The Shakuhachi Is Having Its Moment

“It is the sound of the earth,” said shakuhachi player and maker Perry Yung in a phone interview. “The sound of the wind passing through a bamboo forest. It’s a sound that is constantly shifting tone colors, like light passing in the sky through clouds.”

The shakuhachi was historically used as a solo instrument in Zen Buddhist meditation, specifically by wandering mendicant monks. It also sometimes appears in Japanese classical music, often with a koto (zither) and the three-stringed shamisen. Most modern shakuhachis have five tuning holes, with four in the front and one on the rear, and they’re tuned to the minor pentatonic scale. However, the player can partially cover holes and bend pitches to produce any pitch they want, so it’s somewhat like “playing one string on a violin,” Umezaki explained.

A musician playing a shakuhachi.Adobe Stock

It somewhat resembles a recorder, but has no mouthpiece, so producing a sound is trickier. “You have to find the spot that sets up the vibration with your lips,” said Umezaki, who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Southern California, where he teaches at the University of California, Irvine. “My mother likes to tease me and say that when I first started playing it, it took me a year to make sound.”

The child of a Japanese father and Danish mother, Umezaki grew up in Tokyo and attended an international high school. There his choir teacher was a student of famed shakuhachi player Goro Yamaguchi, and he suggested Umezaki try the instrument as well. It was the 1980s, and teenagers were more likely to play guitars and synthesizers than traditional instruments, Umezaki said. But he was drawn to the bamboo flute.

“As someone with a mixed Japanese background, you do start to wonder about the Japanese side of who you are,” he said. For him, playing shakuhachi was “the simplest way to get in touch with something that is very much identified with Japanese culture.”

The instrument found Yung in 1994, while he was acting in a play directed by Ellen Stewart at the New York experimental theater venue La MaMa. Shakuhachi player Yukio Tsuji was in the production’s band, playing the instrument in a “very experimental manner,” he said. (The band also included African drums, electric guitar, and a Korean zither.) “But at one point, the show was silent, and then there was the shakuhachi, and it changed my world.” After the show, Yung rushed backstage to ask where he might get one. “[Tsuji] just looked at me wide-eyed, and said ‘I see you’re bitten now.’”

Yung was, indeed, bitten. Shakuhachis weren’t readily available for purchase in the United States, and the internet was in its infancy, so Yung took a DIY approach — he bought bamboo at a flower market, and copied flutes at Tsuji’s own workshop, he said. “I basically learned how to play and make at the same time.”

Some time later, he studied in Japan with Kinya Sogawa, an established professional musician and craftsman. “He didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Japanese at the time,” Yung said. “But in the traditional manner of study, you imitate the master and don’t ask questions.” Yung is now one of very few shakuhachi repair technicians in the United States; he also sells his own handcrafted and refurbished flutes.

Shakuhachi playing is traditionally learned through schools, and these grant ranks based on mastery similar to those in martial arts. However, neither Umezaki nor Yung is affiliated with a school. Umezaki has played with Silkroad, the broad global music initiative founded by Yo-Yo Ma, for over 20 years. He considers what he’s learned there the closest thing he’s had to conservatory training. “I feel like my job as a shakuhachi player of mixed background is to find a home, in some ways, in all kinds of music-making,” he said. “That’s my job, rather than being a guardian of traditional music.”

Umezaki’s upcoming concert with Hub New Music features several works created for the group by composers of the Asia/America New Music Institute, which were commissioned by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. In 2018, Hub and Umezaki performed the pieces in Japan, and a handful of audience members told Umezaki that it was their first time hearing a live shakuhachi. “This instrument can actually work really nicely within all kinds of musical contexts,” he said.

Yung, whose workshop floats between New York and Rhode Island, has more recently started incorporating the instrument into activism, particularly at rallies against anti-Asian hate. “I start my talk with a shakuhachi offering, to others who have been affected by the violence that has been perpetrated upon the Asian-American community in recent years,” he said.

He also makes a habit of offering to include shakuhachi in his performances when he’s booked for a theatrical role, hoping it’ll move someone the same way the instrument moved him. When it’s unexpected, said Yung, “I think that’s when it has the most power.”


Presented by Ashmont Hill Chamber Music. April 21, 4 p.m. Parish of All Saints, Dorchester.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.

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