Just another instrument to play in the park Hugh de Ferranti


In September I was able to be in Sydney for the first time in nearly four years. It was a time solely devoted to reconnection with family and old friends; for two weeks, every day I was with one or more people who remain dear to me, no matter how many years I live away from them. One friend is a musician who plays several instruments and sings in a range of styles. Knowing how well he sings ‘traditional’ Irish songs and ballads, and that he’s of Irish descent, I asked whether he played the tin whistle.i Not surprisingly, the answer was yes. I think he was surprised, however, when I asked him to both help me find one, and give me a starter lesson on it. He obtained a whistle in advance, generously gifted it to me along with a photocopied tutor book and a bunch of other tunes in notation, then showed me the basic fingerings and overblowing techniques before we sat down to a home-cooked dinner with as much good red wine and catching up as we could fit in before the hour grew late.

I’ve played some Japanese transverse flutes – the ryuuteki 龍笛 and shinobue/matsuribue 篠笛 (though no one’s allowed me to play in any of the neighbourhood-based matsuri-bayashi that resound from atop dashi 山車 in the Kawagoe Matsuri!) As for end-blown flutes and fipple flutes, I’ve never played shakuhachi, nor did I play the recorder as a child, unlike so many Australians of my generation who learned it at primary school. Why did I want to acquire a tin whistle and learn to play it at age 62?

There is no simple answer to that question. A tin whistle is inexpensive, easy to find and easy to produce relatively stable sounds on, with no embouchure challenges of the sort faced when blowing transverse flutes,ii let alone the shakuhachi; therefore for someone with a musical background it’s an instrument on which one can hope to become moderately proficient through self-tuition. However, there are several strands to my motivation: I wanted a flute that could be played away from traditional ensembles and customary settings. In Japan, matsuribue are associated with local festivals, and the sounds they make are necessarily loud and mostly in a high, piercing register, which enables them to cut through the sounds of the three drums and hand-held gong (surigane or chanchiki) of the matsuri-bayashi group, as well as the noise of festival revelries. In that context matsuribue is appropriately cheerful and infectious, but if played solo in any other context, it is not an instrument anyone wants to hear for more than a minute or two (if at all). The same could be said of ryuuteki, the other Japanese flute I’ve played, which is wonderful when heard in the gagaku 雅楽ensemble, soaring away over the backwash of dense tone clusters sounded on the shou 笙, and riding above the slow repetitive patterns plucked on the koto (楽箏) and biwa (楽琵琶).

The tin whistle is played in many kinds of ensemble, of course, but is also an instrument rich and varied in expression when played on its own, as it often is, or with percussion accompaniment of even the most rudimentary kind—basically whatever comes to hand:

As the video makes abundantly clear, the whistle goes hand in hand with conviviality. It can be played casually and spontaneously, because it’s small enough to be not just portable, but concealable—one can have it in a little bag or even on one’s person in the inside pocket of a light jacket without anyone noticing it’s there. What that means is that the tin whistle can figure easily in public or private life, without the least bit of formality or ‘fuss’—no one need know of its presence or anticipate its appearance.

Wouldn’t a shakuhachi have been suitable, as a flute not bound to traditional Japanese ensembles? No, because (not to mention its infamously difficult embouchure) it’s a hallowed traditional instrument with a lot of historical baggage, some of which involves assumptions about its ‘customary’ setting, namely, as a tool for meditation (hougu 法具) in certain Zen practices. Playing it in a park or public space here in Japan, inevitably I would be regarded as a foreigner who has come to study traditional arts, and probably Zen, too. Rather than melodies and the sheer attractiveness of the sound, ideas about history and supposedly impenetrable cultural barriers would take precedence in shaping people’s listening and modes of response.

Moreover shakuhachi is primarily a solo instrumental tradition, despite its use to accompany some styles of traditional folksong (min’you 民謡) and Edo period songs in the repertory of jiuta (地歌) when they are performed in a trio (三曲) format. Traditional shakuhachi repertory is esoteric and little known to most Japanese. It’s still the case in this society that most people don’t enjoy traditional music genres other than the boisterous sound of matsuri-bayashi at festival time, and perhaps some of the most famous min’you items. Most had little exposure to traditional music as children, and learned very little about it at school.iii So they don’t quite know how to enjoy listening closely to such music. Instead, people tend to connect the sounds they hear to remembered fragments of information and stereotypic images perpetuated in popular culture, for example, images of ghosts and blindmen conjured up by the sound of biwa, or of itinerant Zen priests evoked by the sound of solo shakuhachi. Traditional Japanese music for the most part ‘speaks’ only through those images, even in the land of its birth.

Not so the tin whistle. Even when played solo, its repertory comprises melodies of traditional song (airs), and tunes for dancing. In a park near my home I stumble through some of the handful of tunes I’m working up, and I see immediate responses in the faces of people who wander past. Apart from occasional looks of puzzlement at hearing such sounds in a public space, almost all the reactions seem positive. I can’t play any reels or other dance tunes yet—those styles call for an agility with the fingers and breath coordination that comes only through a lot of practice over time. One of the slow tunes I can currently manage is in a ‘minor’ mode, and not the least bit cheerful; so it’s not as if the melodies are all merry and the beat irresistible. What is it in the sound of this thing from the Westernmost fringes of Europe, then, that puts smiles on faces nearly 10,000 kilometres away?

It goes without saying that the tin whistle is now globally available. I mean not only that it can be heard live, purchased or even learned in-person in any major city of the ‘developed world’, and that countless recordings and videos of it are at the fingertips of anyone with a digital device and a connection to an internet server. In addition, its sound and traditional melodic style are familiar (even if the physical form of the ‘tin whistle’ may not be) to anyone who has enjoyed mainstream films, animations and video games since the early 1990s, including here in Japan: Titanic, The Lord of the Rings and of course parts of the sound track for Final Fantasy IV: Celtic Moon.iv

The same is true inversely for some Japanese traditional instruments—the shakuhachi and wadaiko are commonly heard in Australia,v the UK and even Ireland—and indeed for sitar, kalimba, didjeridu and many other instruments in what the music industry has marketed as ‘World Music’ since the 1990s. All those instruments have become sonically familiar through not only live performance of traditional repertory, but also incorporation of their distinctive sounds in intercultural repertory and in other media of popular culture. In a transplantation process that preceded the birth of World Music by several decades, moreover, in the mid-C20th a few ‘émigré’ instruments were taken up so strongly that they became standard resources in the folk music of distant music cultures—two examples salient for this essay are the so-called Irish bouzouki, a Turkish and Greek lute that has been played in Irish duos, trios and larger ensembles for well over half a century (see,

and the pennywhistle as played throughout much of southern Africa:


In the global reception of instruments in the context of World Music, however, thus far there are relatively few such examples of sounds of ethnic and cultural Others becoming so familiar that the ‘Otherness’ altogether vanishes. Rather, there continues to be a prevalent assumption by musicians and listener-consumers about the unity of cultural identities, values and musical expression—the innate ‘Japanese-ness’ of shakuhachi music (and players), the ‘Indian-ness’ inherent in the sound of a sitar, and so on. Some would argue that assumption is fundamental to the very ‘business model’ of the World Music genre, making its profitability dependent on ongoing perception of immutable cultural distance, regardless of the displacement of musicians and the establishment of multi-generational diasporic communities. By that logic, here on the outer fringe of a Japanese metropolis the responses of people who see and hear me playing briefly in the park may also have much to do with the apparently ‘Celtic’ (or Irish to those who know a little more) identity of the sounds and tunes, and the presumed identity of its player. They see a grey-haired foreigner playing foreign music alone in a park somewhere deep in Tokyo suburbia. (Could it be Father Mackenzie?!) Surely that old fellow is a native of the Celtic lands where those beguiling sounds have origin, and surely, stuck here on these islands at the opposite end of the Eurasian continent, he’s playing music to commune with his distant ancestral land and spiritual home?

Little matter that the last ancestor of mine born in Ireland, Arthur Devlin, was a nationalist rebel exiled to the British colony of New South Wales in 1806, nor that I’ve never set foot in the Irish Republic, let alone Belfast and the North. There’s a set of beguiling assumptions about music, national and cultural identity in play here, and during occasional moments of alienation I’m far from immune to them myself. I live in Japan as an immigrant, and for several years now have felt a need to play music of ‘my’ cultural heritage, despite having studied a few Japanese historical traditions from the standpoints of either a researcher or a musician, or both. I’ve done that mostly by maintaining a certain level of skill on guitar, including some arrangements of Irish and British folk tunes. By newly picking up the tin whistle as an instrument to carry round and occasionally take out to practise in public, I sense I’m ‘performing’ an identity ascribed to me, regardless of any intentions I may have. For foreigners in a society where monocultural assumptions remain little questioned (despite lip service to slogans such as ‘multicultural coexistence’ (多文化共生), there’s simply no escape from perceptions and preconceptions about one’s foreign-ness. I see little harm in sometimes ‘matching’ the instrument in my hands to those perceptions. Perhaps inevitably I’m perpetuating stereotypes and mediated whispy dreams of ‘Celtic’ tradition and Irish communal values, but at least for now, though feeling inadequate to the role of authentic (Anglo-)Celt, I’m happy to see the sound and sight of my rudimentary playing bring smiles to the faces of strangers.

Photo: My ‘Made in England’ tin whistle, somewhere in the foothills of Moroyama (Saitama) 毛呂山.

i A fipple flute, or end-blown flute with a mouthpiece, rather like a narrow metal recorder, also called the pennywhistle or flageolet. While played in Ireland and throughout the UK, it is most strongly associated with Irish traditional music, and called feadóg stáin in the Irish-Gaelic language. In Japanese it is rendered as tinwissuru / ティンホイッスル.

ii Embouchure refers to the technique of shaping one’s lips and oral cavity in order to produce an ‘appropriate’ tone quality on a wind or brass instrument, according to the aesthetic criteria of the music tradition being performed.

iii That is slowly changing, as the Ministry that sets educational curricula (Monkasho 文科省) somewhat increased children’s exposure to 和楽器 and 日本の伝統音楽 content in primary and middle school music classes from 2008.2.

iv See

v See my 2006 article "Japan beating: the re-making of taiko drum music in contemporary Australia." In: Inside-Out Japan: Popular Culture and Globalisation. Eds. Matthew Allen and Rumi Sakamoto; London: Routledge: 75-93