Woman shares rare intricacies of a time-honored Asian flute

by Dwight Daniels, Staff Writer
From The San Diego Union-Tribune, Monday, July 28,1997

Encinitas, CA-- The first time Mary Lu Brandwein blew into a Japanese bamboo flute, she spent two frustrating hours before she could create a simple tone. She didn't give up. More than a dozen years later, Brandwein finds herself entertaining area audiences by playing an instrument virtually identical to ones used by wandering Asian priests 1,500 years ago.

Known as the shakuhachi in Japan, it is fashioned from a special type of bamboo root, and achieves sounds ancient Chinese and Japanese religious orders called a "catalyst toward enlightenment." But the very same monks who once played the instrument to entertain leaders of competing clans sometimes had to use it for purposes less than heavenly. "It is one of the few musical instruments that is also designed as a weapon," said Brandwein. "It's made of very hardened root, and they used it like a club. I suppose you could even kill somebody with it." She is anything but violent with her instruments, however, clutching the flutes closely when she speaks of them, much like a new mother holding an infant.

"It's hard to describe the sounds you can make," says the 49-year old, who wears a black formal kimono when she plays at events. "The original inspirations are usually connected with nature....the wind, water, the birds. Lots of the Japanese music centers on themes like that."

Brandwein has developed a following playing at local events that include La Jolla museum gigs, area civic gatherings, fashion shows, and ritzy soirees in Rancho Santa Fe. "She was perfect for us," said Julian Duval, executive director of Quail Botanical Gardens who invited Brandwein to perform at a party in the new bamboo grove there. "Her music wafted nicely through our bamboo."

Patricia Drew, a City Hall secretary who recently heard Brandwein at the Encinitas Civic Center at a send-off of students heading to Japan on a cross-cultural visit, called Brandwein's melodies "pure and simple...really quite lovely."

Brandwein explained her instrument's attributes and history to that gathering, noting a standard-size flute is just over 20 inches long. Lengths can vary, depending on the root selection of its makers. Typically, a five-holed instrument -- four on top, and one on the bottom -- has Chinese origins, though some historians argue the instrument may date even further to ancient Egypt. They are played almost exclusively in Japan today, and can cost from $1,500 to as much as $10,000.

Craftsmen age the bamboo from six months to as much as two years before they carve even the first hole. A natural "bell" -- a widened portion somewhat like a bell of a typical clarinet -- is maintained, and flute mouthpieces are painstakingly crafted from water buffalo horn or elephant ivory. The inside tube is lacquered repeatedly, and sometimes is lacquered with resin from the poison oak tree. "I've played instruments and broken out on my lips," Brandwein said. "So you've got to be a bit careful."

The mother of three grown sons -- one working in films in Los Angeles, two others studying engineering at San Diego State University -- said she hopes her passion for the flute turns into a full-time job. For now, though, she makes ends meet by tutoring students in Spanish and English. She also works as a "personal assistant" for local clients, doing administrative and household tasks while squeezing in Japanese language classes.

Some days she practices as much as five hours on works assigned by her Los Angeles-based teacher, whom she visits twice each month. "Masters say you need 30 years or more to understand many of (the flute's) nuances," she said. "I've still got a whole lot to learn."

The flutes are played almost exclusively in Japan, and cost from $1,500 to $10,000.

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