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Musical Instrument Museum, Part 8

Leaving Africa, we now venture into Asia. You may think of puppets as child's play but in the Bunraku ("literary music") tradition of Japan, puppet theater packs a serious punch.

Graceful, larger-than-life puppets act out dramatic and tragic tales, as a single narrative singer performs all the characters to the accompaniment of a shamisen lute. The music of the shamisen is exaggerated; its simple pattern powerfully underlies the action.

Bunraku puppets are able to express the full range of human emotions and movements. Each puppet is operated by three puppeteers — one to work the head and right hand, another for the left hand and a third for the feet and legs.

Developed in the 17th century for the entertainment of Osaka's merchant classes, the stories of Bunraku are about ordinary people and everyday experiences. Performers typically select a few acts for performances, as entire plays are so long that they could run for days.

The Kashira (puppet) shown here is made of wood, human hair, textile and cord.

The shamisen (pictured here) is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much slimmer and has no frets. Its drum-like rounded rectangular body, known as the , is taut front and back with skin in the manner of a banjo, and amplifies the sound of the strings. The skin is usually from a dog or cat, but in the past a special type of paper was used and recently various types of plastics are being tried. On the skin of some of the best shamisen, the position of the cat's nipples can still be seen.

The neck of the shamisen is usually constructed such that it is divided into three or four pieces that fit and lock together. Indeed, some shamisens are made so that they can be easily disassembled and stowed to save space. The pegs used to wind the strings were traditionally fashioned out of ivory, but as it has become a rare resource, they have been recently fashioned out of other materials, such as various kinds of wood and plastic.

The three strings are traditionally made of silk, or, more recently, nylon. The lowest passes over a small hump at the "nut" end so that it buzzes, creating a characteristic sound known as sawari (somewhat reminiscent of the "buzzing" of a sitar, which is called jivari). The upper part of the is almost always protected by a cover known as a dō kake, and players often wear a little band of cloth on their left hand to facilitate sliding up and down the neck.

The musical art known as shakuhachi is inseparable from the samurai of early modern Japan.

As elite warriors, artists and intellectuals, samurai embodied Japan's spirituality and culture. Yet during the 17th century under the rule of military governors known as the shogunate, samurai gradually lost their military function and found themselves without a purpose.

Unable to fight, many former samurai became wandering komuso monks. Members of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism, komuso were "priests of emptiness and nothingness".

While playing shakuhachi, komuso wore large, woven baskets called tengai over their heads to symbolize their detachment from the material world. In the hands of komuso monks, the shakuhachi became an iconic part of Japanese culture and remains an admired instrument for achieving both musical mastery and spiritual enlightenment.

Made from madake bamboo, the shakuhachi is meticulously crafted to exacting specifications, relying on an ideal combination of the bamboo's roots, aesthetics, size, shape and, most importantly, interior chamber structure. the end-blown flute produces musical tones said to represent the full spectrum of natural sounds. The mouthpiece design and fingering techniques enable a player to produce delicate changes of pitch and a wide range of subtle, resonant tones.

In the shakuhachi tradition, players engage in suizen, or "blowing meditation", leading the player's mind directly into spiritual thought. Honkyoku or "original pieces" of this ancient Zen tradition continue to be played around the world today.

Gagaku (literally, "elegant music") is one of the oldest unbroken teacher-to-pupil musical traditions in the world, kept alive since the 7th century.

Gagaku is one of Japan's only styles that uses a full orchestra — a range of string, wind and percussion instruments. Pictured here is a San-no-tsuzumi (double-headed hourglass drum) which is used when playing Korean-derived komagaku dance music.

Here is a biwa (plucked lute) used for kagen, wind and string music of gagaku. The biwa is the chosen instrument of Benten, goddess of music, eloquence, poetry, and education in Japanese Shinto.

You might notice similarities among instruments from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Constant interaction with these neighboring societies over the centuries, as well as with India, China, Indonesia and Burma has enriched Thai classical- and folk-music traditions.

Thai classical music is formal, arising from the royal courts of Bankok and Ayutthaya. Hardwood xylophones are the iconic centerpieces of both pipaat and mahori ensembles, which perform in occasions ranging from temple ceremonies and social gathering to kick-boxing matches.

Here is an example of a ranaat ek — a xylophone made of rosewood and boxwood.

Pictured here is a kratchappi which is a plucked, fretted lute of Thailand, used in central Thai classical music. It is made of jackfruit or teak wood, and it has four strings in two courses that are plucked with a plectrum. It usually has a long decorative wooden "tail". It is one of the oldest Thai classical instruments and has been little used in recent years.

In Cambodia, ancient stone carvings such as those in Angkor, illustrate music and dance performances that are inseparable from the country's mythology and history — and still inspire performers today. For centuries, monarchs relied on music and dance as symbols of power and nation, recalling the glory days of the Kingdom of Angkor (802-1432).

This changed dramatically under the communist Khmer Rouge. During the regime's brutal cultural cleaning (1975-1979), 90% of performers and artists were killed, bringing Khmer arts to the brink of extinction. Despite this tumultuous era, the Cambodian people returned to music and the performing arts flourish today as a source of cultural pride, sophistication and nostalgia for the great empire that once dominated Southeast Asia.

Pictured here is a Chromatic kong vong thom (gong-chime) made of bronze, wood, bamboo, cord and metal.

Here is a three-part mask representing various mythical creatures and used in traditional dances. The mask is fashioned of papier-mâché, gold leaf, paint and plastic.

The Mon were among the earliest people to settle in mainland Southeast Asia, arriving over 3,500 years ago. Always an important ethnic group. they have exerted significant influence on the region's music.

In Thailand, the loud and energetic sounds of Mon pipaat ensembles, with tuned drums and upright gong circles, can be heard at funerals all over the country. Since its use in a Thai royal funeral in the 19th century, such music has almost completely replaced the Thai classical funeral repertoire.

To be continued.

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com