The biwa is a musical instrument stringed traditional Japanese. It is a short-necked lute barbat derived from Persian and Chinese pipa. The oldest preserved instruments dating from the eighth century. Its shape recalls that of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. It is the instrument of the goddess Benten.
The entire body is carved from a single block of hardwood pear (very rare from a single mountain in Japan) split into two to be hollowed out, then pasted. The handle is a continuation of the body and has three or four frets irremovable and high cut so that the silk strings emit a buzz from them and they are reminiscent of the Rudra-Veena Indian, where the strings do are not drawn down, but pressed between the frets in order to obtain micro-tonal variations. the peg is almost at right angles to the oud as with traditional pegs impressive. The bridge plate is massive and imposing. It embeds traditional pieces of ivory or silver on the soundboard.
The six types of biwa:
- Classical period:
Biwa Gagaku or gakubiwa: four frets and four strings, the music used in imperial gagaku. The plectrum is a small, thin and very hard (ivory).
Moso biwa: four strings (mi - si - mi -) and four frets, used for Buddhist mantras. There are versions of five and six frets granted differently. The plectrum is variable.
- Edo period:
Heike biwa: four-string (the - do - mi -) and five frets used to accompany epic Heike Monogatari, this is called Heikyoku. The plectrum is wide.
Satsuma biwa: four strings (la - mi - - si) and four frets widespread in the region of Satsuma (Kagoshima) and used to recite epic first reserved for the warrior class and used by blind itinerant musicians (biwa hoshi). Its plectrum is wider, like a fan, and has been used as a weapon. It is a five-string version developed in the twentieth century by Tsuruta and his disciple Kinshi Junko Ueda: Tsuruta biwa.
- Modern Period:
Chikuzen biwa: four strings (so - mi - fa # - si) and four or five strings frets (medium - si - mi - fa # - si) and five frets, used by women, because its size is reduced and its weight. The resonance is enhanced by a soundboard paulownia. The plectrum is medium. There are two schools: Asahikai and Tachibanaki.
Nishiki biwa: five-string (do - sol - do - sol - soil) and five frets used by SUITO Kinjo. Its plectrum is the same as the satsuma.
The very large plectrum (bachi) fan-shaped, very hard wood, whose essence is even rarer, is held by the handful. It has a role not only melodic but also rhythmic as it can save several strings vibrating in succession. In addition, it has a percussive function, because the plaque is often so violent and cons sound the soundboard, which produces a very dry slammed. It can also be rubbed against the strings and produce the effects of grating integrated with the music.
The musician, in a kimono, is kneeling on a zabuton in the seiza position. The instrument is laid horizontally on the lap, the handle facing to the left or placed diagonally on the knees, resting the handle on the left shoulder. The player can sing and play along. As there are only two or three makers in Japan that his game is very difficult and the price is exorbitant, the biwa tends to disappear and no longer played by an aging population.
Read also Gagaku