‘If I lost this flute, it would be pretty tragic’: Shabaka, Corinne Bailey Rae and Nilüfer Yanya on their favourite instruments

Estimated read time 14 min read

Shabaka on his shakuhachi: ‘The way it makes you feel is unsurpassed by any other instrument’

A central figure of the London jazz scene, Shabaka Hutchings, 40, has been a member of bands including Shabaka and the Ancestors, and the Mercury-nominated Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming. He announced last year that he would no longer be playing the saxophone live. For his solo debut album, Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace, released on Impulse! in April, he uses different types of flute and the clarinet. This summer and autumn Shabaka tours the US, Canada and Europe, including the Montreal international jazz festival. He is pictured here with a shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute

This is one of the more difficult instruments to play that I own. It was given to me by an instrument-maker and shakuhachi player in Japan, Katsuya Nonaka. A year and a half ago, I travelled to Japan to meet him to talk about harvesting and making my own shakuhachi. We went to a bamboo forest and started the process of selecting the bamboo – it had to be the right age because of the moisture, and had to be suitable for my hand – and we dug it out of the ground from the roots. Then you burn the shakuhachi to get the initial oil out, and you leave it to cure for a year. I went back a year later and finished the process: I made three shakuhachis, and harvested four more on that trip. I’ll be going back to Japan later this year for the process of boring the holes and making the mouthpiece for those. By December, I should have made seven instruments.

While I was waiting for those first bamboos to cure, Katsuya gave me one of his own shakuhachis, which is the one in the picture. I’ve had shakuhachis before, but this is the biggest, and the most difficult to play. This is purely a practice instrument: I never play it live, and didn’t use it on the new album – on the tune Insecurities, I use an antique, 100-year-old shakuhachi. This is a private tool for me. I’ll warm up on it if I’m doing long tones in the morning or breathwork. Paradoxically, a bigger instrument doesn’t mean it is louder. But in terms of the low frequencies, it’s really pleasurable to play.

I got my first shakuhachi in Japan in 2019, when I was at the Fuji rock festival. I’d heard about it before and knew it had a cool sound, but I was very much an outsider. It is daunting and really humbling to go to an instrument and be a complete beginner. It took me a year to make a consistent sound on it; to put it to my lips and know, this is the sound I’m going to get. When I managed, it felt really great. There’s something really pleasurable about being able to sit with such a low vibration noise. When it’s resonating correctly, the way it makes you feel is, for me, unsurpassed by any other instrument I’ve played. There isn’t any mechanism or technology: it’s just one piece of material.

Shabaka with his shakuhachi.View image in fullscreen

The shakuhachi was used by Buddhist monks as a meditation tool for many centuries before it was a performative device. You can see why: there’s something very centring and grounding about it. Katsuya told me about a technique that’s been passed down to him, which is playing the lowest note for a couple of hours, thinking about how the note emerges from nothing to something and then back to nothing. This instrument in particular is great for that: to sit with long tones for long periods of time and just bliss out.

Is the flute having a moment? It’s an interesting question. Lizzo’s been playing the flute for a while – she plays the classical flute. André 3000 [who last November released the flute-centred album New Blue Sun] concentrates on the Native American flute variety. The thing with the flute is that it’s cathartic. It’s one of the oldest instruments: I guess the voice is the first, and then maybe percussion elements, but when it comes to actually using a part of the natural environment to amplify the sound you’re hearing in your head, the flute’s the oldest instrument that they found. From all the conversations I’ve had with André, it feels like that’s the vibe: you pick up the flute, make little melodies, and discover what the flute has to tell you.

I’m not playing saxophone any more, but in the past year or so I was practising so much shakuhachi that it really increased my saxophone technique. It develops the muscles around your mouth a lot more than the sax does – it’s a very small focused stream of air that forces you to get very in tune with what your body is doing. What I found in going to the flute from the saxophone and clarinet is that it feels better to inhabit the quieter dynamic realm – it’s almost more natural. It means I can be out in public, in nature, and be playing to myself without feeling that my sound is dominating the space.

A lot of the practise I do is in the bathroom – the tiling means you get a nice reverb, and it’s good to look at the mirror to see what my technique’s doing – or I’ll be playing in hotel fire exits. So it’s been good to actually perform live with a microphone. Actually, at the moment, I put three mics in front of the flute, so I can get triple the amount of level. I’m not actually playing very loud at all, but I’m able to project over a large distance. That’s something I saw in a Björk interview, when she was talking about [her album] Vespertine, and amplifying very quiet sounds so that they become big gestures. I’m really looking forward to doing a 12-gig, six-night residency at the Blue Note jazz club in New York this September. It’s the first time I’ll have done six nights in one club: it means I’ll really understand the space and how to manipulate the resonance.

If this shakuhachi got lost or broken, it would be pretty tragic. Any of these instruments that are made by specific pieces of bamboo, they’re irreplaceable – you’ll never get a piece of bamboo exactly the same. All my instruments are very specific to me in terms of what they mean, and the stories behind them, and how much time I’ve spent on each of them. So if I lost one, that’s the end of my story with that instrument. But if an instrument-sized hole appears in my life, there are always other instruments that come to the rescue. Kathryn Bromwich

Corinne Bailey Rae on her Marxophone: ‘I like that it doesn’t feel competitive. It’s very tactile, you can get straight to it’

Corinne Bailey-Rae with her Marxophone.View image in fullscreen

Born in Leeds in 1979, Corinne Bailey Rae is best known for her soulful early singles Like a Star and Put Your Records On, which propelled her self-titled debut album to a UK No 1 in 2006. Lately her sound has become more raucous and experimental: her 2023 album Black Rainbows was described in a five-star Observer review as an “audacious mix of rock, electronica, jazz and Afrofuturism”. She lives in Leeds with her musician husband Steve Brown and their two daughters. This summer she is playing a slew of festivals including Glastonbury (29 June), Latitude (26 July) and We Out Here (17 August)

In 2007, shortly after my first album came out and I had a bit of cash in my pocket, I went into a vintage guitar shop in Los Angeles. Those kinds of places always scare me, because I’m not a technical guitarist and the people who work there are usually dudes. There were all these expensive guitars hanging up, and then there was this strange-looking instrument on a shelf, called a Marxophone. I asked if I could try it and the guy looked at me as if to say “another timewaster who wants to check this out but won’t actually buy it”. I played it for a while and he gave me another look and I took great pleasure in saying: “Yeah, I’ll take it.”

The Marxophone was patented by an American inventor called Henry Charles Marx in 1912 and manufactured by a couple of different companies until the 1950s – mine was made in Jersey City. It’s a soundboard that has a group of 16 strings on the left that are arranged in four bass notes with triads for each note. And then on the right there are 15 pairs of strings running from low to high that are struck by hammers that bounce as you press them, in quite a hard-to-control way.

I love how the strings are arranged and that you can play it in different ways – sometimes I ignore the keys altogether and play it like a harp. I find it really transporting and otherworldly. If you’re a person who writes songs, sometimes sitting down with a guitar feels like you’re clicking into work mode. The Marxophone is different. I’ve never written anything on it. I find myself able to play and sing and just be transported.

It reminds me of when I used to find and make instruments as a child. One time I found a metal shoe tree in our garage at home. I took it on to the drive and sat on a stool and started playing all these little bits of metal that had slightly different tones. Time disappeared: it was just me doing this thing and getting lost in it. That’s the moment I look for on stage – when, after three or four songs, you’re not concentrating on making the thing happen, it’s just happening. And that’s what I find I can really quickly get to with the Marxophone, because it’s just such a weirdo instrument.

It didn’t take long to learn. Anyone can make a sound on it. Perhaps there are people who’ve mastered it – a Jimi Hendrix of the Marxophone – but I’m not aware of them. I like that it doesn’t feel competitive. It’s very tactile, you can get straight to it.

I’ve put moments of it on songs – on Low Red Moon from The Love EP in 2011, for example. I wonder if I should use it more. But the thing that draws me to it is the unrepeatableness of it. So a thing that I might play on it today, I might not be able to remember tomorrow – or I might not feel like doing the same thing again, because it’s a really mysterious, open-to-possibilities instrument.

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I’ve never taken my Marxophone on stage. There’s always a first time I guess. But it’s not very easy to transport. I could just imagine opening the flight case and finding it all bashed up, with strings everywhere. It’s really fragile. And there’s an intimacy about it that I really like. What I do on it doesn’t have to be liked or approved of or even shared. I’d really hate to lose it. Killian Fox

Nilüfer Yanya on her Fender Stratocaster: ‘The way the guitar looks is very important to me’

Nilüfer Yanya with her guitar.View image in fullscreen

Born in 1995 and raised in west London, Nilüfer Yanya put out three EPs before releasing her first album, Miss Universe, in 2019 to widespread acclaim – the Guardian called its “skewed alt-rock” the work of “a true original”. She followed it up in 2022 with Painless, a more cohesive and stripped-back record that featured on many best-of-year lists. Her latest single, Like I Say (I Runaway), is out now on Ninja Tune, and Yanya will play Rally festival in Southwark Park, London, on 24 August

My first instrument was piano. I started playing when I was six and put in a lot of effort, going up to grade eight, but for me the guitar was much cooler. I was into skater-punk bands like Blink-182 and I just really loved the idea of playing guitar. It fitted better with the ideas for songs that I had in my head.

The first time I played, aged nine or 10, was with a random broken guitar that a family member gave to my sister. Later, I found a guitar on Gumtree and trekked across London to collect it. It cost around £60 and it was just terrible. The bag smelled like cat pee. Later I got a Japanese copy of a Burns that was a bit more reliable, but it still wasn’t very good.

My playing improved at high school. I went to a very musical school called Pimlico [now Pimlico Academy] and my first guitar teacher was Dave Okumu, who studied at the same school and went on to form the Invisible. His classes were super-creative.

When I was 16, I discovered the Pixies, and something about their guitar sound really appealed to me. A year later I bought Lianne La Havas’s first album. Her playing felt a lot more intricate, and I felt attached to that as well. Also it was nice to see a woman with a guitar – there weren’t many female guitar players in the bands I listened to, like the Strokes, the Cure or the Pixies.

When I first started writing songs as a kid, I’d write the melodies and lyrics in a notebook. Then I started transferring the ideas to the guitar, and that helped me develop my own style. The physicality is nice: it makes the song you’re writing feel less abstract and more tangible. Even just holding a guitar, I’m thinking more intuitively about melodies, and everything feels a bit more natural.

I love playing guitar on stage. I love that feeling when you’re just totally locked in, not even thinking about what you’re playing. It’s almost like simpler guitar parts carry the most weight. I mean, everyone loves a cool solo, but with my own playing I feel most attached to the instrument when there’s nothing remarkable happening. It just makes sense and it feels connected. The guitar feels like an extension of yourself.

I remember playing my Strat at one of my first proper headline shows, at EartH in Hackney in 2019. I had been playing this guitar for years and I had a very honest, uncomplicated relationship with it. It was reliable and affordable – and pearly blue with a subtle sparkle which was very “me” at the time. I’d write, record and tour all on the same instrument – I don’t even remember thinking about any other guitars. The show at EartH is still one of my favourites – it was the first time I felt almost comfortable being on stage. But shortly after the gig I started playing a rose-gold Fender Jazzmaster, so my uninterrupted Strat era came to an end. I’d seen a few people playing Jazzmasters and I was eager to try something different. It felt good and natural to play.

Of course, things can go wrong. At a show in Istanbul on our last big tour, I broke the strings on the final song and didn’t have any spares, so they ran around the venue and found this random, weird-looking guitar. I didn’t think I’d be able to finish the show, but actually it was really fun. When you’ve practised enough, and you’ve got enough adrenaline, everything’s fine.

I’m not a guitar nerd. I wouldn’t trawl through guitar magazines for new technology. But the way the guitar looks is very important to me – most of the guitars I’ve owned have been blue. And the type of guitars I play has changed over the years. For the longest time, a Fender Strat was my guitar, then recently I started playing a Gibson SG, which has a different sound, a different energy – it’s associated with classic rock. But the Jazzmaster is probably the nicest guitar I’ve ever had. You’ve got to keep evolving. KF

Source: theguardian.com

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