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original broadcast on “The World” (PRI / BBC/ WGBH-Boston)

When you listen to Japanese Gagaku, your best bet is just to sit back and enjoy the hypnotic ride into history.

This centuries old music was born from a merging of cultures.

“Well, it started as a combination of various factors,” explains Jiro Okuyama, head of the touring company. “First, there was an import of music from the Chinese continent and the Korean peninsula. And that mixed well with what had already been in Japan as a traditional Japanese music. It had various elements in a good mix in the first place. So it provided a group, orchestral music. A rich soil for Gagaku to grow for centuries.”

Gagaku is the oldest form of classical music in Japan.

It was brought to the islands along with Buddhism – and thrived in the imperial courts from the 700’s.

The musicians wear magnificently detailed costumes, and sit inside an intricate stage set, which adds to Gagaku’s splendor.

The music holds a very specific purpose in the imperial household.

“The principle role of Gagaku is to accompany the rituals and actions of the Emperor and the Imperial family,” says Shogo Anzai, the chief court musician of the ensemble. “Obviously, it has been going on for a very long time. This music has always accompanied the rituals and the actions of the Imperial household. Much of the value is in the fact that we have always served the Imperial family. I think that is the main reasons it has lasted such a long time. Because our primary purpose is and has always been to serve the Imperial family.”

Each orchestra, if you will, is comprised of 16 musicians.

The instruments are ancient designs. The shō, a bamboo mouth organ, provides the harmony, and the hichiriki, a double-reed vertical flute, provides melody.

Imperial Court Music and Dance of Japan performing Gagaku. (Photo: Niall Macaulay)

There are dramatic punctuations to the music introduced by two large taiko drums. The effect is complex and haunting. This music was never intended to be heard by the general public.

“It has been with the Imperial family throughout its own history,” says Jiro Okuyama. “Also, the Gagaku also served the needs of the successive rulers of Japan. Basically, it was a music for the aristocrats and highest echelons of Japanese society. It was not really a music for the general public.”

The entire set was flown over from Tokyo for this one UK performance.

The group also performed traditional Japanese Dragon and Phoenix dances known as Bugaku.

All the performers – the dancers and musicians- have always been male.

Shogo Anzai, the chief court musician who has been with the group for 52 years, says there are no plans to change tradition and add women.

But there are some changes: new men are allowed to join the group now.

“So traditionally, there were certain families from which the musicians would come. The descendants of those families would always be performers,” explains Mr. Anzai.

“But after the Meiji revolution in 1868, a lot of things changed and they brought in some innovation and got rid of some old traditions. They started to allow people who weren’t from those traditional musical families to audition to become part of the orchestra. And so today they have both people from families, which have always provided musicians and they also have people who have joined because they’ve auditioned and are good enough to be part of the ensemble.”

In 2009, UNESCO placed Gagaku on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which protects traditions, not places, from disappearing.

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