Category Archives: Travel

Special moments in special places

Gagaku and Sho in Japan

Visiting Kyushu, the southern island of Japan in 1989, I was hoping to find a place to study Gagaku, Japanese court music. I was interested in playing the sho, a bamboo mouth organ used in this genre. Fortunately, I discovered that a new Gagaku-do (a place to perform or practice Gagaku) had just been built at the Shogyoji temple in Kasugayama just south of Fukuoka. This was a spectacular new hall that had a permanent stage for Gagaku and Bugaku (the accompanying dance). They were also setting up a school to teach Gagaku and were very excited to accept me as a student.

I began my studies with a very patient young teacher who taught in the traditional, slow but methodical way. After a month of playing only one chord, I was honoured to be invited to take part in a special weekend workshop being led by Ono Tada Aki, the National Treasure for sho. Attending the workshop, I was surprised to find Ono-sensei (sensei is an honourific term for teacher) taking an interest in my playing. I guess he sensed my familiarity with mouth organs as I had already played the Thai mouth organ (khaen) for over ten years. After he found out that I could only stay and study for a short period of time, Ono-sensei focused a lot of the lessons towards me and I was shown all the traditional finger and breathing techniques and my teachers were instructed that I should leave Japan with all there was to know about the sho. Ono-sensei went on to personally show me how to maintain and repair the reeds, something few sho players do themselves these days.

With my two teachers, senior on left
With my two teachers, senior on left

After Ono-sensei’s departure, I was given a new teacher, the top sho player in the school. This was quite an honour for a new student, however he had just been in a severe car accident. He would leave the hospital specifically to give me a lesson, and then return directly to the hospital. It was difficult for me to see my teacher sitting across from me in great pain, and I pleaded with him to postpone my lesson until he felt better, but he just thanked me for my concern and continued the lessons. I tried to do everything as quickly as possible, and play as best as I could, so we could finish the lessons early, but no matter how much I did, he kept teaching until the full time was up. He continued to leave the hospital to teach for the next few weeks, and never once would give in to my pleas to postpone or at least shorten the lessons. During this time I worked harder than I ever had before. I wanted every minute of his pain to be worthwhile. I progressed quickly, but still felt that I had barely scratched the surface of understanding Gagaku.

All too quickly my departure time grew near. I was due to leave on January 4th, and was invited to attend the first New Years Festival to be held at this Gagaku-do as a kind of going away party. The New Years Festival is a very big event in Japan and is the time of year when Gagaku musicians are in the greatest demand. This was an especially important event as it was also the inaugural New Year’s concert for this new hall. However, many of the Gagaku performers were doing concerts around the island of Kyushu, and would not be at that evenings performance. I was therefore asked to come early to the celebrations so I could say goodbye to everyone before they went off to their performances. Upon arriving a number of my teachers carefully inspected the new sho that I bought, and asked many questions about my future plans for using the instrument, and when I would return to Japan. One by one they said there goodbyes, and I was finally left alone with my teacher. He turned to me and asked if I planned to stay for the evening celebrations. When I said yes, he said that I didn’t have much time, and I must hurry to change.

Raine-Reusch playing Japanese shoI was taken upstairs to find a set of traditional performance clothes waiting for me. The Gagaku-do had searched all over Japan for clothes that would be big enough to fit me, and hadn’t wanted to invite me to perform in case they couldn’t find them. I was dressed by teacher and a friend, and then taken downstairs and seated on stage between my teacher and my initial junior teacher. I was told to warm up my instrument over the appropriately provided coal heater. This process, which takes from twenty minutes to half an hour, ensures the longevity of both the reeds and the instrument. Meanwhile my teacher put a book of scores in front of me and turned to a piece that I was unfamiliar with. I looked at him and whispered “Sensei, I don’t know this piece”. “Don’t worry” he said “You know all these fingerings and the rhythm is four beats and we repeat each section twice. You enter here and exit here”. This was important information needed to play the piece, as is not written in the score. I practiced the fingering of the piece while I finished warming my instrument, and felt fairly confident by the beginning of the performance. I played the piece fairly well not making any noticeable errors, and at the end sat back to listen to rest of the performance which thankfully didn’t include my instrument. Just before the last piece, my teacher leaned over, turned to another page in the scorebook and tapped the page. I looked at my teacher in horror. The performance was still going on. I couldn’t ask him about the details of the piece!

Listening carefully as the music started I watched my teacher diligently out of the corner of my eye. Fortunately he didn’t start playing right away, which gave me time to try to hear some of the details of the piece. Then after a few minutes he slowly raised his sho to play and I started to do the same, but quickly noticed that the player on my other side of me hadn’t raised his instrument at all, so I pulled my instrument back. This was the first time that I had heard a piece where one sho started before the others. I went back to heating my sho, and now watched the other player out of the corner of my eye as I continued to listen to the details of the piece. Before long he pulled his instrument back, which I copied thinking he was going to start, but he only scratched his arm and then went back to heating his instrument. I was now fully aware of how the piece went and after the player beside me pulled his instrument back three or four times, to scratch or adjust his robe, me copying him every time, we finally raised our instruments and joined the piece. I was feeling fairly comfortable as I played except that I didn’t know how or where to end. In my limited experience, pieces usually ended somewhere on the second repeat of the last row in the notation. Thus it was a shock to find that just before I started to play a chord still in the first repeat, everyone else had stopped! I quickly pulled the sho away from my lips a millisecond before my breath started to vibrate the reeds. I slowly lowered it almost in unison with the other players hoping that no-one had noticed.

Raine-Reusch Gagaku KyushuShortly after, the whole program came to an end. My teacher looked at me smiled, and nodded. He said nothing. It was not my place to ask him why he hadn’t explained both pieces at the beginning, all that mattered was that I had played well, I had not made any obvious mistakes and I had not embarrassed the school or my teacher on this most prestigious event. Their honour was intact. Me? I was bathed in sweat, my shoulders were screaming in pain and I was an emotional wreck for days. But I did it.

It was a huge honour to be asked to perform at their inaugural New Years performance, as well as an immense amount of trust in me. Since that time I have performed often with the sho, mainly in my performances with creative improv artists such as Barry Guy, Robert Dick, Torsten Müller, Henry Kaiser, and Pauline Oliveros. I have performed Cage’s One9 for solo sho as well. I find it interesting that the trust shown to me in Japan is not extended in Canada when local presenters would prefer to fly a (Japanese) sho player in from Holland twice over hiring me to perform New Music. Yes, I know, I don’t look the part, I am not an “authentic” player, and sho is not my main instrument as I have been only playing it professionally for over 25 years… At least they decided, after discussion, to present one of my compositions for sho.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Bali Night

In 1984 I was in Bali, Indonesia researching traditional musical instruments, I decided to briefly study the suling, an end-blown bamboo ring flute. I easily found a teacher in one of the villages and rented a small beach hut close by. The hut was owned by an old Balinese man who spoke no English or Indonesian, but only Balinese, a language I knew nothing of. To make arrangements for the rental we communicated through a young neighbourhood girl he had hired for just that reason. Other than making the initial arrangements, the owner had virtually no other contact with his guests, and I would only rarely see him briefly in the distance.

One evening after a particularly long week of lessons, I sat on the porch of my cabin facing the ocean to play my suling. Although I was really enjoying Bali, I was in a remote area away from tourists and there were few people to talk to. I was starting to feel a quite lonely and homesick. After briefly practicing what I had learned that day, I decided to comfort myself by playing for a while. I sat back, closed my eyes, listened for a while and then started to play. Soon I was engrossed in the music. I played the wind in the trees, the ocean waves, the sounds of the night; and I played my feelings of being alone, so far from home in a land full of adventure and wonder.

Hearing a sound beside me, I stopped and opened my eyes to find the cabin’s owner walking past. He nodded to me as he sat down on a rock a short distance in front of the cabin, and smiling, gestured for me to continue playing.

Although feeling surprised and a bit self-conscious, I nodded and smiled back, then closed my eyes and continued to play. I was soon so engrossed again in the music, that I completely forgot about my unexpected audience. After about an hour, I stopped playing and slowly opened my eyes to find the owner still sitting on the rock, with his head bowed and eyes closed. As I watched he slowly raised his head opened his eyes, turned, nodded to me, and then slowly got up and walked off into the night.

It was late and I was tired. I only briefly thought how nice it was that he stayed to listen to my music, and within minutes I was in bed and fast asleep.

The next morning, as I got up and opened the door to my cabin, I was surprised to find the owner sitting on my doorstep holding a giant basket of fruit. Smiling a big smile, he handed me a piece of fruit gestured for me to sit down, and started to talk rapidly in Balinese. Although I didn’t understand a word he was saying, by his gestures I understood that he was talking about his property. He talked about the trees, the birds, and everything that we could see or hear around us. Then he began to teach me the names for everything in Balinese and asked me its English equivalent.

I didn’t have much time to think about this instant friendship, as our conversation in gestures and bits of language was totally engaging and would rapidly jump from one subject to another. It felt as if my new friend was trying to make up for his weeks of silence all in one day. We talked for that whole day and well into the evening, and he was at my door again the next morning and for many mornings after!

During the rest of my stay we became good friends, spending most of our mornings together and learning more of each others language. We often helped each other with each others chores from laundry to yard work, always with a running commentary of gestures, and a lot of laughter. His warm friendship had made my loneliness and homesickness totally disappear, and every day I looked forward to our time together.

When it became time for me to leave, we exchanged gifts, smiles, good wishes, and even a few embarrassed tears. We parted as good friends, knowing that we may never see each other again, but that we would never forget each other.

It’s strange that with all the time we spent together and in all our conversations, never once did either of us mention that evening of music. I guess we didn’t need to.

Nukan Srichrangthin, Sombat Simla to Aerosmith

In 1984 I received a grant to study in Thailand. At that time the Canada Council for the Arts only funded study trips to Paris for classical musicians, so my request for funding to study in Thailand was refused. However, I was persistent and when on a cross-Canada tour, I stopped in at the offices to talk to the officer again. Once she saw the poster for my concert with a picture of the khaen, the instrument I wanted to study, she became interested in the instrument and project. As such I received the first Project grant given to a Canadian artist to study overseas in a non-classical genre, and opened the flood gates for Canadian artists to study around the world. I stretched the $2000 I received to last a full six months in Asia.

I had arranged to study at Srinakharinwirot University in Mahasarakham, in the north east of Thailand. , who had recently returned to Thailand after finishing grad school at the University of Washington, assisted me. I was there to study the khaen, a 16-reed bamboo mouth organ native to the region and that of Laos.

r3khaenI quickly found that I was following in the footsteps of Dr. Terry Miller who had recently been in the area a year or so before, researching his doctoral dissertation. My work was not academic, but just out of self-interest in the instrument and music. Parts of the northeast had not seen that many white people yet, and in some villages kids threw rocks at me, thinking I was a white ghost coming to eat them (a popular story parents told their children so they would behave).

Jarenchai had arranged for me to study with three top performers as teachers, one from each generation, but upon my arrival the oldest teacher was too ill, so I worked primarily with Nukan Srichrangthin and later with Sombat Sinla, the youngest.

My lessons with Nukan were intense; I studied 7 hours a day with him six days a week. Then I practiced four hours a night to make sure I was ready for the next lesson. I didn’t speak Thai and he didn’t speak English, so the first few lessons we had a translator. The translator said he couldn’t come for a few days and when he returned he was shocked, as I would ask Nukan a question in English and he would answer me in Thai seemingly understanding each other. That was the last day we used the translator.

Nukan Khaen Photo Raine-ReuschMy way of learning was to imitate Nukan precisely, every movement of his body, breath, fingers, to try and be an exact mirror copy of him. At first it was a struggle to understand what was happening, but after awhile it started to flow. The greatest difficulty was that the music had an improvisatory element to it, so every time Nukan played a piece it was different. So I had to learn to understand the patterns and underlying structure of the music and this took a lot of time.

sombat sinla copyright Randy Raine-ReuschOne day Sombat Simla showed up and took over my lessons. He was quite young and totally blind. He only spoke about ten words of English. When we first sat down he played the instrument slowly note by note. I responded by playing the same thing very quickly. He laughed and said, “OK.” He then played a simple piece, which I played back again a bit faster with embellishments, he laughed again, saying ‘OK.” Then he played an amazingly fast and complicated piece, after which I sat in total silence, and he laughed again saying, “OK, OK, OK!” And our lessons began. The music that Sombat played was basically the same as Nukan’s, but included his own voicings and approaches. It was great to experience the contrast between the two performers.

My host, Jarenchai, wanted to make use of my studying khaen to promote the instrument to Thai youth as much as he could so he arranged for me to give lectures at local universities, interviews and performances on local and national radio programs, and finally at the end of my stay he arranged for me to appear on National TV. I was to play khaen for a famous mawlum, a singer that the khaen usually accompanies. The mawlum sang in Lao and I would adjust my melody based on what she was going to sing. By the context of her lyrics I was to anticipate the tones of the words she was going to sing and then adjust my melody to match or at least not conflict with her tones and melodic line. As I had by this time only learned a small amount of Thai and didn’t speak Lao at all, my teacher stood off camera indicating if my melody should rise or fall with hand signals. The TV audience saw this white guy easily accompany an amazing singer, while in reality I had no clue as to what was coming next. I was technically good, but still was not inside the culture enough to fulfill the traditional function.

After studying khaen I went to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and undertook a short study of the naw, a 5-pipe bamboo mouth organ with a gourd resonator played by the Lahu and Lisu people. My lessons took place in a large building in a small village on the outskirts of town. I would sit down with my teacher while the women of the village would all come, set up their weaving and watch. It was quite a strange experience to have an audience for my lessons and it certainly added a new element of pressure. Most of the time they laughed at my mistakes and attempts to get the music, but once I got a piece they all applauded. While there I wrote a new piece for the instrument and taught it to my teacher. When I returned for the next lesson, he told me he had played my piece at a tourist event, expressing that the dumb tourists didn’t even know a Canadian piece when they heard one!

Unfortunately, at the time I was there, Thailand did not recognize the cultural treasures that they had in traditional village musicians. To be able to spend hours a day listening to each of these stunning performers play was amazing, and to be able to study with them was a huge honour. I often would wonder why I was the only person sitting there listening to this amazing master play, when people just outside the door would be listening to garbage music on the radio.

Nukan survived as a rice farmer, but was a superb performer. Although I was a poor musician in the west, I was rich compared to him, and never balked at giving him as much money for lessons as I could. Nukan, passed away a number of years ago, and I owe him a big thank you for all the time he spent with me. Sombat was an itinerant musician, traveling throughout the region, living off what people gave him to perform. He is still active and is now considered the top khaen player in Thailand.

Aerosmith_PumpFortunately there have been a small number of other folks that have gone to Thailand to study khaen and some have done much better at integrating into the culture than I did. My hat is off to them. The khaen became one of my main instruments, which I recorded with artists ranging from Pauline Oliveros to Aerosmith (I played the naw with Aerosmith as well). I often used to play for the Thai community in Vancouver at their special events, and it was always a treat when those from northeast Thailand got up and started dancing. I went back to Thailand a number of times to continue my studies and visit my teachers.

Dr. Jarenchai Chonpairot is the champion of these amazing northeast Thai performers, bringing foreign artists, researchers and the public to recognize their talents. He is still active in Thailand, and by some at least is recognized as a pivotal person for this music.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014