Spaniard Antonio Enzan Olios followed the ‘most beautiful sound in the world’ and found it in the Japanese Shakuhachi flute

The first time Spaniard Antonio Enzan Olios heard the Japanese Shakuhachi bamboo flute was in the opening notes of a non-verbal documentary film, Baraka. “I remember thinking to myself then, ‘that’s the most beautiful sound in the world’, but I didn’t know what it was,” he says. A year later, he heard the same instrument at a friend’s home on a CD, explored further and discovered it was the shakuhachi. In 2001, he quit his job as a graphic designer, travelled to Australia and later Japan to learn the flute, and has since toured the world playing the shakuhachi.

In Kochi for a concert and demonstration at Springr Studios in Mattancherry, and at Snehabhavan in Palluruthy, Antonio says the shakuhachi draws its history from the Chinese Xiao bamboo flute which entered Japan in the sixth century. It has since modified into its current form that takes its name from its structure — shaku, which measures a foot in Japanese, and hachi, which stands for eight. The standard shakuhachi is thus a foot and eight inches long, while the bass shakuhachi is 2 feet and 4 inches.

Soothing notes

Musically, the shakuhachi has a beautiful husky tone that lends itself to quick and sharp notes as well as lengthy, calming ones. These textures reflected in Antonio’s Springr concert that opened with the ‘Hon Shirabe’, a traditional piece that dates to the shakuhachi’s role in Zen meditation. “In the medieval period, the shakuhachi was used in Japan by Zen monks as a method of prayer. Their music was called ‘Honkyoku’,” says Antonio. His second piece, ‘Ajikan’, which means “seeing the essence of things”, also came from the Honkyoku, and had moments so soft and low, you could barely hear them, juxtaposed by loud, trumpet-like blows.

In 1868, the Meiji Government in Japan banned Zen monks on suspicion of spying and hence the shakuhachi disappeared from the public sphere for years. It returned, as a non-spiritual instrument and developed a new musical vocabulary. “The shakuhachi is unique because it has both its traditional repertoire as well as contemporary musicians writing for it. One of the differences between the two is that the former doesn’t use the tongue to draw out sounds, while the latter does,” says Antonio.

His third piece, ‘Kan Otsu’, which jumps between the flute’s two octaves, was written by shakuhachi exponent Yamamoto Hoza, who passed away just last month. The instrument has also spoken of Japan’s modern history; ‘Kata Ashi Toriino Eizo’, for instance was inspired by Hiroshima’s experience of the atom bomb. “At temple entrances in Japan, there’s usually a gate named ‘torii’ with two pillars and an arch. The bomb had left only one pillar standing at one such temple. This song was written as an experience of that horror, as well as a prayer for peace.”

Antonio also brings his Spanish roots to the shakuhachi. He’s adapted Spanish music from the 11th and 13th centuries, besides free-style flamenco compositions. Traditionally, shakuhachi music is notated in the Japanese Katakana alphabet, and Antonio writes his Spanish pieces too in this calligraphic script. “These contemporary compositions allow for much improvisation in the playing,” he adds. The concert closed with the ‘Shikyokyu’, a bamboo poem set to music by Katsutoshi Nagasawa, a modern Japanese composer of classical music for traditional instruments. Under swaying bulbs, bathed in gentle light, Antonio played the hypnotic notes of the Shikyoku — a Spaniard bringing Japanese living a little closer to Indian lives.