Hanz Araki blends Irish, Japanese traditions in Bend

From The Bulletin :

Hanz Araki just traded Portland for Portland.

The Irish-Japanese flutist, percussionist and singer moved from Portland, Oregon, his home of the last 11 years, to Portland, Maine, about three weeks ago. Seattle native Araki, who has long been at the forefront of traditional Celtic music in the Pacific Northwest, made the move primarily out of convenience — he recently joined Maine-based traditional band The Press Gang. Shorter traveling distances on tour — and the Northeast’s burgeoning Irish music scene — helped seal the deal.

“It’s a lot easier for us as Irish musicians specifically; there’s obviously the proximity to Boston, it’s only an hour and a half away, and then all the little towns in between,” Araki said from home. “There’s a strong community for Irish music kind of up and down especially in New England, and it just meant a lot of shorter drives, really. But we have a lot of friends here, and my flute makers are actually in Nova Scotia. There’s a ferry boat that leaves from Portland that goes to Nova Scotia, so I’ll get to see their shop for the first time this summer.”

Araki’s current Pacific Northwest tour with longtime collaborators, vocalist Colleen Raney (who’s also made the move to Maine) and guitarist Cary Novotny, is something of a farewell run. He’ll return to McMenamins Old St. Francis School, a favorite venue of his, Wednesday.

“We’ve never actually had a show there that wasn’t just packed,” he said. “… We look forward to doing the St. Francis School because we actually play a little longer than we normally do, and so we’ll stretch a bit and do a couple of Americana songs as well.”

The set will be split between Raney’s solo material and Araki’s work, which consists of 11 solo studio albums including his most recent release, 2014’s “Foreign Shore,” as well as 2012’s four-album series with Portland’s Kathryn Claire, “The Celtic Conspiracy.” He’s been quiet on the recording front since then, but teased a new album and a West Coast tour with The Press Gang late this year or early next year.

Araki met the members of the band about seven years ago when he played a festival in Belfast, Maine. After bringing the then-trio out West for a show and sitting in with them, they convinced him and Raney to make the move to the East Coast.

“It’s great. It was one of those really kind of fun, really organic experiences where we didn’t ever really have to talk through any of the music,” Araki said. “We just would start with one small fragment of an idea, and then just through playing, that was all the language we needed. It was so easy for us to arrange materials and arrange songs and arrange the instrumental parts.”

In March, Araki and Raney were in Japan for a St. Patrick’s Day tour. He’s played Irish music in his father’s homeland for at least the last 15 years, touring the island nation annually (he’ll be back in Japan in October).

Of course, Araki has been visiting the country since he was a kid. His father, Tatsuya Kodo Araki, is a grandmaster of shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute, and the fifth generation in his family to earn the title of Kodo.

Growing up, Araki was also exposed to traditional Celtic music through his mother, a third-generation Irish-American. But he heard everything from Javanese gamelan to Indian music in his house as a kid.

“My dad was an ethnomusicology major, so I grew up listening to just about everything,” Araki said. “And my mom being Irish, definitely that was part of it, but I’d say probably I didn’t really catch the bug to play anything until I was in high school, really. I played a bit of piano when I was about 8, but it didn’t go very well because I had a really hard time learning to read music, and I never actually did learn to read music.”

That didn’t stop him from mastering shakuhachi under the tutelage of his father; he lived and performed traditional music in Japan from 1988 to 1992 while studying the instrument. He became the sixth generation in his family to earn the Kodo title in 2009.

“(My dad) had moved to the states in 1964 — probably 1963, ’64 — and he had always said that he wouldn’t force any of his kids to learn shakuhachi music. He said if anybody asked him to, he would teach them happily,” Araki said. “And I was the only one that asked. He took a bit more of a passive role — once I got started then he was a real tyrant, but in the best way possible.”

Even while learning shakuhachi, Araki would experiment with Irish melodies he knew by heart on the instrument. Upon his return to Seattle in 1992, Araki first picked up the penny whistle, then the Irish flute, delving deeper into Celtic music. “And that was the end,” he said, laughing.

“It was a great base; I can’t say that it was better than learning classical music, like if I had started playing classical flute or clarinet or anything like that,” Araki said of his shakuhachi training. “I don’t know that it was better, but it was just to have the study of breathing techniques and embouchure and playing what we call a simple-system flute, so there’s no keys or levers or pads or any of that stuff; it’s just holes drilled into a tube basically. So I had just the basic mechanics of what it takes to play a wind instrument.”

Today Araki is recognized both in traditional Japanese music circles and traditional Irish music circles for his prowess in both styles (he taught shakuhachi himself for two years at Keio University in Japan before moving back to Seattle). But starting out, his mixed-race background often raised eyebrows — and often insults, especially in the U.S.

“Even my mother has said it; she said, ‘You’re in a tough position because you’re not Japanese enough to be Japanese and you’re not Irish enough to be Irish.’ She says, ‘You’re neither fish nor fowl,’” Araki said. “It was harder. Like in Japan, I was young enough, maybe naive enough, and maybe my Japanese wasn’t good enough — I didn’t really get as much of a sense when I was living there. I had definitely more sort of negative experiences coming back to the States and then playing Irish music, anywhere from just some out and out unkind comments to people that ask questions that are maybe just sort of insensitive. But never in Ireland; I never have any kind of problems there, which is interesting.”

 
— Reporter: 541-617-7814, bmcelhiney@bendbulletin.com

Hanz Araki blends Irish, Japanese traditions in Bend

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