I’ve been a fan of Hanz Araki for years now, first meeting him as one of the best Irish traditional flute players in the US. He’s also a sixth-generation shakuhachi master from a prestigious lineage of Japanese masters. He received the hereditary title of Araki Kodo VI from his father, and now he’s releasing his first solo album of Japanese shakuhachi music. It’s absolutely beautiful, made up of traditional repertoire from his family and performed on a skahuhachi that was handmade by his great-great-grandfather. I think this album is vital and important, so I’m helping spread the word about it.
Perhaps no other instrument in the traditional music of Japan is as easily recognizable as the shakuhachi; an end-blown, bamboo flute. Originally played by itinerant monks as a form of meditation, it has endured centuries of change throughout Japan’s history. For six generations, the Araki family has shepherded this tradition under the name of Kodō.
Named for his great-great grandfather, Hanzaburō made his professional debut in 1988 in Japan only four months after his first lesson from his father. In 2009, the name Kodō was bestowed upon him by his father to become the sixth in his family’s lineage to bear this title. This legacy continues to be the most influential in the genre, offering an unbroken connection to the roots of this haunting music.
In the midst of a catastrophic year for the performing arts, there was a silver lining: Araki was able to take possession of an extremely rare flute made by his great-great-grandfather. The unexpected reunification with a shakuhachi made by his namesake, the isolation of the pandemic, and over 30 years in the music industry, created an apt circumstance for a recording to honor the flute, his father, and grandfathers. 2021 also marks the 250th year since the passing of Kinkō Ryū founder Kurosawa Kinkō (1710-1771).
In January of 2021, he released an album titled Hankyō (Reverberation) with both traditional and more contemporary compositions. The two traditional pieces bookend this collection; Akita Sugagaki, (Ode to Akita) and Kumoi Jishi (Where There Are Clouds). Also featured are Tsuki no Kyoku (Song of the Moon), composed by Kodō II, and a piece written by Kodō V called Dōkyō, (Copper Mirror) which recontextualizes traditional technique into a more modern, but still decidedly non-Western, setting.
Bandcamp for the album: arakikodvi.bandcamp.com/album/hankyo
It was originally introduced from China into Japan in the 7th century and reached its peak in the Edo period (17th–18th century). The oldest shakuhachi in Japan is currently stored in Shōsō-in, Nara. The shakuhachi introduced into Japan changed its form and scale many times after that, and the present shakuhachi was completed in the Edo period in the 17th century. The shakuhachi is traditionally made of bamboo, but versions now exist in ABS and hardwoods. It was used by the monks of the Fuke Zen of Zen Buddhism in the practice of suizen (吹禅, blowing meditation).
The instrument is tuned to the minor pentatonic scale.
The name shakuhachi means "1.8 shaku", referring to its size. It is a compound of two words:
Thus, "shaku-hachi" means "one shaku eight sun" (54.54 centimeters), the standard length of a shakuhachi. Other shakuhachi vary in length from about 1.3 shaku up to 3.6 shaku. Although the sizes differ, all are still referred to generically as "shakuhachi".
Shakuhachi are usually made from the root end of madake (真竹) (Phyllostachys bambusoides) bamboo culm and are extremely versatile instruments. Professional players can produce virtually any pitch they wish from the instrument, and play a wide repertoire of original Zen music, ensemble music with koto, biwa, and shamisen, folk music, jazz, and other modern pieces.
Much of the shakuhachi's subtlety (and player's skill) lies in its rich tone colouring, and the ability for its variation. Different fingerings, embouchures and amounts of meri/kari can produce notes of the same pitch, but with subtle or dramatic differences in the tone colouring. Holes can be covered partially (1/3 covered, 1/2, 2/3, etc.) and pitch varied subtly or substantially by changing the blowing angle. The Honkyoku (本曲) pieces rely heavily on this aspect of the instrument to enhance their subtlety and depth.
Unlike a recorder, where the player blows into a duct—a narrow airway over a block which is called a "fipple"—and thus has limited pitch control, the shakuhachi player blows as one would blow across the top of an empty bottle (though the shakuhachi has a sharp edge to blow against called utaguchi) and therefore has substantial pitch control. The five finger holes are tuned to a minor pentatonic scale with no half-tones, but using techniques called meri メリ and kari カリ, in which the blowing angle is adjusted to bend the pitch downward and upward, respectively, combined with embouchure adjustments and fingering techniques the player can bend each pitch as much as a whole tone or more. Pitches may also be lowered by shading (kazashi カザシ) or partially covering finger holes. Since most pitches can be achieved via several different fingering or blowing techniques on the shakuhachi, the timbre of each possibility is taken into account when composing or playing thus different names are used to write notes of the same pitch which differ in timbre. The shakuhachi has a range of two full octaves (the lower is called otsu 乙/呂, the upper, kan 甲) and a partial third octave (dai-kan 大甲) though experienced players can produce notes up to E7 (2637.02 Hz) on a 1.8 shakuhachi. The various octaves are produced using subtle variations of breath, finger positions and embouchure.
In traditional shakuhachi repertoire instead of tonguing for articulation like many western wind instruments, hitting holes (oshi 押し / osu オス) with a very fast movement is used and each note has its corresponding repeat fingerings e.g. for repeating C5 (リ) the 5th hole (D5's tone hole) is used.
A 1.8 shakuhachi produces D4 (D above Middle C, 293.66 Hz) as its fundamental—the lowest note it produces with all five finger holes covered, and a normal blowing angle. In contrast, a 2.4 shakuhachi has a fundamental of A3 (A below Middle C, 220 Hz). As the length increases, the spacing of the finger holes also increases, stretching both fingers and technique. Longer flutes often have offset finger holes, and very long flutes are almost always custom made to suit individual players. Some honkyoku, in particular those of the Nezasaha (Kimpu-ryū) school are intended to be played on these longer flutes.
Due to the skill required, the time involved, and the range of quality in materials to craft bamboo shakuhachi, one can expect to pay from US$1,000 to US$8,000 for a new or used flute. Because each piece of bamboo is unique, shakuhachi cannot be mass-produced, and craftsmen must spend much time finding the correct shape and length of bamboo, curing it for more or less of a decade in a controlled environment and then start shaping the bore for almost a year using Ji 地 paste — many layers of a mixture including tonoko powder (砥の粉) and seshime and finished with urushi lacquer — for each individual flute to achieve correct pitch and tonality over all notes. Specimens of extremely high quality, with valuable inlays, or of historical significance can fetch US$20,000 or more. Plastic or PVC shakuhachi have some advantages over their traditional bamboo counterparts: they are lightweight, extremely durable, nearly impervious to heat and cold, and typically cost less than US$100. Shakuhachi made of wood are also available, typically costing less than bamboo but more than synthetic materials. Nearly all players, however, prefer bamboo, citing tonal qualities, aesthetics, and tradition.
Shakuhachi is derived from the Chinese bamboo-flute. The bamboo-flute first came to Japan from China during the 7th century. Shakuhachi looks like the Chinese instrument Xiao, but it is quite distinct from it.
During the medieval period, shakuhachi were most notable for their role in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komusō ("priests of nothingness," or "emptiness monks" 虚無僧), who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs (called "honkyoku") were paced according to the players' breathing and were considered meditation (suizen) as much as music.
Travel around Japan was restricted by the shogunate at this time, but the Fuke sect managed to wrangle an exemption from the Shōgun, since their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms (one famous song reflects this mendicant tradition, "Hi fu mi, hachi gaeshi", "One two three, pass the alms bowl", 一二三鉢返の調). They persuaded the Shōgun to give them "exclusive rights" to play the instrument. In return, some were required to spy for the shogunate, and the Shōgun sent several of his own spies out in the guise of Fuke monks as well. This was made easier by the wicker baskets (tengai 天蓋) that the Fuke wore over their heads, a symbol of their detachment from the world.
In response to these developments, several particularly difficult honkyoku pieces, e.g., Distant Call of the Deer (Shika no tone 鹿の遠音), became well known as "tests": if you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn't, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed if you were in unfriendly territory.
With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the shogunate was abolished and so was the Fuke sect, in order to help identify and eliminate the shōgun's holdouts. The very playing of the shakuhachi was officially forbidden for a few years. Non-Fuke folk traditions did not suffer greatly from this, since the tunes could be played just as easily on another pentatonic instrument. However, the honkyoku repertoire was known exclusively to the Fuke sect and transmitted by repetition and practice, and much of it was lost, along with many important documents.
When the Meiji government did permit the playing of shakuhachi again, it was only as an accompanying instrument to the koto, shamisen, etc. It was not until later that honkyoku were allowed to be played publicly again as solo pieces.
Shakuhachi has traditionally been played almost exclusively by men in Japan, although this situation is rapidly changing. Many teachers of traditional shakuhachi music indicate that a majority of their students are women. The 2004 Big Apple Shakuhachi Festival in New York City hosted the first-ever concert of international women shakuhachi masters. This Festival was organized and produced by Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin, who was the first full-time Shakuhachi master to teach in the Western Hemisphere. Nyogetsu also holds 2 Dai Shihan (Grand Master) Licenses, and has run KiSuiAn, the largest and most active Shakuhachi Dojo outside Japan, since 1975.
The first non-Japanese person to become a shakuhachi master is the American-Australian Riley Lee. Lee was responsible for the World Shakuhachi Festival being held in Sydney, Australia over 5–8 July 2008, based at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Riley Lee played the shakuhachi in Dawn Mantras which was composed by Ross Edwards especially for the Dawn Performance, which took place on the sails of the Sydney Opera House at sunrise on 1 January 2000 and was televised internationally.
The shakuhachi creates a harmonic spectrum that contains the fundamental frequency together with even and odd harmonics and some blowing noise. Five tone holes enable musicians to play the notes D-F-G-A-C-D. Cross (or fork) fingerings, half-covering tone holes, and meri/kari blowing cause pitch sharpening, referred to as intonation anomaly. Especially the second and third harmonic exhibit the well-known shakuhachi timbre. Even though the geometry of the shakuhachi is relatively simple, the sound radiation of the shakuhachi is rather complicated. Sound radiating from several holes and the natural asymmetry of bamboo create an individual spectrum in each direction. This spectrum depends on frequency and playing technique.
The primary genres of shakuhachi music are:
Recordings in each of these categories are available; however, more albums are catalogued in categories outside the traditional realm. As of 2018, shakuhachi players continue releasing records in a variety of traditional and modern styles.
The first shakuhachi recording appeared in the United States in the late 1960s. Gorō Yamaguchi recorded A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky for Nonesuch Explorer Records on LP, an album which received acclaim from Rolling Stone at the time of its release. One of the pieces featured on Yamaguchi's record was "Sokaku Reibo," also called "Tsuru No Sugomori" (Crane's Nesting). NASA later chose to include this track as part of the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft.
Shakuhachi are often used in modern film scores, for example those by James Horner. Films in which it is featured prominently include: The Karate Kid parts II and III by Bill Conti, Legends of the Fall and Braveheart by James Horner, Jurassic Park and its sequels by John Williams and Don Davis, and The Last Samurai by Hans Zimmer and Memoirs of a Geisha by John Williams.
Renowned Japanese classical and film-score composer Toru Takemitsu wrote many pieces for shakuhachi and orchestra, including his well-known Celeste, Autumn and November Steps.
Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes formed a Jazz quintet in 2002 called The N.Y.C. Shakuhachi Club. They play Avant-garde jazz versions of tradition American Folk & Blues songs with Ritchie's shakuhachi playing as the focal point. In 2004 they released their debut album on Weed Records.
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: February 2021.
Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Hanz Araki / Araki Kodo VI, (4) A komusō playing shakuhachi, from J. M. W. Silver, Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs, 1867, (5) Brian Ritchie (unknown/website).