article published in the American Bamboo Society Magazine, dec. 2000

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by Angel Sampedro del Río

Several authors consider the pan flute to be the first musical instrument.  Whether this true or not, pan flutes have undoubtedly maintained their popularity in the past and continue to do so in many cultures, and there are few people who do not enjoy their peculiar sound.  When these authors try to justify this concept, they say that ancient men and women were inspired by the wind blowing through bamboo clumps.  Again, whether this true or not, it is undeniable that there is a strong relationship between pan flutes and bamboo.  Indeed, bamboo is drawn to be a pan flute.  It is almost certain that the first pan flutes were made from bamboo or similar plants with a holed, tubular structure.  Later on, pan flutes were made from different materials, such as stone or clay, and much later on ceramics and metals were adopted for pan flute manufacture.  Modern pan flutes are also made in wood or plastic, but none capture the peculiar resonance of those made in bamboo.
What is a pan flute?
The main difference between a pan flute and a multi-holed flute, is that with the first one can obtain only one note per tube, while with the second one can vary the pitch of the instrument by covering or uncovering holes.  Essentially, a tube open at one end and closed at the other is a pan flute. The longer the tube, the deeper the sound.  A real pan flute is a group of tubes, the collection of which form an individual flute.
Different characteristics of the tube shape give different qualities to the sound.  Of greater importance are the ratio between length and internal diameters, the thickness of the wall of the tube, and the cylindrical versus the tapered internal shape.  A narrow tube produces a sound with a high content of upper harmonics.  Translated into a pan flute, a vibrant, piquant sound is produced.  An extremely narrow tube does not produce the fundamental note; or rather it does, but mixed with the harmonics.  On the other hand, a fat tube of the same length produces a rounded sound.  The first ones can be roughly compared with consonant letters of "g" or "r", while the second with the vocals of "u" or "o".
The different types of pan flutes around the world:
Some of the most famous, are those from the Andean region, generically called siku or antaras.  Large groups of sikuri (siku players) can be found in Bolivia, Perú and north of Argentina and Chile.  On the other hand, one can mention the European pan flutes, known as Romanian pan flutes, although it was used widely throughout Europe.  The siku is a pan flute organized in such a way that it needs two to play the whole scale.  The banda de sikuri (a traditional pan flute orchestra) is composed of twelve siku.  Each musician has a half of the scale alternated with the half of another one, and the melodies are performed alternatively, creating a stereophonic effect.  This is a true communal action, though an outsider cannot notice this group action.
Musician A plays the D, F#, A, C, E, G, B, and D.
Musician B plays the E, G, B, D, F# ,A, and C.

Selecting bamboo and the resulting acoustic consequences:
Each culture made their own unique musical instruments with the materials that they had at hand.  The South American ones are traditionally made using the bamboo Rhipidocladum harmonicum, known locally as “Chuki” or “Chussi”.  The characteristics, is  the long internodes are markedly cylindrical with very thin walled.  Another species highly favored, is Rhipidocladum neumanii (Sulekic, Rúgolo and L.G. Clark), which has recently been described in N.W. Argentina and Bolivia.
The original European pan flutes were made from Arundo donax, which although being a grass, is not a bamboo.  Arundo donax has shorter internodes than the Rhipidocladum genus.  Although there are countless types of pan flutes in South America, one can say that they are narrower than the European ones, with the expected consequences to the sound, as mentioned above.
The long internodes of Rhipidocladum species allow to the flute maker (known as sikulururi in Los Andes) to easily achieve bass notes with narrow tubes, where the length-diameter ratio might be 30 or more (that is, the length is 30 times that of the internal diameter).  The thin walled Rhipidocladum reinforces the harmonic characteristics of the narrow tube.  The reason for this, is at the embouchure (mouthpiece) rather than the resonating qualities of the material.  Following the principals of acoustics, the energy of the resonant air into a tube is not enough to make the walls resonate.  However, at the embouchure, the sharpness of the edge where the musician blows produces more harmonics than a rounded one.  The thin walls also make the tubes very close one to another.  So, when one blows one note, unavoidably one also excites the neighboring ones.  Due to the organization of each row of tones described above, the musician excites the neighboring 3rds notes, and as a result, the natural harmonics of the main note are also played.  Another characteristic of a thin walled pan flute is that is easier to play, for the simple reason that the lips of the player are nearer to the air column than blowing a thick walled one.
European pan flutes obtain more individual notes.  The alignment of the tones follows a diatonic scale (the normal C, D, E, and so on).  There are large pan flute orchestras in Europe, but the way each flute plays is the same as other instruments, where each musician has its part of the melody.


The Andean antara is a single row of tubes equivalent to the European pan flute, but normally adopts the pentatonic instead of the diatonic scale, the original Inca music scale was composed of 5 notes.
Pan flutes in South America are also made from other bamboo, such as Aulonemia queko and probably species of Guadua as well.  Rhipidocladum harmonicum, the king of bamboo for pan flutes, is not widely spread.  The Arundo donax was introduced by the Spanish conquerors, and is also used for traditional pan flutes, such as the Ecuadorian rondador. The rondador, which is most likely post-Columbian, is a curious self harmonized pan flute made with small tubes of Arundo donax. In this instance, a musician can deliberately blow two notes at the same time.


Bolivian flute makers from Walata make this instrument using Rhipidocladum harmonicum, which results in a high quality, refined pan flute.  However, it seems that they use this species for the simple reason that they have an abundance of this bamboo.  Very large siku, called toyo (also known as taika in the Aymara language) are made in another bamboo, the species of which still eludes me.  It has a rough surface, and although it has very long internodes, hard walls and an incredibly cylindrical bore, sometimes the longer tubes are the result of a two pipes being joined carefully together.  This bamboo is found in the Chapare, near Cochabamba, Bolivia, and could be either an Aulonemia, or less likely, a Guadua species.

(also called taika, grandmother in Aymara language)


Modern approaches to making pan flutes:
When Andean music became popular outside their frontiers, flute makers have made siku and antaras of different materials and, of course bamboo species.  In Argentinean cities, the revival of traditional Inca instruments began in the 1960s, reaching its zenith in the 1980s.
Several bamboo species have been introduced near Buenos Aires, mainly in the Delta del Parana at the North, which has a temperate micro climate zone, and in Berisso at the South of the metropolis.  Local flute makers have used these introduced species to make flutes, such as Bambusa tuldoides (“Punting Pole Bamboo”) and Pseudosasa japonica (“Arrow Bamboo”).


So-called “local” varieties, which were actually introduced, are high valued, including the traditional flute makers of the Andean zone of the N.W. of Argentina.  I was surprised when I met a traditional Jujuyan flute maker who told me "Oh, you have the canes from the Delta!" referring to the Pseudosasa japonica.
Pseudosasa japonica has long internodes with thin walls, and an excellent internal diameter to length ratio, especially at the upper part of the culm.  They are quite good for European pan flutes, but the walls are not thin enough to produce the Rhiphidocladum effect.  Paulo Carri, a Buenos Aires flute maker, has overcome this problem by designing a special embouchure (mouthpiece) by reducing the walls at the mouth end and giving a certain inclination for each note.  He makes excellent, though expensive siku and chromatic antaras following the piano distribution.

Chromatic Antara MADE BY PAULO CARRI. The right photo shows the embouchure of the reduced walls tubes

Pseudosasa pan flutes are made by carefully selecting pipes that have a plain, well-rounded sound that is easy to play.  Traditional Andean pan flutes have a natural septum at the far end.  Modern flute makers cut the tubes a bit longer for each note, and then seal them with a movable rubber plug.  This is difficult to do with Rhipidocladum, due to their thin fragile walls, but this works perfectly well with Pseudosasa japonica.  This method is very useful here, because most of the Bolivian or Peruvian siku are tuned in the Altiplano, under a particular atmospheric pressure due to the altitude.  These flutes are normally out of tune at lower elevations though.  Rhipidocladum sikus are hand made with small knives in the Altiplano.  When I brought to Buenos Aires Rhipidocladum tubes for first the time, I machined them in the same way as the other bamboos.  So, when I cut the tubes with a band saw, I was surprised by the sparks, probably due to the high content of silica in their thin but very hard wall.  In fact, Rhipidocladum culms have a slightly sandy texture.
One can purchase a pan flute or siku at a wide range of prices, the quality being invisible to the novice.  Professional flute makers make them tube by tube, actually working on each note and carefully selecting the length to diameter relationship, and sometimes the result of such a work is almost invisible.  Each bamboo tube is sanded outside and inside, oiled or lacquered and polished with a buffer.

I would like to thank dra. Zulma Rúgolo de Agrásar, Instituto de Botánica Darwinion,
Paco Jiménez and Paulo Carri (musicians).

For more info, contact
Angel Sampedro del Río

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