A Q&A with Hiroya Tsukamoto
By Geoff Gehman
Hiroya Tsukamoto likes to call his music “Cinematic Guitar Poetry.” The acoustic guitarist composes meditative mini-movies inspired by everything from the Colorado mountain town he imagined as a youngster in Japan to the West Virginia mountain home where he heard an opera-house manager recall the death of her infant son.
On November 18 Tsukamoto will turn the Mauch Chunk Opera House into a big living room. He’ll mix original compositions–“Confluencia,” “Gemini Bridge”—with Japanese traditionals and his delicately tidal version of “The Water Is Wide,” the Scottish ballad adopted by the world. He’ll blend rippling melodies, caressing rhythms and cosmic contemplations on guitars made by a friend with whom he played jazz and American folk in college in Osaka.
Below, in a conversation from his home in the United Nations borough of Queens, Tsukamoto discusses his role as a rare bluegrass banjo player in his native Kyoto, his fondness for human-rights anthems from South America and his sharp learning curve on Twitter.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that really got under your skin?
A: I was around nine when I first heard “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel. My parents liked the type of American folk music that came to Japan in the ’60s and ’70s: Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio. I didn’t know anything about English but I really liked the sound, so I transcribed the words to Japanese and then sang to them.
Q: Why did your father get you a five-string banjo when you were 13? At the time did you even know what a banjo was?
A: Not at all. My father couldn’t play banjo when he was young, so he wanted me to play it. I liked the looks of it and I liked the fact that I was the only one around who owned one.
Q: Did being the only banjo player at your school, perhaps the only banjo player in all of Kyoto, make you feel like a star?
A: A little bit. At first I didn’t know how to play it because there was no way to find a banjo teacher. I taught myself by listening to the record “Foggy Mountain Banjo” [a highly influential 1961 album from bluegrass heroes Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt]. One of my father’s friends gave me it when I was in high school. My favorite songs were “Home Sweet Home” and “Ground Speed,” which I played around the Kyoto area in a bluegrass band I formed in college.
Q: You were studying at Osaka University of Foreign Studies [now Osaka University] when you discovered Nueva Cancion, a genre of South American folk tunes transformed into calling cards for equality and justice by Violeta Parra, Victor Jara and other human-rights leaders. Why was it so important for you to play music made in Chile and other countries in turmoil?
A: My major was Spanish and South American history and culture, including politics. One of my professors who was also a very good musician invited me to join a band he was forming that played South American traditional songs, including Nueva Cancion. I really liked the music because it was simple and deep. At the same time I was playing blues and jazz; even back then I was open to any kind of music.
Q: You built your band Interoceanico to bridge your passions for idioms that sail across the seas. Can you put your finger on a few of the group’s highlights?
A: We played a few times at the Blue Note and on a regular basis for five years at the 55 Bar in the West Village, my favorite New York club. I first went there when I was a college student, a tourist and an amateur player. Being there made me dream of playing here [in New York] someday.
Q: Your music is quite impressionistic, partly because you often compose when you’re traveling from concert to concert, reacting to sites and scenes. What was on your mind, and in your mind’s eye, while you were writing “Going to Durango”?
A: Actually, I’ve never been to Durango. In junior high I liked to study American geography. I was looking at an American map and found Durango and liked the colorful sound of its name. I hadn’t been to the States yet, yet I was thinking about how big America is and its landscape. When I wrote the song I wanted people to feel like they’re in a place they’ve never been. I’m actually going to Colorado tomorrow to perform; I go there every year [note: Tsukamoto played a converted schoolhouse in Coaldale].
Q: Can you point to another song you recently composed that was inspired by a place and/or a person?
A: Last spring I was touring West Virginia when I met a woman who manages the opera house in Marlinton, Pocahontas County. She liked my music a lot; she bought many CDs to give to her friends and family. The next day she invited me to her house in the mountains, where she told me a story about her son who died when he was very young. It was a very sad story but beautiful. It inspired me to write the song “Sam’s Hill and Sky.”
Q: On your current tour you’re playing churches, libraries and a living room. Why do you like performing in such small spaces, rooms that some musicians find too intimate and scary?
A: I mostly play solo acoustic guitar, which works well with a very quiet space. I like playing big spaces, too, but sound wise it’s much easier if I play in a small space. I always have a great time when I play someone’s house. Nowadays many American folk musicians like to play in a living room because for them it’s hard to play in a bar environment. In a living room people really listen and are very appreciative.
Q: Your nylon and steel string guitars were handmade by Michita Hongoh. How did you meet him and why do you like his work?
A: We went to the same college and were friends. We also played together—blues and American folk music. That’s why we kept in touch after I became a guitarist and he became a luthier. Many luthiers concentrate on making their instruments look good. He really focuses on the sound and also the structure in a very simple way. He doesn’t even put his name on the guitar; he puts it inside the hole so people don’t see it actually. I like that [modesty]; it’s kind of rare.
Q: What are your reasonable goals for the next five years?
A: I’d like to play South America for the first time. I’d like to explore new territory as a guitarist and a composer. I believe that it’s very important to change as a musician, although it’s not easy. I want to incorporate acoustic and electric guitars with electronics, to make a good balance between these elements. I want to surprise people.
Q: You launched your Twitter account last year, pretty late for a veteran musician. What took you so long to join the social-media game?
A: I’m kind of a slow technical person; I’m kind of behind technology.
Q: Why not Tweet your impressions of shows and scenes in addition to announcing upcoming shows? You’re such a personal composer and player; your followers deserve more personal posts.
A: That’s a good point instead of just giving the date and place. I think I should do that, too.
Hiroya Tsukamoto: The Scoop
His mother taught elementary school; his father taught at-risk children before branching into business.
In 2003 he received the Professional Music Achievement Award from his alma mater, the Berklee School of Music.
He was a finalist in the 2004 and 2005 USA Songwriting Competition.
His concert resume includes the Montauk Music Festival and the Rochester International Jazz Festival.
He’s shared stages with guitarist Pete Kennedy and bassist Esperanza Spalding
He met his pianist wife Kaori at the Berklee School; their 2-year-old daughter Lisa occasionally attends his gigs.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Hiroya Tsukamoto’s admiration for Victor Jara (1932-1973), a Chilean theater director and singer-songwriter whose poem about fellow political prisoners in a soccer stadium in Santiago was hidden after his murder in a friend’s shoe. He can be reached at email@example.com.