Japan's Nightingale Geisha Singers: Listening to Women Through Audio Media
This paper examines the emergence and disappearance of Japan’s geisha kashu recording stars over the course of the 20th century, delving into their extensive body of audio recordings, which includes songs by some of Japan's most important early popular composers. Clarifying the distinction between geisha and the geisha recording stars, this paper traces the relationship between “traditional” Japanese musical forms (specifically, the complex of short shamisen songs long associated with geisha) and the popular genres that also comprised the geisha stars' repertoire. While historical audio media provide a valuable resource for scholars and fans alike, unconscious habits and unexamined discourses of listening may lead to the replication of orientalist and sexist stereotypes—and ultimately a superficial experience of the music. As a corrective to such tendencies in audience reception, this paper gives an overview of the key cultural and historical contexts of the geisha recording stars, including their contributions to the careers of several of well-respected composers. Attending to the sometimes difficult circumstances faced by geisha recording stars (and their geisha sisters) may rectify the image of these critically neglected women artists, ultimately providing a necessary counterpoint to the predominance of male musicians and male-centred musical genres in the Japanese canon.
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