Traditional bamboo basics

Prolific shakuhachi master promotes music, materials

by Catherine Pawasarat

The shakuhachi, Japan’s end-blown bamboo flute, is gaining international popularity and few play it better than American-born John Kaizan Neptune.

Neptune studied the shakuhachi at the University of Hawaii in the early 1970s, before moving to Kyoto, where he became a master of the Tozan school in 1977. Here he received the name Kaizan (Sea Mountain). His exploration of the shakuhachi’s potential is vast: He uses it to play jazz fusion, Western classical music, Japanese folk music, traditional hogaku pieces from numerous schools, improvisation and many of his own compositions.

The prolific Neptune has produced 18 albums in the last 21 years, including “Bamboo,” which garnered him the Outstanding Album of the Year Award for 1980 from the Monbusho’s Cultural Affairs Agency, the first awarded to a non-Japanese, and the first awarded for a jazz album.

Since 1980 Neptune has also made his own shakuhachi flutes. “I started by re-tuning my own flutes, and working on bore shapes. I learned gradually, initially by working together with other makers,” he explains.

“Shakuhachi has this reputation for being so difficult: They’re really hard to make, and even then, they don’t necessarily sound so great.”

The ability to make shakuhachi prepared Neptune for a unique endeavor, the band TakeDake. This play on words could be translated as “Bamboo Bamboo” or “Bamboo Only,” and signals the band’s use of exclusively bamboo instruments. Though much of Neptune’s other work has a jazz influence, TakeDake is more rooted in the culture of Asia.

“TakeDake’s music comes out of a love and appreciation of world music, especially Asian. We’re directly influenced by the great musical traditions of Japan, China, India, Indonesia and others,” says Neptune.

Hearing and seeing Neptune play with TakeDake is a real treat. The musicians obviously enjoy making beautiful music, and play with the added excitement of ongoing improvisation. If the music doesn’t win you over, their good-time vibe will.

Neptune plays his shakuhachi in ways that you’re not likely to hear or see elsewhere. Besides blowing into the end he’s “supposed” to, he plays the flute sideways, sings into it, hums into it, runs his fingers back and forth over the holes for a staccato effect and strikes the bottom as though it were the head of a tsuzumi drum.

Neptune says his next CD will be a new one with TakeDake, with more original compositions as well as some Western classical pieces. TakeDake’s first CD, “Asian Roots,” is an exquisite amalgamation of sounds from this part of the world. Most of the pieces were composed and arranged by Neptune, and feature reminiscenses of Java, the Korean peninsula, Japan and India.

Besides shakuhachi, Neptune has made congas, a drum kit, a “bambass” (a bass instrument that looks like giant pan pipes, but is played with mallets), a marimba-like “baliphone,” a frame drum (the head is bamboo paper), bamboo charcoal chimes and an “uduboo.” This last instrument is based on an udu, a clay pot percussion instrument from east Africa, but Neptune’s version is made from a piece of Japan’s jumbo moso bamboo. All resonating surfaces are made entirely from different kinds of bamboo. In 1997 Neptune displayed his instruments in Chiba Prefecture as part of a series of art exhibits on the theme of nature.

When not playing music, Neptune promotes the potential of bamboo. As the liner notes to “Asian Roots” states: “It would be possible to sit in a bamboo chair, in a bamboo house, and eat bamboo shoots, cooked over bamboo charcoal, eaten from a bamboo plate with bamboo chopsticks, while listening to music made by bamboo instrument.”

Finding new ways to make bamboo a daily part of peoples’ lives again — as it once was in Asia — could be a good alternative to current patterns of natural resource use, Neptune points out.

“I hope TakeDake will help people look at bamboo differently. It grows faster than any other plant on earth, and its growth cycle is only four years, which means you can harvest it after just four years. Old-growth forests take hundreds of years to grow, so it is a very good alternative.”