Kouta: The Traditional Songs of Geisha

  • Kouta literally means little (ko) songs (uta). It is a traditional lyric song which is orally passed down since the 19th century Edo era. Kouta are short songs which are usually accompanied by shamisen, which is a traditional Japanese musical instrument resembling a guitar. Kouta is usually associated with the geisha who also learn to master the shamisen for their performances.

    Kouta began to be popular starting from the mid-Meiji era and it is now one of the most popular types of traditional Japanese music. Kouta can be played solo, duo or trio. Usually there would be one singer accompanied by one or two shamisen. Kouta are usually so short that a set of two or three kouta sung in a recital would not last more than five or six minutes. Typically the length of time a kouta is sung is under a minute while longer kouta would take three or four minutes to sing at most.

    The Kouta has to evoke a certain atmosphere through a few carefully chosen words. Thus, in a way, it somewhat resembles haiku or tanka which are short and sweet yet meaningful. Kouta is categorized under Utaimono which is lyrical shamisen music. The themes of kouta can range from earthy humor, refined aestheticism, sentimental, romantic or sophisticated.

    The first kouta composed was traditionally said to be Chiru wa Uki in 1855 which means “those that fall float”. It was made by Kiyomoto Oyou who is a Joruri puppet theater singer and the daughter of Kiyomoto Enjyudayu II. These are the lyrics to Chiru wa Uki:

    “Chiru wa uki
    Chiranu wa shizumu
    Kouyou no
    Kage wa Takao ka
    Yamakawa no
    Kawa no Nagare ni
    Tsuki no Kage”

    If you are interested to know more kouta and its meanings, you may find the book “Little Songs of the Geisha: Traditional Japanese Ko-Uta” by Liza Dalby (an American anthropologist) useful as it contains the translations of 25 kouta into English along with commentary. Liza Dalby also came out with a DVD called Geisha Blues. The briefness of kouta is similar to the short music today so it may appeal to young people.

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