Photo David Stuart

Why Not Try: Shigin - sing like you’ve never sung

TWO weeks ago I wrote an article about bonsai that ruffled a few feathers. There were some in the community who thought I didn't appreciate the subtleties of Japanese culture and my comparison of bonsai to foot binding was out of line.

This light-hearted column by no means offers a comprehensive look into the activities I seek to cover, but in this week's offering I'd like to demonstrate that when it comes to Japanese culture I sometimes scratch more than just the surface.

Which brings me to shigin; an art form where Chinese poems are sung with the Chinese characters being read with their Japanese pronunciation. A lot of younger Japanese don't even know what shigin is. They assume I'm mispronouncing another Japanese word.

Squiggly lines - it's not reporter's shorthand but I'd forgive you for thinking so - written on one side of the poem indicate which set of pre-determined notes the shigin will conform to.

I'm often praised for my register. "Oh David, you have a lovely honey drenched, deep resonant voice." Unfortunately, this does not translate to victory at the karaoke bar. I don't ever recall people fawning over my ability to sing in key. I once volunteered in a choir only to be handed the humiliating triangle. My wife often asks me why I can't sing to tune. I don't know why I can't. I just can't. Leave me alone everyone.

My teacher is incredibly patient with me and encourages me to practice to perform in competitions. Why not?

Virtually all of the participants are grey and Japanese and I stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Despite my lack of conventional ability, they appear heartened to see that shigin is flowing not only to the next generation, but to a foreign arena. I don't want to disappoint them with my ability so I try to make up for it in effort. It doesn't pay off in the way of trophies or ribbons, but I share a lively discussion with some shigin veterans over tea and that's more than enough for me.

Follow David on Twitter: @bigkamo


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