Raz Mataz got the chance to speak with musician, composer, and recording artist Debbie Danbrook, who is the first woman to have mastered the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute. She has since released 20 albums through her company, Healing Music.
Danbrook’s zen has been heard in countries worldwide’ she played for Japanese royalty Prince and Princess Takamado, offered her meditation in Rwanda at The Genocide Memorial, and provided tours throughout Ireland. You can also find her playing at various festivals and conferences throughout North America.
Danbrook, who with other eclectic musicians, will be at The Winter Solstice Celebration in Bancroft on December 21, shared with Raz Mataz her love of the shakuhachi, zen music, and about her recent CD, Light From The Super Earth, released in September and available now on iTunes.
Raz Mataz Magazine (RMM): So, you first heard the shakuhachi in Vancouver?
Debbie Danbrook (DD): Yes, I heard the shakuhachi in Vancouver and just right away after that first note I knew it was my flute, and within a couple weeks I was in Japan. I lived there for almost three years and studied with a master.
RMM: Growing up, before discovering the shakuhachi, what were some instruments you played?
DD: I started on piano when I was a kid, then silver flute through high school and university, so I did the whole classical thing, and then I got into really wild performance arts, doing really interesting theatre and dance, music and dance. And just became right into the whole jazz – but once I got into the shakuhachi, that was my true love.
RMM: Learning western instruments earlier in your life, did you find there were any kind of clashes as you were learning this traditional eastern, Japanese instrument?
DD: Clashes? Well, it was quite a journey to find a teacher, but to me it was fulfilling something from my past life because I knew all the music. It was about remembering, not learning. And then I found my tempo, and my heart is at that tempo in Japan; even though physically I left Japan, a big part of me is always there and in my tempo.
RMM: Now, you were the first woman to master the shakuhachi; why is that? Why weren’t there more women playing earlier in the instruments history? Is it cultural, or historical?
DD: It’s partly cultural because shakuhachi was played only by monks and so only by men, and as it started to be played as a classical instrument and played in classical music, it was just men that carried on the tradition. But shakuhachi is extremely difficult and it could take months for someone to get even their first sound so there is just this feeling that women aren’t strong enough to be able to play shakuhachi, and obviously that is a complete fallacy. It has nothing to do with physical strength, it is strength of energy field.
RMM: And what do you mean by energy field?
DD: Do you know about the charkas and energy field?
RMM: Kind of, yeah.
DD: So we have an electrical field, it’s a scientific thing; we have a field around us. So with the shakuhachi, what you are actually doing is you’re connected to the earth, you’re drawing up the earth’s energy – the chi is the earth – we hold it in our field and that is what we are playing through the shakuhachi. So the more coherent your field is, the stronger it is and the more energy it can hold, and then that is translated into the playing of the flute.
DD: Yes, I teach shakuhachi. I have students in Toronto, Ottawa, Guelph, and I also teach on Skype!
RMM: What is the biggest challenge for students?
DD: As I mentioned it can take months to get a sound, so just that alone is quite amazing of watching someone go through that process. And there are two groups of students. A lot of students, they love shakuhachi, they want to learn it, but it’s not the true love of their heart, and so once they realize how hard it is they give up in the first few months.
The people that stick with it, it’s something they love so much they’re really committed to it. So, it’s not like a lot of instruments where you can pick away and get a tune. . . it’s a challenge to just get a note for the shakuhachi and for some people that is a bit daunting and that’s fine, it’s just not going to be their path.
RMM: And considering the type of music, I suppose, moreso than other instruments, it really, really becomes part of their lifestyle?
DD: Yeah, it’s zen so it’s not a musical instrument, but a spiritual path.
RMM: With the shakuhachi expanding to the western world, and with people starting to put their own spin on it, do you see the younger generation adding a pop twist to the shakuhachi? Do you find that’s becoming truer with people experimenting with new sounds with the shakuhachi?
DD: Well, it’s true for all world instruments. These are instruments that a hundred years ago people would never have heard of. With the extent of travel and recording we have a wealth of instruments we never would have had in the past. So, for example, last night at the music meditation I played, my friend played berimbau, which is a Brazilian instrument originally brought over from Africa, so that’s an instrument I played with and used on quite a few of my recordings, too. There’s a world of music movement that is just quite phenomenal when you think of the mix of instruments – the last CD I used, and the different things on it – so yeah, there’s an amazing mix culturally, but also an amazing mix with instruments.
RMM: When was the release of your most recent one?
DD: In September, at the Jazz bistro. So it’s got a real jazz feeling to it, some of the pieces are very ethereal and then some of them are very energetic. Most energetic than most of the CDs. It’s called Light from the Super Earth. It has it’s own website because it’s a special CD and there’s a video on there under the media button – it’s one of my favourite videos.
RMM: Are you working on any other projects?
DD: Yes, four CDs right now.
RMM: Four CDs? Okay!
DD: Well, you know little by little on this, and because different players are in different parts of the world and we usually mix them over in England, so it’s a process to get them done.
RMM: Why England?
DD: Because the fellow who mastered it, Tim Young, he mastered some of the Beatles, he won a Grammy for the Beatles’ Love CD, and the sound he gets is so unique, it’s unbelievable. So he did Light from the Super Earth and the cellist on it won a Grammy, and he is one of the best cellists around the world. So, we’re really lucky.