about twenty countries in Europe, some of them twice, and I’ve performed in more than 25 places (including events held in schools).
My first performance in Europe was in France, in 1983. That was more than thirty years ago. It’s a long time ago, but my memories of it are vivid.
It was my first trip to Europe. I was young, and it made a strong impression on me. I still have a lot of delightful memories that I will never forget. It’s as if the nostalgic memories of experiences when I was young are pages floating by me.
It all began when our group of around ten shinnai performers and dancers landed in France in midsummer. From the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, we went to the newly opened station of the French bullet train (TGV). Jolting us about, the train took us to Montpellier in the south of France, on the Mediterranean coast near Spain. We went there, prior to our performance in Avignon, in order to perform at the Montpellier International Music Festival.
That was the beginning of our experiences, which could be described by the saying, “there is no rose without a thorn”.
I first experienced summer time (daylight saving time) in Europe. I was surprised at how late the sun set.
The Avignon Festival that we participated in is still held every July. However, for us, soon after arriving there, we had a calamity. When we were in the dressing room, because of the hot, dry weather, suddenly, with a loud sound, the skin covering of the shamisen body ripped apart. I hadn’t yet performed even once….
At that time, I wasn’t used to performing overseas, and I hadn’t brought anything that could be used for emergency repairs. Nowadays, when I go abroad, I take a role of white plastic packing tape in case the shamisen skin gets torn, but I didn’t have anything like that with me in Avignon.
How did I handle this problem? “Tonight is my first performance in France. What shall I do?”, I remember thinking……
The most special feature of the shamisen as a musical instrument is the skin that is stretched over its body (resonating body). Cat skin and dog skin are used. The strings are made of silk, and the plectrum (pick) is ivory. A string sometimes snaps during a performance, and the skin, which has a limited useful life, may loosen or get torn. Cat skin tears especially easily. When this happens before a performance, performers can get very flustered. I think that most shamisen players have had such an experience.
At present, it’s difficult to get skins for the shamisen, and I’m afraid that the day is not far off when we’ll be using man-made skins. In that case, a change in the shamisen’s tone quality will be inevitable. (I’ll get back to discussing the shamisen at another time.)
At that time in France, it seems to me that we fixed the shamisen skin with Scotch tape, and then we were able to use the shamisen in our performance.
Because the theme of that performance was kabuki dance, the main event was traditional Japanese dance, and the shinnai performance was an extra.
The three of us played shinnai nagashi on the shamisen, and I remember that I also performed Rancho. I think that the shamisen sound was all right because, with the three of us playing, we were able to conceal the torn places in the skin. Because the performance had started at 10 p.m., it was cool, but on that first day, because of the problems we’d had, I was in a cold sweat.
After that, we went by bus to Avignon, but the problem hadn’t been solved.
The body of the shamisen that I’d brought with me for this tour was capable of being replaced (the neck of the shamisen could be separated from the body) …… but I’d left the replacement body in Japan. I decided to call and ask to have the replacement body sent to me. Unlike now, making a phone call at that time was terribly difficult.
Somehow, the replacement body arrived safely at the Marseille airport, but then I had further trouble. The Customs official said that because the shamisen body was very expensive, I should pay import duty on it (but actually the body was a cheap one). I had to spend money in order to be able to get my own instrument, but it was inescapable. Various things happened, and then, finally, with the help of the Consulate General of Japan in Marseille, the matter was settled somehow.
To go to pick up the body, the three of us took the TGV to Marseille. En route, we stopped at Arles for sightseeing. In scorching sunshine, we visited the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater, and then we returned to Avignon.
I have a lot of memories from this performance tour. I’ll write about them in the next issue.

(From Kagurazaka Community Magazine, October-November 2015, issue #82)

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