MAKING THE SHAKUHACHI I: THE BAMBOO
By David Osborn
Introduction: It’s All in the Quality of the Bamboo
Whenever I asked my Shakuhachi teacher, Iiida Sesshu, who was a Shakuhachi maker by trade, what made his Shakuhachis so good, he would always say, “My flutes are good because the Chikuzai (bamboo material) is good.” And come to think of it, whether you’re making the Shakuhachi or any other flute, the finished flute can only be as good as the inherent quality of the original bamboo. What are the desirable qualities that indicate a high quality piece of bamboo? They are straightness, hardness, density, resiliency and sonority. A novice to the Shakuhachi may think that all bamboo is the same, but the truth is that good pieces of bamboo are relatively rare, and the Shakuhachi maker, or the person he sends out into the bamboo grove to harvest suitable pieces of bamboo for him, must be extremely selective in choosing suitable pieces that meet all the above criteria, and even other criteria as well.
The Shakuhachi is traditionally made from a species of bamboo that is botanically known as Phyllostachys bambusoides; so important is this particular variety or species of bamboo, not just for the Shakuhachi, but for other traditional uses of bamboo in Japanese culture, that its common Japanese name is Madake, which means “real bamboo” or, “authentic bamboo”. Another Japanese name for this bamboo species is Moso Chiku, or Moso Bamboo – more precisely, Moso Chiku Odake, which specifies that the Shakuhachi is to be made from the male stalks or culms only – believe it or not, bamboo comes in male and female stalks or culms, like most everything else in Nature. The part of the bamboo stalk or culm that is traditionally used to make the Shakuhachi is the root end of the stalk or culm – in fact, the harvester of Shakuhachi bamboo usually has to dig down to expose about three to four layers of ringed rootlets to get down low enough to include the real rootstock.
This video, which is in Japanese, provides a good overview of the entire Shakuhachi making process. In the beginning of the video, the bamboo is harvested in the mountains. The maker shakes a bamboo stalk and declares that it is too young, because it is too weak and flimsy.
The Anatomy of a Root End Piece of Shakuhachi Bamboo
The great virtue of bamboo, and the reason why it is such a preferred material for making flutes from, is that it is hollow on the interior – Mother Nature has done most of the work for you in hollowing out the interior of the flute. If the whole stalk were completely hollow from top to bottom, however, it would be too flimsy, and lack stiffness or strength – so, there are nodes placed periodically along the length of the bamboo stalk, which are not only visible from the outside as thickened knots similar to the joints on fingers; these knots also have rings around them as well demarcating where one joint or internode ends and the next one begins. These nodes are not only visible on the outside of the bamboo stalk or culm; they also penetrate through to the interior, dividing what would otherwise be a completely hollow interior into sectioned internodes.
Like everything else in Nature, a stalk or culm of bamboo growing in the grove has to obey the laws of physics and support its own weight; therefore, the walls of the bamboo, both interiorly as well as exteriorly, are thicker and wider in outer diameter as one approaches the bottom of the bamboo stalk. The nodes, which strengthen the bamboo stalk, are also more frequent, or closer together the closer one gets to the bottom of the stalk or culm. As we go further on down the stalk or culm of bamboo, the walls get thicker, the interior or bore diameter gets narrower, and the outer diameter gets wider, making for thicker and thicker walls; in addition, the nodes get increasingly more frequent and closer together the further down one goes on the stalk or culm as well. By the time the rootlets start coming out of the bamboo stalk at ground level and below, the bamboo stalk is no longer hollow, but rather, solid. A myriad of tiny rootlets sprout out of the bamboo stalk, ringed all the way around the culm, to anchor it firmly into the earth – at least three to four levels or rings of them.
For making a traditional Japanese Shakuhachi, usually there are at least two to three levels or rings of rootlets that are used, sometimes four, at the bottom or root end of the piece of bamboo. Above this lower or bottom end of rootstock and rootlets, the lowermost four nodes at least are used, possibly five, if a midsection is to be cut out or removed. The finished instrument will generally have four nodes showing, with the topmost node being the very top of the instrument, where the mouthpiece or Utaguchi (literally, ‘song mouth’) is placed. Between the bottom two nodes, the first and the second holes are placed; between the second and third node up from the bottom, the remaining three upper holes are placed. These esthetic formalities are strictly observed in the art of Shakuhachi making, which is dominated by the traditional ideals of Kakko, or pleasing aesthetic form. When a Shakuhachi maker goes out into the wild to harvest a stalk of bamboo, he will usually take along with him a few different marked measuring rods, showing where the finger holes would be placed on various standard sizes and pitches of Shakuhachis – and then he selects the pieces whose nodes fall conveniently in between where the holes are to be placed, at the prescribed intervals.
Going Out into the Mountains to Harvest Bamboo
Traditionally, the preferred season for harvesting bamboo is in the dead of winter; not only are potential problems connected with insect infestation at their lowest ebb, but also, there is not a lot of sap or moisture flowing up towards the leaves – everything is being held down in the roots of the bamboo stalk. Besides these seasonal specifications, there are desirable geographic and climactic specifications as well for finding desirable pieces of bamboo. First of all, bamboo that grows in the valley, in rich, flat or damp, marshy soil is to be avoided, as it will have excessive moisture content, and wind up being quite soft after drying. The desirable pieces of bamboo grow in coarse, rocky, well-drained mountain soil, on slopes and hillsides; all these factors combine to make for bamboo that is harder, hardier and more resilient. Also, bamboo growing in cooler climates, which have colder winters, is preferable, since this also induces hardness, density and resilience in the bamboo. Like so many other plants, bamboo, even of the same species, can vary greatly in its qualities depending on factors connected with soil and climate. On one extreme, I have seen bamboo that was scarcely harder than cardboard; on the other extreme, I have seen Shakuhachi bamboo that was so hard that it could hardly be cut with the sharpest knife.
The Shakuhachi maker goes through the whole grove of bamboo, searching with a keen eye for only the choicest bamboo stalks – of the right outer width or diameter, and the right spacing between the nodes, with the finger holes falling in the right places. The stalk also has to look strong – and Iida Sensei told me that the strength and hardness of a stalk of bamboo can be judged primarily through the appearance of its nodes – strong looking nodes means strong bamboo, and vice-versa. After a while, the bamboo harvester develops an intuitive knack for being able to size up the most desirable pieces. And then, if all the external factors seem to be right, there is one more important and crucial test that the stalk has to pass before being harvested. The Shakuhachi maker then shakes the stalk vigorously back and forth, trying to assess how solid or flimsy it is. You see, within a few months after a new stalk or culm shoots up from the underground rhizomes, it attains its full outward height and girth; from then on, it matures, and that maturing process takes place largely on the inside, with the walls of the bamboo stalk gradually getting thicker, year after year, by growing and thickening from the inside only. So, if the bamboo stalk is too flimsy, it is too young – gotta wait two to three more years or so. I remember Iida Sensei telling me about a particular bamboo stalk that had absolutely perfect specs, but it was too young, and he had to wait at least three more years before it would be ready to harvest. He carefully marked the stalk, and prayed for three long years that no one would come to cut it down – and he went back for it three years later and – lo and behold – it was still standing, ready to be harvested!
Once all the various conditions have been met, and a stalk of bamboo is ready to be harvested, there is a definite procedure or protocol for cutting it in the proper way. First, using a staggered approach that cuts the bamboo stalk from first the bottom-most side, and then the uppermost side, the top part of the stalk, which will not be used to make a Shakuhachi, is cut off and discarded, taking care not to provoke splitting of the bamboo stalk. The next step is to take a shovel and dig around the roots of the bamboo, exposing the rootlets. Then, the harvester goes in with a hatchet, first cutting off the peripheral rootlets until the underground core of the stalk is exposed; then, only after all the peripheral rootlets have been cut and severed, the bamboo harvester uses his hatchet to cut the central core of the underground stalk. Only after everything has been carefully cut away, as much as possible, can the tenacious stalk of bamboo finally be wrested from its bed or resting place in Mother Earth. When the bamboo harvester gets home, he then washes off all the residual dirt from the bamboo rootstock.
Drying and Curing the Bamboo
When bamboo is green, or only partially dried and cured, it is susceptible to cracking. This is the great vulnerability of bamboo; although its individual longitudinal fibers have a very high tensile strength, bamboo is notoriously prone to cracking along the length of its grain. Cracking of bamboo is usually the result of mounting pressures and mechanical stresses building up within the piece of bamboo as it dries out unevenly, quicker in some parts of the piece of bamboo than in others. Sudden changes in climactic factors, such as temperature and/or humidity levels, as well as air pressure, and even wind, can all lead to the cracking of bamboo. A quality flute like the Shakuhachi needs to be well dried and cured, so that it is no longer so prone to cracking, and is a durable and lasting musical instrument. So – how do you get a piece of bamboo from the green stage all the way to the state of being thoroughly dried and cured without it cracking?
The traditional process of drying and curing a piece of bamboo for making into a Shakuhachi is a long and gradual one, and is undertaken in several steps. First, the green bamboo is rotated over a traditional Japanese charcoal stove, called a Hibachi, gradually rotating it like a chicken on a spit until it changes color from green to grey, starting from the bottom or root end and working one’s way all the way up to the top end, taking care to leave no part of the bamboo un-cooked or unprocessed. The bamboo will start to “sweat” as the residual moisture is boiled out; when it does boil out, the Shakuhachi maker wipes the moisture or sap off with a rag. The most residual moisture is boiled out of the bamboo when the roaster gets to the top. Care must be taken to cook or heat all the parts of the bamboo, from the bottom to the top end, evenly, avoiding any singeing or charring of the bamboo, which would only disfigure it. Excessive singeing or charring of the bamboo, and the uneven heating or cooking of it, can also lead to cracking.
After the initial cooking of the bamboo, and the transformation of its color from green to grey, Iida Sensei would then leave the bamboo outside, or on the roof, for a month or so to be subjected to the elements – the rain and sun – until its color is bleached from grey to a pale or whitish hue. Then, the bamboo gets stored in a closet, or in a shed, for several years – Iida Sensei would never touch a piece of bamboo that was any younger than five years old, and many of the pieces he worked on were ten years old or even older. Heck, he even worked on pieces that his father, who was also a Shakuhachi maker, had cut down during his lifetime. I remember Iida Sensei letting me smell the fragrance of a well aged piece of bamboo that he had been drilling out and working on; the fragrance utterly amazed me – it was something like the sweet scent of roses. The smell of young bamboo, when it is being worked on, is rather raw, green and grassy smelling. The color of the bamboo also darkens somewhat with aging – from a pale whitish color to cream colored. If slightly greenish patches are visible on the skin of a piece of bamboo, it is not well cured, and needs to go back in the woodshed for several more years.
Straightening Out a Crooked Piece of Bamboo
Bamboo, in its natural state, rarely grows perfectly straight; sometimes it bends markedly, and with the Madake variety of bamboo used for Shakuhachi making, it usually bends at the nodes. So – what can be done if a piece of bamboo is markedly bent? It can be straightened out in a bamboo press. Although bamboo at room temperature is quite stiff and inflexible, if it is heated up, again over a traditional charcoal stove or Hibachi, it gets soft and flexible enough to bend if the right pressure is put on it. Iida Sensei would mark the part of the joint to be subjected to pressure in order to re-bend the joint in such a way as to straighten out the bamboo. He would then put the bottom or root end of the piece of bamboo to be bent in the bottom noose of the bamboo press, and then move the central block until it was right up against the marked area, to which the pressure was to be applied. Then, using some strong rope, Iida Sensei would then tie the top end of the piece of bamboo tighter and tighter until the joint to be straightened out was sufficiently straight in the press. He would then leave the bamboo securely tied in that position until the bamboo cooled down; when it had cooled down completely, he took the piece out of the press. Bamboo bending and straightening is a fairly risky process, however; if the piece of bamboo is put under too much pressure, or the force applied to straighten it out is too severe, the bamboo could crack, and all would be lost.
So this, in a nutshell, is a brief description of all the steps of the traditional Shakuhachi making process that are involved in harvesting the bamboo and preparing it for use in the making of a Shakuhachi. I hope that you have found this material interesting and informative.
Non-Traditional Ways of Bamboo Selection and Preparation for Making a Shakuhachi
What has been described above is the traditional process or protocol for selecting and preparing the bamboo for making a Shakuhachi. Root end pieces of bamboo for making a Shakuhachi, of traditional Madake (Phyllostachys bambusoides) and Black Bamboo, or Kuro Chiku (Phyllostachys nigra) are available from quality bamboo dealers like Frank’s Cane and Rush in Huntington Beach, California. However, it may not always be possible to dig up or obtain authentic root end pieces of bamboo – but this should not deter one from making a good, if not totally authentic, Shakuhachi, or Shakuhachi style flute, of one’s own. Below are instructions for selecting and preparing suitable pieces of bamboo for making such flutes:
Alternative Species of Bamboo for Making Shakuhachi Style Flutes
Besides non-root end pieces of Madake (Phyllostachys bambusoides) that are obtained from a bamboo dealer, there are other desirable species of bamboo that can be used for making Shakuhachi style flutes, each one with their own particular virtues as well as drawbacks. I will be discussing each of these species below:
Madake / Moso Bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) – The Madake that is available from bamboo dealers is usually called Yellow Bamboo or Moso Bamboo, and generally comes from Taiwan or the Philipines, although it can also come from China as well. If you want to go authentic, at least in terms of the variety of bamboo being used, this is the way to go. However, in my experience, there is a great difference in bamboo quality with the Madake that is generally available at various bamboo dealers, with only a few of the best quality dealers, like Frank’s Cane and Rush in Huntington Beach, California going to the time and trouble to select only the highest quality bamboo for their warehouses. As for the variations in quality, the basic hardness and density of the bamboo can vary considerably, as well as the straightness, roundness and other qualities of the bamboo as well. Be selective and only choose the best pieces for your flutes.
Tonkin Bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis McClure) – After authentic Madake, Tonkin Bamboo is the best bamboo to use for making Shakuhachi style flutes, in my opinion. As its common name implies, it hails from the Tonkin Gulf region of southern China and northern Vietnam, and was the top variety of bamboo used for making fishing poles before the advent of synthetic materials, due to its high strength and resilience. The hardness and density, and also the basic sonority, of Tonkin Bamboo are even superior to that of Madake, in my opinion, and if one takes care to pick pieces that are down near the root end of the stalk or culm, one can do quite well with Tonkin Bamboo for making a Shakuhachi style flute. Tonkin Bamboo is also the preferred species of bamboo for making the Romanian Pan Flute.
Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) – A close botanical relative of Madake, Black Bamboo is another bamboo species that is highly desirable for making flutes from, mainly because of its superior hardness, density and sonority, which I even consider to be superior to that of Madake. The tone of Black Bamboo is very sweet and sonorous, and combines the softness and mellowness of Madake with the brilliance of Tonkin Bamboo, taking the best aspects and qualities of each. Because of its great sweetness and sonority of tone, Black Bamboo has been used to make many different traditional kinds of flutes in China, like the Di-Zi transverse flute as well as the Dong Xiao, a vertical or end blown flute that was the predecessor of the Shakuhachi. The only way in which Black Bamboo comes up short in comparison with Madake is in its wall thickness – Madake has thicker walls. Aesthetically speaking, Black Bamboo may very well be the most beautiful and desirable of all the bamboo species, with its dark color, and exquisite mottling in many pieces.
Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) – Golden Bamboo is another close botanical relative of Madake that is quite desirable for making Shakuhachis, and other flutes, from. Think of it as a species that is midway between Madake and Black Bamboo, combining the virtues of both. From Madake, Golden Bamboo takes its thicker walls, as well as its more regular inner bore diameter, with less distortion at the nodes. From Black Bamboo, Golden Bamboo takes its superior sweetness and sonority – tone and sonority wise, Black and Golden Bamboo are very similar. Perhaps the greatest drawback of Golden Bamboo is its relatively short distance between the nodes, to the point where it may be hard to find pieces that have sufficient space between the nodes for placing the finger holes, especially in the larger and lower pitched flutes. But perhaps the greatest drawback of Golden Bamboo is its limited availability at bamboo dealers in many countries, such as the United States. Mr. Frank, at Frank’s Cane and Rush, informs me that this is because of pest related issues. So, the best way to obtain a good piece of Golden Bamboo, even a root end piece, may very well be to dig it up or cut it down yourself from someone’s bamboo garden. The rich golden yellow color of Golden Bamboo is another shining virtue of this particular species.
Tiger Bamboo / Tora Chiku (Phyllostachys nigra Bory) – Tiger Bamboo, known in Japanese as Tora Chiku, is a particular variety of Black Bamboo that is indigenous to the Japanese island of Shikoku in Western Japan. It resembles Madake in the overall quality, hardness and texture of its wood, but is darkly colored like Black Bamboo, and has a distinctive mottling pattern that has given it the name of Tiger Bamboo. The use of Tiger Bamboo for making the Shakuhachi, or Shakuhachi style flutes, was pioneered by the American Shakuhachi maker Monty Levenson of Willits, California. I have visited Monty’s workshop and have observed Tiger Bamboo closely for myself. In general, Tiger Bamboo tends to be wider in diameter, both on the outside as well as in its inner bore diameter, than Madake; therefore, it is mainly good for student model flutes, and those with a wide bore, for mellow, meditative playing. Monty also uses Tiger Bamboo for making his Precision Cast Bore Technology flutes, which is a modern Shakuhachi bore work innovation that he himself pioneered, since the wide inner bore diameter allows for ample room to pour in and mold the epoxy resins that are used in precision casting the inner bore of his flutes. Experiments in transplanting Tiger Bamboo outside the island of Shikoku have not gone well, and have failed to reproduce the distinctive tiger-like mottling pattern. – 1.
These are the major species of bamboo, Madake or otherwise, that I would consider for making Shakuhachis and Shakuhachi style flutes from. You may find other varieties of bamboo that have very desirable qualities for Shakuhachi style flutes, but these are the main ones.
Selecting Suitable Pieces of Bamboo for Shakuhachi Style Flutes from a Bamboo Dealer
Because root end pieces are generally unavailable from most bamboo dealers, regardless of the particular species we are talking about, it is advised that one be more open and flexible as to exactly where the nodes fall in relation to the finger holes. The main thing one wants to avoid, of course, is having a finger hole directly on a node, but even if this must be the case, this is an aesthetic drawback only, and need not pose a barrier to the making of a flute that has a great sound, and plays very well. It is nice if one can find a three internode piece of bamboo, with four nodes total – one at the top, one at the bottom, and two in the middle – as this seems to be the next most desirable nodal placement or configuration after the strictly traditional arrangement. In such a configuration of nodes, the bottom intervening node generally falls right below the second finger hole up from the bottom, with the four remaining upper finger holes all falling below the uppermost of the two intervening nodes. Having a node right at the top end, where the mouthpiece or Utaguchi is located, is the one nodal placement feature that is absolutely necessary; it is not absolutely necessary that the bottom end of the flute be congruent with a node as well.
Drying and Curing Alternative Bamboo Species
The bamboo that is generally available from bamboo dealers and warehouses is usually halfway dried or cured; in other words, although it is not totally green, it is not totally well dried and cured either. And so, additional forms of heat treatment may be desirable or necessary before the bamboo is considered to be stable enough to make a quality flute from. Therefore, I recommend baking the bamboo at low temperatures in an oven, which is similar to the kiln drying of wood, before making a flute from it. Many, if not most kitchen ovens will accommodate bamboo pieces up to two feet long, or even slightly longer - see if the oven in your kitchen does. Put the bamboo into the oven, even placing it diagonally on the racks, a good and safe distance away from the heating elements if at all possible, when the oven is cold. Then, close the oven door and turn up the temperature to 150 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. Next, turn the temperature up to 200 degrees F for another half hour, and to 250 degrees F for another half hour after that. Then, turn the oven off and let the oven cool down naturally, back to room temperature. The bamboo, after it has been baked in this manner, is virtually immune to cracking.
www.shakuhachi.com – This is the official website of Monty Levenson and Tai Hei Shakuhachi. I have known Monty for many years, and share a birthday with him; I first visited him in Willits, California was back in the ‘70s, when he had an entry in The Whole Earth Catalog. Monty offers many kinds of flutes for his customers, both traditionally styled as well as innovative or alternative, at all price ranges, to fit every budget, and all your Shakuhachi needs.
www.franksupply.com – This is the website of Frank’s Cane and Rush Supply in Huntington Beach, California, who I have gotten my bamboo from for many years. I can personally attest to the high quality of Mr. Frank’s bamboo, and would highly recommend this bamboo dealer to flute makers wherever they are. While too many other bamboo dealers have simply gone the tropical home décor and bamboo flooring route, Frank’s Cane and Rush Supply has continued to cater to craftsmen of baskets, flutes and other bamboo specialty items with an uncompromising dedication to quality and service.