Shakuhachi: Fighting Flute, Meditation Tool, Musical Instrument

October 30, 2007

Last week, I went to a lunch talk in a series running at the university where I work on the subject of “Globalization and the Artist.” This particular talk was by James Schlefer, one of the few non-Japanese people to be recognized as a Grand Master player of the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute. He played two pieces and talked about the history of the instrument and how it has changed over time. (The title of his talk, after all, was “The Evolving Shakuhachi.”)

Like many cultural items in Japan, the shakuhachi originally came from China, in the form of the xiao. The xiao, though, traditionally has six finger holes, whereas the shakuhachi has only five. When asked when and why the sixth hole disappeared, Schlefer said that there is about one hundred years (or more, I forget) of lost history between the arrival of the flute and its first real appearance in Japanese writings.

The shakuhachi was originally predominantly used in Japan as a Buddhist meditation tool. Schlefer described the practice as one that encourages the player to concentrate on breathing, individual notes, and the silence between the notes and phrases. The Buddhist monks who used the shakuhachi the most were also itinerant monks, and many of them were ronin, or samurai who had lost their masters, but were still required to keep up their status as members of the samurai class. Becoming a monk was allowed, but they might still need to defend themselves, and for this, the shakuhachi was handy. The end of the flute is the root end of the piece of bamboo the flute is made from. Musically speaking, this is because the hollow inside the flute needs to taper toward the end, which bamboo naturally does at the root. But practically speaking, the type of bamboo used to make the flute is quite thick, and if you leave the root end unshaved, you can get a nice club. A manly flute, it was.

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