Friday, November 28, 2014

Discovering the Shakuhachi: Aikido and Ethno

When I began practicing aikido in earnest in 1998, I was fortunate to walk into a tight-knit community of Texas dojos that stretched from San Antonio to Denton. I remember taking every opportunity to practice at a new dojo in a different town. While I certainly had personal reasons for starting to practice in the first place, this sense of community often kept me going. Since then, teachers have retired and passed on, and I would love to be able to say that we, as a body of practitioners, have navigated these losses gracefully, but this has not been the case. Instead, due to the egos of individuals who feel entitled to some sort of authority and recognition, the organization has splintered. Perhaps Western culture just isn’t ready for the kind of lesson that O-Sensei was trying to teach with aikido.

Aikido practice, however, also generated a personal interest in Japanese culture. When I finished my ethnomusicology degree, it dawned on me, perhaps too late, that my martial arts experience might dovetail nicely into Japanese music studies. Clearly, if there was any culture in the world I really wanted to “immerse” myself, it was Japan. Towards the end of my research, I began to think about ways to use instruments as a lens to view culture. For me to continue on this research path, it made sense to adopt a Japanese instrument.

I started to look into traditional Japanese music. One of my favorite recordings I unearthed was the Nonesuch album Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music by the Ensemble Nipponia. It represents a remarkable variety of traditions, but it’s also unified by the outstanding musicianship of the ensemble’s members. While all of the performances are remarkable, the shakuhachi performances really caught my attention. The track Edo Lullaby, which is an original arrangement of a traditional melody, singlehandedly convinced me to adopt the shakuhachi.

I procured an instrument and was very fortunate to find an experienced teacher. I took lessons for nearly two years with the intent of focusing on the shakuhachi in a PhD program. I have not entirely given up on this research agenda, but life has put the immediacy of doctoral work on hold for the time being. Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music, however, remains, and has evolved into a personal and family favorite. Both my wife and daughter enjoy the album beyond its merely exotic exterior (I think). As I revisited it earlier this year, I found that The Little One particularly likes Ozatsuma for its angular, frantic energy.

My genuine appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of this music assures me of one thing: my ethnomusicological degree broadened my horizons. It gave me an irreplaceable experience that permeates the breadth of my musical experiences. When I finished my degree, however, I found myself back on the path that I left. I ended up with a challenging and rewarding job as a band director at a title one school to begin paying off my student debt. I genuinely enjoy what I do, but I sometimes wonder about the meaning of my studies, not with a sense of regret, but rather with anticipation. I suspect that their true worth has not yet been revealed.

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