Followers of this blog who have been craving more biwa madness ever since that Junko Ueda post can finally relax. Kinshi Tsuruta (鶴田錦史, 1911-1995) is something of the grandma of the genre (doesn't have that ring to it that I was going for, but anyway), going as far as to create her own adapted version of the traditional lute-like instrument. Ueda was in fact one of her many female pupils. Admirers of Japanese cinema may have heard Tsuruta perform during the Hōichi segment of Masaki Kobayashi (小林正樹)'s classic movie 'Kaidan' (怪談, also transliterated 'Kwaidan', 1964). It was composer Tōru Takemitsu (武満徹) who got her to perform on that soundtrack, when in fact at the time she hadn't played for years. The thing is, she had decided in her twenties to go into business and make some money, so that by the time she was 50 or so she could play her instrument as she pleased for the rest of her life. And as it turned out she was 54 by the time 'Kaidan' needed soundtracking, so Takemitsu's invitation was just the spur she needed to get her back into the studio. Years later she worked together again with Takemitsu (who got over his distaste for traditional music thanks to her) on some of his compositions, the most famous one being 'November Steps'. Her playing shows some radical departures from classical practice; she rubs the strings and slaps the body of the instrument. Her voice is pretty awe-inspiring as well. I'm telling you, this old lady was not to be messed with.
Dig those specs.
This album (琵琶劇唱〜鶴田錦史の世界 or 'Biwa Gekishō - Tsuruta Kinshi no Sekai') presents three traditional pieces performed in the studio in October 1993, at the age of 82. There is 俊寛 ('Shunkan'), a prelude to the downfall of the Heike clan; 壇の浦 ('Dan no Ura'), which tells of the tragic final battle and the emptiness of the glory vanished in the sea; and 義経 ('Yoshitsune'), which describes three episodes in the life of the hero of Genji, rival clan to the Heike. These tales have been told many times before in various forms (noh, kabuki, bunraku, biwa music), but these readings breathe new life into them.
Original cover (1995); the white one is the 2005 reissue.
Tsuruta-san performed one more concert after this recording, but less than a week later suffered a cerebral infarction which left her bound to a wheelchair. She died two years later, when these recordings were released on King Records (benchmark of quality traditional music, unfortunately also synonymous with ridiculously high prices and scarce availability outside of Japan).
There is another late recording of Tsuruta on Ocora, but it has been out of print for years. If you see it in the second-hand bins, definitely pick it up. For now, enjoy this nice King release. Files tagged in Japanese. Scans included (half of the liner notes are even in English!). You're welcome.