The Shakuhachi Flute
The Shakuhachi flute can be a religious impliment, a musical instrument and a weapon! How did this come about?
An elderly man kneels on pristine tatami, body wrapped in an austere kimono, eyes partially closed as he compresses his lips against the bamboo recorder-like instrument in front of him. An almost discordant note emerges, the music has begun.
This bamboo instrument is the shakuhachi, a curiously haunting and traditionally Japanese instrument. The shakuhachi is a form of flute made from bamboo that has five finger holes drilled into it. The name means 'a foot and 8 inches' (about 50 cms) which refers to the length of the instrument. While this length was traditional, the flute now comes in a number of different lengths but retains the same name. It is played vertically like a recorder and often used to accompany folk songs. It was once used only by a sect of wandering Buddhist monks who played it as an instrument of devotion. Through the music, they tried to empty themselves of what they thought of as 'false reality' and connect with 'true reality' through nature. These monks also won the right to play the shakuhachi for small amounts of money, similar to the way a busker does today.
How is it made?
The shakuhachi is made from the bottom or root section of the bamboo tree. Not only does this give better acoustics but it also makes the instrument solid enough for a weapon, useful in the days of the wandering monks. This length is almost hollow already with the exception of nodes that grow at certain intervals which are knocked out. This hollow pipe has holes drilled along its length - four finger holes at the front and a thumbhole at the rear. The mouthpiece is simply the top of the bamboo cut at a slight angle. To play the flute, you blow into the mouthpiece and raise and lower your fingers on the holes. More variation is possible by varying the angle that you blow and varying the fingering to expose a full or a half hole. The placement of the holes and the skill in tuning are what distinguishes a good shakuhachi from an ordinary one.
The Shakuhachi was first brought to Japan from China in the 8th century but was suppressed and did not reappear again until Zen monks known as Komu (monks of empty nothingness) adopted it in the 17th century. Along with this instrument, the koto (a very large zither-like instrument) and shamisen (similar to the banjo but with three strings) also became popular. These three instruments form the basis of the 'orchestra' at many public performances of theatre such as kabuki, Noh and bunraku.
Shakuhachi music traditionally has deep religious significance stemming from these early times, and one of the most long held beliefs is that you can achieve enlightenment through a sound. The monks practised immersing themselves in the sound and believed that the instrument was actually a religious tool. Tunes and skills were passed from monk to monk through imitation by example without the necessity for formal classes.
Many of these monks were also samurai or ronin (lordless samurai) and used the flute to aid meditation when practising unarmed combat skills and even practised using the flute itself as a weapon. Even today, the shakuhachi continues to be associated with martial arts.
In modern times, the shakuhachi is used for folk songs as well as for original classical, jazz and modern pieces either as a solo instrument or as part of an orchestra. The flute is no longer restricted to monks and the playing of meditative or religious music. Nonetheless, religiously significant pieces are still considered an indispensable part of a shakuhachi player's repertoire and it is this tie to the past that fascinates so many listeners.