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Bamboo Flute


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Historical Background: The bamboo flute may well be one of man's first multi-note wind instruments. Since it was made from bamboo, only written records can help us trace its roots (no pun intended). Obviously, the bamboo flute's true origin can be any ecological region that has bamboo as part of its flora. And while early accounts place it in India, China and Japan, bamboo grows in many other areas. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that many ancient cultures could have developed some type of flute made from a section of bamboo.

In India, this flute has been called many names. The prevailing name is "bansuri," which is derived from the word for bamboo or "banse." Other Hindu names are "algoza," "bansi," "kolalu," "kolavi," "kukhl," "murali," "nar," "pava," "pillankuzhal," "pillangrovi," "pulangoil," "vanu, and "vamsi." These names further suggest that many ancient Indian tribes independently invented bamboo flutes which became part of their music cultures and, sometimes, even religious rituals.

The bamboo flute was generally used as a folk instrument to accompany dancers (including semi-religious dances). The Hindu deity Krishna is often depicted as a sheepherder playing a bamboo flute. Over the centuries, the bamboo flute has earned itself a prominent place in Indian music and mythology.

There is also an ancient Chinese wind instrument belonging to the flute family called a "yeu." It was an important instrument and used in many ancient Chinese ceremonial rituals. By the way, "yeu" is pronounced the same as the word "music" in Chinese. The yeu is the most frequently mentioned wind instrument in the book "Shi Jing" (The Book of Songs), an ancient collection of poetry compiled in the 6th century B.C.

About 1,700 years ago, the yeu disappeared following the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). This is when two ancient bamboo flutes became the dominant Chinese wind instruments. One was the "dizi," which was played transversely; and the other was the "xiao," which was played vertically. Why the yeu disappeared and what it looked like remain a mystery. Even during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), little reference is given to the yeu in either court or folk music.

In 1986 and 1987, a number of wind instruments were discovered in central China's Henan Province. These artifacts survived because they were not made from bamboo, but from animal bones. Nevertheless, these instruments resembled the traditional bamboo flute and could produce a complete seven-note scale. Chinese musicologists later named these 8,000-year-old instruments "gudi," or "bone flutes." This archeological find pushed the historical roots of Chinese music back another 3,000 years! Perhaps bone flutes were man's first invented wind instrument. No one knows! Eight-thousand-year-old bamboo flutes cannot be preserved like 8,000-year-old bone flutes.

At the end of the 7th century, the bamboo flute was imported to Japan from China. This flute was originally a six-hole flute called a "gagaku-shakuhachi." Later on, though, a finger hole was omitted to create a five-hole Japanese flute simply called a "shakuhachi." Although little is known about the music that was played on the shakuhachi during this period, specimens have survived and are on display at Shoso-In in Nara, Japan. These flutes are made from thin-walled bamboo and have six finger holes.

Komuso monks (Priests of Nothing) would soon wander Japan playing shakuhachis for money. These monks also regarded the shakuhachi more as a spiritual aid rather than as a musical instrument. They knew that the sounds produced by this flute could soothe a person's body and soul (or mind). These monks practiced "suizen," or "blowing Zen," because it was more a spiritual experience -- both for the performer and the listener -- than a musical experience. For a shakuhachi player, the primary goal was to "become a Buddha in one sound" (ichion jobutsu).

The result of this mindful playing was haunting and dramatic. The music had free-flowing rhythms and compositional structure (honkyoku). Each honkyoku performance differed no matter how many times the same piece was played (perhaps hundreds of times!). Honkyoku is still enjoyed today for its stress-reducing effects.

Between the 12th and 16th centuries, the shakuhachi was played by different classes of people. This included mendicant monks, Emperor Go-Komatsu, and the famous Rinzai Zen Master Ikkyo of Daitoku-ji in northern Kyoto. The shakuhachi was later referred to as the "hitoyogiri" to distinguish it from the longer, heavier, and bigger bore flutes that mendicant monks developed.

Fun Fact: The sect Watazumi Do (Way of the Watazumi or "dôkyoku") was founded in 1950. Watazumi-sensei believe that playing a shakuhachi (which they call Tool of the Way or "dôgu") to be one of the paths of Tao. The musical pieces performed on it are called Pieces of the Way, or "dôguku."

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Bamboo Flute
Bamboo Flute
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