A Random PSA On The Gei of Geisha - Part 1
The questions surrounding what arts that maiko and geiko practice comes up regularly, and instead of just posting them onto one of the tabs I’d rather lay it out in a post here first.
The “Gei” (芸) in Geisha(芸者)/Geiko(芸妓)/Geigi(芸妓) means “Art” and there are many branches and types of art that one can master. For this part we’ll be looking at the direct performing arts that everyone knows the geisha are renowned for: music and dance.
Dance - Mai (舞)
All traditional Japanese dance styles have their roots in Shinto ceremonies that date back at least two millennia. There are two main styles to traditional dance practiced today:
-Noh (能): Originally arrived in Japan from China in the 8th century and developed into the style we know today in the 13th century by Kan’ami (assisted by his son Zeami). Derived from the classical court style dances, it features small, precise movements to tell a story. It can be seen as “boring” or “obscure” if you’re not sure what to look for as you need to understand the movements to appreciate them to the fullest. This isn’t to say that it isn’t beautiful to behold without prior knowledge as it is quite enchanting! Gion Kobu’s Inoue school is part of the Noh tradition.
-Kabuki (歌舞伎): Derived directly from Shinto ceremonies, it was created in 1603 by Izumo No Okuni, a shrine priestess who created her own style of dance and performed it on the dry riverbed of the Kamo River. She became so famous that she was invited to perform in front of the emperor! After seeing how popular the style of dance had become rival dance groups sprung up around her and established the kabuki that we know today. The style is known for its dramatic and often “wild” movements that are meant to be appreciated by the common people. Pontocho’s Onoe, Miyagawa Cho’s Wakayagi, Kamishichiken’s Hanayagi, and Gion Higashi’s Fujima schools are part of the Kabuki tradition.
Music - Raku (楽)
What would dance be without music? Music, like dance, can be broken down into two types: voice/song and instruments.
Singing - Uta (歌): Maiko and geiko learn traditional ballads that are performed alongside dance. There are two types: Kouta (小唄) which means “short songs/ballads” and Nagauta (長唄) which means “long songs/ballad.” They are learned by listening to an instructor and then repeating and/or transcribing the words and melody together. There’s no “set” way of reading or learning a song like there is for Western music, so it takes a large amount of practice to perform any uta properly (although there are a few methods that do exist).
Instruments - Gakki (楽器)
There are many instruments practiced in the karyukai, but I’ll only go over the most common ones that are seen and heard on a regular basis.
-Shamisen (三味線): A three stringed instrument that is played with a plectrum. It is the most common instrument in the karyukai as it developed as an instrument that the common people used. Most uta were created to be played with a shamisen. It resembles a simplified guitar and is played in a similar fashion.
-Tsuzumi (鼓): The all encompassing word for drums, but specifically dual sided drums that are roped together. There are three main types learned by maiko and geiko:
-Kotsuzumi (小鼓): Literally “Small Drum,” or sometimes known as the “regular” tsuzumi, it is held onto one’s shoulder and played by striking the drum with the free hand.
-Ōtsuzumi (大鼓): Literally “Large Drum,” it is a larger size of the tsuzumi and features one end that is larger than the other. It produces a much deeper sound when struck.
-Taiko (太鼓): Literally “Great Drum,” they’re not the gigantic ones that are often seen at summer festivals, but rather closer in size to an otsuzumi. The taiko sits on a stand while the musician strikes it with rods known as bachi (桴). It is the closest equivalent to Western style drums.
-Fue (笛): The all encompassing word for flute, which in traditional Japanese style is usually made from bamboo. There are two types of fue that include:
-Shakuhachi (尺八): The high pitched iconic flute that is actually rare in the karyukai, it features 5 holes (4 on top and 1 underneath). Its sound is often described as “haunting” as it gently pierces through silence to deliver melodies full of both happiness and sadness.
-Shinobue (篠笛)/Yokobue (横笛): Flutes that are much closer to Western ones, but are still made from wood. It features 7 holes that allows it to play more notes than the shakuhachi. This type is often played with the end resting on the musician’s shoulder.
-Koto (事): A 13 stringed instrument that’s considered a type of lute although it plays closer to that of a harp. Due to its size it lays flat on the floor and the musician plucks the strings individually to produce sound. Those who are new to the koto often wear metal guards on their fingers to keep the strings from slicing into their skin until their hands have developed enough to withstand the pressure.
-Kokyū (胡弓): Taught exclusively in Miyagawa Cho as it was once considered an instrument of the oiran, a kokyū is a smaller version of the shamisen that’s played upright with a bow instead of a plectrum.