I asked Alcvin Ramos of Bamboo-In to participate in my Masters interview series some time ago. I just received the response and wanted to share it immediately.

-How long have you been playing the shakuhachi?
18 years.

-How did you discover the shakuhachi?

I first heard the sound of the shinobue played by Hiroyuki Koinuma in the film "Ran" by Akira Kurosawa when I was in high school. It was that sound that awakened in me something that seemed to be lying dormant. I rushed to the library to research all I could on Japanese bamboo flutes. As I read about the various bamboo flutes of Japan I came across the shakuhachi, for the first time. The pictures of these fascinating looking bamboo flutes and interesting history piqued my interest. Upon hearing the deep, husky tones of the flute on a CD by Goro Yamaguchi, I knew I was to learn this flute one day. The question was when? I knew of no teachers or connections to the shakuhachi world at that time, and thought how impossible it would be for me to play this most beautiful and amazing instrument. In university, one of my classmates had a shakuhachi and I tried it, but it was cracked so it couldn't make a sound. But the sheer beauty of the bamboo and it's simple design really impacted me deeply and I resolved to get to Japan somehow to learn this instrument. So before graduation I found a job in Japan teaching for the ministry of Education and that summer right after graduation I was on a plane to Japan to start my new life. The first thing I did when I arrived in my little town (Yanai-shi) in central Japan was to seek out a shakuhachi teacher which wasn't too difficult to find.

-What aspects of the shakuhachi most appealed to you when you first discovered it?

First of all was sound....so organic and natural; peaceful yet wonderfully dynamic. Then the incredible simplicity of design which veils a profound complexity. Then the rich and fascinating history so intimately woven into Japanese culture, history, and spirituality. Irresistible to say the least!

-Who were your main influences and what style initially appealed to you most in the beginning?

In the beginning I didn't know anything so all styles appealed to me. When I started to listen to other players the ones that guided my desire to progress were Katsuya Yokoyama, Miyata Kohachiro, and Watazumi Doso.

-What teachers do you feel have had the biggest impact on your playing and conceptions of the flute?

Everyone! Each teacher encompasses all there is of each other in their own unique ways. But in a nutshell:

Katsuya Yokoyama for opening up my overall vision of limitless possibilities of the shakuhachi especially honkyoku; Marco Lienhardt for his Yamagoe; Kaoru Kakizakai (also for his Yamagoe) as well as Teruo Furuya for training me and giving me the tools to live as a shakuhachi player/teacher; Miyata Kohachiro for his Tsuru no Sugomori; Watazumi Doso for showing me how to be a shakuhachi (or more accurately a "hocchiku") warrior and the importance of being connected in body/mind/ spirit/nature with shakuhachi practice; Atsuya Okuda for teaching me another universe of jinashi sound and how incredibly, utterly beautiful and subtly complex it is once you throw away all your preconceptions; Yoshinobu Taniguchi for the passionate light of love on the Path of Bamboo; and many many more teachers and makers who have contributed profoundly to my life as a shakuhachi player. I still have much to learn on this road of bamboo.

-When did you decide to begin making shakuhachi and did you have any teachers initially?

I decided to embark on making shakuhachi in 1998. My first making teacher was Iccho Muramatsu in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Then Hoshi Bonchiku. Then Atsuya Okuda in jinashi style. Then Murai Eigoro. Then Kinya Sogawa. Then Shugetsu Yamaguchi. My interest is in making jinashi shakuahchi only.

-Who has been the biggest influence on your shakuhachi making?

They all have been equally inspirational.

-When did you decide to pursue both teaching and making as a full time venture?

In 2001 when I received my shihan license, I decided do shakuhachi as my life sustenance. I am not a full-time maker as teaching and performing take up most of my time.

-How long have you been running Bamboo-In now?

5 years.

-How have your conceptions of the flute most changed now that you have so much more experience in the culture and the instrument?

The beauty and depth of the shakuhachi is even more incredible now. I am constantly amazed. One of the great things Katsuya Yokoyama Sensei told me was that everyone creates their own shakuhachi world. For me connecting with other aspects of Japanese traditional arts and culture is part of enhancing the shakuhachi experience. Personally, my years of practice of the martial art of Aikido really enhanced my relationship to shakuhachi as the body-mind connection is the basis for all arts in Japan and the martial arts is great way to learn this deeply as well as how to relate properly to others in a learning situation. Many komuso were samurai and so understood and practiced martial ways. I also learned many excellent stretches and warm-ups that benefit shakuhachi playing.

I also studied tea ceremony for a few years which gave me a deep sense of the Japanese aesthetic and atmosphere. There is so much inspiration in the tea experience. How space is used in the construction of architecture; how to relate to other beings in a space in a beautiful way; appreciation of the details of art and the senses; all applicable to the shakuhachi experience. To play shakuhachi in a tea room/house after having tea is a perfect experience.

I continue to practice sitting meditation (zazen) in conjunction with shakuhachi practice. For example after 2 hours of sitting (interspersed with walking meditation) I play 30 minutes of honkyoku. Silent meditation really energizes my shakuhachi playing in general. Going out by the ocean and blowing RO for 1 hour is also a regular practice of mine. It does wonders for your overall sound.

I organize pilgrimages to Japan every few years to harvest bamboo for shakuhachi making and visit komuso temples to pay respect to the ancestors of shakuhachi and of course to take lessons with the masters and to experience the many joys of Japanese culture. I feel these are invaluable experiences for the shakuhachi student.

Everyone is unique and beautiful like each individual piece of bamboo. I consider it a miracle that I am doing what I am doing and am extremely happy. When I first started shakuhachi I told myself, if I ever learn how to play this instrument with even an acceptable amount of proficiency, my life would be complete and I can die happy. There are so many obstacles in learning shakuhachi from the financial, to cultural, to mental and physical. I've dealt with all of these to a considerable extent. But somehow I persevered because of my love of this instrument and have come this far. Hard to believe for me.

The shakuhachi has opened up worlds for me that is pure beauty and love. I still have lots to learn and feel like I have only scratched the surface of the shakuhachi experience.

-When making flutes do you have a preference for jiari or jinashi flutes and why?

Jinashi because this is what I choose to concentrate on.

-What schools of music have you studied and play?

As far as Japanese shakuhachi styles go: Tozan, Kinko, Dokyoku, Zensabo, Minyo. In the beginning, I mainly concentrated on traditional ensemble pieces. Then it was only koten honkyoku for many years. In other Japanese music, I also played taiko for a year in my early shakuhachi days, and actually came very close to applying for the Kodo apprenticeship program, but decided to focus on only shakuhachi. Later, I studied Satsuma Biwa and singing for one year while I was in Japan with Yukio Tanaka to get a deeper understanding of certain Japanese musical aesthetics. Then later when I felt I attained an acceptable level of technical skill and feel of the shakuhachi sound, I started doing improvisation more in a jazz and rock context then experimenting with playing with other traditions such as Indian, Celtic, African, Chinese, etc. Recently, the world of the Chinese guqin (7-sringed bridge-less zither) has opened up to me and I started studying and playing this most beautiful instrument. I consider this the stringed equivalent of the shakuhachi as there are many parallels in philosophy, aesthetics, music , and history. Very fascinating!

From an early age, I've always loved electronic ambient music (actually one of the big reasons I started playing shakuhachi was because I got the same feeling when I listened to deep space electronic ambient music!), so now I'm really immersing myself in playing shakuhachi in that sound world collaborating with various ambient atmospheric and live PA musicians and creating music in that genre.

-Do you have one style of music you tend to play more?

It depends on the situation. But mostly Dokyoku as that is what I mainly teach. In the last several years, I have been experimenting with playing new music with taiko and percussion players, fusion rock bands, and ambient electronic music. I enjoy playing with other instrumentalists from different musical traditions from all around the world. I recently was introduced to humpback whale music by one of my musical collaborators who is a leading authority on the subject and have been fascinated by their songs and find that shakuhachi can play whale music very well!

-As I understand it you have earned your Dai Shihan license recently with Taniguchi. Did he also award you your Shihan license?

No. My Shihan license was from Kaoru Kakizakai and Katsuya Yokoyama. Interestingly, I didn't receive a shakuhachi "geimei" artist name from them. Although I didn't study with Taniguchi Sensei for an extended amount of time, he granted me an honorary Dai Shihan title as he felt I deserved it based on his assessment of my skill in playing shakuhachi during our lessons together. I didn't expect that actually. I was ready to study 10 or 20 or more years with him until that time, but he said I was ready. So I accepted it. The name he gave me is 'Ryu Zen" which means "Dragon Meditation".

-Do you teach online or in person more than the other?

Mostly online now.

-Your website says you offer lessons via Skype. Do you feel Skype is an equally effective tool for teaching shakuhachi?

To an extent. Person to person is the BEST way to learn of course. Through internet, you can't hear and feel the real sound of the shakuahchi and you can't interact with the student and the flutes so closely. So you do your best with the limitations. But it is quite effective despite the limitations.

-If there was one piece of advice you could share with someone aspiring to become the best player they could be, what would it be?

Study with a good teacher consistently learning everything you can from them. Practice long hours. Go to Japan if you can and feel the culture and atmosphere. Learn about the whole process of shakuhachi from harvesting to making, to playing so that you can be intimate with the whole experience of shakuhachi. Connect with nature and your environment; know yourself and your limitations and accept everything in the moment and try to improve daily. And don't forget the feeling you first got when your heart first heard the shakuhachi!

-Thanks for taking the time to thoughtfully fill out the questions and thank you for all you do for the shakuhachi community!

It is my pleasure!

Thanks to Alcvin Ramos again for the time he took to complete this. Stay tuned for more.

Comments (1)

On November 23, 2011 at 6:23 AM , SA Perillo said...

I'm from the Philippines and I was amazed with the fact that even a Japanese bamboo flute looks simple in appearance but it is actually very difficult to play. I've read that if plays by the master this Shakuhachi Flute create an amazing, subtle, sensual music - prized as being perfect for meditation and relaxation. It’s beautiful, soulful sound made that best hear when you are taking a good rest or about to sleep. A must have shakuhachi flute!