Interview with George Abe

By Rolling Thunder

George Abe was one of the founding members of Kinnara Taiko. Paving the way for many of the groups that followed, Kinnara has been influential in the development of North American Taiko. Mr. Abe makes and sells yokobue and shakuhachi, and in this interview, talks about the early days of Kinnara as well as his contributions to flute playing. Editorial comments by Rolling Thunder are in [brackets].

Rolling Thunder: You have been with Kinnara since the beginning.

George Abe:It was after Obon at Senshin [Buddhist Temple], we were putting away a taiko that had been played by Inouye sensei. He was a Japanese school sensei and a very active member of Senshin. I was going to Senshin as a YBA member [Young Buddhist Associastion], and I was kind of active socially -not a lot of interest in the Buddhism side of it- but it was the thing to do. It was where the pretty girls were.

At the time, Senshin was very lucky to have gotten Reverend Mas Kodani, who was one of the first sansei ministers. He had grown up in South Central, like me, but he had gone to Japan, went to the Buddhist University system, and became a minister. When he came back to the United States, he had a lot of ideas about studying Buddhism not, say from, the Christian type of format. What he had in mind was things like exploring chanting, exploring Gagaku, exploring older forms of liturgy so that we could create new, more authentic types of liturgy, or practice, or ritual. He would encourage everybody's participation, especially the young people, in the Obon dance. [This was] very important. Up until that point, Obon dance was very much about showing off the young girls, the marriageable girls, and things like that. That is all good too, but Senshin is a little bit exceptional in terms of very early on, young people would have fun too with dancing. He really encouraged that. He encouraged other expressions of Buddhist study in that same kind of spirit, of looking back and looking forward, developing new forms of making it more meaningful for sansei, for yonsei, and for older people too.

We were putting away the Taiko and we started beating on it and jamming, in more an American kind of way. It felt good. Literally, my hands were bloody from blisters breaking. It was the first time I had really banged on a drum that much. I had musical experience; I had played clarinet and saxophone in high school, but never passionately. The drum is a passionate thing, and from the very beginning that is what it was. We beat the shit out of it. Just bam, bam, bam! We did not know what we were doing, we were just making rhythm, beating on the side. Not Obon style, which is keeping the times for the dancers, but just beating it. We must have played a long time, maybe a couple of hours. So we said, "hey this is great. We should do something, make our own drums or whatever, lets do something. Taiko! Lets explore the Taiko."

So that was the seed. We could not afford, back then, it must have been $5,000 or $10,000 for a taiko. Now it is incredibly expensive. We knew we could not afford that, so we said, "we can make it, people make their own congas, people make whatever, so let's just try making them." So, we did. I went to Japan in 1976 or so, and I went to Miyamoto Shoten. I came back with a piece of paper on how taiko are made in Japan, with dowels and stretching, so we tried that too and it worked as well. Now we are getting to where we have reinforced the inside, so that it sounds better and the barrel is stronger, and we reglue them. The early ones we never glued. We left the bands on and we would use a polyester casting resin to seal the barrel. Taiko technology has improved over the years.

I was there when the Taiko group started. I think at the time I was going to college, so I did not have a lot of time to do this kind of thing, so I kind of left the group. The group did a lot of things, started gigging and writing pieces and stuff. I got back involved at another point. I cannot really say when that was, you know in terms of what year, but it was still pretty early in Kinnara's history. About that time, Reverend Mas Kodani came back from Monterey with a bamboo flute, which he gave to me. It was made in a major scale and I started playing it. I kept it in my back pocket. I would go to Griffith Park, the love-ins and drink wine, do a little of my flute with the conga players.

There was an interesting house in Berkeley on Blake Street. We used to call it the Boddhisatva house. Out of that house, a number of sansei went into ministry. Also, living in that house, was an incredible musician by the name of Gerald Oshita. He was also making [shakuhachi] at the time. He would take local bamboo, cut holes in it. So, we talked, and I said, I'm gonna make one too. When I got back down to L.A., I made one. I played it for about a year and a half or so and decided, I had reached a point where I wanted to study. So I went to study with a family friend Baido Wakita, who had been like a godfather to me. He had taught shakuhachi for over 40 years (including in Manzanar).

RT: What year was this?

ABE: This would be in the 70s. I think I had graduated from college and it was a couple of years or a year after that. I graduated in 1968, from Cal State, a psych major. That places the time when I started shakuhachi. I studied with Wakita sensei for about 7 or 8 years, and then he passed away. I continued to study shakuhachi with whoever I could. Wadazumi Ranjo was here in Los Angeles. I studied with him. There are a number of kai (organizations) and I participated in concerts and recitals, things like that. I also pursued it on my own in terms of study, never with a sensei, but getting music wherever I could, trying to interpret it, listening to tapes. Another friend of mine, Masakazu Yoshizawa is very good at shakuhachi and an incredible musician. He and I, very early, did things like shika no tone, listened to Katsuya Yokoyama and Hozan Yamamoto, listened to recordings the way they did it, and we copied. Normally, you know, you would learn it from a sensei when you are very advanced, but hey, just do it. I think it came out good. There weren't any experts there to critique it, but we felt good.

RT: So, at that time, you were introducing the classical style of Japanese music to American audiences for more or less the first time?

ABE: I don't think so. In this case, it was mainly recital kinds of things. Mostly family. You know. We were not taking it to any kind of main stage kind of performance or anything like that, but, in a way we were doing that too. Whenever we would perform in a public situation or something, people would ask us questions. I have introduced Japanese instruments to conga players at Griffith and Exposition parks, or to the audiences in general where I play, and I do a lot of that.

RT: You have also been doing a lot of innovation with teaching yokubue and shakuhachi. Why don't you talk about the scale wheel that you have created?

ABE: I have been making shakuhachi and yokobue. In order to make them, my feeling is that they should be well tuned. Of a type that in Japanese would be called misatobue, more tuned to a western scale than a Japanese one. Japanese [flutes] are often made to look beautiful. Asthetically, the finger holes are spaced very nicely, but blow terribly in terms of any scale. If you make the flute to play in a good scale like diatonic, or pentatonic, you need to space the finger holes, and the size of the fingerholes needs to be either made bigger or smaller, depending on where on the tube that note needs to be for it to be in pitch. So to transpose and figure out what the basic pitch is, and the next note and the next note, to do that in my head is very difficult. I am getting older and, you know, my brain just does not hold it anymore. I have never really been a musician who could transpose and do those kinds of things rapidly and readily. So what I did was develop a kind of a slide rule. The outer wheel shows a western chromatic scale. The inner wheel, I have a little cut out which I can align to say the hachi, or #8 yokobue, and that aligns with the Japanese notation for the pitch which is correct for that flute, I think for the #8 it was A on the chromatic scale.

By turning that inner wheel one notch up or down, longer or shorter, higher or lower, I can then see what the number, you know the tsutsune, or closed pipe is, what pitch that should be, and also the next pitches are, you know, like 1, 2, 3, 4, all the way to 7. I could see what note I need to pitch that hole to, so that with my Korg reference tuner, I could blow the pitch and see if I am sharp or flat, open the hole or close the hole accordingly. That is why I developed it. It is a tool: dogu. I did that in a wheel form, that does not have a fingering chart on it now. I am thinking of making a bigger wheel that would also have a fingering chart also. I also have laid out on a fingering chart with a chromatic scale the same type of thing, showing a regular fingering chart with a chromatic scale above it so that the corresponding notes are aligned and to tell you what pitch it is supposed to be. That is what I have done with the fingering chart.

RT: So, from a player's point of view, it allows you to easily transpose Western music into Japanese scales and vice versa.

ABE: Right! If you are writing for yourself, for example, if you come up with an melody, a lot of times, you will forget it. So, you can sit down and write it out in western notation or fue notation. You could lay it out on graph paper. That is another way that I have come to write music. Certain spaces are beats and then I put the number to fill up a certain space on the graph paper and that corresponds to a beat, you know, like you can have quarter notes or half notes laid on in graph form and use fue notation in that style in the same way that you can say don don don to write Japanese taiko music. You then remember what you came up with, the idea you came up with, or scale. You might be jamming some day and "hey this is great." Like an Okinawan scale. I really love the Okinawan scale. So, I just the other day, wrote out the Okinauan scale for myself in yokobue notation. Now I can take that scale and put different rhythms to it and come up with songs that I could then at least memorize parts of it or remember good licks. [If I say] "hey, this is great, I can write it down real quickly. Normally I would write as if I was using the number eight, because it is in C, no matter what length flute I'm using. All the notes are whole tones, so you don't have to worry about flats and sharps, keeping track of all those. The same thing, I write for the #8 in the same way that for the shakuhachi you write for the shaku hachi even though you are using a nishaku issun or longer or shorter.

RT: You have also been developing some innovations in shakuhachi making technique as well. For instance, you have been working with epoxy inlay, right?

ABE: Yeah. For shakuhachi, the mouth piece is usually made out of water buffalo horn. Very difficult to do. You cut the inlay and you have to have a wedge of water buffalo horn that fits in there, then you have to cut [the excess] away and file it down. It is very difficult to do and very time consuming. I started making the cut-out and then using clay or something to build a little dam. Then pouring polyester casting resin. Recently I have been using strong epoxy putties and pushing it down into that cut and then filing it away. That gives you a hard edge. If you leave the shakuhachi without that blowing edge, the utaguchi, it becomes swollen and/or rots away. I don't think of it even as an innovation. I think of it as my way to do it, you know to save time, and to save energy and yet have it work.

RT: You also have efforts to import and restore older Japanese shakuhachi.

ABE: I worked in Japanese antiques for about 5 or 6 years, so I know a lot of Japanese antique dealers. In Japan there are often flea markets where people come and sell anything from pots and pans to shakuhachi. Very often broken shakuhachi, where the utaguchi is missing, or the shakuhachi is badly cracked. I have told all of my dealer friends, if you find shakuhachi like that, buy them for me. I repair them and then resell them, or I keep it for my own purposes. As with all musicians, sooner or later you find one that you won't give up because it is just too sweet. It might not be the greatest looking flute or it might not be stamped with a named maker, but it plays for you and that being important, that becomes the justification for keeping it. I have a few flutes that I have purchased that I would never ever sell. There are other flutes that just come through my hands. For me, they are not the greatest flutes, but somebody might pick them up and say, "wow, I love this. This plays real well," and I will sell it to them.

June 4, 1996.

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