As the only foreign apprentice of the Yoshida Brothers (Yoshida Kyodai), Norm Nakamura is fast becoming the most famous non-Japanese shamisen player in Japan, perhaps even the entire world.
For about seven years, the 34-year-old Canadian musician has been learning to master the use of the shamisen, a three-stringed traditional musical instrument unique to Japan, according to Forward-Japan.
He has been receiving tutelage from the Yoshida Brothers, the famous Tsugaru-shamisen masters who are known for combining western musical elements and utilizing modern instruments in their musical creations.
As Tsugaru-shamisen is a niche genre, it is relatively an unfamiliar type of music for many, even for Nakamura at the beginning, who only heard the word “shamisen” long after visiting Japan twice.
Nakamura, who was born and raised in Canada, first took a trip to Japan to travel across the country after meeting Japanese international students in college. After graduation, he returned to Japan to work for a year as part of a working holiday program.
Upon his return from Japan, a friend asked him if he had heard of the Yoshida Brothers. When he responded in apparent confusion, his friend handed him a CD, introducing him to a genre that he would eventually fall in love with.
After listening to the CD, which was the group’s third international album called “Yoshida Brothers 2,” Nakamura felt immediate regret over leaving Japan, reports SoraNews24.
“It was like hearing music for the first time. It was instantly appealing as much as it was puzzling,” Nakamura said. “It was instantly relatable, however new. It was like I had stumbled into this world that was so much bigger than myself, and I had the option to explore it by simply putting on a pair of headphones.”
While he was immediately drawn to the shamisen, he wasn’t interested in learning to play it in the beginning.
As a fan of the Yoshida Brothers, he went to see them at a convention in Washington where they made an appearance. After getting their autograph, he thanked them and told them that he would see them in Japan next time.
He would eventually return to Japan, where he began teaching in an English conversation school in Tokyo.
At the time, his interests shifted to racing cars and he became involved with a community of drift racers. However, a near-death experience brought his love for shamisen music back into the foreground.
In November 2010, Nakamura crashed his Nissan Silvia 240SX S14 in a heavy accident and was fortunate enough to survive.
As he was trying to rethink his life after the accident, a friend asked him, “If you could do anything in the world, no matter how crazy, what would you do?”
Nakamura’s response to his friend was quick: “I would learn shamisen from the Yoshida Brothers.”
He then embarked on a quest to become the masters’ apprentice, but just getting in contact with them took him nearly two years.
His attempts in calling producers, agents or anyone who could put him in contact with the Yoshida Brothers proved to be futile.
Then, about a year in, he came across a shamisen shop in Tokyo that sold some goods to the Yoshida Brothers.
The persistent fan then became a regular visitor to the store and began learning more about the shamisen while building a friendly relationship with the owners.
After several months, he told the shop owners that he was pretty serious in learning the shamisen, saying: “The problem is, if I don’t learn from the Yoshida Brothers, I’m never going to learn.”
The shamisen shop owners agreed to contact the Yoshida Brothers for him, but suggested that “You’re going to need a good shamisen.”
He then spent a few thousand dollars for a high-quality shamisen from the shop owners, who, in turn, contacted the Yoshida Brothers for him.
However, the Yoshida Brothers denied his wish to become their apprentice as they had never taught a complete beginner before. The musicians also cited that their busy schedule would also make it difficult for them to commit.
Nakamura then patiently waited a few months and asked the shop owners to try again. The answer was still a quick “No.”
Two months later, the persistent musician asked the shamisen shop owners to try again, saying: “Tell them I’m serious, that I’m gonna be the best apprentice they’ve ever had, that I’m not going to give up…I’m going to take it really seriously. If they say no now, they’ll just hear from me again next year.”
The response to his last query took about a couple of months later to arrive via a call from an unknown number in December.
The caller was Ryoichiro Yoshida, the eldest brother, inviting him for a coffee. “Bring your shamisen,” he said.
With his expensive shamisen in hand, Nakamura went to see the world-renowned shamisen player at a cafe in Tokyo
After talking for a bit, Ryoichiro examined the shamisen, saying “This doesn’t look like a cheap shamisen. Have you played it?”
Nakamura said he has yet to touch it in fear of picking up bad habits early on.
His response and the high quality of the shamisen apparently impressed Yoshida, prompting him to say, “Okay, I’ll send you a schedule. You pick a date, and we’ll start next month.”
While it took him nearly two years, Nakamura’s diligence, patience, and persistence have propelled him into an amazing new journey in his life.
He has been training with the shamisen legends in one-on-one (or two-on-one) lessons about once each month for the last seven years. Each session reportedly involved about three to seven hours per day of practice.
Nakamura’s hard work and dedication have so far paid off, impressively winning the Judge’s Special Prize at his first competition two and a half years ago.
He even played side-by-side with the Yoshida Brothers on live television in celebration of New Year’s Eve in December 2018. The TV event scored the highest viewer ratings in Japan.
Nakamura also started doing his part as an active member of the shamisen community. He recently became a manager to several shamisen players in Japan and launched the “Shamisen in Tokyo” channel on YouTube.
As a manager for local players, he now assists them in booking gigs in Japan and around the world. Meanwhile, he regularly features Japanese shamisen players on his channel.
Today, Nakamura still maintains his apprenticeship with the Yoshida Brothers, now using an even more expensive, professional-level, custom-designed shamisen he purchased last year.