Behind the art of Shakuhachi

Musician Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos resonates with his art. | Photo courtesy of Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

Shakuhachi flute music contains a rich history and meaning that is waiting to be explored and shared among musicians around the world. Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos is one of many Shakuhachi players who have been practicing the art for 25 years. He will be sharing his passion for Japanese flute music at the Sakura Days Japan Fair Apr. 8–9.

Although he is of Filipino descent, Ramos was born in Japan and has put a larger part of his identity in Japanese culture.

“I was raised as a Filipino mainly in North America, but I have more of [an] affinity for Japan than the Philippines,” he says. “I have had a great interest in Japanese dance, theatre, art, literature and culture from an early age.”

Making his way to the path of being a Shakuhachi artist, Ramos pays tribute to the predecessors who have provided him guidance in his early years.

“It’s a very complex web of intricate connections and everything,” he says.

At first, Ramos was fascinated with the soulful sound of the Shinobue flute, which is known for being played by the master Hiroyuku Koinuma in the Japanese-French movie Ran.

“It was this mixture of art and theatre [found in] the film and the storyline, which was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear into a medieval Japanese war story. And so that combination of the piercing Shinobue player and film, plus theatre, plus music that really made a huge impact on me,“ he says.

Ramos continued his educational journey in Japan, taking up martial arts, tea ceremonies and exploring the deeper meaning of Zen flute.

“It wasn’t until my third year of Shakuhachi that I actually started to get into Zen music, which is the soul of music of Japan. Shakuhachi is Zen music,” he says.

The birth of Shakuhachi

Reflecting on the core concept of Shakuhachi, Ramos emphasizes the importance of the body and mind.

“I think the mind is very important to focus on and that’s why one of the lessons of Shakuhachi is that focusing the mind and getting in tune with the vibration of the instruments and the world,” says Ramos. “It’s a resonance.”

According to Ramos, Shakuhachi means more than just music. It is a spiritual practice, a tool for reaching the state of enlightenment but it was also used as a weapon by many ex-samurai who joined the ranks of the Komuso (shakuhachi playing monks) during the 18th and 19th centuries in Japan’s Edo Period. Ramos points out that Shakuhachi has been embedded in Japanese culture since ancient times.

“[Shakuhachi] came to Japan from China and Korea in the 6th century and it was part of the gagaku orchestra. The gagaku is the oldest form of orchestra music, and it was folk music that was transmitted from China and Korea to Japan,” he says.

Ramos speculates that sometime during the 14th century or earlier, a group of Buddhist monks must have heard vertical flute music from the beggars on the street. A monk probably decided to play with them and saw the potential of this flute in the development of the body and mind.

“Shakuhachi was a natural fit for Zen because Zen is all about that development of body and mind with breathing,” Ramos explains.

However, the influence of Western society in Japan in the late 19th century and early 20th, created a great desire from the Imperial government to ‘purify’ their native religion, Shinto.

“Many things associated with China and Korea, such as Buddhism, were wiped out; it kind of reminds me of the Cultural Revolution in China. It was a time when Japan realized they needed to catch up with the West yet retain their unique identity. Unfortunately, this spurred the destruction of most of the Shakuhachi temples all over Japan,” says Ramos.

Wanting to save Shakuhachi, a group of intellectuals have been keeping the traditions alive until the modern time.

“That’s where we are now,” says Ramos.

Embarking on the journey of contemporary Shakuhachi, Ramos expresses his enthusiasm for his lifelong learning lessons.

“I love it!” he says.

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