Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a musical family whose koto music roots lie in the internment camps of World War II. Shirley’s grandparents felt it was important for their daughter (Shirley’s mother) to learn the koto while interned at Topaz and Tule Lake concentration camps.
Shirley started learning koto from her mother about the age of 5. Throughout her childhood, Shirley’s major influence in koto music came from Katsuko Chikushi , one of the few women composers of the koto. She has close ties with the tradition of the Chikushi Kai, learning and constantly performing the core of traditional pieces shared by all koto groups. This group is also open to contemporary music for the koto. From that spirit of open mindedness (within tradition), Shirley also pursued her interest in jazz and as it extends to koto improvisation.
In 1976, she made her first trip to Japan to take her “Shihan” teaching exams. Passing with high scores, she achieved the honor of “Yushusho” (highest ranking honors), the first foreigner to be awarded this degree in the Chikushi School. In 2000, she received her “Dai Shihan” Master’s degree from the same school for her mastery and dedication of the koto.
Shirley’s approach to jazz comes from western classical music (she learned violin in elementary to high school) and traditional Japanese music. Many of the traditional Japanese music styles are similar to the blues. Not coming from a traditional jazz background has given Shirley a different approach to jazz koto. She chose the jazz medium to express herself on the koto, improvising with other instruments without compromising traditional elements…and then, breaking some of the rules.
In the past 50 years, Shirley has been privileged to perform and work with many great musicians, artists and celebrities. She has taught hundreds of students, and trained teachers, such as her son, Brian Mitsuhiro Wong, and Felicia Kazuou Bock, both of whom passed their teaching examinations with special honors.
As Shirley continues to teach and perform , she has also focused her attention towards the research of traditional Japanese artists of the American internment camps. She was surprised to learn that there is little documented about traditional Japanese arts during this period. She has been conducting interviews and collecting artifacts of this era, with the hope of shining a light on this little known but important aspect of the camps.
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