The Japanese bamboo flute
The shakuhachi is the Japanese vertical bamboo flute made from thick-walled madake bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides). It has 4 finger holes on the front and one at the back making a pentatonic scale but through the meri-kari system of partial hole closing, up and down head movements and subtle changes in embouchure, a 12-tone chromatic scale up to 3 octaves can be produced. The shakuhachi, though simply constructed, has an extremely wide range of musical expression; it can dramatically alter tone colour through delicate use of micro-tonal pitch changes, unique fingering and blowing techniques.
The name shakuhachi refers to the standard length of the instrument in traditional measuring units, 1 shaku, 8 (hachi) sun, which is 1.8 Japanese feet or 54.5 centimeters (D) although flutes of various lengths are played, most commonly 1.6, 1.8, 2.0, 2.4, 3.0, and 3.4. Broadly speaking the shakuhachi exists in two main varieties – flutes that have paste or lacquer applied to the inside wall of the instrument (jiari) and flutes which largely leave the natural linings of the inside of the bamboo (jinashi).
The shakuhachi was introduced into Japan around the end of the 7th century AD and evolved through a series of modifications, reaching its present form during the 17th century. During the 16th–19th centuries, the shakuhachi was played by Zen monks who practiced it as a form of religious discipline and musical meditation, thus the instrument has been used for centuries as a means for spiritual development. Presently, it has become an important instrument in contemporary music, and is – together with taiko – perhaps the best-known Japanese instrument in the world.
Many people who do not know anything about the shakuhachi have nevertheless heard the instrument performed in soundtracks to film productions such as Jurassic Park, Sacrifice (Tarkovsky), Harry Potter, Godzilla 2014, Last Samurai, A River Runs Through It, Mark of Zorro, Kill Bill, Anaconda and Babe, amongst others. Shakuhachi sounds have also been extensively sampled and used within pop music, most notably probably in the intro of Peter Gabriel’s hit ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986).
Whether in the lofty traditional repertoire, the wide range of contemporary world music or within the wider context of popular culture, the timeless sounds of the shakuhachi provide a rich musical experience for all.