COMMON BAMBOO SPECIES FOR FLUTES
By David Osborn
Introduction: A Flute Maker’s Survey of the World of Bamboo
Bamboo is one of the most useful materials known to man. In the Asian and third world cultures to which it is indigenous, Bamboo has been used not only for making flutes, but also as a building material, for cooking utensils and other household items, for slide rules and other precision instruments, and even for medicine. Musically, although flutes are probably the most natural use for Bamboo in the form that Nature has provided it, Bamboo has been used for many other musical instruments as well – for whistles, and various percussion instruments like rattles, shakers and xylophones. Let’s face it – Bamboo is a very hard, resilient and resonant material.
The world of Bamboo is indeed vast, comprising over 70 different botanical genuses, or geni, and hundreds of different species. In this article, I will discuss some of the major species of Bamboo that I am aware of, which have been used for making flutes. Obviously, not all species of Bamboo can be used for making flutes; Dwarf Bamboo is too small and narrow, and some of the larger species are too wide, for example. This listing and discussion is by no means complete or exhaustive, but I do believe that it will give you, the reader, a good overview of the possibilities and potential of Bamboo for making flutes.
Assam Bamboo (Schizostachyum spp.) – The best and choicest Bamboo for making the North Indian Bansuri or transverse Bamboo flute comes from the northeastern Indian region of Assam, which is in the misty foothills of the Himalayas. Botanically speaking, this Assam Bamboo is mainly of the genus Schizostachyum, with multiple species of this genus being represented. The structural virtues of this Bamboo for making the North Indian Bansuri lie mainly in the fact that it has an extremely long distance between the nodes – so much so that an entire Bansuri flute, with a length of over two feet (60 cm.) or more, can be made from a single internode, excluding the nodes at both ends. And with no intervening nodes to disturb the perfect evenness of its bore, the optimal acoustics and playability of the Bansuri are assured. Assam Bamboo also has a very slight, almost nonexistent taper to it, being almost perfectly cylindrical, with nothing more than about a millimeter or so of contraction between the top or blowing end and the foot of the tube. Assam Bamboo is also quite thin walled, and on the soft side, tending to have a nice, mellow tone. The main down side of Assam Bamboo, especially for those living in North America and Europe, is its exotic sourcing and lack of availability, although I believe that certain varieties of Schizostachyum may be growing in Florida, and utilized by flute makers there. Bansuri maker Jeff Whittier, of northern California, hops on a plane and goes all the way to Hawaii to harvest his Bamboo.
Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) – Of all the different species of Bamboo that can be used to make flutes, Black Bamboo is undoubtedly the most beautiful and attractive. And so, it is a favorite ornamental variety of Bamboo in Asian inspired gardens everywhere. The coloring of the lustrous skin of Black Bamboo can range from a dark coffee color to a kaleidoscopic interweaving of mottled olive, black and golden brown. In terms of its overall tone quality and sonority, Black Bamboo is a superior species as well, and is used for making many different varieties of world flutes, like the Chinese Di-Zi and Dong Xiao. Another interesting feature of Black Bamboo is that, of all the different species within the Phyllostachys genus, Black Bamboo has the most prominent membrane lining its inner bore. This thin membrane is scraped off whole from the Bamboo’s interior and is attached to the exterior of an extra hole in the Chinese Di-Zi to create its vibrant, buzzing, kazoo-like sound. Without this buzzing membrane, the tone quality of Black Bamboo is exceptional, combining the brilliance, sonority and sound power of Tonkin Bamboo with the soft, mellow richness of Madake, or Shakuhachi Bamboo.
Structurally speaking, Black Bamboo is of intermediate to variable internode length, with some poles having much longer internodes than others. It also seems to be a bit straighter than Madake, although there can be bowing or graceful curving of some internodes. The nodal shape and structure follows the general pattern of the Phyllostachys genus, tending to be rather short, squat and wide, with a prominent notch. On the inside, the down side of Black Bamboo is that it has certain quirks or irregularities in its bore diameter, which often tends to narrow considerably towards the bottom of the internode – and so, the flute maker must make bore adjustments in Black Bamboo with various round files or rasps and other reaming tools to ensure a greater evenness and uniformity of the bore. The other major species of the Phyllostachys genus, which are Madake and Golden Bamboo, do not share this structural impediment or defect.
Carrizo (Arundo donax) – Carrizo is the Spanish word for the Sawgrass or River Cane that grows in the canyons and river beds of Mexico and the American Southwest. Carrizo is used by Aztec style flute and drum bands to make their flutes. The walls of Carrizo are rather thin, the wood is soft and pithy, and the inner bore is quite irregular, tending to swell in the centers of the internodes and contract significantly at the nodes. All of these qualities and attributes do not make Carrizo a very choice material for flute making, although it will do as a makeshift material if nothing else is available. The Middle Eastern Ney, or Sufi inspired reed flute, seems to be made of this species, with an instrument always being made seven internodes in length.
Castillion Bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) – Castillion Bamboo is another ornamental variety of Bamboo that graces many gardens. Its chief and distinguishing outer aesthetic feature is its bright yellow color, which is interspersed with longitudinal bands of green striping. Castillion Bamboo is most similar to Japanese Madake, or Shakuhachi Bamboo, in its overall structure and morphology, with the main differences being thicker walls and a softer wood. Because it tends to be softer in its wood quality than Madake, the tone of Castillion Bamboo is definitely soft and mellow. It could be a nice variety of Bamboo for making Native American Style Flutes.
Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) – Golden Bamboo, like Black Bamboo and Madake, belongs to the Phyllostachys genus; in its overall qualities and characteristics, it seems to be in the middle as a happy medium between Black Bamboo on the one hand and Madake on the other. Structurally, its wall thickness is intermediate between Madake and Black Bamboo, with its inner bore being free of the quirks and inconsistencies of the latter (see Black Bamboo). Of all the Phyllostachys species used in flute making, Golden Bamboo tends to have the shortest internode length, which handicaps it a bit for making the longer, lower pipes on a Pan Flute. In terms of its aesthetics and coloring, Golden Bamboo is also intermediate between Madake and Black Bamboo as well, having just enough of the dark pigmentation to turn it a rich golden color. Acoustically speaking, the overall sonority of Golden Bamboo seems to be a cut above that of Madake, but falling a little shy of Black Bamboo. In its intermediate position within the Phyllostachys genus, Golden Bamboo can be seen as a happy medium between Black Bamboo and Madake, giving the flute maker the best of both worlds – the superior sonority of Black Bamboo minus its bore quirks and defects. A major drawback of Golden Bamboo seems to be its lack of availability, as commercial Bamboo dealers and importers don’t seem to carry it. But it is an attractive species, and therefore a favorite in many gardens – you have to go there and harvest it yourself. Pan Flute maker Paul Goldheart, who sells his flutes on e-Bay, makes his flutes out of Golden Bamboo.
Italian Cane (Arundinaria sativa) – Italian Cane is a semisoft species of cane that is native or indigenous to Italy and the Mediterranean basin. Italian Cane may very well have been the very kind of cane that the great god Pan used to raft together his first set of panpipes. It is also the preferred material for making clarinet and saxophone reeds, as well as those for the oboe and bassoon. A botanical cousin to Tonkin Bamboo, which is of the same Arundinaria genus, Italian Cane is a lot softer, but still has quite a bit of sonority and a sweet, mellow tone. Because it is so soft, it works very easily, but because it is so soft, it is the kind of cane that you would rather raft together on a splint than to slat and glue together to make a Pan Flute the traditional Romanian way.
Madake (Phyllostachys bambusoides) – Madake, which literally means, “true / authentic Bamboo” in Japanese, is the preferred species of Bamboo for making the Japanese Shakuhachi. Of all the major flute making species of the Phyllostachys genus, Madake has the lightest coloring or pigmentation, the thickest walls, and the longest average internode length. It also is slightly softer than Black Bamboo or Golden Bamboo, and although it still has quite a bit of good sonority, its tone is decidedly more mellow. Also called Moso Bamboo, or simply White or Yellow Bamboo, Madake is the species of Bamboo that is still most widely sold and distributed by Bamboo dealers and importers in the United States, although, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, Chinese Tonkin Bamboo is once again making a resurgence. The only difference between the Madake sold in Bamboo warehouses and the kind used by the Shakuhachi maker is that the latter digs up root end sections of Madake. Besides Shakuhachis and other flutes, Madake is also used as a building and scaffolding material in Asian countries, as well as for cooking utensils and other household items.
Quena Bamboo (Aulonemia quecko) – The species of Bamboo used to make the Andean Quena and Quenacho (Tenor Quena) is another one of those rare species that have an internode length of two feet or more. Typically, the bottom or foot end of a Quena ends in a node, which has a hole drilled into it, which gives the Quena its sweet, veiled, muted tone. The upper end or blowing end of a Quena does not coincide with a joint; a simple notch is carved in the blowing end to serve as the mouthpiece. In terms of its overall hardness and sonority, Quena Bamboo can range from a little softer than Madake to almost as hard as Tonkin Bamboo, with the softer pieces having a softer, more mellow tone, and the harder pieces having more sonority and brilliance. Because of its long internode length, I have always felt that Quena Bamboo would be great as the pipes of a Pan Flute, especially the long, low pipes of a Bass Pan Flute. However, my Andean friends from Ecuador maintain that, for some reason they can’t explain, Quena Bamboo does not yield a good sound when used as pipes in a Pan Flute. However, I have experiential evidence to the contrary, having personally seen Pan Flutes that were made from this species of Bamboo, which sounded quite good. Although originally indigenous to South America, Quena Bamboo can now be found throughout Central America, all the way up to the Baja California peninsula of northern Mexico.
River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea) – According to Charlie Mato-Toyela of Blue Bear Flutes, River Cane was once very widespread throughout the southeastern and Midwest regions of what is now the United States, with large cane breaks dominating the coastal plains and riverbeds. There is even a good case to be made that River Cane was the original material for making the Native American Flute – certainly, many fine Native style flutes have been made from it. Being of the same Arundinarea genus as Tonkin Bamboo, River Cane has longer internodes but seemingly softer wood; accordingly, its tone tends to be more soft and mellow. Pieces of River Cane could also conceivably furnish the pipes for a Pan Flute, or for a rafted together facsimile of one, but I have never seen this done.
Shinodake – This slender species of Bamboo is the one which is used to make the Japanese Shinobue or Yokobue (transverse flute), which is played, along with the Taiko, or drum, at Shinto festivals. Although I found mention of it on the internet, I could not find the botanical name. However, from its general form and morphology, it seems to be a species of the Ochlandra genus, and a botanical relative of Travancore Bamboo. It has a very long internode length, but it is lacking in overall hardness and quality of the wood. I have tried to make Pan Flutes from it, but without much success, as it lacks hardness, denseness and overall sonority.
Tonkin Bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis McClure) – Tonkin Bamboo is the preferred species for making the Romanian Pan Flute, especially the smaller, high pitched instruments. Of all the species of Bamboo that I have seen used for flute making, Tonkin is generally the hardest, and is renowned for its tone quality and sonority. Although Tonkin Bamboo has great sound power and sonority, its sound may be too brash and brassy for some tastes; these people often prefer the mellower sound of the Phyllostachys species, like Black Bamboo, Golden Bamboo, or the mellowest, which is Madake. Tonkin Bamboo has a somewhat longer internode length than the Phyllostachys species, reaching to one foot (30cm.) or more. Because of its hardness, Tonkin is generally the hardest Bamboo to work with. The internodes of Tonkin Bamboo tend to be a bit narrow and tapered at their upper end, especially in the middle to higher internodes, and the longitudinal grooves created by branches sprouting off at the upper nodes are much smaller than in the Phyllostachys varieties. In addition to the Pan Flute, Tonkin Bamboo is also used for the Chinese Di-zi, and besides flute making, Tonkin Bamboo was, until the introduction of synthetic materials, the preferred species for making Bamboo fishing rods.
Travancore Bamboo (Ochlandra travancorica) – Travancore Bamboo is indigenous to the Travancore region of south India, and is used for making the Venu, or South Indian flute, which is their version of the North Indian Bansuri. Generally, a node is used as the upper cork or stopper for the Venu, which is otherwise completely nodeless, as this species of Bamboo has a very long distance between its nodes. Travancore Bamboo is on the soft side, like the Assam Bamboo used to make the Bansuri, but has slightly thicker walls. Its tone is sonorous and vibrant, but on the mellow side.
Weaver’s Bamboo (Bambusa textilis) – Weaver’s Bamboo is so-called because it is commonly split into strips and used to weave baskets. However, because of its extremely long internode length, in excess of two feet (60 cm.), I believe that Weaver’s Bamboo would be an excellent species for making the North Indian Bansuri, as well as the longer, lower pipes of a Bass Pan Flute, without any nodes. Although Weaver’s Bamboo does have sufficient hardness and sonority, it seems to be a bit on the softer side, somewhat like the Assam Bamboo used to make the Bansuri.
This concludes the brief listing of the most common and well-known species of Bamboo used for flute making – at least those species and varieties that I have been able to verify and document. I wish to emphasize again that this listing is by no means exhaustive or complete. I am virtually certain that there are other fine species of Bamboo that have been used, and which are now used, for making flutes.