Modern Blends ~ Welcome to the Jungle, with Traditional Japanese Instruments [Shakuhachi and Koto]

Last week I posted a video from NHK's Blends series, which looks at traditional Japanese instruments by having them play modern western music. Look here if you missed it.

Let's look at another! This time featuring the shakuhachi and koto. Before we get to the video, let's look at the instruments.

The shakuhachi (尺八) is a bamboo flute. The opening is blown across like an empty bottle and this gives incredible pitch control. In fact, it is said to be able to produce any pitch. It makes a lovely sound and can accompany almost anything, making it a common instrument in both traditional and modern music, where it often appears in jazz music.

Interestingly, that name gives the length. A shaku (尺) is an old unit of length, equal to 30.3 centimeters (or about a foot). Hachi (八) means eight—eight sun in this case, a sun (寸) being a tenth of a shaku. All together, that makes a shakuhachi one shaku and eight sun, or 54.54 centimeters. There are other types of shakuhachi that are other lengths, but that is the standard.


The other two instruments in the video are two types of koto (箏). One is the standard 13-string koto, and one is a 17-string koto (十七絃箏, jūshichigen koto or jūshichi-gensō). The 17-string koto often acts as a bass. The koto is plucked using fingerpicks called tsume (爪) worn on the thumb and first two fingers.

I assume you know the song they are playing. It's listed on many greatest songs of all time lists.

The temple they are playing at is Ikegami Honmon Temple, in Tokyo. It's a nice place to visit and is pretty popular. It is built where Nichiren, the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, died.


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