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.