"I planned to study some Japanese instrument as a means of making Japanese friends, if nothing else," he explains. "By coincidence, the shakuhachi was the first instrument I was introduced to. For some reason, the shakuhachi just worked for me," Wheeler says, adding that his interest in Japanese music was never fired by a sense of mystique, other than that naturally inherent in all forms of music. At the time an Asian studies major at Pomona College in Southern California, Wheeler went to study in Japan, learning to play his chosen instrument at the feet of some of its living masters. It was a learning experience in more ways than one, he notes.
"As for the music itself, there were those Japanese who told me that I would never really understand this music because I was not Japanese," Wheeler reveals. "My own experience has shown me that we come to an understanding of anything based on our love and appreciation for it, which leads to study and practice. If you do it, you will get it; if you don't, you won't. Ironically, it is those very critics of me who will never be able to truly appreciate the music of the shakuhachi and other Japanese instruments, because they are blinded to the universal appeal of this music by some overpowering need to see it as Japanese rather than simply as music."
But in spite of his detractors, Wheeler also met with support. As a result, he now performs and teaches worldwide, an occupation that included a visiting professorship last year at the University of Colorado, where he organized the World Shakuhachi Festival. He returns there this weekend to lecture and play as part of the entourage of Madam Kunie Fujii, who specializes on the stringed shamisen and koto and is one of Japanese music's greatest living chamber vocalists and performers.
Where Madam Fujii's repertoire is concerned, Wheeler's still not willing to give in to the notion of Eastern mystique. He says that Japanese chamber music's reliance on variations in tone color is part of its appeal for Western audiences: Played on instruments originally used in folk, religious or theatrical contexts in tones woven around poetic vocals, it's not without its proletarian qualities. "The Japanese love song and singing," he says. "It's no wonder that karaoke is a Japanese invention." And the songs have an ancient quality of storytelling--a sense of having been handed down through the ages. Fujii herself is the product of just such a tradition, having learned her skills from her own mother and passed them on to her children, who will join her on stage in Boulder.
All the more reason to give it a shot, something people in these parts have few opportunities to do. "As Madam Fujii is getting on in years, she may not do many more tours in the future," Wheeler says. "So for many people, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to enjoy live the talents of one of the great singer/musicians of the twentieth century."
Madam Kunie Fujii and the Chamber Music Songs of Togugawa, Japan. Pre-concert lecture demonstration with David Wheeler, 3 p.m. February 26, Old Main Theatre, free. Concert, 8 p.m. February 27, Grusin Music Hall, College of Music, CU-Boulder campus, $15, 303-492-1115.