The Mystical Plant

      Bamboo, Materials

The Land Breeze and the Sea Breeze were married and had a child: a giant bamboo plant. The first man, Malakas (Strong), and the first woman, Maganda (Beautiful), emerged from the bamboo plant split in two after a battle between the Sky and the Ocean.

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This is the legend of the first man and woman according to Philippine oral tradition. Several creation related legends exist throughout Asia. In Malaysia, a similar legend tells of a man discovering the beautiful woman of his dreams emerge from a bamboo tree he split open. In Hawaiian mythology, bamboo is the body form of Kane Milohai, the god who created the sky, earth and upper heaven.

The bamboo is firmly entrenched in many cultures throughout Asia for thousands of years. Some still believe the bamboo has mystical powers. In feng shui (an ancient Chinese art and science), it is known to promote positive energy flow (chi) and is sometimes used as medicine. In Japan, bamboo forests sometimes surround Shinto shrines as a barrier against evil spirits.

Bamboo is revered and is extensively depicted in art, poetry and literature especially in Southeast Asia. This plant has numerous meanings. Its durability and evergreen nature represent eternity, tradition, longevity, loyalty and fidelity. It is also the symbol of luck and wealth in China. In India, it is a symbol of friendship. In Vietnam, the bamboo symbolizes the Vietnamese soul.  In China, the bamboo, the plum blossom, the orchid and the chrysanthemum represent the four seasons and are known as the four noble plants. The bamboo is symbol of summer in China, and winter, In Korea. The Japanese call the bamboo, the pine tree, and the plum blossom, the “Three Friends in Winter”. Bamboo represents flexibility, the plum blossom represents beauty and the pine tree symbolizes survival through difficulty.

The Humble Grass

Yes, bamboo is a grass, members of the Gramineae (Poaceae) and grouped in different subfamilies, the Bambusoideae with some 1,400 species. The diversity makes it adaptable to diverse environments. It is native to all continents except the coldest regions such as Europe and the poles where they were wiped out during the recent ice age. Bamboo evolved from prehistoric grasses in what is now Asia in the Cretaceous period where it reached heights of 75 meters (250 feet) in vast, enormous forests.

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest

As a material of choice, it is sustainable and “rapidly renewable”. Bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant in the world with a growth rate of up to 90 centimeters (3 feet/day). Some species can grow as tall as 30 meters (100 feet) and more than 25 centimeters in diameter (10 inches). It grows to a harvestable height of 18 meters (60 feet) in about three to five years. After harvest, its extensive root system continually replenishes the plant with new shoots without the need for replanting; making it one of the most renewable resources available.

It is environmentally friendly. The plant absorbs more greenhouse gases (12 tons/hectare) and provides five times more oxygen than the equivalent surface area of trees. Bamboo cultivation does not require pesticides (it has natural anti-bacterial properties), fertilizers, heavy harvesting machinery or irrigation.

Bamboo is green in every sense of the word. It is traditional and even ancient yet so 21st century!

When treated, bamboo forms a lightweight and exceptionally durable hard wood. High content of silicic acid gives the plant its extraordinary elasticity, hardness and strength. The tensile strength of bamboo (up to 40kN/cm²) is greater than that of steel (37 kN/cm²). It is known to be almost three times harder than oak and 16% harder than maple.

Bamboo is used as material for musical instruments predominantly in Asia since antiquity. Its tonal properties make it particularly suitable for musical instruments. Its hollow structure makes it a natural choice for building wind and percussion instruments. The fibers and natural resin that constitute bamboo material itself is very resonant due to its resilience and high elasticity. A narrow strip of bamboo flexed like a bow will freely oscillate when released and emit a pleasing “thooouummmnnn”  sound at its resonant frequency plus some overtones.

Let us see what the world of bamboo musical instruments has to offer. Here’s a sampler:

Traditional Instruments

Angklung

Angklung

Angklung (Indonesia): Made out of two bamboo tubes tuned to octaves.

Shakuhachi (Japan): An end blown flute.

Shinobue (Japan): A high-pitched transverse flute.

Xiao (China): A vertical end blown flute.

Jinghu

Jinghu

Palendag (Philippines): A long slender lip-valley flute.

Dizi (China): A flute with an extra hole covered with a tissue-like membrane that gives the instrument a very unique timbre.

f’ohe hano ihu, meaning “bamboo, breath, nose” (Hawaii): A nose flute with 4 holes, one for the breath and the rest for the notes.

Shakuhachi

Shakuhachi

Nohkan (Japan): A high pitched, transverse flute made from smoked bamboo (susudake) or burned bamboo (yakidake).

Jegog (Indonesia): A large percussive instrument (3.3 meters in length and 18cm in diameter) with pitch as low as 60 hz.

Valiha (Madagascar): A bamboo tube zither. The Valiha is Madagascar’s national instrument.

Valiha

Valiha

Rangguin (Malaysia): A Jaw harp consisting of a flexible bamboo strip attached to a frame. The bamboo strip is plucked using the mouth as a resonator.

Kuliteng (Philippines): A zither made from single bamboo section, three to four inches in diameter, with strings also made from bamboo.

Balingbing “Buzzer” (Philippines): A bamboo tube with slits on two sides allowing the halves to buzz when struck with the hand.

Bamboo Organ

Bamboo Organ

Jinghu (China): A bowed instrument with two strings tuned in fifths.

Las Piñas Bamboo Organ (Philipines): Probably the largest bamboo instrument ever built, it was built in 1816 by Fray Diego Cera dela Virgen del Carmen. Made almost entirely of bamboo with 843 bamboo tubes out of a total of 900, only the trumpet stops are made from metal.

Modern Instruments

FGBM1BambooYamaha FGB1: The world’s first all-bamboo acoustic guitar. Everything in this guitar is made from bamboo, the top, back, sides, neck and even the braces. The bamboo’s straight grain gives it a warm, crisp and resonant sound.

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The Stick

Bamboo Saxophone: Philipus Jani of Sabah, Malaysia builds saxophones made entirely from bamboo. It took him 12 years to design and patent his creation.

The Stick: A revolutionary guitar-like instrument designed for  two-handed tapping. “Laminated bamboo is an ideal natural material for making Sticks. It’s lighter in weight and more rigid than hardwoods, and also has a very tough surface. Three tiers of 3/16″ wide ‘vertically’ laminated strips form an attractive ‘breadboard’ construction with maximum strength in the direction of string tension.”

Further Reading

  1. Bamboo Boom: Is This Material for You?
  2. Earth Healing with Bamboo
  3. What Is the Meaning of the Lucky Bamboo?
  4. Three Friends in Winter
  5. Mechanical properties of bamboo
  6. World Instruments Gallery
  7. Bamboo Orchestra
  8. Yamaha Announces World’s First All-Bamboo Guitar
  9. Strong as steel and environmentally sound, bamboo is branching out – The Boston Globe
  10. Would a bamboo neck be feasible?
  11. The Stick
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