When it comes to Japanese music, one of the most iconic sounds is that of the tsugaru-jamisen. We’ve written about musicians playing the folk instrument before, but today we have a group with a traditional, but decidedly unique, approach: the three-man group Monsters of Shamisen.

From heavy metal to traditional Japanese music and throat singing, there’s sure to be something here for everyone!

It’s no secret that we love traditional Japanese music here at RocketNews24-especially Aomori Prefecture’s tsugaru-jamisen, even if it does have a much shorter history than other Japanese music styles. Since the late legendary greats like Gunpachiro Shirakawa and Takahashi Chikuzan, there have been numerous talented tsugaru-jamisen musicians from Hiromitu Amagatsu and the Yoshida Brothers to the Shibata Siblings and Chie Hanawa, but some of the most interesting figures are the members of the international group Monsters of Shamisen.


Bringing together the talents of Masahiro Nitta, a top-ranked tsugaru-jamisen player from Hokkaido, Kevin Kmetz, a multi-instrumentalist who grew up in Japan and studied music at the CalArts School of Music, and Kyle Abbot, another multi-instrumentalist and operator of the instructional shamisen website Bachido, the group’s goal is to stretch the limits of the Japanese instrument. While you can easily find musicians playing traditional songs or performing entirely modern music on the instrument, the group felt that there were not nearly enough folks writing new music for the tsugaru-jamisen as an ensemble instrument. Their first effort together, Stellar, was self-recorded and saw the three men (and guest musicians) creating an album that pulled inspiration from everything from traditional Japanese folk songs to “Scarborough Fair” and “Greensleeves.” Though the tsugaru-jamisen is the unquestionable heart of the album, the group was careful to arrange the songs with enough room for complimentary instruments like the mandolin and guitar.

But to understand the group, you need to understand its members and their diverse background.

Seven months after picking up the instrument as a 14-year-old, Masahiro took the top place in the junior high/high school portion of a national tsugaru-jamisen competition and has won many more competitions since then. He’s perhaps most famous in Japan for his work with his father, Hiroshi Nitta, as Nitta Oyako, though Masahiro has performed all over the world as both a solo artist and in a wide variety of groups.

▼Here’s Masahiro and Kevin performing “Yuki no Hana” accompanied by piano.

While most highly ranked tsugaru-jamisen players are Japanese and have been training with the instrument from childhood, Kevin is not only noticeably not Japanese, but he didn’t even pick the instrument up until he was an adult. Though, to be fair, he was already an accomplished guitarist and cellist with a degree in music when he first started playing the three-stringed Japanese instrument. Despite his late start with the instrument, Kevin went on to become the first non-Japanese person to win awards in numerous shamisen competitions around Japan.

▼Oh, and he has great hair.

Though Kevin has been playing for well over a decade and posted hundreds of videos to YouTube, one video has recently captured the attention Japanese Internet users–a cover of the famous Doraemon theme song–even though the video is six years old!

▼But it’s still a great video, so watch it anyway! (Here’s the original for reference.)

Considering his background with the guitar and metal music, it should hardly be surprising that Kevin has also taken the instrument in a slightly heavier direction with previous bands like Estradasphere and God of Shamisen.

▼”Tower Storm Attack” by God of Shamisen

The final piece in this tsugaru-jamisen machine is Kyle Abbot, who has been playing the instrument since he was 16. In addition to performing with Monsters of Shamisen, Kyle runs Bachido, a website dedicated to helping people around the world learn the instrument. If you’ve always wanted to play Jongaru bushi to impress a date, this would probably be the best place to start if you don’t have a local teacher.

▼Kyle and a friend playing a Nitta Oyako song

In addition to the tsugaru-jamisen, Kyle also provided much of the extra instrumentation heard on the Monster of Shamisen CDs, such as throat singing and igil.

The group has recorded two albums together, titled Stellar and Resonance, featuring a wide variety of musical styles and instruments, though there’s not much to hint at Kevin’s heavy metal stylings. Check out a few sample tracks from the newer of the two, Resonance, which was released earlier this year.



Both albums are available through the CD Baby, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

References: Wacocoro, Bachido, Yahoo! Japan Topics, God of Shamisen, California Shamisen
Images: Bachido

Finally, Kevin just has so many great covers on his YouTube channel, we couldn’t resist sharing a few more with you. As you can probably guess, our favorites are the BABYMETAL covers.

▼BABYMETAL’s “Ijime! Dame! Zettai!”

▼BABYMETAL’s “Uki Uki Midnight”

▼Kyari Pamyu Pamyu’s “Otona no Kodomo”

▼Queen’s “Flash Gordon”

▼Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”