Music traditions form in separate corners of the world. They occasionally meet, and ideas are exchanged. These meetings do not happen at one point in time; they take decades and centuries to unfold, slowly transforming the received traditions. A tradition can be thought of as a “way of doing” or “expressing” that has become a habit, a language. But whereas a particular language is incomprehensible to the foreign listener, music bridges the rigidities of words and talks to the intelligence of the heart. Music lends a favor to the tradition that longs to show to others its levels of perfection.

Musical instruments bear the marks of that particular way of doing; they are crafted to suit the slight acoustic nuances of a tradition’s way of approaching music. Instruments such as the shakuhachi and the nay—though both many centuries old—have seldom met because they come from very distant places. The nay is a piece of reed from the Middle East, while the shakuhachi is bamboo from Japan. Although very simple in substance and shape, their sound has a strong character because they have grown to represent in the most complex ways what they have inherited from the past.

When Kamal Helou, my musical partner, and I made these two instruments converse, we knew that we were forcing the laws of time. We found the first musical contact timid—both the shakuhachi and the nay imposing their characters, clinging to their traditional aesthetics. The shakuhachi is sharp and focused, the nay moving and warm. Yet the similarities were evident, both instruments having come to reflect similar ethical questions—the universality of being and the intuition of the soul.


A legend tells the story of a journey that took place centuries ago, from East to East. The nay, a Middle Eastern reed, an open ended flute, is as old as humanity and is today found in the Middle East, North Africa, and as far east as Turkmenistan and Mongolia. As the story goes the nay found its way into China and there developed over centuries to become a type of flute that may well have been the ancestor of the shakuhachi. We know for a fact that the ancestor of the shakuhachi originated in China and then traveled at a later stage to the islands of Japan.

Both the nay and the shakuhachi are open ended flutes, meaning that they do not require a special type of embouchure in order to produce a sound. It is solely the form of the lips and the precise and highly controlled focusing of the breath directed at a hollow end of the flute that produces sound. But whereas the nay is played in an oblique way, the shakuhachi (and its Chinese ancestor) is played centered. The nay has six holes at the front and one at the back, while the shakuhachi has four at the front and one at the back. The predecessor of today’s shakuhachi had six holes (five at the front and one at the back), but the instrument later developed into a five-holed instrument, which flourished in the Edo period in Japan and continues to this day. These variations are a natural result of geographical and historical developments. For example, the Persian and Turkmen nay has five holes at the front and one at the back. It is said that Persians replaced the Arab system with the Turkmen crafting style sometime in the eighteenth century.


But comparing both flutes may not tell us much about whether there actually is a historical and geographical continuity between them. People across societies crafted very similar tools and developed cultural expressions that resembled each other without prior interaction. Chances are that history has forever concealed the secrets of a possible common root. Moreover, cultural exchange may happen on such micro levels that it is practically impossible to trace such exchanges. For example, it only required one musical encounter between musicians at royal courts or at social celebrations or between travelers for ideas to be exchanged.[1] Lastly, establishing that link seems less important than noticing the extent to which both instruments have served very similar purposes across history. Both speak to the soul or the spirit, and both facilitate a type of introspection, although as I will argue later, through slightly different methods.

When I approached Kamal with the project of playing a shakuhachi-nay duo, neither Kamal nor I had any acquaintance with the musical tradition of the other. In general terms, the striking difference between Arab and Japanese musical history is the detailed and rich archiving of the latter and the absence of traces of the former. From my experience as a musician, it is clear that most Arab music (and here I mean court music, of which we have some written trace) has been largely focused on accompanying poetry singing. The musical style of playing instruments was mostly geared at imitating human voices. This is also prevalent in the various music traditions of the Indian subcontinent. The maqam Arab system and the ragas Indian system in that sense are quite similar. However, the Japanese and Chinese traditions are slightly different. Singing plays an important part in shaping the instrumental genre, but the rationale for playing an instrument may sometime escape the supremacy of speech. The pentatonic scale that is the backbone of Japanese and Chinese music is minimalistic enough to permit all kinds of micro tonal ornaments that musical instruments can develop in multitudes of ways.

Although I wish to avoid a technical discussion of the music theory of both traditions, it is important to explain how a specific musical relationship can develop between such distant musical styles. The pentatonic scale is comprised of five notes, with the sixth note being the octave. In the Western musical system we call them the root note, a minor third, the fourth, fifth, and a minor seventh note. The Arab maqam system, by contrast, is characterized by groups of three to four notes or intervals succeeding each other. The specific combination of intervals creates the difference in melody. To put it in Western musical language, the Bayati maqam, for example, is characterized by the root note, the second but lowered a quarter tone, a third (sometimes also lowered very slightly), and a fourth full note. By the time one reaches the fourth note of the Bayati maqam, thus producing the Bayati “feel” or melody, from the pentatonic perspective one has reached half of the scale.

Yet the minor third of the pentatonic and the lowered third of the Bayati will not get along if played simultaneously. Most pieces played by Kamal contain a version of the pentatonic that does not include this minor third. These are the Miyako Bushi and the Ritsu scale. The Miyako Bushi includes a flatted second instead of the fifth, and in this way vaguely resembles the Arab Hijaz maqam, which includes a flat second that is slightly higher than the flat interval found in Western music, and a sharp third. The Ritsu scale contains the “natural” second, instead of the flat, and most pieces played by Kamal oscillate on this variation from root/flat second to root/second.


In Arab music, just as much as in Persian or Indian music, the secret of the musical “feel” (called tarab in Arabic) comes from playing and hearing the intervals in a specific order or with specific accents. This is a reason why a maqam is not a scale in the strict sense of the term, but a mode that constructs a melody. Bayati is a melody, an “air” that comes back with endless variations. Three or four notes following each other through specific intervals define the maqams only because they are played in a specific order. Japanese music appears quite similar to this as the scale constitutes a skeleton of the actual playing that involves complex sets of micro tonal variations on the couple of notes that constitute the scale. The particular order in which the intervals of the maqam are played is called a taqsim. A musician usually improvises a taqsim by introducing one or two notes at a time and hovering around particular intervals before moving to higher or lower pitched notes. Playing a maqam has often been compared to climbing a ladder, and the expression “the ladder of a maqam” is typically used throughout Arab musical communities to describe this type of improvisation.

In this sense, tarab, or musical trance, comes from a long process of repeating a slow ascension or descent sliding through the intervals of the maqam and following a particular rhythmic pattern. Moreover, shifting from one maqam to the other is a source of tarab. As a result, Arab music is filled with ornaments, although a typical taqsim is played in the most minimalistic way (as will be seen with Japanese music). Too many notes can ruin the whole experiment. But the repetition of two few notes can make it boring or dull. The musician has to find the right balance in which repetition remains a central aspect of the musical process, but every repeat is done slightly differently with different accents, the addition of a note, and so on. Once the whole maqam is played over and over again in this manner, a meditation state can be achieved.

In contrast, in Japanese music, at least in the Doukyoku genre of shakuhachi music, the musical tension is more circular, more centered on one or two notes of tension that are there from the beginning and that the musician hovers around during the whole piece. This seems logical given that there are significantly fewer “notes” in a Japanese piece compared to an Arab one. In this case, the musician seems to swing across wide intervals and hits the note with strength and assurance.

There is a beautiful story behind Japanese musical minimalism that any shakuhachi player or fan has surely heard. It can be summed up in the notion of Ichi-on Jobutsu, which roughly translates to “enlightenment in one sound.” It is said that an emperor of the Muromachi period asked a monk to appear before him and explain the essence of Zen, the discipline practiced by the wandering priests called “Komosu.” The monk, Kakua, entered the court and after a long silence removed a shakuhachi from under his robe, blew one short tone, bowed politely to a large audience that came to listen, and left.[2]

According to Kamal, through focus on the breath, shakuhachi players go into a meditational trance. This is reminiscent of Indian yogic practice, Sufi traditions, and other spiritual paths found across the world. For Kamal, Zen practice works toward the centering/balancing of one’s body. Zen priests learn to coexist within their community in harmony. Kamal explains that through one sound, the musician reaches enlightenment by focusing on the tonal quality that requires proper breathing, proper blowing, and awareness of one’s surroundings. “When I play there are a million sounds that pass through my head,” says Kamal, adding that “mastery or enlightenment involves cutting down mind frame, from chaos to nothing, not absence of chaos, but complete void, where the music is carrying itself out.”

The monk Kakua is said to have brought the shakuhachi to China. His disciple, Kyochiku, is said to have composed two pieces, Koku and Mukaiji. What is striking about the shakuhachi repertoire is its solidity as it was passed from teacher to student, which was surely facilitated by the clerical order passing on this musical practice. The contrast cannot be starker with Arab music. Although the nay is said to be used by Muslim Sufi orders, Christians, and other religious traditions, nowhere to my knowledge do we see a direct link of this use to the remote past. We know that there was vibrant court music in the different states of the Islamic world, but there is not much detail as to the place the nay occupied in this musical tradition. The world today has heard through Rumi’s poetry of his fondness for the nay. The Turks also have several established schools of nay-playing, each hovering around one teacher/master, but most of them are fairly modern.

What is known for certain is that the taqsim method of playing maqams is solidly anchored in the tradition of shaykhs performing the call to prayer and reciting the Qur’an. It is also found in the practices of the Christian Arab and Greek liturgies. Playing taqsim on the nay is practically identical in method to reciting the Qur’an or performing azan. As mentioned, vocal music is so strong in the Arab tradition that maqams in their structure are highly conducive to recitation due to the fact that the intervals between notes are quite narrow compared to the Western tradition and the pentatonic scale.

From my own experience with taqsim and from what Kamal says of Japanese music, it seems that both traditions lead to a similar objective: a kind of opening of a higher form of consciousness. Traditional music as a whole (and here I refer also to Indian music) has this defined goal. This is likely why in the Islamic tradition, an ambiguous stance toward music was apparent. Shaykhs noted that the art can create all sorts of feeling, making some instruments or types of poetry singing frowned upon. But because music, when played in a specific way, can create a higher state of consciousness and thus closeness to the divine, it could also be highly regarded.

But the difference between the Arab and Japanese musical traditions is the particular path taken to achieve higher consciousness. In the Arab tradition there is the relentless search across the intervals of the maqam for the moment of emotional outburst, whereas in the Japanese context, one is looking for the right note, the right blow, in the right moment: the perfect strike. In both cases, one cannot reach this level of perfection unless the mind is clear or at least is being slowly disciplined to give in to certain levels of clarity.

The anonymous compositions played by Kamal—Daha, Sokkan, Shingetsu, and Tamuke—go back to the period of Kyochiku. They are written in a particular musical language that not only marks the notes of the scale to be played but carefully details every acoustic nuance that the musician has to perform. In contrast, the maqams that I play (mostly oscillating between Hijaz and Bayati) are orally transmitted from time immemorial, and although containing certain musical rules of “playing,” the maqams are more open to the improvisational skills of the performer. As mentioned, between the root and the fourth, Bayati or Hijaz can easily fit depending on the way the Japanese pieces are played.

Unlike Arabic maqams that usually refer to the specific regions from which they are believed to have emerged (such as Hijaz, which indicates contemporary Saudi Arabia), the Japanese names for the compositions have striking meanings. In Daha, “Da” means to tear apart, to break, and to strike, and “Ha” means wave. As Kamal says, “The striking waves along the seashores are a symbol of the infinite adversities that we need to overcome in our daily lives. Yet, the pounding of the waves along the sea rocks provides a constant process of cleansing and rejuvenation.” Sokkan can be translated as “breath-sight” and refers to one’s concentration on the breath as a signal of self-control. In Shingetsu, “Shin” indicates the heart, the mind, and the spirit. “Getsu” indicates moon. According to Kamal, “The moon is symbolic of enlightenment and one’s discovery of the truthful and sincere pathway in life.” In Tamuke “Ta” means hands, and “Muke” means facing each other, or hands put together, indicating “solidarity within oneself and one’s community.”

The most common remark I hear after playing the nay is that the sound feels “so sad.” For years, I have tried to understand the reason for this feeling. Is it because the music invites people to a form of introspection? Yet, isn’t it the case that any form of introspection is already a type of painful or sad prayer, of communion with the “Other,” the self, or the divine? This is so because an introspection, a meditation, forces us to face our deep-seated emotions of desire, hatred, or fear—such emotions being the barometer of our relation with the Other. It is through our emotions, what makes us human, that we can pray, facing hands such as in Tamuke, as an invitation to a communion.

This contribution is part of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute.

[1] I am indebted to Dwight Reynolds for this insight.

[2] A long version of the story can be found here: