Playing the <i> Shakuhachi</i> in Tune With an Alien Culture


A small audience at UC Berkeley recently found itself enchanted by a rare touring ensemble of Tokyo musicians led by Madame Kunie Fujii, the esteemed “first lady” of classical Japanese music.

While the stately singer-musician performed ancient court songs and created sublime tones on her 13-string koto, curious eyes wandered to the musician at her side: a young, brown-haired Caucasian playing the Japanese flute, the shakuhachi.

As Madame Fujii finished singing, the sounds from her koto were echoed by the flute--once, twice, thrice in a sharp staccato of call-and-response. Then the shakuhachi musician, his body still, tilted his head and drew from the woodwind a river of sounds that swept over his rapt listeners.

“Because I’m a gaijin (foreigner), I guess I stand out in a crowd,” said David Wheeler, the shakuhachi player, during a reception after the concert. “I suppose I’ll always have to live with that.”


Wheeler ranks among a handful of Westerners to break into the elite world of classical Japanese music. His playing has gained the respect of masters in the field, despite the fact that he lives in a culture that rarely embraces outsiders.

But it wasn’t easy. In his 12 years of studying the shakuhachi , Wheeler confronted the twin barriers of discrimination and of mastering a tradition of music alien to Western conventions.

During his study in Japan, the Japanese stared in bemusement at Wheeler and mocked him. They told the American he would “never understand the inner depths” of classical Japanese music.

The media patronized him and other non-Japanese musicians: Wheeler often wondered whether they were interviewing him because he was a good flute player, or because he was an oddity, a hakujin (white).


Wheeler was never turned down for a job playing classical Japanese music. But other serious American musicians charge that they have been flat-out rejected in Japan and by Japanese employers in the United States because of their skin color.

“I guess I hit a raw nerve in some Japanese people,” said Wheeler. “But I don’t worry about their opinions. The ones who don’t know anything about the music are usually the ones complaining.

“The musicians I respect never say anything like that,” he said. “The true experts are not nationalists. They’re musicians first, and Japanese second.”

Beyond the racial tensions, the worst trap for Western musicians seems to be the Japanese musical philosophy--a strict canon handed down with reverence from teacher to student, from generation to generation.

Rather than study much written theory, students try to experience kata , a spiritual force that is also found in the martial arts, poetry, literature and the theater. At the same time they learn the johakyu aesthetic, a tense yet graceful arc of music that rushes to a climax and falls to a calm ending.

Wheeler, who is bilingual and married to a Japanese woman, symbolizes the bridge between Westerners fascinated by the music and conservative Japanese musicians leery of foreign influences.

“Anyone can move one’s fingers on the flute,” said Wheeler’s teacher, Seizan Ikeda. “But the importance of adding spiritual feeling and musical meaning is something most cannot do.”

Moreover, Western music follows melody and smooth harmony, while Japanese ensemble music is built on dissonance and rhythmic tension, according to Wheeler and others.


“In Western music,” said Wheeler, “musicians strive to get all the instruments blending in an ideal, purely musical sound. For the Japanese, it’s the opposite. They appreciate the distinctiveness of the instruments, the different flavors.”

For Wheeler, the U.S. concerts marked a homecoming in a musical career that began when he was an 11-year-old kid “banging away” at the piano “under his mother’s whip.”

As a teen-ager in Seattle, Wheeler played in the Franklin High Jazz Laboratory, where he traded riffs with a talented young saxophonist named Kenny G and studied musical idols such as Miles Davis and Grover Washington Jr.

During his junior year at Pomona College, the wide-eyed musician flew to Tokyo for an exchange program with Waseda University. At an evening concert Wheeler found himself seduced by the haunting tones of the shakuhachi .

The American soon won a scholarship to play and study music at the prestigious Tokyo University of Fine Art and Music. Wheeler, the son of a labor negotiator for the Port of Seattle, had embarked on a journey that would test his Western beliefs and musical aesthetic.

Japanese flute players carry on the ancient tradition of the komuso, the Zen priest-warriors of the Fuke sect who played the shakuhachi as they wandered across feudal Japan on pilgrimages during the Edo Period (1600-1868).

The priests obeyed rituals and a hierarchy almost as strict as the samurai’s code of conduct. To discipline themselves, some monks trained outdoors in freezing weather. When their bleeding hands grew numb, they soaked them in warm water and began again.

Unlike Western flute players who seek a refinement of tone, shakuhachi players strive for “one-note enlightenment” through suizen , or “blowing Zen.” The best Japanese flute players hope to reach a sense of timelessness, of arrested motion, as in Noh dramas or Buddhist chants. Ideally their music reflects the simplicity and rawness of nature.