Japanese music has had a large array of influences ranging from China, Korea and even the West. Rich and distinctive in nature it places large emphasis on pentatonic, monophonic and non-harmonic styles of music. Japanese traditional folk singers can be found throughout the country, playing several styles of folk music and classical music. While Japan may have a culturally rich heritage of folk music, it is extremely complicated and intertwined due to its small regional states.
Min’yM or Japanese folk songs are categorized into four main categories: work songs, religious songs, children’s songs known as warabe uta and songs sung when communities gather on different occasions such as festivals, weddings, funerals and others. Japanese folk singers are often accompanied by the three-stringed lute called the Shamisen, the hand drum Tsuzumi, the Taiko drums and the Shinobue also known as a bamboo flute. Today Japan’s Enka singers perform traditional folk songs with modern instruments like electric guitars along with traditional instruments.
Common Min’yM phrases such as bushi, bon uta, ondo, are commonly spoken. They consist of different beats and can commonly be heard at many Obon festivals. From unique melodies to distinct swing characteristics, Japanese folk songs are still an integral part of Japanese children’s curriculum in school. Japanese folk songs are still traditionally passed down from one generation to the next. Common Japanese folk songs which can be taught to children of any culture include the counting song, the moon and the rabbit and the turtle.
Another popular folk song is the flower straw-hat song known as the Hanagasa Ondo played at local community gatherings called Hanagasa Odori. Movements of this typical swing ondo rhythm are typically for women, but men are also encouraged to join in. However dance steps may vary for each sex. Sakura Sakura also known as Sakura elaborates on the season of spring. Sung at many international gatherings as a song representing Japan, “Blooming Cherry Blossoms” has had many renditions but Michio Miyagi’s interpretation is often regarded to be the best of them all. In 1976, Cat Stevens used the melody of Sakura in his live version of ‘Hard Headed Woman’.
Japanese folk songs ideally emerged from villages and small towns and were popularized by people living in cities trying to retain some of their culture. Today many folk songs have been commercialized and redone countless times making them highly different from the original which were once sung in different regions of Japan. Yet these traditions are being sustained and continued largely due to the efforts of the musicians’ guilds and due to various folk traditions throughout the country.
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