Me & My Xaphoon: A Personal Account

by Gary Friedman, Xaphoon Enthusiast

"Exhausted, I found a small clearing on the mountain, just outside the village. I took off my backpack, rested for several minutes, and took solace in the quietness of the surroundings, the freshness of the mountain air, and the scenic mountains that were heavily terraced to allow every square inch of land to produce rice. Just down the road was a small village of no more than 50 people, isolated to the point that no car or SUV could ever traverse the steep and narrow paths leading to its simplistic beauty. Ghorapani was a village that could only be reached via a several-day trek on foot or by donkey. We were backpacking through the Himalayas in Nepal, late in the year just before the monsoon season started.

Reaching into my backpack, I pulled out a small bamboo flute, a "Xaphoon", handcrafted in Hawaii and my constant companion whenever I travel. Still sitting within earshot of the village, I started to blow a few notes, setting the reed to vibrate to produce its characteristic deep, low sounds. After warming up I started playing some folk tunes I had learned on my way up. Slowly, almost unnoticeably, I found myself surrounded by the local children. All of them quiet, all of them curious, with a look that was half unknowing and half amazement. "What in the world is that?" their expressions conveyed.

I smiled. I got fifteen smiles back. I handed the Xaphoon to one of the young ones, gesturing, "Would you like to try?" They understood instantly. One little girl took me up on my offer. I showed her how to pad her lower teeth with her lower lip, place the instrument just so far so that the reed would vibrate, bite down a little, and blow as hard as she could! Not much sound came out, but we sure had fun trying!

I did not speak the language. I only knew a handful of Nepali folk tunes. On a trip where even a saxophone or clarinet would have been prohibitively large, and half a world away from the stress and hurriedness I left behind, I was able to use my Xaphoon to create instant friendships with the people of this quaint village. As I continued to play high atop a mountain and communicate my inner spirit to all who could hear, I quickly realized that this is where inner peace and happiness come from."

Let me tell you a unique story. This is a story of a musical instrument, its impressive creator, and the choices we all make in life. The instrument I'm referring to is called a Xaphoon (pronounced "Zafoon"), it's handmade of 14" of burnt bamboo and looks similar to a recorder. A tenor saxophone reed gives the instrument an unexpected yet incredible deep, rich sound that lies somewhere between that of a saxophone and a clarinet.

I discovered the Xaphoon at a folk music festival in 1989, and was taken by its impressively rich and full sound, its small size, and its old-world hand-crafted charm. It's not a cultural instrument; it was invented 20 years ago by a craftsman and musician who lives in Hawaii, and he's still the only one in the world making them. So in love was I with the sound of the instrument and its earthy design that I vowed on that day to become an expert at playing the Xaphoon, and to make wonderful music wherever I went.

Having never played a wind instrument in my life, I turned to the instruction manual, which is a work of art in itself. Hand-drawn calligraphy and illustrations teach you the basics of playing, give you a fingering chart, and even provide troubleshooting tips. "It's made from bamboo cut from the rainforests of East Maui" it says. "Scare away evil spirits" it says. "Bring joy to wherever you go". "Make a tape of your music and send me a copy." I took a deep breath and I tried to blow a note. Nothing. I took a deeper breath and blew harder. Still nothing. In all, it took me three weeks of hyperventilation just to get the reed to vibrate and make something other than an awful, high-pitched fingers-on-chalkboard squeaking sound.

Things improved over time. I learned the fingering, taught myself how to breathe properly, and learned a small repertoire of folk songs. I played it during lunch. I've played it at street festivals. I've played it in the Boston Subway. I've played it in India and Namibia. There is no better way to make friends in a foreign land than with music. When I was in Nepal, I would toss the Xaphoon in my backpack and travel the countryside, venturing to places that could only be reached by foot. At each village I came to, I would find a comfortable spot to sit down and start playing. Within five minutes, all the children in the village came out to see the source of this strange, western-sounding music. Within ten minutes, all the adults would come out, too; for although they have all seen bamboo flutes before, they've never seen anything that sounded like that!

The Xaphoon's instruction manual said to make a tape of me playing, and send it to the creator. Eventually I had enough confidence in my playing skills to do just that, and I was floored by the response. A five-page letter, not just hand-written but hand-caligrified, commenting on my playing and saying what a thrill it was to hear my story and how I've been using the instrument. For me, the letter reinforced my mind's image that the Xaphoon's creator was a spiritually-fulfilled guru who lives off the land, devotes his life to music, and who understands what's really important in life.

I suddenly decided that I had to meet this guy. I had to see if the Xaphoon Guru was for real; what his life was like, and learn how the instruments were made. Before I knew it I found myself in Hawaii, and I made my way over to Maui where he lives.

The Xaphoon Guru lives on the north face of Maui, overlooking the ocean, in a place so remote you have to travel a few miles on a bumpy dirt road just to get there. He built his two-story house himself, which has no utilitiy hookups to electricity, telephone, or running water. Rainwater captured from the roof provides what little water he needs, and a solar-charged battery runs the 5 small lightbulbs in the cabin at night. And he's raising six kids there. That's right, 6 kids with no television, no Nintendo, and no fears about drive-by shootings. Instead, they play out in the fields barefoot and enjoy the daily parade of rainbows. Wow, this is no phony image conjured up by marketing; this is the real thing!

He let me stay with his family for a few days, and I got to see how the Xaphoons are made. It's an impressive process; the physics involved just in the shape of the mouthpiece and the placement of the holes is made more complex by the fact that no two bamboo stalks are alike. He first goes and selects bamboo where it grows wild on the island. After a few months of drying out, he then carves and shapes the end of the bamboo into a natural mouthpiece. Onto this he places a reed and then blows, listening carefully to the pitch and quality of the sound. If it's not right, he knows exactly where to carve the mouthpiece to correct for any faults and increase the fullness of the sound. Then comes the astounding part. With a red-hot poking iron in his hand, he'll examine the bamboo's size, interior diameter, mouthpiece shape, squint his eye a little, and say, "Let's see....D should be right about here!" and he'll poke a hole in the bamboo with the iron. Then he'll play a note. A perfect D! One by one I watched in fascination as he poked all 9 holes into the bamboo, each being either exactly right on or being so close that slightly adjusting the shape of the hole can usually correct it. If you don't think that's impressive, I encourage you to try it. Unlike conventional instruments whose hole placement can be determined once and then mass-produced, there must be hundreds of variables to take into account when working with wild bamboo whose dimensions vary greatly. I guess after making the first twelve thousand Xaphoons during the first 10 years, the process became second nature to him.

I was in awe of the Xaphoon guru, even more so when I learned he grew up in Culver City, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. I marveled at the way he lives and at the choices he made. Although I acknowledge that any lifestyle viewed briefly from afar is likely to be perceived as overly idyllic, I sometimes look at the lifestyle I lead and wonder if I'm spending too much of my time doing the wrong things and striving to make payments for things I don't really need.

Such thoughts usually turn out to be fleeting. I remind myself of my obligations of running a growing business, and the people who count on me. But the spark of imagination of things that might be never dies out. And every so often, when I pick up my Xaphoon and begin to play, I forget about the pressures of everyday life, rejoice in the healing power of music, and think somewhat enviably of the Xaphoon Guru -- the man whose little-known creation has lifted my spirits, challenged my values, and helped me to realize what things were important in life.