Yoshida Brothers at Yoshi’s Jazz Club

Thanks to a last-minute tip from Tokyo Mango via Twitter, a friend and I had the opportunity to see the Yoshida Brothers at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in San Francisco on Thursday night. The Yoshida Brothers are two actual brothers from Hokkaido who’ve made a name for themselves by taking a traditional Japanese instrument called the shamisen and fusing traditional style with influences such as rock and blues to create some really interesting stuff. Their 1999 debut album was very well received and they’re gone on to make several more albums and to tour around the world. You might have heard some of the Yoshida Brothers’ music on those Nintendo Wii commercials where two Japanese men go around playing Wii games with various Westerners, spouting the slogan “Wii would like to play.”

Just to give you a bit of background, the shamisen (三味線) is a three-stringed musical instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi, which is triangular in shape. The shamisen is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much much slimmer and it doesn’t have any frets. It has a drum-like rounded rectangular body with taut skin in the front and back (like a banjo), which amplifies the sound of the strings. I think that the shamisen has a wonderfully expressive sound.

Anyway, the live performance was great! We had seats in the front row of the upper balcony, which was a perfect vantage point from which to watch the performance. The Yoshida Brothers came out onto the stage wearing traditional Japanese hakama (sort of like long pleated skirts worn over a traditional kimono) and sat down while playing (as in the videos in this post). They were also accompanied by a fantastic (and hilarious) drummer who made use of a wide variety of percussion instruments (drum kit, taiko drums, conga drums, sleigh bells, windchimes, etc.) during the course of the show–he also chose to dress modern, complete with requisite knit cap and sunglasses. Anyway, they were quite fun to watch, and they were careful to incorporate a wide range of different songs so the audience wouldn’t get bored by the potentially droning sound of the shamisen. The brothers themselves were fairly charismatic performers–the younger one in particular looked like he should have been rocking out on an electric guitar, and he had some great facial expressions to match. There were also cute little bouts of talking, where one brother would pick up the microphone and, in a distinctly Japanese accent, say adorable things like, “I’m Ryoichiro. I’m the younger brother. We’ve been brothers for a long time, but we’re also competitors. Tonight, you will see who is better. Please enjoy.” It was a great time, and if you’ve got any interest in traditional Asian music, this is probably the most palatable introduction you’ll ever get.

As a side note, Yoshi’s is a great place. If you’ve never been, I definitely recommend it. It’s a sushi restaurant and an amazing sushi restaurant all rolled into one. Patrons are seated at tables during the show–you can purchase general admission open seating tickets or reserve specific seats if you do so enough in advance–and you can even order not terribly expensive food and drinks to be served at your table during the show. Plus, it’s got great history. Yoshi’s began in 1973 as a small, North Berkeley sushi bar owned by three struggling students. Its founder and namesake, Yoshie Akiba, was orphaned during World War II and came to the U.S. to study fine arts, dance and dance therapy. The original 25-seat restaurant quickly became successful and by 1977 the three partners moved to a larger space on Claremont Avenue in Oakland and began introducing live music. Over the next 20 years, Yoshi’s built itself into one of the world’s most respected jazz venues. Yoshi’s relocated to Jack London Square in 1997, and a second location opened in the Japantown neighborhood of San Francisco in 2007. Here’s a shot of the interior that I took the other night:

Yoshi's Jazz Club, San Francisco
© 2010 kristi-san

And in case you’re curious and want to hear more, here are a couple more videos I thought were fun. This one emphasizes the more “rockin” elements of their style:

And this one is a bit more traditional: