Playing Music in Africa: The Audience Listened, Breathlessly

Hiromitsu Agastuma (Tsugaru shamisen) and Satoru Shionoya (piano)
Interviewed by: Momoko Ouchi (The Japan Foundation)

The Japan Foundation presented the AGA-SHIO + Music & Rhythms Tour in June 2010. AGA-SHIO is a duo comprised of Tsugaru shamisen player Hiromitsu Agatsuma and pianist Satoru Shionoya and the tour took them to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of South Africa. 2010 was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the DRC and Japan, and the centennial anniversary of the start of bilateral relationships between South Africa and Japan. The duo also held music workshops with local children in both countries. AGA-SHIO talked about their African tour and shared their thoughts about international exchanges through music while reflecting on their past musical activities.


Excited Yet Anxious On Performing in Africa

OUCHI: AGA-SHIO performed three times in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and once in the Republic of South Africa. Was this the first time for you to go to Africa?

DSC0202.jpgSHIONOYA: I've been to Cairo once as part of the European tour, but this was the first time I set foot in the heart of Africa. It was exciting imagining what it would be like. Obtaining information about another country via the Internet is easy enough but it doesn't become personal unless you visit the country, breathe its air and meet the local people. This was the case when I toured the United States with Orquesta De La Luz, as well as Central and South America, Middle East and Europe. Everything I actually experienced in these countries far surpassed anything I expected or imagined. That's why I was ecstatic about the opportunity to go to Africa.

AGATSUMA: I've been to Egypt twice but this was my first trip to the south of the Sahara. I looked forward to the trip but felt anxious at the same time. My main concern was about safety and the lack of information about the local situation. However, I also felt that things would somehow work out once we got there.

OUCHI: Let's talk about how this African tour came about. The Japanese Embassy in South Africa contacted the Japan Foundation about the possibility of inviting Japanese artists to the annual National Arts Festival held in Grahamstown in Eastern Cape Province. It was the first time in the thirty-five year history of this South African festival that Japanese artists were officially invited. They requested a shamisen player, but in addition to showcasing traditional Japanese music, they wanted the audience to experience contemporary Japanese music. We felt that AGA-SHIO would fit the bill perfectly.

But working out the details took a long time. By the time everything was formalized, we had very little time left so we contacted you right away. Despite being in the midst of preparing for your European tour, you accepted readily, much to our pleasant surprise. We did not have enough time to coordinate everything with the Festival authorities in South Africa. We knew even less about the logistics in the DRC, the first stop of the tour. Yet you agreed to go under these challenging circumstances.


AGATSUMA: At the time I had just returned to Japan after being away on the Hiromitsu Agatsuma Ensemble U.S.A. Tour that took place between April and May 2010. By the way, my second child was born while I was away in America. Before I could recover from jet lag, I joined Satoru in Tokyo to embark on our month-long European tour. As AGA-SHIO, we performed in eight cities: seven in five European countries as well as Cairo, Egypt. The program for the European AGA-SHIO concerts was different from that of my American performances. The schedule was grueling, too, as we moved to the next location immediately following a performance. Our tour ended in Segovia, Spain. Only then could I think about my next venture, which was to perform in Africa, a part of the world I knew very little about.

DSC0194.jpgWas the African tour difficult? I think challenges are integral to everything we do. Before, I used to dwell on adversities I encountered. But over the past few years I've come to realize that I have to overcome hardships and regard them as stepping-stones towards my next goal. In the back of my mind, I knew this was what I had to do to in Africa to become a better musician.

I am extremely happy that I was able to introduce Japanese culture to African audiences through the shamisen and as AGA-SHIO. The first thing we did in the DRC was to hold a workshop with music school students and street children. What struck me was that the participants were mostly interested in rhythm. I sensed that reaching out to them through melody and harmony on the piano wouldn't be as effective. But our concerts were received well and quite successful.

The Audience's Reaction at Live Concerts Helps Us Become Better Musicians

DSC0542.jpgOUCHI: Let's recap briefly AGA-SHIO's history. You had heard each other's music before you met in person. Then, you performed together in concerts. AGA-SHIO followed. Now you're taking your music abroad as AGA-SHIO.

SHIONOYA: When we first performed together a few years ago, I intuitively sensed the existence of something quite extraordinary and deep underneath the timbre of Hiromitsu's shamisen. I'm sure he was playing the way he normally did, but his shamisen was so refreshing, even to me as a Japanese. I've always been a big fan of classical music and jazz. I did listen to some traditional Japanese music in the past but nothing like Hiromitsu's shamisen, which made a profound impact on me. Perhaps it was Japanese culture embodied in the minyo (Japanese folk song) he played, or the soul of the music itself, that moved me. In my mind, this was the moment AGA-SHIO was born. From that point onwards, my desire to create a new type of music with Hiromitsu grew stronger.

This goal crystallized in 2007 when I asked Hiromitsu to perform at my concert called Sketch of New York, held at the Orchard Hall in Tokyo. While Hiromitsu strummed Jongara-bushi, a type of Japanese folk songs, I purposely pitched a very different tempo and world-view by playing movie soundtrack-like strings. Doing so actually served to accentuate the beauty of the sounds of Hiromitsu's shamisen and minyo tune. This was a defining experience for me. It confirmed my hope to collaborate with Hiromitsu and to spread our music to diverse audiences. In a way, our European and African tours were culminations of this goal.

photo by Satoru Shionoya

OUCHI: How did audiences abroad react to your music?

SHIONOYA: Each audience in each country reacted differently.

AGATSUMA: Even within Europe, there was a considerable difference between the types of music people liked. Having said that, Satoru's jokes were a big hit everywhere we went. Not only is he a renowned pianist; he's also a world-class comedian!

SHIONOYA: It made me happy. The atmosphere changes when the audience laughs when you attempt a joke in their language. This positive energy enhances performance. I can't overstate the importance of having a good rapport with the audience. Our music has very little lyrics, so we can only prove ourselves by the depth of music we produce with our instruments. Pretending to be somebody or something else won't get us anywhere. In Japan, we're fortunate to have fans supporting us at our concerts. But this isn't always the case when we're abroad. It's like an away game for sports. In some ways they are good opportunities for us to gauge how good our music is.

At first, a foreign audience is usually curious about how the shamisen is played. We try to perform in a way that gradually shifts this interest towards the music the shamisen produces. We know we've performed successfully as AGA-SHIO when the audience breaks into an applause that is very different from an applause expressing appreciation for our music just because it's unusual. It's a moment when we feel most proud as a musician. Every clap is worth its weight in gold.

Of course we are happy to write music and have it produced as CDs so our music is always available. But this tour taught me how important it is to perform live. That's when our music is most real. We grow as artists by repeating the process of performing and getting feedback from the audience.

In other words, audiences at live concerts help us develop as musicians. It doesn't matter whether or not their reaction is positive. I felt this to be particularly relevant to us performing as AGA-SHIO in Africa.

photos by Riki Fujioka

Playing a Piano with a Keyboard that Produces No Sound

photo by Satoru Shionoya

OUCHI: To be honest, I was appalled by the behavior of the audience in the DRC. People chattered and moved about noisily. Cell phones would go off. I also couldn't believe my ears when I heard juice cans being popped open. I was screaming silently, be quiet! Now I realize that not everybody in the audience was accustomed to listening to music sitting down.

The final performance in the DRC took place on June 26, 2010 at the Palais de Peuple in Kinshasa. About twenty street children who participated in a previous workshop were going to appear on stage. As they waited for their turn in the seats at the very back row, they all leant forward, mesmerized by your music.

A group of particularly bad mannered security guards were going in and out of the hall. I almost lost my cool. Just when I was on the verge of demanding that they either do their job or sit down to listen to AGA-SHIO, I noticed they brought in colleagues from outside. Before I knew it, a row of security guards was listening to your music, literally breathless. I'll never forget that moment.

AGATSUMA: The noise didn't bother us at all.

OUCHI: Compared to the DRC, the audience in South Africa appeared to be accustomed to attending concerts, perhaps in part because it was the Festival. The pianos you played in the two countries were very different too, weren't they?

SHIONOYA: Hiromitsu used a substitute shamisen in Africa because the hide of his regular shamisen tore while we were performing in Segovia. As for me, I somehow managed to play on a piano in the DRC that was far from being in perfect condition. The organizers went out of their way to procure the best piano they could find. At first I could not believe what I saw; strings were missing and some keys wouldn't make a sound. In the end I grew fond of the piano, but it was the first time I played on a piano like that in a big hall.

OUCHI: I could tell that the piano was extremely happy that you played it. The young Congolese piano tuner who looked after the piano was also very pleased.

SHIONOYA: A piano is not just an object; it comes alive when you put your soul into it while you play. It also gradually changes as you play it. By the third day, that piano became mine. I didn't mind that the lid and the pedals squeaked and shook while I played. It was a great experience. I realized I play just as well on and can become one with a less-than-perfect instrument, which boosted my confidence. Maybe I can call myself a pianist after all!

photos by Riki Fujioka

c: The Japan Foundation

AGATSUMA: Playing a substitute instrument didn't bother me too much, either. I didn't want to complain when everybody was working so hard to make our concerts happen. I feel I was able to concentrate on doing our job, namely, delivering music to the audience. We were tested on how we would handle various situations as humans, as musicians. It was important for us to rise up to challenges. As a result, nothing in Africa really upsets me.

SHIONOYA: But we experienced a lot of things that gave us cause for thought. Our live concert at Radio Television Nationale Congolaise (RTNC), the public broadcasting network of the DRC, was going to be broadcast nationally. Two Congolese bands appeared as guests. One band was obviously wealthy. They brought brand-new speakers and a PA system that they set up for their own use. In contrast, the other band was rather sorry looking. They weren't treated very respectfully and didn't even receive a decent sound check.

While this band was performing, one of their instruments dropped onto the floor and broke. But they carried on playing the jambé (percussion) as if nothing happened. Their attitude was simply awesome. They looked ecstatic when they returned backstage after their performance. I think they were happy that they had the opportunity to express their music. It was wonderful. They were musicians through and through. I felt so much power emanating from them. I don't mean only related to music. I sensed an energy in them that could be channeled to better their country and Africa. I'm sure that improved infrastructure and wider educational opportunities will help the country unleash its potential.

AGATSUMA: Here in Japan we are lucky that we want for nothing materialistically. But we may be sacrificing the human spirit for convenience. Going to Africa made me realize what an affluent, safe and wonderful country Japan is. At the same time, I also feel that we're in danger of losing our sensitivity as human beings.

photo by Satoru Shionoya

Music has the Power to be an Equalizer

SHIONOYA: I remember my years with Orquesta De La Luz. We put on shows as foreign artists in Central and South America. Only the well off could afford to buy tickets to see our concerts. But in fact the majority of people who listened to our music were ordinary citizens who didn't have the money to buy tickets or CDs but heard us on the radio. When we put on free concerts, entire villages would attend, with children and women singing and dancing to our songs. Discovering how my music touched the hearts of ordinary people made me realize the significance of my job.

Music is an equalizer. It's not just the rich who benefit. You can't say that for most things in life. Put in another way, music is powerful because its impact transcends class or wealth.

I'd consider our African tour to be a success if our music made an impression on just a handful of people. I hope the children who attended our workshops gained something from their experiences, too.

Every once in a while I'll learn that some children who attended one of my workshops in the past grew up to become a musician. I feel responsible for them. As long as you're serious about your music, it will be appreciated. I am certain that what we do as AGA-SHIO will be appreciated by someone.

OUCHI: Perhaps in the future an African child who listened to you play in the DRC or South Africa may one day grow up to be a musician. Or your influence may go beyond music. You may have inspired someone to take on a challenge and do something completely new and different in the future.

SHIONOYA: This is what culture is all about. In Japan, we expect results right away. Perhaps this is inevitable during an economic downtown but that's not what culture ought to be about.

For most people, art equals leisure. If making a living is a priority, art usually comes last. But what would life be like without art or music?

It takes time to develop a culture. It's not something that can be rushed. A country's maturity is reflected in its culture. This requires a long-term perspective.

photos by Satoru Shionoya

AGATSUMA: While I'm grateful for the opportunity we've been given by the Japan Foundation to perform abroad in front of audiences, I also think it would be equally meaningful to have other occasions where we can get together with local people and musicians. In the context of cultural exchanges, this may lead to something new.

I'll continue to do my best when I go abroad to represent traditional Japanese music, but I've become more conscious about the impact this has. For some in the audience, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to listen to Japanese music. Their opinion of Japanese music forms when they hear me play the shamisen. If they don't like the shamisen, they might think all traditional Japanese music is boring. Conditions in Africa weren't perfect but I think both Satoru and I gave it our best shot. It's important to take each outcome and use it as a building block for our next goal. Otherwise it's easy to lose sight of why we go abroad to perform and eventually our performances will suffer for it. It's something our generation of performers always has to keep in mind.

This is one of the reasons why I tried my best to understand and absorb the culture and history of each place we visited. I also strived to keep the cultural context in mind when we interacted with local musicians. Our experiences in Europe and Africa are committed to my memory.

SHIONOYA: We were in Africa during the World Cup in South Africa. Japan only recently became eligible to play in the World Cup. Now it's taken for granted that they will always do well and progress to the finals. Regardless of whether it's sports, culture or music, progress is made gradually, one step at a time. Nothing develops suddenly. We are who we are because of the people who support us. I highly respect the pioneer spirit of our forefathers.

I can't tell how much impact we'll have on the lives of others. But I believe that our African tour was meaningful if, as a result, the audience came to appreciate something about Japanese music, even if it's just a handful of people. This is just the beginning.

photo by Satoru Shionoya

* AGA-SHIO + Music & Rhythms Tour in Africa, October 2010
* SATORU SHIONOYA GROUP Jazz Concert 2007, November 2007


agatsuma01.jpgHiromitsu Agatsuma
Tsugaru shamisen
Born in 1973, Ibaraki, Japan. Agatsuma began playing the Tsugaru-shamisen at age six. He won in numerous competitions, becoming a renowned performer in the traditional Japanese music scene since his youth. His reputation grew as he incorporated genres such as jazz and rock into his music, and made his major debut in 2001. His first and sixth albums won the prestigious "Japan Gold Disk Award;" his second album was released in the United States in 2003, for which he made his first tour overseas. He has performed in Australia, Brazil and Russia, as well as in various countries throughout Asia and Europe. Agatsuma has collaborated with numerous artists such as Marcus Miller (B) and Herbie Hancock (Pf). While engaging in the artistic merging of traditional Japanese musical instruments and western music, he remains an acclaimed player who pursues the "tradition and innovation" of the Tsugaru-shamisen. Official website:

salt01.jpgSatoru Shionoya
Born in 1966, Tokyo, Japan. Shionoya studied music composition at university while performing around the world as a member of the Japanese salsa band Orquesta De La Luz (1986-1996). The group won the United Nations Peace Medal in 1993 and was a U.S. Grammy Award nominee in 1995. During this time, he performed with Tito Puente, Dave Valentin and Santana. He became a solo performer in 1993 and has released 11 original albums. His musical activities are diverse, composing and arranging scores in a wide array of genres including jazz, pops, classical, Big Band and for full orchestras. As a soloist, he has performed with Makoto Ozone, Sadao Watanabe, Paquito D'Rivera, Herbie Hancock, among others. Official website:

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