Off Stage

A father's hobby becomes a son's career

Musician Hiromitsu Agatsuma first performed on the shamisen when he was six years old.
Musician Hiromitsu Agatsuma first performed on the shamisen when he was six years old.PHOTO: THE ESPLANADE

Musician Hiromitsu Agatsuma is a master of the shamisen, a three- stringed Japanese lute similar to the banjo. The 42-year-old, who picked up the instrument at the age of six, has released several albums of shamisen music and toured Europe and the United States.

He will perform at the Esplanade's Super Japan Festival in late May, blending the genres of rock, pop, jazz and traditional Japanese music. The Straits Times speaks to him in an e-mail interview ahead of his performance.

Do you remember your first performance as a shamisen player?

I played with some shamisen players at the local recital when I was six years old. I started to practise the shamisen because my father often played the tsugaru- shamisen (a larger shamisen with thicker strings) as his hobby.

I was interested in the shamisen, but my father didn't allow me to touch it at first because it is an expensive item. So I touched and played it sneakily, but he noticed it. I was sent for shamisen lessons after he recognised my interest.

There is no music score for shamisen. Therefore, we practised it by music dictation. Children can absorb things quickly, so in my childhood, I could master some songs in a day.


  • WHERE: 1 Esplanade Drive, Esplanade Recital Studio

    WHEN: May21, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $35 from Sistic (call6348-5555 or go to

    INFO: Go to

How do you prepare yourself for a show? Are there any rituals that you have?

I send my feeling of gratitude for having the chance to perform to my ancestors and my staff before a show. By this, I don't mean that I do it like a ritual or a prayer. I go on the stage feeling thankful to my ancestors and crew. It's just in my mind.

What do you do when you make a mistake on stage?

I try to calm myself, not be agitated and think about the next melody and the next situation.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while you were on stage?

I was deeply moved by the thunderous cheers when I played a solo of Japanese folk songs in front of an audience of 20,000 in Colombia in South America.

What is the beauty behind the shamisen? How is it different from playing other instruments?

The big difference with other instruments like the violin and guitar is its tuning. Players hold the bachi (a plectrum) with their right hand, and strike the shamisen body with it like a percussion instrument to create the sound. The playing style is very unique for stringed instruments. And the beauty of shamisen sound is the unique rhythm and the melody.

Do you get any post-show food cravings? Where do you go?

I don't get post-show food cravings, but I always look forward to going out for drinks with my band members and crew after the performance. I look forward to having the local food and drink when I perform abroad.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'A father's hobby becomes a son's career'. Print Edition | Subscribe