Riley Lee – Playing the Shakuhachi

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Riley Lee began playing the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute, 40 years ago and in 1980 he became the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of dai shihan or Grand Master. We catch up with him in the lead-up to his performance at the Bellingen Music Festival.

What was your introduction to Classical music?

My parents had a small but fantastic record collection when I was a child, and I just loved the turntable. I was fascinated with this machine and as soon as I was allowed to use it, I just put on what was there, which was this Classical music that I had.

Even before that, I was around when the records were playing, so in a sense I was introduced to the music through these recordings. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony were the main two that I remember. So basically my introduction what through a turntable that I really enjoyed playing with.

Tell us about the instrument that you play.

It’s called the shakuhachi. It’s a simple instrument; it’s just a piece of bamboo with some holes knocked into it. It is actually a very good instrument and quite difficult to make. The simplicity and beauty of the natural bamboo … the way it feels in my hands is amazing.

So much of it attracted me even before I began to play it. Once I heard it, the sound is exquisite. It’s just the most beautiful, gorgeous sound, and that’s before I hear music being played on it.

Traditional music for the instrument – I have always found it seems to speak to me to a degree unequalled by any other types of music played on other instruments. So on all those levels, I have become attracted to the instrument.

Do you play any other instruments?

I used to play some Japanese drums, Taiko, but I had an accident and I haven’t been able to play any more. I was hit by a car walking down a sidewalk back in October in Brisbane. I was in hospital for two months, and I’m on my sixth – and I hope final – operation on my long suffering knee. This festival in Bellingen is one of the first major performances that I’ll be doing since the accident, so it’s very special to me.

What will you be featuring in your upcoming performance at the Bellingen Music Festival?

I’ll be performing as part of Wind & Wood. Our small contribution to the festival will be quite an interesting one, and it certainly will be unique because I don’t know if I’ve ever performed in this combination before. With my own instrument I’ll be joined by Claire Edwards, who is a fantastic performer on the marimba and other percussion instruments, and cellist Emily Duffil. So the combination of marimba, cello and shakuhachi is a first.

In spite of it being the first time, it’s amazing how well the three instruments work together. Well … it’s actually not that amazing when you think about it, because the various musical elements that the three instruments bring make a remarkably fitting trio.

We will be playing duets with each other as well. Needless to say, there is no repertoire for this combination, so we will have one piece composed especially for this event and we hope to be having a world premiere for the three instruments.

We will also be performing a number of pieces that were not composed originally for these instruments, but they certainly work as well if not better than the instruments for which they were originally composed.

Are there any other major performances that have been highlights in your career?

Yes, there are many! But the one performance that can’t be beaten was on the dawn of New Year’s Day 2000. There was a world wide broadcast watched by something like a billion people. Each country involved had a 10 or 15 minute segment of their country. It went for 24 hours, because it started as dawn occurred in various parts of the world and the broadcasters in those countries put on these segments.

I was fortunate to be part of the Australian segment, with this exquisite piece that was composed especially for the event by Ross Edwards. It involved 6 performers standing on each of the tips of the sails on the roof of the Opera House.

Then there were choirs, a children’s choir and an adult choir down below, and we were filmed while we were performing this piece. The neat thing about it is that we were able to do it twice in case it rained on New Year’s Day, because we wouldn’t be allowed up there for safety reasons if it had even sprinkled a bit. It was so remarkable.

How can our readers learn more about you?

They can log on to my website:

Thank you Riley. Good luck with the performance.

Riley Lee will be performing at the Bellingen Music Festival as part of Wind & Wood. For more information, visit

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