Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto
Koto musician, teacher, band leader, filmmaker
Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, a fourth generation American of Japanese descent. Her mother is a respected head of the Chikushi Kai in the Bay Area, with close ties to her teachers in Japan. Shirley was taught within that tradition, learning and constantly performing the core of traditional pieces shared by all koto groups and also the repertoire particular to the Chikushi Kai. Importantly, it is a group which is also open to contemporary music for the koto. From that spirit of open-mindedness, Shirley also pursued her interest in jazz as it extends to the koto, and improvisation.
In 1976, Shirley received her “Shihan” degree (instructor’s license) with “Yushusho” (highest) honors from the
Chikushi School in Fukuoka, Japan, and her "Dai Shihan" Master’s degree from the same school in 2000 for her mastery of the koto.
A dedicated musician for over 50 years, Shirley strives to involve diverse genres of art and music in her performances. She teaches private students, and has offered classes in koto music at public schools and at universities, most notably classes at UC Berkeley. Shirley has incorporated storytelling, poetry, hip-hop, gospel, bluegrass, jazz, European classical, and has arranged world songs from countries such as China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Philippines for koto, as well as performing and arranging traditional and contemporary Japanese songs, and composing her own koto pieces. She also is the leader of the world jazz fusion group, the Murasaki Ensemble.
The koto is an extremely versatile instrument,” says Shirley, “Though it seems limited and simple in its nature, it’s possible to extract a myriad of textures and sounds through various techniques and even percussive rhythms by incorporating the body of the instrument itself. The koto is initially easy to play, but it really takes years of practice to be able to produce a good sound.”
Shirley’s koto influences include koto masters Katsuko Chikushi, Kazue Sawai, June Kuramoto and Kimio Eto. Her jazz influences come from the members of the her jazz group, the Murasaki Ensemble, who are percussionist Vince Delgado, guitarist Jeff Massanari, flutist Matt Eakle, and bassist Alex Baum.
Because of Shirley’s versatility on the koto, she has performed for many notable people and celebrities, such as:
Senator Diane Feinstein, George Lucas/Lucas Films, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Walter Shorenstein, Larry Ellison, Christina Aguilera and Mikael Gorbachev. She has also performed at many eclectic events from the Fillmore Jazz Festival, Union Street Jazz Festival, the AT&T Golf Tournament hosted by Clint Eastwood, and the Sacramento Symphony. Shirley has performed at numerous community events, and given of her time to many of them, including the Cherry Blossom Festivals in San Francisco and Cupertino, many Obon festivals in Oakland, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose, just to name a few.
Most of Shirley’s life, she has been interested in researching Japanese traditional performance arts in the World War II concentration camps, wondering if others in camp had similar experiences to her mother learning Japanese koto. In 2012, a National Parks Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites grant was awarded to the documentary film,
“Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performing Arts in the World War II Internment Camps”, which turned her decades-long research into a film, completed in June 2014. Hidden Legacy has been screened publicly at numerous community showings, at universities including UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, Wellesley, Brandeis and University of Massachusetts in Boston, and in Japan at Tokyo Arts, Waseda, Musashino and Doshisha Universities, and has been shown nationally on public TV.
Because of her research in interviewing over 30 artists in connection with the practice of traditional Japanese arts in the WWII camps, Shirley is dedicated to the continuance of these arts in the United States, and continues to teach, demonstrate and perform in honor of this history and legacy.
In 2012, Shirley was honored by the Hokka Nichibei Kai Japanese American Cultural Association of America by being inducted into the Bunka Hall of Fame for her life-long dedication to teaching and performing on the Japanese koto. Shirley also became the first koto performer from outside of Japan to qualify for the prestigious Kenjun Koto Competition, in 2018.