“Back in Black,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and Other Classic Rock Songs Played on Traditional Japanese Instruments

Name any clas­sic rock band — or maybe any band, peri­od — and you can rest assured that their biggest, most obses­sive fan lives in Japan. Though it pos­sess­es a native musi­cal cul­ture of its own, with a rich his­to­ry and a dis­tinc­tive set of aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ties, that coun­try has also cul­ti­vat­ed great enthu­si­asm for the music of oth­er lands. Just as 21st-cen­tu­ry Japan con­tin­ues to pro­duce mas­ters of such tra­di­tion­al instru­ments as the stringed koto, the bam­boo shakuhachi flute, and the taiko drum, it also con­tin­ues to pro­duce increas­ing­ly all-know­ing, all-col­lect­ing fol­low­ers of bands like AC/DC, Guns N’ Ros­es, and Led Zep­pelin.

Sel­dom have those cur­rents of Japan’s music world had a venue to reli­ably meet — or at least it had­n’t before the advent of NHK Blends. Pro­duced by NHK World, the inter­na­tion­al chan­nel of Japan­ese nation­al broad­cast­er NHK, the show offers per­for­mances of well-known West­ern songs, usu­al­ly rock and pop hits, inter­pret­ed with tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese instru­ments played in tra­di­tion­al set­tings by musi­cians in tra­di­tion­al dress.

Here we’ve embed­ded NHK Blends’ ren­di­tions of “Back in Black,” “Stair­way to Heav­en,” and “Wel­come to the Jun­gle,” and on their videos page you can find many more: Michael Jack­son’s “Smooth Crim­i­nal” and “Beat It,” Toto’s “Africa,” and the Bea­t­les’ “Let It Be.”

Those all rank among NHK Blends’ most pop­u­lar videos, hav­ing racked up hun­dreds of thou­sands and even mil­lions of views. This sug­gests that, no mat­ter how many count­less times we hear these songs on the car radio, at the gym, or while gro­cery-shop­ping, a suf­fi­cient­ly rad­i­cal re-inter­pre­ta­tion can still breathe new life into them. Some per­for­mances pull off extra dimen­sions of cul­tur­al trans­po­si­tion: the NHK Blends ver­sion of “Misir­lou,” for instance, takes a tra­di­tion­al piece of music from the East­ern Mediter­ranean and inter­prets it for the kokyo, a stringed instru­ment that orig­i­nal­ly came to Japan from Chi­na. Or rather, it inter­prets French gui­tarist Jean-Pierre Danel’s inter­pre­ta­tion of “surf gui­tar” king Dick Dale’s famous ver­sion from 1961. Close your eyes and you can very near­ly imag­ine the samu­rai pic­ture Quentin Taran­ti­no some­how has­n’t yet made.

See the full list of songs here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Talk­ing Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” Per­formed on Tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese Instru­ments

David Bowie/Nirvana’s “The Man Who Sold The World” Played on the Gayageum, a Kore­an Instru­ment from the 6th Cen­tu­ry

Three Pink Floyd Songs Played on the Tra­di­tion­al Kore­an Gayageum: “Com­fort­ably Numb,” “Anoth­er Brick in the Wall” & “Great Gig in the Sky”

Watch Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ Per­formed on a Gayageum, a Tra­di­tion­al Kore­an Instru­ment

Ste­vie Ray Vaughan’s Ver­sion of “Lit­tle Wing” Played on Tra­di­tion­al Kore­an Instru­ment, the Gayageum

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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