Sister Act

By on October 1, 2008

It is said that music is the universal language, transcending cultural boundaries. Three American girls in Japan are living proof of that theory. Kyla (16 years old), Brenna (13 years old), and Shana (9 years old) Ryan are siblings with a shared affinity for playing the Tsugaru-shamisen, a traditional Japanese string instrument with its origins in Aomori Prefecture. The musical trio, collectively known as the Ryan Sisters (Ryan san-shimai in Japanese), perform all over the country with their repertoire of folk songs and original compositions, picking up adoration from concert-goers and awards from competitions. They have made quite a name for themselves, having graced several television programs, and the pages of newspapers the past couple of years. And they’re still rocking out!

TF got to ask the girls (via their mother, Lisa Ryan) some questions on life, family, and music.


How did the Ryan sisters discover the Tsugaru-shamisen?

The first time we knew we really wanted to play the Tsugaru shamisen was when we attended a Yoshida Brothers (they play that cool song in the Wii commercial) concert in Yamagata. [Kyla and Brenna] were blown away by how cool, loud, and fast-paced it was. 


What was it about the instrument that drew you to learn to play it?

It is a very unique instrument that makes a really loud and distinct sound. In addition to the three strings, you must hit the drum using a large pick to make a percussion sound for some songs. It’s really exciting to hear live. 


What made you want to start performing and having your own shows?

At first, we had no idea that we would perform so much by ourselves. We were asked to play at small international exchange events, and slowly we have been performing more and more thanks to the support of our local community here in Yamagata, and the international community in Tokyo.  Seeing how people react to hearing the Tsugaru-shamisen for the first time is really satisfying. Also, those that are familiar with the instrument who cheer loudly during a performance make all the practicing worth it.


Your performances take you all around Japan! What is the best part about being on the road?

We sometimes get to stay at nice hotels or travel by bullet train, which is really fun. It’s also fun to be able to go shopping in Tokyo (Shibuya) when we get the chance! We got to visit Universal Studios Japan last year while in Osaka for a competition. We also get to meet a lot of neat people, including one of the Yoshida Brothers.


Psst! Just between us (and the readers): what is it like having your sisters as band-mates?

Fun and easy. Although we sometimes fight, we know what [one another] is thinking, and the good and bad points of our skills. For example, Brenna is really good at keeping rhythm and Kyla is good at parts that require fast fingers. Shana probably has the best overall technique, but needs to grow a bit. The shamisen is almost as tall as she is!


Mom & Dad must be really proud! How would you describe them?

They get a little stressed out before our performances. Our mom has to dress us in kimono, do make-up and hair, which takes about 2 hours! Sometimes, we don’t have enough time to get a good rehearsal, or there is a problem with strings or our equipment. Our strings are made from silk, so they get weak and break easily. The drum will pop if the temperature gets too hot or humid. So when we travel, our parents are always worried when we unpack our shamisen.


Everyone has a favorite song! Of the pieces you perform, which do you like best, and why?

A Yoshida Brothers song we learned by ear. Since they are brothers, they play together really well, and can blend their skills with a variety of genres. They aren’t afraid to break stereotypes. We hope to be as good as they are someday.


What impression would you want to make on those that come to see your shows?

We hope those who hear us live will get a sense of how powerful and cool the instrument is. It can stand by itself as an instrument, but sounds even better with several others, and with drums or accompanying rock or jazz musicians. The Tsugaru-shamisen is like jazz, because players can improvise and never use sheet music to perform. It’s an instrument best learned by ear and sight. We also hope that people will see that the Tsugaru-shamisen can appeal to a wider audience than just the traditional world of Japanese music fans, which tend to be 60-plus years old.  We’ve seen how Jero, the American enka singer, has created a new niche and younger following to a traditional Japanese music culture, which is something we admire. We’d love to do a song with him someday.


Apart from the music, what do you enjoy about Japan?

We like the fashion and food of Japan. 


As American girls, what do you find most interesting about Japanese culture that is completely alien in the States?

Well, we were born in Japan so we don’t feel like Japan is foreign. 


Even rock stars need some downtime! It’s Saturday. When not performing, what can you be seen doing?

Kyla: Hanging out with friends, singing karaoke, shopping around Yamagata.

Brenna: Listening to music in my room, having sleep-overs with friends.

Shana: Looking for and studying about frogs. We have a lot of rice fields and mountains around us, and there are a lot of interesting insects, snakes, and frogs to catch.


What is a typical day at the Ryan household?

Just normal stuff – wake up, get ready for school (we all attend Japanese schools), then play with friends, do homework, practice, some TV, and bed.


What kinds of music do you love listening to?

Kyla: American Top 20 pop music.

Brenna:  J-pop, American pop music.

Shana: American pop music.


It’s your dream concert, and your favorite musician or band drops by to join your set. Who is it?

That’s easy! 

Kyla: Avril Lavigne

Brenna: [J-pop group] ARASHI (especially Satoshi Ohno)

Shana: Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana)


What does family mean to you?

Where we live is considered “rural” Japan, and very, very different from Tokyo. We are the only kids around whose mom and dad are both American, so sometimes it’s hard to be so different from everyone else. So, our family is really important to us. It’s the only place where we can speak English and be American.


Thank you, girls! 

About Martin Leroux