The call of the phoenix


Wind instrument used in Gagaku, the Court and sacred music, the sho is associated with the phoenix bird, through its “voice”, and also its form (two folded wings). Tokiko Ihara, a talented artist from Nara, made us the pleasure of a short concert, and explained its origin.

The sho is a sort of mouth organ, a wind instrument that reached Nara from China through the Silk Road, in the footsteps of Buddhism, in the 8th century. Today it is mainly practiced in the Shinto cult, but my assumption is that this is the direct consequence of the erection of a State Shinto worship around Emperor Meiji from 1868, while Buddhism (of foreign origin) is struck by a campaign of sometimes violent destruction (Haibutsu kishaku廃仏 毀 釈= abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni).

The musician prepares his/her instrument by rotating it over a small stove (electric today, brazier before) to dry out the base, within which the reed is free.

The melody is sometimes interspersed with singing. Traditionally, the future musician must first sing her/his parts for four years before she/he has the right to touch the instrument, then master a single piece perfectly before she/he can expand her/his repertoire.

The Sho can be connected with Noh, a theater form played in shrines in honor of the Kami (deities), in effect to induce them to participate in the celebration, but also the Ninja culture. Indeed we know that the speed, the “invisibility” of ninjas, are related to their mastery of the tempo, and their knowledge of the fractions of time exploitable to thwart or strike their opponent. In the case of the sho, on the contrary, the purpose is enter into the Kami’s space: multidimensional, with a slow tempo.


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