Tim Hoffman's Tribute to Yamaguchi Goro

Dear Bamboo Brothers & Sisters, please allow me to offer my thanks and recollections.

HI, this is T. M. (Tim) Hoffman, logging in from Shimonita, a small town in western Gunma Prefecture; on your map of Japan, it would be the bellybutton of Honshu. Thank you (and you, and you, ...) for recognizing, in both senses of the word, the immeasurable loss of a gentle man (also a gentleman) with a sound that perfectly projected his personality and the tradition that he most admirably represented. I was fortunate to be under his conscientious tutelage as a shakuhachi learner between 1976 and 1979, while I was finishing a BA in music and language at Int'l Christian Univ in Tokyo and commuting to Kabukiza, National Theater, and small halls where schools of jiuta, shakuhachi, nagauta and etc would hold their performances. The highlight of my week was the Thursday afternoon visit to Yamaguchi-sensei's home for a lesson in a room with the sights, scents and sounds that most fully portrayed to me the "sei-bunka" (spirit of quietute, peace) within the aural art of music. With me having only recently completed the sho-den and realizing that my departure for India (where, as yet unknown to me, I was to spend six years in pursuit of another kind of variety in melody and rhythm) was imminent, Sensei allowed me to choose a few more of my favorite pieces from among the Kinkoryu gaikyoku and honkyoku repertory, and instructed and inspired me with that blend of tranquility and confidence that, together with his supreme command of the music he lived, made him a 20th-century avatar of the eternal soul of Japanese culture.

While in India and completing a 5-yr Visharad degree in classical vocal at Bhatkhande Music College (Lucknow), I petitioned to use shakuhachi in the bansuri (horizontal flute) program, and managed to complete the Visharad in that division (with "Distinction"), and since then have had the opportunity to perform with many superb musicians, playing raga on shakuhachi in major music festivals, concerts, radio, TV etc. in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, also in Japan and during infrequent visits back to the US. In 1989, I proudly presented to Yamaguchi-sensei a copy of my instruction book "Raga for Shakuhachi and Koto" (in Japanese, using Kinkoryu and koto Yamada-ryu notation along with the Indian sargam to introduce 8 Hindustani ragas and improvisation principles). Although this was not the kind of cup in which he was accustomed to having his tea, he was gracious and happy for my sake. He may have wondered (as I have done myself) how I could have become involved in something so 'way out there' when I could have been enjoying the soulful environment of his style of music. I was, of course, a bit disappointed that he would not be able to find time to try out some of this other 'Asian tea.'

So years went by, occasionally calling on Sensei or seeing him at performances with Yamada-ryu koto masters whom I have also admired over the past 25 years, never imagining that an opportunity to play Hindustani classical music in front of him could materialize. Then along came the World Shakuhachi Festival last July, and I was granted a slot in the New Age of Shakuhachi concert, to play with a fine tabla player, and was also to give a workshop on raga. Alas, a more miserable summer I have never passed! (Some background required, pardon the diversion.) In February 1998, just prior to heading off to India to record my Indian music guru for JVC World Sounds Special series (now out as "Khyal and More: Ganesh Prasad Mishra & Party"), I badly jammed the right (=wrong!) thumb playing basketball with locals here half my age, then lugged equipment around northern India for the recording (=no rest for the damaged digit). After seeing off the engineers back to Japan, trains, buses and feet took me over to Islamabad to help in a literacy education project, but while there had not the wisdom to refuse a request to play a concert for Pakistan National Council of the Arts together with some of that country's finest musicians (=yet more load on the problem joints and ligaments). Back to Japan in April to start up another semester (teaching ethnomusicology at Musashino College of Music in Tokyo, also another college) and other duties, I tried to rest the right hand while writing kanji on chalkboards (right-handed, of course!), at home dropping dishes with either hand (even found it could be done with both hands simultaneously!). It was with faith and hope that I circled July on the calendar, planning to resume practice, prepare, etc., and then received leave of absence from one of the colleges before a near-accident on the highway had me grabbing for the wheel and ploughing that thumb hard into it. That was that. Besides making things difficult for the organizers of the Festival, this chain of events had me closer to 'the edge' than I ever hope to experience again. And it was not until last week when NHK TV brought the news of Yamaguchi Goro's death that the my own little tragedy was made complete. Of all people in Japan, it was his understanding and respect that I wished most to earn, and that possibility had disappeared along with the person and artist that we had loved, and whohad loved us.

At the kokubetsu-shiki last Friday, many hearts - not very successfully protected by layers of black fabric from the cold of winter and loss - came together, some for the first time, others after a long time, paying respects and gaining one more inspiration from the gentle man and artist who had gathered us into his world as a great and varied family. In spite of the sad occasion, I was truly uplifted to rejoin others who had helped make the visits to Sensei's so memorable.

Jai Nad! (a Hindi expression, 'Long Live the Sacred Sound!'); thank God (and Edison, et al) for Yamaguchi-sensei's music which remains with us. Even in my own music, which is primarily Hindustani, I am certain that something of his sound ideal lives on, in particular when rendering some ragas (including such seemingly different ones as Jayajayavanti, Jogia, Bhairavi, Asavari, ...). The same must be true for all of us who enjoyed the opportunity to share a bit of his time on our fair Solar satellite. Oh, and incidentally, thanks from those in other galaxies (?) may someday be addressed to Yamaguchi-sensei, and also to Bob Brown and Carl Sagan who sent his music to them on Voyager II. Let us keep listening to the recordings left to us, and listen carefully to ourselves and the world around us, which is surely something he would wish us to do.

And thank you, whoever may have managed to follow this lengthy and awkward tribute to this abrupt end!


T. M. Hoffman (Indo-Japanese Music Exchange Association)
tel/fax (81) 0274-82-3160

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