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Japanese Bamboo Flute, Shakuhachi Zen Flute - History and Facts

Updated on July 2, 2011
Shakuhachi Flute
Shakuhachi Flute

What is Shakuhachi?

The Shakuhachi, or also known as Zen flute is a Japanese end blown flute. Traditionally, the flute is made from bamboo and was used by Zen Buddhist monks for meditation because of its soulful and relaxing sound. It is also the Japanese most well-known woodwind instrument. Although it may looks amazingly simple in structure but it can delivers an array of impressive tones from gentle and ethereal to rough and fierce.

History

The roots of the shakuhachi date back to ancient China. It came from China to Japan somewhere in the 6 – 7th century. Eventually the flute became a music instrument for those referred to as Zen and Fuke sect. Those Buddhists roamed the country wearing a braided hat called “amigasa” and playing their shakuhachi flute. During the Edo Period, some of them were said to have put their privilege to use and perform spy activities. They used the shakuhachi as a weapon if they encountered former enemies.

Ancient shakuhachis are now kept in shrines and temples such as the Horyuji and Shosouin. However, these ancient shakuhachis are different in shape and length compared to recent instrument. This Japanese bamboo flute is made from the bottom portion of a bamboo stalk (incIuding pan of the root), but versions now exist in ABS and hardwoods. The world has come to love the dynamic and mystical sound produced from this instrument and it is possible to reach a range of between 2 – 3 octaves.

Meaning

Shaku is the old Japanese measurement for foot, whereas hachi is the word for eight. Therefore shakuhachi means ‘one point eight feet’ – standard length for shakuhachi. There are four holes on top of the flute and one hole underneath (for the thumb). But there are also shakuhachis which has seven tuning holes for playing folk songs. Even though shakuhachi has a standard length of 1.8 feet, but different lengths of shakuhachi can also be found which range from the tiny 1.3 to the long 3.6.

Types and Characteristics

Being one of the simplest non-percussive instruments ever conceived. Shakuhachi flute has no keys or pads like a western flute, no mechanism inside like organ or piano, no strings like a violin or guitar, and no reed like a clarinet or saxophone.

Shakuhachi can be made in one or two pieces (with a middle joint). Two of them has no difference in quality, but the two-piece shakuhachi usually contains filler and is therefore easier to transport. The mouthpiece has an oblique blowing edge that enables the player to control the pitch and sound produced by changing the angle at which the flute is blown. This, in turn, produces a unique and delicate change of intonation – a bending or swelling of notes characteristic of the traditional music.

Komuso playing shakuhachi
Komuso playing shakuhachi

How to use Shakuhachi

In order to use it, the player has to blow across the top of the instrument to get a sound. The blowing and breathing is similar to the western flute which is held horizontally. If you notice there is an insert at the top called song mouth or utaguchi. The player has to leave some holes partialy open to get the notes they want. This is accompanied by lifting and lowering the head in a technique called meri-kari. He can also use his head to create vibrato or yuri.

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    • Bud Gallant profile image

      Bud Gallant 

      7 years ago from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

      This is very fascinating.

      Thanks Susan. I really love Japanese culture. Wonderful to learn about these flutes for the first time.

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image

      PETER LUMETTA 

      7 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      A very interesting Hub. The simplicity of the instrument is its beauty. Thank you for this very good information. Peter

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