Tag Archives: world music

Tanso Afternoon

I sit playing my tanso, small thin hard hollow bamboo, with a small notch on the end to blow into. A clear sound is produced with care. With time an ephemeral complexity of small notes flit around the melody. At first it seems to have a light expression, but I sense something deep here. This is a modern instrument that has more holes to play more notes. Yet it awakens something ancient, timeless.

My breath must be precise as the notch is small; a miniscule change produces something unexpected. I strive to perceive the imperceptible, to embrace the microscopic in my expression.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The high tones cry, the lower tones sigh. A murmur appears. Another voice arises between notes. An inner landscape of peaks and valleys, irregular surfaces, twists and turns – all within a nuance. A pitch drops slightly with a forgotten despair, and then rises with a fragile hope.

My soul rises from my lips and fingers, as my mind is helpless but to just listen. So much pain, so much joy, so much life. Then a train in the distance answers, and my soul responds unhindered. A crow comments as the wind in the trees and my breath ebb in unison. My soul and the world around me interconnect in the music. My mind is quiet.

The notes disappear yet my lips and fingers continue to move. The sounds outside disappear yet nothing has changed. All that is left is a vast yet intimate connectedness…an infinite oneness. I am playing, listening, being and not being, all at the same time. This depth of being and not being is both peaceful yet unnerving. It is so powerful that I stop.

My mind returns, objects in the room reappear; the sounds outside have names again. I am holding my flute. I am still feeling the connectedness, but am now in the world again as well. The wind and crows are calling for me to return. I want to feel this world some more before I go back into infinite oneness. I make some tea.

Bali Bamboo Music

When in Bali in 1984, I was walking home one night sometime past midnight. In the distant I heard a deep percussive sound that led me behind a few buildings to a covered performance area. It was a full performance of Jegog Bumbung, a dance drama where a cocky young man chased a single woman dancer. She coyly flirted with him until he caught her and then submitted to his charms. After an intermission there was a scream and the man flew out behind the screen in fear chased by his newly married wife who is now obviously in the dominant role. The music was performed by an orchestra of struck bamboo tubes open on one end with a large tongues carved on one side, suspended in frames. The largest of these instruments had pipes at least three metres long. They were accompanied by a number of sets of progressively smaller instruments playing the characteristic Balinese interlocking rhythms. This ensemble of instruments is called Gamelan Grantang. The sound of the big instruments was very round and deep and traveled well in the night air. This performance went on for hours and although I was the only non-Balinese there I sat listening and watching to almost dawn.

Tingklik
Tingklik

A few weeks later, I ran into another version of a bamboo gamelan in a small village close to where I had found a small cabin to rent on the beach (see Bali Night). One morning I again followed music in the air and came upon two men sitting on their porch playing a matched pair of bamboo instruments called tingklik, which looked identical to the smallest of the instruments played in the Gamelan Grantang. Although they played very fast interlocking parts, they didn’t seem to tire as they played for almost an hour.

The older man invited me to sit down, served me tea and they continued to play. After playing for a while, he asked me if I would like to try the instrument, and handed me the mallets. Although the tingklik is about a dozen hollow tuned bamboo tubes suspended from a small frame the technique for playing it is quite complex. The left hand plays a rather simple melody on the lower tubes, while the right hand plays the rapid intricate patterns following the melody while interlocking with the second instrument.

On just hearing the piece, I was only able to remember a few notes on the right hand before making a mistake at which point my impromptu teacher, took the mallets from my hand and played the piece again, all fifteen minutes of it! He then calmly handed the mallets back to me and asked me to try again. I only managed to play a few more notes correctly before running into problems, and again the mallets were politely taken from my hands, and the full fifteen-minute piece was played again. This process continued well into the afternoon, with my teacher patiently playing the full piece again and again as I muddled my way through it.

Obviously this was a normal for my teacher, and he seemed to have all the time and patience in the world. After many hours, I was exhausted and somewhat frustrated, and we sat for a while to talk and drink tea. While we talked his five year-old son picked up a mallet and slowly but accurately played the whole piece. I realized that I had the wrong teacher, as it would have been easier for me to learn from the five year-old! When I asked how long my teacher had been teaching his son, he replied “Oh I haven’t taught him anything, he has just heard me play so much, He knows all the pieces by heart.”

Our modern world doesn’t allow us to have the time or patience for this type of musical transmission, and I didn’t have the time to stay and study this amazing instrument, although I really wanted to. I imagine that growing up from birth hearing these sounds would implant the music far deeper in your psyche than any other form of learning. Maybe I was born in the wrong time.

I was so intrigued by these instrumental discoveries that I explored more and found that there were pockets of unique music and instruments everywhere in Bali. The two tingklik played together is often referred to as Gamelan Rindik, although a full Rindik often uses a suling, and there is also another large bamboo ensemble called Gamelan Jegog that uses a four-note scale. I have recently learned that there are versions in Java as well. (see: Aural Archipelago)

Mystery gamelan
Mystery gamelan

A month after my impromptu lesson, I traveled to a small village in northern Bali to discover a single bamboo xylophone that was quite different in shape than any other that I had seen on the island. It had bamboo slats of different sizes for keys and bamboo tube resonators. I asked some local people where the instrument was from. “From here,” they replied, “it’s native to our village.” “Do you know anybody who can play it?” I asked. “There is no-one left who knows how to play it,” they replied, “the last person died a year ago.” “Are there any recordings or books on how to play it?” I asked. “No,” was the reply, “nothing at all. The music is lost.” Hearing this was a shock and it deeply saddened me. Since then I have given a good portion of my life to support and preserve traditional instruments and music wherever I could.

Jogeg Bambung with the  Gamelan Grantang:

Gamelan Rindik:

The four note scale Gamelan Jegog:

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Waikiki, Ichigenkin and Yamada-sensei

In 1992, I studied ichigenkin with Chie Yamada, who had achieved a master status in a number of Japanese traditional music styles, and was not only an adept musician, but a masterful teacher. I had first taken some lessons with her a few years earlier, but this was the first time I could spend an extended period in Hawaii just to study ichigenkin. On my arrival her husband was not supportive of my lessons, as Yamada-sensei (sensei means professor/instructor in Japanese) was in therapy for cancer and some days the medicine made her quite ill. However, Yamada-sensei insisted I come every day to study, and her husband acquiesced.

Yamada-sensei playing ichigenkinThe ichigenkin is a rare one-string Japanese zither that some believe may have come from the Chinese seven-string qin. Both instruments were played by philosopher-musicians who would sit in front of their instruments without striking a string, believing that if a musician and an instrument are in the same room, then music is also present, no action is necessary to produce the music. “The music can be heard,” they would say, “if you know how to listen.” Before beginning my lessons, Yamada-sensei described this philosophy to me and added, “Sometimes I just look at an instrument and I hear it play, the music is instantly born inside me.”

This strong sense of philosophy is inherent in the ichigenkin, and Yamada-sensei would often explain: “The ichigenkin must be part of your body. It has only one string and no place for the sound to resonate; it cannot produce a strong sound by itself. The sound must resonate from your body.”

“You can not hide the sound with other notes,” she would say, “the ichigenkin has a pure sound. It can only be played as part of you, and the music should come as naturally as any movement.”

Studying daily with Yamada-sensei was challenging and rewarding. I worked hard to understand and apply the philosophy of the ichigenkin while I developed my finger and picking techniques and memorized each piece. It was only through listening and feeling her play and trying to copy it as well as I could that I made any progress. This was not music that you could learn from reading notes off a piece of paper; this was music you had to experience. She often remarked, “You can either read music or play it. You can’t do both at the same time.”

One day after I played a piece, Yamada-sensei sat quietly for a minute and then nodded saying “With the ichigenkin, every note must come from deep inside you. You must play from your center, deep in your body, because this is where the real sound is. But when you play you must also bring the sound out of your body into the air. Today I can feel the music come from you, this is the sign of a good player.” She then would regularly tell me if my focus on my centre (hara) was too high, too low, too forward or too back. She knew the instant it was not correct.

In the last days of my lessons Yamada-sensei would often look at me and scowl, “You are so relaxed on the instrument that it resonates inside you. You play like you are Japanese, yet you are not. You must have Japanese blood.” Then she would shake her head and in a sad voice ask “Why aren’t you Japanese…you should be Japanese?!”

On the day of my last lesson her husband thanked me for studying with her and being very patient with the occasional repetition of lessons (the medicine made her forgetful). He said that I had given her a lot of energy and made her days meaningful. He said that I was her best student and gave me the contacts for the Ichigenkin school in Tokyo, asking me to be in touch with them.

I was Chie Yamada’s last ichigenkin student. She died of stomach cancer a few months later. Her husband gave me the instrument that she taught me on. yamada1

She was the best teacher that I had ever had. She could see things that were inside of me and guide me to use them, sensing things about me that no other teacher ever had. I could sense hundreds of years of knowledge being passed to me; lessons that she had learned from her teacher before her, and likewise for centuries. When she taught, every note sang, as she would place it deep inside of me. I was taught to play each note as if it contained the whole piece of music. The piece should be as complete playing only one note as it was playing all of the notes. She taught me to feel the rightness of every note, to give each note time to exist and resonate in my body. She somehow had a deep understanding of the music that I always had felt inside of me, but never knew how to release. She nurtured my internal music, gave it life, and brought the deepest parts of me alive with it.

While I studied with Yamada-sensei, I stayed in a dorm room with 6 people, so to practice I would go and sit on a bench at Waikiki beach for hours every night. This was actually quite dangerous because the beach was where drug dealers, pimps and other underworld folks did business at night. They each had their spot, and any intruders were not welcome. However they fully accepted me. I had a spot I could practice, and many times a bunch of very scary looking people would come and listen. They asked me questions about the music, and myself, and we developed quite a personal relationship. They were totally fascinated with the ichigenkin and its philosophy, sometimes sat for hours just staring at the dark ocean and listening to me play. The only time somebody started to be aggressive to me, a number of big guys came up and told him that I was their friend and anyone wanting to mess with me had to mess with them first.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014