Playing shakuhachi at funerals

We don’t really like to think about death. Although death is part of life, it is quite taboo in our society and a difficult topic to address. Like it would bring bad luck.

Two and half weeks ago, I gave a shakuhachi presentation in a zen center in Rotterdam (The Netherlands). I gave explanations about the history of the instrument, played a couple of honkyoku, and guided the participants to make their first sounds on the shakuhachi.  We also had a very nice talk about the relationships between shakuhachi and zen meditation. It was a very rich experience for all of us. At a moment, while I was playing, one participant became very emotional. Afterwards, the organiser of the workshop, who is one of my students, told me that when I was playing, he was thinking that shakuhachi would be very appropriate to be played during funerals. “Actually” I answered, “I played a week ago during the funeral of my cousin. I am quite used to play at family funerals. Before, I used to play the flute, but now, playing the shakuhachi adds a spiritual dimension I really appreciate and need myself.”
I also told him about the time I was asked to play for a nature funeral of a total stranger.
During my demonstration at the zen center, the piece the participant became emotional with was Azuma Jishi (Azuma no kyoku). Was supposed to be. I did start playing it, but in the middle of it, as I was playing by heart, I mixed it up with Kumoi Jishi, which was the piece I played for my cousin’s funeral, and couldn’t come back to Azuma Jishi anymore, so I ended up playing Kumoi Jishi.
My student’s comment about thinking of a funeral while I was playing and the participant’s reaction during this piece make me think that there was still a lot of my sadness from the death of my cousin in my shakuhachi play on this day.

Yes indeed, shakuhachi can mean a lot during a funeral ceremony. The first time I played it was in 2006. My shakuhachi level was very low at that time, so the only piece I could play was Honshirabe. When I managed to master Tamuke, I played it in different ceremonies. I took the habit to play it not only during funerals, but also for myself, as a little memory of the person, and also thinking of the loved ones left behind. I still regularly play it for people I know who passed away, or for their relatives when I don’t know the deceased personally. It is like a little prayer sent to the wind.

I never questioned the fact of playing Japanese buddhist music in a Western ceremony, rather than classical music, even in a church. The spirituality of the music speaks directly to the heart and I always got very positive and strong feedbacks. Only once I  combined flute and shakuhachi in the same ceremony, it was in 2015 in a small village in The Netherlands, for my father-in-law’s funeral. People liked both flutes and were touched by the shakuhachi.

Beyond Tamuke

I thought Tamuke was the only appropriate piece for a funeral, until I was asked to play Tsuru no Sugomori at the nature funeral in 2016. This experience was so special and inspiring that it broadened my spiritual reflexion about playing music at a funeral and the choice of pieces. I started to think more about the personality of the deceased to make my choice. So, for my cousin, the music I thought was appropriate for her was Kumoi-jishi. For the lightness and the light, above the clouds, where I hope she is now.

But during the last months of her life, the piece I played a lot thinking of her was actually Tsuru no Sugomori. Not because of the nature funeral, I didn’t think of it at all at that time! But because of the lightness of the cranes, which I prayed would help lightening her great pain. Because it is about family love and little birds leaving the nest, and parents staying alone afterwards. It was like, as she would leave us soon, I needed to prepare myself to it.
But when I had to decide what to play at her funeral, I realised I would not be able to play Tsuru no Sugomori at all, and I went for Kumoi-jishi.

On February 23 & 24, I gave two concerts in Holland with my friend the flutist Catherine Balmer, and our program included Tsuru no Sugomori. When I played the last note of the second performance of the piece, I got in a glimpse all the memories of my practice of the last months for my cousin, and I knew that, somewhere in my heart, I played this piece for her. Here is a video recoding of this performance.

In memoriam

I realise now that I have been building up through the years a kind of musical memoriam of recordings for the loved ones who left this planet, and I will go on doing it. It is my way of keeping their memory alive I guess. I am not sure why I do it, well, I don’t know if I need a reason for doing it, it just happens to be.


Maybe I am reconnecting through this with some kind of ancient rituals, which are still present in less-technologically-developped-societies (or how you’d like to call them).
Here is a little story:
25 years ago, when I visited for the first time my dad’s land of birth, Benin, I wanted to P5145866buy a flute there, as little souvenir. I visited a museum and found a flute with a very nice sound. But the man wouldn’t sell it, nor help me finding a similar instrument by any maker, and he got pretty upset when I insisted.
At that time, these flutes had only two functions: they were used by shepherds to call the flock, and they were used in ceremony for rituals. They were not played for anything else or by anyone else not being a shepherd or an official ritual musician. The flutes had a specific role and my request of buying one of those as a music instrument didn’t make any sense to him. Some friend of my dad eventually managed to get me a small one, with which I couldn’t do much, but was happy to bring back home.

I still remember this story because it made me realise that live music used to play a ritual role in a society, and was performed by specialists of it. In our modern societies, when time comes to organise funerals, this is gone (except for the very official ones). We use recordings. But I got feedbacks from people who deeply appreciated to listen to live music. And I know that playing shakuhachi at funerals, here, in Europe, even in a Christian ceremony, does make sense for the people listening to it. Doing it is being part of real life.

Photo: Heumensoord (NL), February 1, 2019.




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