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About the flutes

The kyotaku is also known as japanese flute, zenflute or long shakuhachi. It has a pentatonic tuning with 5 holes like the shakuhachi, but makes a deeper and more mellow sound than the shakuhachi. The name shakuhachi is derived from its length. It measures 1 shaku and 8 (Japanese=hachi) sun which is about 55cm. Kyotakus come in different lengths from about 2 shaku 2 sun (or 2.2) up to about 3.1 , which is around 95 cm.

This type of flute came around 900 A.C. with buddhism from China to Japan. It was first played by the so called matress monks (they always carried their straw mat with them). Around the 17th century it started to be used by the so called komuso monks: wandering begging monks who were closer to zen buddhism.

In the old days the kyotaku seems to have been more widely in use, but was more and more replaced by the shakuhachi towards the end of the 19th and the 20th century. In the same process it changed from an instrument that was mainly played for meditation (the so called traditional honkyoku pieces) to an instrument of more 'worldly' use - played with other instruments and in different kinds of music although the honkyoku pieces kept being played even then.

Tilopa's master Koku Nishimura and Koku sensei's master Tani sensei were among the first to revive the tradition of playing and making the kyotaku in the old style again, also using the name kyotaku. There are different translations possible for this name, but most often it is translated as the imitation sound of a bell, referring to the legendary founder of the flute movement Fuke who used a bell for begging.

Playing kyotaku is all about breathing. As in other meditation techniques the breath is used as a point of focus - only that in this case it is made more audible through the flute. It is most important to put yourself totally into the playing of the flute so that the player can become a silent listener/watcher and plays out of this stillpoint. In this sense the learning is never at an end…

How a kyotaku comes to be

The first and most important step is finding the right bamboo. The kind that has been used traditionally is ‘phylostachus bambusoides’or ‘madake’ as they call it in Japan. Even in Japan it is not to be found everywhere and even less so in the south of Europe. To be made into a kyotaku the bamboo needs to have the right form and thickness. In addition the joints need to be distributed in a certain way on the bamboo so that the five holes fit into the right place: traditionally the upper three holes go between the second and the third joint, the lower two between the third and the fourth (counted from the top). Therefore it is much easier to find bamboo fit for a practice flute with only three to five joints than one fit for a concert flute which should have 7 joints including the root joints. In a day of bamboo search one finds maybe 4 or 5 pieces with 7 joints in the right place, if one is lucky and the patch of madake forrest is large enough.

Next step is cutting or digging out the bamboo. Since the root joints are underground this is the time when one really finds out, if the bamboo has the right proportions.

Then the bamboo needs to be cooked to take out the oil, kill all insects in it and to be able to rub off the green outside layer (only then does the bamboo get its yellowish color). After that the bamboo needs to be dried in a gentle and careful process that takes around two years. 10 to 20% get such bad cracks during this process that they can’t be used for flutes anymore.

Only now can the real making of the flute start: preparing the inside of the bamboo, making the holes and tuning the flute as well as putting in the mouthpiece (utaguchi) made out of antler’s or buffaloe’s horn.

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