My Shakuhachi Journey

Shabaka Hutchings

I’ll tell you about my relationship to the shakuhachi, though if we consider everything to be reflected within everything else (as above so below), then I’m actually just telling you about my relationship with my “self.” This ancient instrument is a part of Japan’s cultural heritage and was originally used by Buddhist monks as a meditation tool. I don’t know much about Zen; I’m guided by my intuited perception of “the state.” The study of contextual particularities can only serve to activate a self-reflective mode of thought within me that I generally deem to be contrary to my desired aim to ascend past the body’s restraints and the trappings of the mind using sound. I do not prescribe to the notion that life’s unilateral purpose is to maximize efficiency within every conceivable process. We are all in our specific states of trance and becoming—tradition as the noose wrapped around the neck of every believer. 

My journey began in Swaziland, where I acquired my first flute. A disheveled-looking guy stood before me on the street after he had been chased out of a shopping mall. He had a bag full of small wooden flutes which he’d been unsuccessfully trying to sell inside. I bought one from him, struggled to produce a sound, and felt the blossoming of a private obsession that would precede my relationship with the shakuhachi. I was fixated on the notion that my breath contained the power to animate this object, which looked like a piece of tree bark with some holes rough-cut into it. 

“Primitiveness” signifies the first, the fundamental, the essential manifestation. Its presence illuminates ways of relating to the natural world and ourselves that we have largely forgotten and must strive to learn from. This was my first encounter with a primitive flute. With typical human-centered logic, I assumed that, in the union between person and plant, the tree is “played.” What if the tree affects our own vibrational field in a manner which is both subtle and powerful, causing us to become tuned to nature?

Many years later at a shakuhachi store in Tokyo, I engaged in an awkward standoff with the store assistant as she tried to sell me a student-level instrument. Owing to the specific craftsmanship that goes into the making of each instrument professional horns are seldom given to beginners, only to students who have shown that they are actually on the path of study. What is being sold is the time and dedicated focus of an individual who is committed to bringing a specific piece of raw cane into its most resonant form. To respect the sound is to respect both the plant itself and the craftsperson who shaped it. I understood the assistant’s hesitance yet was resilient in the knowledge that it was no match for my stubbornness. I explained my seriousness in pursuing study of the instrument and mentioned that I would be able to have a lesson with Clive Bell if there were elements of the technique that I needed specific guidance on. From that point everything changed. Clive Bell is the father of Betamax, who plays the drums in one of my groups—The Comet is Coming. Having studied in Japan, and being widely respected for his skill and experimentalism, Clive is regarded as one of the foremost western exponents of the shakuhachi. At the mention of his name, the dynamic shifted: She knew Clive, and he’d been into the shop many times. She commented on how exceptional his playing was, then proceeded to get me an instrument from the back cupboard that she said would be appropriate.

I could hardly make a sound. I struggled out some squeaks and forced tones inside the shop, but I was denied a consistent sound on demand. The shakuhachi requires the performer to blow a tiny airstream across the carved mouthpiece at the very tip of a bored-out piece of bamboo which, in turn, resonates. There is no reed mechanism to jump start the process such as with the clarinet or sax. I was truly a beginner student, but I was without the self-doubt that often plagues beginners and possessed an analytical mind as to how my body would have to adapt to play this instrument. I felt an obligation to go beyond the stereotype assumed initially by the store assistant. I had to practice diligently to learn this foreign body. 

Suggested Listening

Shabaka Hutchings: Black To The Future (Sons of Kemet) (Impulse!, 2021)

Shabaka Hutchings: Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery (The Comet Is Coming) (Impulse!, 2019)

The instrument’s surface-level simplicity is deceptive, as it necessitates the use of our own body as technology. There are four front holes and one at the back. These make a minor pentatonic scale and can be played two octaves (three in the hands of masters). All other note choices and timbral variations happen as a result of subtle adjustments to the lip/head position, airflow direction, air-pressure manipulation, and by half-covering the holes. On western instruments, we provide each chromatic tone an equal temperament which results in us manipulating the emerging sonics less with our own body and more by relying on mechanized technologies to aid the pursuit of (a misguided one, some would say!) tonal equality. 

And so it began. I practiced the flute daily. I assessed what it meant to “do practice,” resisting pre-existing ideas of what I thought was appropriate for me to work on toward my development. I simply spent time with the instrument within an ultra-conscious mode of awareness. I prepared myself to feel and follow whatever instrumental direction felt necessary and urgent in the moment. Eventually, I stopped considering my time spent with the flute in terms of minutes and hours. My relationship with it progressed to the point where chunks of focused playing were incorporated throughout my day. This was a departure from my usual practice routine whereby the boundaries governing when I was and wasn’t practicing were strict and delineated. I thought a lot about breath control. This is a really strange concept when unpacked: To control something assumes a measure of dominance over it, the ability to maneuver the “thing” controlled to one’s own advantage. The breath was my own, though, not an external force. This meant that self-control had to be at the heart of breath control. Self-control is about will power, and this is at the crux of spiritual energy—the power to orient one's will towards intentions and see them manifest. 

I breathe deeply—trying to “feel” my diaphragm—as I’d been told to do in innumerable classical clarinet lessons and masterclasses. Nothing emerges from the instrument, only the sound of air entering what seems to be an infinitely large hole at the front of the stick. The more I blow, the less I seem to be able to create a sound. The frustration of not being able to express myself was deafening. Whenever I thought of breath control, a tension would form in my diaphragm as I endeavored to steady the flow of air from within my depths. I wondered if it was possible to provide my flow of air with forward momentum without the seemingly inherent tension in my blowing technique.

I would fill my lungs with air completely and make sure my lips are sealed with only the tiniest opening allowed at the tip for the air to pass through. Imagining myself spitting out a single grain of rice helps in conceptualizing the smallness of the distance between the lips. The key with this instrument is internalizing the fact that more force doesn’t equal more resulting sound; it’s a focused airstream that does, and a consistency of pressure. To create this small airstream, the lips must be pinned back as if making a wide smile while the very tip of the lips must remain loose and sensitive. It’s a fine line to thread between the tension inherent in pulling your lips back to create the right embouchure for the sound and the relaxation required for both the material to resonate fully and to be able to position the airstream with flexibility. The breath outward must be infused with intentionality from its initial conception until its finale. Whether the body can physically maintain itself within this position of muscular uprightness for long, however, is another matter. The physical result of pinning one’s lips back in the manner necessary to create the sound is muscular exhaustion. This can only be remedied by practicing for hours until to the point where muscles are formed which can facilitate the embouchure relaxing into its correct position with a relaxed uprightness. Without adequate muscular development, the mouth has to exert undue force to maintain its posture as air flows through it in a pressurized stream.

There is an area of my core technique that has remained unresolved since my days of playing bass drum in my high school’s “tuk” band—how my body responds to moments of pressurized intensity. Tuk is the traditional music of Barbados, typically played on double-headed bass drum, snare drum, flute, and triangle. The playing of African drums was banned on the island in the late-1600s because of plantation owners’ fears that the slaves could communicate using drum language. As a result, slaves transmitted fundamental African accentuations, articulations, and linguistic nuance into the music of the British fife and drum corps. This allowed the slave communities to play and hear the essence of “their music” within the shadows of the empire’s cultural assault. I am given life and inspiration from the attitude of the early musicians who were resigned to playing the instruments of a foreign culture and infused it with what they intuited as the essence of African principles, the basis of the society’s cultural food. While playing the interlocking drum hits, I’d become overwhelmed with a depth of feeling that caused my body to loose its sensitivity of touch on the drum. I would then tense up while exerting more energy to add what I (in my youthful folly) thought was more vibe to compensate for my loss of control. In a similar way, if the flute is blown with a raw, unfocused force, more sound isn’t necessarily generated. The instrument reveals its tonal complexity with the forces of energy, precision, and stillness, all working together to maintain a compact airstream that invigorates the bamboo into life. I remember a quote from a 90s American action film that’s stayed with me throughout the years and seems applicable to the shakuhachi’s demands: “The hotter the situation, the cooler the response.”

My relationship with breathing has become softer after having incorporated practice of the shakuhachi into my daily routine over the past two years. It has become oriented more towards an awareness of the subtle shifts and nuances that enliven the breathing process. On my reed-based instruments, the function of the breath is to activate a vibrating reed which in turn causes the instrument to resonate. This meant that I formed a technical habit of expending a lot of force towards the reed—more than was actually necessary to produce either the sound I wanted or my desired dynamic. I would then squeeze my body—starting with my lips, but including the shoulders, wrists, and general frame—to control the resulting sound, molding it into something I found pleasurable. With this excess force came a bodily tension that permeated the depths of my playing. Tension describes what occurs when the body wants to expend energy in response to a strain but can find no appropriate outlet, so the energy is directed inward. (Impotence in the ability to affect the result of a course of events is one of the primary causes of tension in my experience.) 

By deeply listening to what the instrument was sounding, and actively allowing my body to become aware of itself, I relaxed. The specifics of how my body adapted while listening happened in a dimension residing outside my capacity to articulate intellectually. In any case, if I tried to tell myself just what to adjust (as if any action can ever really be replicated within a changing body) then the actions I undertake are too gross, too literal. The body as a technology operates in a micro-perceptive space where listening and intuitive awareness of what needs to be adjusted in service of the sound’s fullest resonant capacity is the only real guide. Practically, this meant me sitting for hours and hours playing long, sustained tones.

All the master instrumentalists I’ve had close proximity to swear by the practice of playing long notes every day. I’ve always known about its benefits, yet up until learning the shakuhachi, I never had the sustained focus to embark on a rigorous practice of this method because I found it boring. Faced with an instrument that needed to be addressed from a foundational technical level upwards (or around, if we strive to see in circularity), I found solace in not playing music but engaging in this technical work that I had previously disregarded. When I was a teenager, I always designated a chunk of my time to HIM practice (Horn In Mouth). This was a zone that also wasn’t about music; it was about time spent with the instrument in my mouth thinking about what my body was doing while I played (literally) anything. Back then, I often applied myself to scales and patterns over hip-hop and basement tunes in the HIM time, but on the shakuhachi, long, sustained tones seem to be the most appropriate.

For years, I’ve been trying and failing at an exercise that Steve Lacy describes in one of his interviews: He said that you must play a single note for three hours. For the first hour, there is an awareness of the exercise at hand and a dedication in completing it. The second hour brings with it boredom and the desire to give up. Past this point, however, into the third hour, the mind starts to work inwards toward the essence of its perception of the sound. At this point, it’s possible to hear the depth and intricacy of the harmonics that form the foundation of each tone the saxophone produces. This exercise is about sustaining consistent awareness of the sound produced at the expense of any other mental forays. I would always start with the best intentions but would become unfocused; my mind would briefly indulge some instrumental tangent, and within 20 minutes, I’d have forgotten my original exercise and be back playing “music.” 

Now, I understand that the point of the exercise is to work at increasing the mind’s capacity to focus on a single element over a sustained time. This only works if the instrument’s role is meditative as opposed to performative. The meditative is concerned with internal procedures whereas performance necessitates the sharing of an internal procedure with an audience. Those lines get blurred, though, since I’ve found that performance elevates itself from a mere commercial exchange of skill resources for money when the conditions facilitate moments of the meditative detachment. This is what I search for, these rare moments when I’m able to transcend the profane reality of performance in public by focusing on the communal sound created by musicians I trust.

Learning the shakuhachi took me back to a point of musical infancy, and in doing so, I had the absolute pleasure of learning from scratch. It’s easy for me to forget the joy I felt when practicing the clarinet as a nine-year-old kid. I would get home from school, and the possibilities of what I could “try” to do on the instrument were endless. As a professional, I still have moments where I achieve this level of inquisitive focus, but I’m much more consciously aware of the factors to be considered in transitioning myself into this state. Actually, there’s only one big factor to be considered: You must stop thinking about what is happening yet proceed with focus and energy. Practice must be then considered accordingly to ensure the desired orientation is ingrained and adhered to, even within the grips of self-reflexiveness. As Charlie Parker (is supposed to have) said, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” I use the shakuhachi as a tool in this regard; its study has become my gateway to what appears to be a limitless dimension of tonal possibility. 

This multi-dimension of tonal possibility exists only if you intentionally listen for, and travel toward, it. There is, after all, still a surface to all that contains depth. To access this space, I was forced to stop thinking in musical terms. I just played one sustained note at a time and tried to keep my focus on the singular point of contact where my breath intersected the tip of the mouthpiece. I started to see practice as more than simply a means of learning to articulate myself within a particular melodic or rhythmic tradition. I was trying to narrow my point of focus inward—away from an awareness of the sound created and toward an awareness of the material vibrating underneath my fingers, and further inward toward an awareness of the source of the breath and each point in its journey outward: leaving the lips and contacting the resonating stick. This is where I kept my focus. My temptation was to think about how it sounded or what possibilities were at my disposal in terms of variation; I endeavored to forget all of this. Those are the considerations of someone who is trying to play music, and what I was trying to do was definitely not that! I simply tried to keep all my attention on the sound of the sustained tones and shepherd them toward their most resonant manifestations. This ritual focusing is the entry point of the multi-dimension where sound is infused with heightened poetic meaning. Artists must continually search for access to this space, embody the experience within a ritualistic framework, and apply the vision reaped from its spiritual vista to everyday life as an alternate lens with which to regard reality’s processes. We must perceive reality as poetically and symbolically as possible. this aids us in understanding deeper spheres of meaning governing our actions and interactions. 

I have mainly been practicing outdoors in parks around London and in resonant spaces of various descriptions that I’ve come across during my wanderings throughout the city. As a result, I’ve been able to sit in an atmosphere of quiet, reflective practice within the soundscape of bird life. This has broadened my dimensional awareness of their presence and the contour of their language. At times, the bird cries are so loud and insistent that I can’t imagine, as someone who proclaims to be interested in sound, how I could have taken for granted this source of constant inventiveness operating right before my ears. I sit for hours at a time listening to the birds, trying not to understand or draw any precise meaning from what was happening. I feel myself changing, the assumed roles of subject and object being reversed. I no longer dominate the space with ideas and grand pretense. The birdsong acted upon me, as does the stick.

Previous to my immersion into the world of birds, they were still all around me, proclaiming their songs loud and free. However, because I didn’t “tell myself” to listen, I didn’t hear them. Playing the shakuhachi in public opened me to a dimension in which birdsong was an insistent presence in my experience of the city. There is a dimension of racism in society which is invisible to the skeptical. This is the irony of those who try not to “make everything about race” or those who “don’t see race.” They become deaf to a reality in which a past shaped upon white-supremacist logic has molded a present characterized by racism and racist violence that is there if you listen for it and are receptive to the signs of its existence.

One of my most profound lessons was given to me while in Lagos chatting to a saxophonist who was playing in the bar of my hotel. We were talking about how musical vocabulary is learned; at the time I was deeply engrossed in a book on intervallic patterns and fascinated about how ingestion of the new shapes and tonal relations contained within would influence what I decide to play in spontaneous moments of creation. At some point in my appraisal of the book, he looked at me scornfully and said, “You know, all you need to do to learn this language is listen to someone speak it. Listen deeply and listen often.” My immediate response was defensiveness; I had more freedom and agency if I “knew” what I was doing, and knowing—at that stage of my life—was connected to being able to understand theoretically how various constituent parts of music worked together. Many years later, the truth in his words would haunt my dreams of shakuhachi. There are areas of knowledge which can only be accessed through direct contact with the thing itself. No amount of books, lessons, ideas, or ideals can serve as a substitute. 

I’m learning the shakuhachi for myself. I feel no pressure to fulfill obligations demanded of me by “the tradition” in terms of path of study. I believe that the instrument itself and my intuition is enough to guide me towards a place where I can disappear into the sound and be healed. There is a human impulse that favors mechanization, which demands that if something is shown to effectively work that for the sake of efficiency, it must be analyzed, taught, and repeated. I prefer to fall over repeatedly in the hope that at some stage, in picking myself from the ground, I will secure a footing more stable than where I began.

My Shakuhachi Journey