Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Tale of Two Swords, sword #2

Muromachi-period (1392-1573) katana, with Edo-period (1603-1868) tsuba (guard) and 20th-c. tsuka (handle).

I bought these pieces from an eBay seller who offers authentic antique Japanese swords and other stuff, to assemble them into a sword I could use to practice aikido sword techniques and exercises.  A recent post dealt with the very fancy sword that came to me from left field and is far too precious to be used for training, but the sword in this post is the sort of weapon a low-ranking samurai would have carried into battle during the civil wars of the Muromachi period in Japan.  Still, it's a 500-year-old sword!


The blade arrived in shirasaya, a storage scabbard.  Because I don't practice drawing the sword, I don't need a regular working scabbard, though I'll probably put one together eventually.  I just carefully unsheath it and train with it.  My first step was to assemble the metal pieces, which required filing (I wouldn't alter the actual blade--instead I alter everything else to fit it).

Fitting the tsuka (handle) was tricky.  I had to file out the profile inside, repair a small crack, and because the hole for the nakago (tang) was much longer than I needed, I had to prepare a piece of wood to fill that part of the tsuka and glue it in.  You can see below how the same (ray skin) that is traditionally used in a tsuka is here inlaid into channels in the side.  Better tsukas would have the ray skin wrap completely around the tsuka or even 1.5 times around.  This is more my speed...

Finally there was the long process of aligning the holes in the side of the tsuka for the mekugi, or bamboo pin that goes through the mekugi-ana (holes).  I ended up bushing both holes in the tsuka, which were pretty close to lining up with the hole in the tang, but close won't do it.  I was advised to buy a package of high-quality bamboo chopsticks to use to make the mekugi, and it took four of them before I got the right combination of hole alignment, taper on the mekugi and everything fitting together just so.  I had a chance to take a few shomenuchi cuts... very nice whoosh!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Summer prairie

Phacelia, lupines, clarkia, syringa, helianthella, and other delights, blooming in the prairie this evening.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A tale of two swords

Wakizashi (katateuchi) with shirasaya, Yasutsugu Sandai (c.1650)

One of Morihei Ueshiba's innovations in developing aikido out of Daito-ryu jujutsu is that he integrated traditional sword practice into the empty-hand tradition.  In any case, training with bokken (wooden sword) has been an important part of my aikido training with all of my teachers.  It isn't just trying to master the particular techniques and kata, but the way it extends your focus, your ki, past your body, and the way connection through the blade with your training partner is at the same time subtle and powerful.  It made little sense to me early on, but now I think it's an essential part of my training. 

Almost 20 years ago I knew a blacksmith who had a real katana, from about 1800, and one evening I went out in his yard and practiced some suburi (basic cuts) and various parts of aikido sword kata with his sword.  As soon as I was walking with that blade out to a clearing, I was aware of the smallest details in my movements.  I was focused.  It was real.

After that experience I wondered if an aikidoka like myself could buy a katana.  Now, as with a lot of things in my life--musical instruments, rugs--I am drawn to old things.  And I looked into it and saw that actual antique traditional katana are terrifically expensive, and so I forgot about that for years.  I have plenty to learn with just my body, and a bokken is absorbing enough.

But in a casual internet conversation a few months ago, I found out that it was possible to do as I have done with violins...go around the masterpieces of Japanese swordsmiths into some interesting old swords that could be made usable for aikido sword practice.  In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the making of katana became a growth industry as a result of the civil wars that were ongoing, and that there were many blades from this era (even as incredibly old as that seems) that were from unnamed smiths and may not be in perfect modern art polish, but they were real working swords from 500 (!) years ago, and thanks to the wonder of eBay, it is possible to procure something like this (if you had someone knowledgeable advising you--this is an important part) and assemble a koshirae, a working mounting of the sword, for under $1K.

So I started saving my pennies.  Several months ago I was talking to friend who is interested in native plants, and as I was giving her some plants, I recalled someone telling me that her father was an important kendo sensei, so I asked her if she knew about swords and had any advice for me.  She said, I have a sword.  And seemed to have decided then and there that this sword was for me.  I was hesitant--I mean, I wasn't asking for her to give me a sword!--and told her that if this sword were something I could train with, that I would love to purchase it, but...

This was not one of her father's swords, which she had given away to his students.  She said that because of her father, a sword collector had told her years ago that this sword was for sale nearby and she should buy it.  So she did, and she had it polished, and put away in her closet for the next 30 years.  When she brought it to me and I saw the blade, I realized two things... One, that this was not a katana, it was just a little shorter than 2 shaku (the minimum blade length for a katana, about 23.8 inches), though definitely long for a wakizashi (short sword).   And the other realization was that this was a serious sword.  Like that katana I handled years ago, this blade...demands your attention.

I thought that both of us needed more information, though she thought I should just have it, so I took it to the sword master who polished it thirty years ago, who is still in the Puget Sound area.  Konno-san immediately recognized it, and pointed out many features of the hamon (the wavy line you can see on the right, towards the edge in the photo above--this is where the layers of hard steel in the center emerge from the springier steel enveloping them).  Though the blade is not signed, he explained that there was no doubt that this was the third generation (Sandai) of the Yasutsugu line, whether Edo (the grandson of the founder) or Echizen (the third son of the founder), he was going to do more research... The Yasutsugu were personal swordsmiths to the Tokugawa shoguns, so this turns out to be a very fancy sword.  It seems to be a type of sword made from the late 1500s into the 1600s, a katateuchi.  It is not a stout blade used for hacking and stabbing like a standard wakizashi, but a smaller, very elegant version of a katana for one-handed use.  These first three generations of the Yasutsugu were exceptional makers, not only mastering the process of making copies of older Kamakura-era swords, but also working with new types of blade designs, as with this sword.  They even experimented with the integration of steel from the recently-arrived Europeans into their traditional tamagahane.

When I asked Konno-san whether this could be mounted with a two-handed koshirae (what I am trained to use) and used for training, a wave of amusement passed over his face, and he gently but firmly said, "You do not train with a sword like this."  The shirasaya (the storage scabbard it has, which you can see in the top image) was "the proper way to keep this sword."

He continued to point out important features of the blade and then we relaxed for a moment.  He had apparently overheard me mention to the other owner of the business that I played the violin, and he asked me if I knew about violins and would I be willing to look at some violins he had.  Hm, OK...  I am certainly no violin appraiser, but I can certainly tell what a lot of things are, and I can easily tell the difference between something special and the garden-variety cheap violin, so I was happy to do it.  There was a bag of bows, in which possibly one of the eight could be made to function at all.  The violins were in various states of disrepair, mainly cheap c.1920 student instruments from Central Europe.  One seemed actually to be a refinished late 18th-c. Saxon violin, which I pointed out that in its prime was a very nice violin.  Alas, it had an unrepaired back sound post crack, which I explained to them using the sword term--it was a "fatal flaw."  I thought about what I had read on sword etiquette, that you should point out the best qualities of a sword, so I lingered on some beautiful figure in the maple of several of the violins.  While I was honest about these violins, I tried to put it in the best positive light, the remarkable quality of the work given that it was done in very primitive conditions, and these craftsmen were paid for their work by the dozen and could make a violin in a day.  It is in fact true that some of these South German and Czech violin makers (many just in winter--they were farmers the rest of the year) made great fiddles with what must have been breathtaking speed.  Most of these violins, to be honest...were not so good, but I didn't need to say that.  But it's true that you remember the great ones you've played!

After this digression, we returned to the swords.  I thought that my friend should decide what she wants to do knowing about this sword so, in addition to finding out the history of it, I wanted to find out how it could be sold--my friend should made the decision about, really, what to do with this, knowing all the options.  Apparently the first step would be to get a shinsa from one of the two official Japanese sword-expert organizations (NTHK or NBTHK)--an official certificate of evaluation of exactly what the sword is.  How the violin world, and--OMG!--the antique oriental rug world, would benefit from organizations that were the equivalent of NTHK/NBTHK!!  And then, they said, with that you would be better off selling an unusual masterpiece like this in Japan, because Americans are mainly interested in katana (mea culpa).

About the time that the other owner (an American sword collector, who also is an advanced iaidoka and European fencer...) was telling me how this could be sold, Konno-san said...again, gently but firmly... "You should not sell this sword.  You need to study this sword, it will teach you, and when you understand this sword, then you will appreciate it."  He must have told me some version of that four times. 

When I came home, I reported to my friend what they had said about her sword.  She said, "You see, you don't own a sword.  You take care of it for awhile and then you pass it on.  Konno-sensei was right, you need to study this sword.  If you sell it, then give me some money, but you should listen to Konno-sensei."

Domo arigato gozaimashita.

Next month, the other sword.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


This is the view I have captured many times over the years, starting in Fall 2009.  The images below are in chronological order.  In this most recent view, above, it shows the effect of a late summer mowing from last year, even nine months ago.  I may be mowing again soon, to catch the flowering heads of the persistent cheatgrass. 

4/10/10, so about a month earlier in Spring.

Early June, 2010?  I don't think I used this image in a post...The Clarkia (pink flowers) became even thicker that year, with so little to compete with them.  They have thinned considerable in this area since, but are thicker further south in the prairie.

This was taken May 15, 2015

Friday, April 7, 2017

Spring 2017

Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii)
Click on the image so you can really see it.

Also, you can just make out tiny delphiniums sprouting in the grass.  Years ago, back in the annals of this blog, is a sad tale of the destruction of the area on the left side of this image by a plague of voles.  Then there was the invasion of the evil Medusa-head grass.  I built it back over a wider area, and there are still voles tunneling around, but there is enough prairie here that they can eat whatever, and there is plenty to go around.  I don't know exactly what they do in this ecosystem, but I suspect they help spread plants, splitting up these clumps of Grass widows, for example, when there are enough that they can't eat them all.   

Monday, November 14, 2016

American Akonting

Well, it has taken me years, but I got this record done.  It should be available on cdbaby, Amazon, iTunes, etc. etc. by December 1st.  Bring me to your town, and I will play all this stuff for you!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Well, the audio, anyway... I still have to write all the copy and put together the actual CD.

It was in my first year of graduate school (c.1988) that I took a research methods course at UCSD.  We had to come up with a research project, and I decided to look at what was known about the banjo before the advent of recording.  I quickly discovered that there was quite a lot of documentary evidence, and a handful of great books, but the only music that survived was a bunch of banjo methods and tune books written by minstrel show performers.

I had run into that stuff before.  The first person to resurrect a minstrel show performance was a guy named Robert Winans, and he had made a recording of that effort in the mid 1970s, which I had heard as an undergraduate at Pomona College at that time.  The music seemed sort-of dull to me, to be honest.  I was learning traditional American clawhammer banjo and American and Irish fiddle music, and to me this minstrel show music lacked the rhythmic drive I had come to expect in good banjo and fiddle music.

Robert Winans had followed in the footsteps of another musicologist, Hans Nathan, whose 1962 book Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy is the most important book in this whole banjo field, in my opinion.  I encountered it by chance in a used bookstore in San Francisco in 1980, while moving up to Seattle.  This book lays out how much is known about banjo music before the Civil War, and though others have added to the evidence, really all you need to understand the evolution of the minstrel show banjo tradition is right there. By adapting my clawhammer skills, I was able to play the music that Nathan included, and two of the pieces on my new recording, "The Newton Jig" and "Pompey Ran Away" (which isn't a minstrel show tune) are from this book.  There is playing on my recording that is consistent with this style, but I think it's dumb to sacrifice a good riff for following some intricate melody unless you've got a really good reason, and I am informed on this by the depth of source material we have on early 20th-c. blues guitar players, as well as West African plucked lute playing--these players are incredibly skilled, but where melody is concerned, either it is easily generated by the basic technique, or they don't do it.  Rhythm and a solid danceable groove is always of paramount importance.

But what about African-American banjo music?  One thing Nathan figured out early on was that there was very little actual African-influenced music in the minstrel shows.  There are a few tunes--"Juba," certainly, "Boatman's Dance," and I think "The Newton Jig" (and maybe a handful of others) that have African-American roots--but more striking to me is how little interest the minstrels had in African-American music.  There was no agenda whatsoever in trying to play authentic African-American music--indeed, the minstrels seem to be utterly uninterested in it.  The predominant banjo style, as portrayed by the minstrels, moves away from the pattern-based playing of African musicians almost immediately and into trying to play melodies like a fiddler--something that the banjo is ill-suited to do.  Once you're playing schottisches (the sort of dance tune that becomes more popular in minstrel shows as time goes on), you can pretty much assume that you do not have the funk.  If you hear most modern minstrel banjo recreators playing reels, you'll notice right away how the music often lacks the drive of good fiddling, and that's in those rare occasions where they play fast enough where you could dance a reel to it.  A common view among minstrel banjo enthusiasts is that clawhammer rhythm is later, but it isn't, and there's no doubt that a good clawhammer player has the funk and skills to beautifully accompany fiddle music at whatever speed.  That aspect of it is a bit of a mystery to me, but I assume that what we understand as "clawhammer" was just the way some African-American players played.  Maybe the minstrels just missed it.

We don't know names and music of countless African-American banjo players themselves.  There must have been hundreds of musicians--there are certainly hundreds of guitar-playing blues performers by the early 20th c. and they didn't come out of nowhere.  Even Scott Joplin's parents played banjo and fiddle.  A critic of my research haughtily suggested that I overlooked the most famous African-American banjo player of antebellum America--Picayune Butler.  I didn't.  I looked into him and concluded that he was a myth, a standard minstrel show character like "Jim Crow," a conclusion recently reinforced by Tony Thomas' recent research on Picayune Butler.  The most famous 19th-century African-American banjo player whose story and name we know was fictional.

It was in this context that I decided to look closely at Gottschalk's famous 1854 piano piece "The Banjo" that I had first tried to play on the piano in high school, and I came to a stunning realization.  No one had looked at it.  Certainly hundreds of pianists had played it, and musicians and audiences alike were thrilled by its imitations of familiar banjo textures.  Sometimes a comment might be made about the interesting way the piece appears to anticipate ragtime piano music.  Here's the problem--most of those textures were not otherwise documented for another half century after Gottschalk wrote the piece.  Scholars of the banjo claimed, based on the minstrel banjo methods, that these characteristic banjo textures were 20th-century developments, but there they are in fully-developed form in Gottschalk's piece, and none of them had thought to study the piece.  "The Banjo" is not based on the standard two-part European dance tune form that dominates minstrel show music--in fact, the piece takes its architecture from West African music--the repeating riff (kumbengo (Mande), fodet (Wolof), etc...) that forms the basis of a music performance.  Just like the blues, of course.  With all the variations and textures, I recognized that I was looking at the Rosetta Stone of African-American banjo music.  Here were demonstrations of many aspects of a style, enough to build a banjo performance practice, something that could transform our understanding of early American music.

And so, I sat down with the music to see if it could be played on the banjo.  As I discussed in my article, it was not difficult to tease out the banjo tune lurking right there.  Then I turned to a piece he wrote as a 15-year-old, "Bamboula."  The form was not as subtle or daring, but here again he captured banjo music on three distinct pieces that he assembled as one composition.  Take away the piano tricks and a teenager's taste for flash and flourish, and I had another rich source.  At about this time (c.1990), I became aware that in fact I was not the first person to look at Gottschalk's appropriation of African-American music.  Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks had at that point recently (1988) written "Gottschalk and the Grand Tarantelle," which rails at Gottschalk elegantly for his role in the great American music tradition of stealing music from African-Americans and making money with it.  When I wanted the poem to be included in my article (she had generously granted me permission to use it), the editors scoffed at its angry tone.  I insisted.  Especially in "The Banjo," Gottschalk's writing was so close to what a banjo could do that it was entirely reasonable to conclude that he had sat down with a banjo player and copied exactly what he heard.  Brooks was right, and I had proved it.

But it was just writing and notes on a page.  Because I wasn't interested in a career in musicology, I never went to conferences or anything like that.  I'm a musician, and I knew that to make the case, I had to record the music.  Then you could hear my ideas.  Especially when you hear the techniques and textures in the Gottschalk music applied to minstrel show tunes, traditional American fiddle tunes--it is definitely more Caribbean than Appalachian.  The bottom line is that the music is a blast to play and it feels as though I've discovered a musical treasure.  I'm not sure musicology has ever been done where the argument is made in the music, but that is what I have done here.  I don't want to say that the minstrel banjo playing these days isn't authentic, because I think it is, but I think this Gottschalk resource opens up an entirely different tradition, a pathway between the Jola in the Senegambia, Son House, and Dr. John.

Maybe the minstrels heard stuff like this and their music is what they made of it; maybe they didn't even pay attention to it.  When banjoist and pedagogue Frank Converse publishes a little tune in 1901 that he claims he learned fifty years before from an African-American banjo player (who of course is unnamed, and mostly condescendingly dismissed by Mr. Converse), it differs little from simple minstrel show tunes.  It might be authentic, but it is nothing like what Gottschalk shows us, which could be just the difference between the playing going on at that time in New York and New Orleans, as will be the case throughout the history of American music.  One interesting detail Converse mentions, however, is that the player tuned his second string up a half step (he reports this as the guy saying he put it "out of tune" which the guy never would have said!), so the standard clawhammer "double-C," tuned down to A.  That stuck with me somehow, and so I have performed all of this music with that tuning, except for "Leyenda" which I figured out thirty years ago on a conventional banjo tuned gCGbd.  That, and "Les Barricades Mysterieuses, " which I also still perform, are pieces I just love and they're extremely difficult--so I've got to use that tuning for those two.  One thing that has appealed to me with the alternate tuning (eAEab), besides the richer resonance it gives the banjo--I think it is an entirely superior tuning--is that I had to work out my own versions of things and not just reproduce what is in period banjo methods.   

I made my first gourd banjo in 1991, and it was a pretty thing (you can see it on my YouTube video of my performance of "The Banjo") but it was very quiet, and I had put too much relief in the neck, so the action was unnecessarily high.  It was enough to show me how wonderful a fretless gourd banjo tuned low was, and at that point I quit playing my conventional banjos to work on this, but I couldn't really perform with this instrument.  Still, I worked on playing it off and on over the next 18 (!!) years.  After I recorded "Cluck Old Hen" (July 2009) I recognized that I was going to have to make a new banjo to make this project work--a post here from back in 2009 describes the convoluted microphone setup I used to make that recording.  That's when I made my "#2," the design and construction which is also covered in an earlier series of posts (Oct-Dec 2011).  Even then, after I made it and was pleased with it, I continued to make modifications to it.  Really, until late 2015, I didn't have it in its final form--I then re-recorded most of my CD because it was a whole new instrument after its last round of modifications.  I kept the old "Cluck Old Hen" though.

Sometimes, it just takes a very long time to complete a project.  More soon...