But until 1991 I’d never even seen the instrument which inspired us to create them, the shakuhachi.
That changed the day I heard the one a Japanese expat had brought with him to India. Instantly it blew me away. Its deep wild wailing sound was totally unlike any other flute. So when we learned he was about to make another, I sought him out and politely asked if I could work alongside of him to craft a flute for us. (It was automatic to be respectful since I’ve long been a devotee of almost everything Japanese and Chinese. That Mitsuko has an equivalent love of Western Culture is one important reason our marriage continues to thrive and deepen.)
“Ok, let us make a shakuhachi,” he grunted looking like he’d bit into a particularly sour lemon. His expression wasn’t reason for great optimism, but at least he’d said “yes”.
Since in Varanasi it was impossible to find the correct traditional material, a dense bottom section of Japanese bamboo, for his new flute he was going to use a two-joint length of much softer and lighter Indian scaffolding bamboo.
The next day we squeezed into a cycle rickshaw and set off in search of the same material for ourselves. Deep in the chaotic commercial center of town we located a place willing to let us clueless foreigners pick through their yard of vertically stacked canes. Most were split or too huge for flutes (up to 25 ft. long and a foot in diameter), but hidden among them were a few thin uncracked ones with enough length between their joints.
Several days later I found myself up on the fourth floor of the dilapidated old palace where my “teacher” and some hipper Assi music scene expats rented rooms. In the center of a marble floored indoor courtyard a small pile of charcoal burned on a terracotta plate, while between a row of graceful carved columns you could look out across the enormous peacefully flowing Ganges river.
I watched carefully as with a small handsaw he cut a two foot length of bamboo. Then he heated a metal rod red hot and with a gush of acrid smoke burned through the crosswise membrane blocking the cane’s hollow inside at each joint.
After that it was my turn and using his saw, fire, and metal rod, I quickly brought my piece of bamboo to the same stage as his. It was very exciting. I could almost see our future shakuhachi floating before my eyes.
But my “teacher” didn’t share my exalted mood. Rather he seemed distinctly put out I was there cluttering up his space, and I wasn’t much surprised when suddenly he announced we were done for the day.
After that for weeks we tried to chase him down to make another appointment, but somehow it was never the right time, and I never got another lesson.
Still we badly wanted a Shakuhachi and were not about to give up.
Deep in the winding streets of the tool bazaar we found a large round file and with it smoothed the already burned through inside of our bamboo.
Then using numbers defining the distances between finger holes as percentages of a flute’s total length (ratios my “teacher” gave me before he’d had enough of my pushy insensitive non-Japanese being), we marked the positions of the five finger holes. Next out on our little balcony, over a charcoal fire we heated a thin metal rod and burned through the finger holes before rounding their edges and insides with a smaller round file bought at the same time we got the big one.
Our holes turned out wider than those on my “teacher’s” shakuhachi, but we told ourselves this might even be a plus, that big ones could be easier to partially close and so to play the microtones which have always fascinated us. (This turned out true.)
Next up was the mouthpiece. Crossing our fingers and with only intuition to guide us about size and angle, we sawed the necessary sloped plane into the side of the thick burned through top joint of our cane and filed a rounded notch in the center of its edge.
Then I took a deep breath and blew….
And out came this wonderful warm sound! We had our first shakuhachi!
Of course the mouthpiece needed further work and we quickly found the finger holes wanted to be rounded on the inside as well as the outside surfaces. But soon it was a playable instrument.
And it was only the first. Bamboo and charcoal were cheap and during that blessed period in our lives we had endless time. So we kept improving our instruments until by the time we left India we’d made about 20 flutes including the two long (24 and 23 inches) deep toned ones we play on all three of our CDs.
Subsequently we started wondering whether my “teacher” actually completed any of the shakuhachis he claimed to be making in India. Certainly we never saw him with one. When he played a flute it was either a proper shakuhachi brought from Japan or a bansuri (the basic Indian bamboo flute). Still without his initial help and inspiration we never would have started building instruments, and for that we must be forever grateful….
Oddly enough a similar thing happened the following year when a different Japanese expat appeared in Assi, our then still sweet and almost unspoiled neighborhood, with a kalimba (thumb piano) that he implied he’d made. Again we were blown away and with not much more than a few sketchy hints started experimenting on our own. And again only later did we realize he himself hadn’t made his beautiful kalimba, that it was actually the work of a Japanese instrument maker gone native in Thailand.
I guess these musicians “made” their instruments like rich people “build” houses.
Thanks to my “teacher” abandoning me forcing us to figure out all the details on our own, and because a length of light Indian bamboo is big different from a “proper” Japanese root joint piece, our flutes look and more importantly sound quite different from the traditional instrument. Their tone is warmer and it’s easier to play them softly, which is lovely since with them we’ve been able explore a whole new world of sweet quiet little sounds.
This saved us from getting stuck in the limitations of the sadly shrunken traditional shakuhachi repertoire. (In Varanasi the only tune anyone played was the legendary “Cry of the Distant Deer”.) Instead our flutes became tools for opening our breathing, emptying our minds, and before we’d even noticed playing them morphed into sadhana (spiritual exercise), grew beyond being merely a prelude to performance.
Once we realized our instruments were not quite proper shakuhachis, it was necessary to give them a new name, and since we loved them we affectionately started calling them “our shokis”.
The kit you need to make a shoki is singularly minimal and elegant. A small saw for cutting the required length from a cane of bamboo and the mouthpiece slope, some pieces of metal and a way to make them red hot for burning through the joints and rough shaping the finger holes, a small sharp knife for touching things up, a few round files, and some sand paper.
But to properly record a shoki turns out to be far from simple.
For one thing its sound is not electronics friendly. Its dynamic range is enormous and its high notes will rattle and distort on all but the most serious equipment. Indeed even after we’d learned to clean up our sound by editing out noises, when recording our shokis it was still essential to stay severely chilled, to regretfully avoid many of its weird thrilling notes which are so intoxicating to play….
Also we’re not yet satisfied with the way we position our shoki microphones. For our first CD we played next to a condenser mic hung in a plastic mesh bag from the low ceiling of our rented trailer…. but the sound was muddy. For our second we improvised stands to position 2 dynamic mics with just enough space between them to float our shoki…. but then we were frozen in place, had to hold our instruments completely stationary…. While for Work In Progress, our most recent CD, we put a single condenser mic on a pad just below the tip of our shoki…. but again the sound lacked brilliance.
Next time we record we’d like to try lightweight pickups directly attached to our flutes.
Note that shokis are not recorders where the sound is made by blowing through some sort of whistle or fipple, but true flutes where it comes from carefully directing the breath across a sharp curved edge.
Before we left India we had fantasies of making an even longer even deeper toned shoki. Of necessity it would have had a different arrangement of finger holes, but we thought that could be interesting. However here in the States we’ve never found bamboo even close to suitable. Still one never knows….
As for bamboo didgeridoos like those we made and loved to play in India, it’s unlikely we’ll ever make more. Though they’re magical no-mind instruments and circular breathing does get you really high, they’re for people with young strong teeth.
Now that we’ve gotten so ancient, we’re not eager for more gaps in our mouths.