Shakuhachi in Australia

The shakuhachi is an end-blown flute traditionally made of bamboo. It was imported from China into Japan in the early eighth century, and remains one of Japan’s more popular traditional musical instruments.

Despite it’s long tradition and popularity, the official numbers of shakuhachi players in Japan have, according to a survey undertaken in 2002 decreased by a third in the last ten years. In contrast, shakuhachi players and especially shakuhachi music listeners appear to be increasing in Australia at a remarkable rate.

This article describes the ‘shakuhachi scene’ in Australia at the turn of the twenty-first century. It focuses upon the author’s experiences since his arrival in 1986 as Australia’s first professional shakuhachi player. It also discusses the discrepancy between the perceived downturn in player numbers in Japan compared with the increased numbers in Australia.

The shakuhachi has probably been in Australia since World War II, and possibly from much earlier. It was however, virtually unknown here until the latter decades of the Twentieth Century. It is now a vibrant, integrated musical tradition in Australia.

In Australia over the past two decades, the shakuhachi scene has become well extablished. The level of recognition of its distinctive sound, its name (no mean feat in this case!), and its music is increasing amongst the general public. The numbers of persons purchasing shakuhachi CDs and attending live shakuhachi performances are rising. The numbers of persons who own a shakuhachi instrument, and those who are actively studying with a teacher are growing. The numbers of new works and arrangements for the shakuhachi by Australian composers have increased. Finally, the number of professional shakuhachi teachers and performers are also increasing.

Shakuhachi music can be heard most weeks on one of the Australian Broadcasting Company’s radio networks, and shakuhachi recordings can be purchased in most record stores. At least twenty CDs featuring Australian shakuhachi players have been produced in this country. A national organisation of shakuhachi enthusiasts, the Australian Shakuhachi Society, was created in 1997.

The following account of my personal experience with the shakuhachi since coming to Australia in 1986 may shed light on the recent Australian shakuhachi phenomenon in particular, and to a lesser extent the shakuhachi scene worldwide.

Ji Nashi Flute

Ji nashi flutes

There are many differences between ji-nashi flutes and flutes made with ji. But then, there are also an infinite number of differences between all of the flutes that are made with ji.

In other words, it’s hard to generalise. Many people (including me) think that excellent ji-nashi flutes are very desirable. But this might be a personal preference thing, rather than something based upon concrete and consistent observations. Among the subjective words I might use to describe the sounds a good ji nashi flute makes are ‘mellow’, ‘responsive’, ‘rich’, ‘smooth’, ‘traditional’, ‘complex’, etc. Note that none of these words really describe the actual physical sound, but we all think we know what they mean. At least we know what they mean to us!

This may be one of those things that if you can’t tell the difference by yourself, when playing on the two types of flutes or listening them being played, then there is no point really in hearing someone else’s opinion on the subject.

Generalising about pitch or intonation might also be counterproductive. The quality of intonation varies between all flutes, whether they have ji in them or not. One might observe floating around more ji-nashi flutes w/bad intonation than flutes w/filler. This doesn’t mean that therefore ji-nashi flutes in general have worse intonation than flutes with ji.

This is because it is easier to make a bamboo flute w/out ji than w/ji. Making excellent shakuhachi, with or without ji, is of course another matter.

Consequently there are many flutes w/out ji that have bad intonation. These flutes are frequently, though not always, made by people who do not have much training, experience or skill. So perhaps there are more ji-nashi flutes with questionable intonation because more of this type of flute are made by people without the necessary skills and experience as makers, rather anything innately to do with using or not using ji.

I am blessed with a number of ji-nashi or nearly ji-nashi flutes with good intonation and that can also produce the second and even third octaves easily. Also, I’ve seen many more ji nashi flutes in others’ possession that play much better than my own. Maybe I’m not as blessed as others….

The flute I play the most on right now is one made with ji, though maybe the filler has been kept to a minimum. I don’t really know.

Never too old

Someone once asked me if his desire to begin learning the shakuhachi at the ‘advanced’ age of 38 was a sign of mid-life crisis, being too old to start learning a musical instrument. Below is my reply:

If you think 38 is ‘mid-life’, then think again boy-o.

You are still very young and could become a master musician as easily as one who is much younger.

Really the advantage youngsters have over older people is that they are more likely to have the 5-8 hrs a day to practice needed to become a ‘master’. So it is really not age but circumstance that gives most youngsters the advantage.

But in your case, try practicing 30 minutes to one hour a day for a start. The more the better, but that is sufficient for you to reach your goal in a few years (ie., 300-400 hrs of practice).