One evening during the holiday break, Akemi let loose a loud “ARGH” in her room. She had just read on her computer that NEC canceled the music history class she had signed up for spring semester, meaning she now had to scramble to find a substitute music history elective that fit into the Rubric’s cube of her Tufts-NEC schedule. And so she ended up in a graduate seminar on “The Music of Courtesans,” not because she was interested in courtesans, but because the course time plugged her schedule hole.
Almost as soon as the semester began, the class members had to identify potential paper topics. She bounced some topic ideas off of me, but was having difficulty mustering any enthusiasm for any of them. I had her read to me topics from her syllabus: well, okay, what about something geisha related, we both wondered.
The instrument of the geisha is the shamisen – what my dad called the Japanese banjo – and it so happens that my mother’s mother, her great-grandmother Shizu Kurose, was a renowned shamisen teacher and performer. She had a following in Little Tokyo, and in camp, she organized and produced a recital of her students, complete with staging and kimono. In addition to being an accomplished musician, she also was quite the impresario. Maybe it would be worthwhile to learn something about shamisen music, since at least there is a family connection there.
In a class larded with doctoral students, it sounds as if Akemi more than held her own, getting an “A” for the course and for her paper “Paradox and Parallel: The Geisha and Their Music.” Her thesis was that geisha paradoxically lived a life of both independence and restriction, and that this contradiction could also be found in the geisha’s music and in their performance practices.
The connection to her great-grandmother came, for the most part, in her class presentation. She impressed her professor and classmates with this photo of her great-grandmother with her shamisen and her daughter, my mother and Akemi’s grandmother, kneeling to her right playing the koto.
I’ve often thought that my maternal grandmother must be some ancestral guardian of Akemi’s, as both of them love to play a stringed instrument that is part of their core identity. I remember my grandmother sitting in her room in our Peralta Hills home, playing her shamisen for hours. My dad told me she had high, exacting standards; a real perfectionist. Gee, I don’t know anyone else like that, do you?
I don’t remember what course Akemi got zilched out of. I’d like to think she would have gotten something out of that class, if she could have taken it. But for whatever reason she ended up learning about courtesan music and geisha, in particular, she now knows a few things about her great-grandmother which she didn’t know before. Not a bad outcome for a course taken practically under duress.