Harry Aoki – a life of music
The following article incorporates interviews done with Harry Aoki in 2001 and 2008. Some of the following has been printed previously in The Bulletin.
It is common wisdom in these times of increasing globalization and shifting job markets, that the concept of having one career over the course of a lifetime has gone the way of the typewriter and the rotary phone. Instead, young people entering the job market are told to expect to have as many as four or five careers (or more) between the time they leave high school or university and the time they retire.
If that is the case, then Harry Aoki is light-years ahead of his time. At the age of eighty-six he can look back on roughly a dozen careers. As he admits, he may have forgotten a few. He has been a composer, recording artist, conductor, impresario, efficiency expert, orchestral arranger, logger, teacher, ski instructor, musicologist, traveler and band leader, among others. And he’s not done yet. Despite recent health problems, he still maintains a busy schedule and continues to search out new challenges.
A recent stroke has left him with some mental impairment (though one would be hard-pressed to spot it) but in typical Harry Aoki fashion, has given him new insights into the working of the human brain. As he says, he is having trouble with some aspects of his mind and his memory, but when it comes to improvising music, he’s “right there”—as good or better than before. “The brain,” he points out, shrinks when you have a stroke, “but the body compensates, and it’s music that does it. The brain grows new neuron connectors and the hippocampus, the brain, actually grows.” New research, he says, backs up what he has been experiencing firsthand.
HARRY HIRO-O AOKI WAS BORN in 1921 in Cumberland. His parents had immigrated from Japan, sent by their government to set up Japanese language schools in British Columbia. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the government order for all Japanese Canadians to leave the coast, Aoki left, along with the rest of his family, but on his own terms: “I didn’t like the idea of being kicked out, so when I went east I bought my own ticket.”
He worked at a sawmill in Blind Bay, BC until he was injured in a logging accident, at which point he joined his parents on a sugar beet farm in Iron Springs, Alberta. Following the war, and the lifting of the wartime restriction on movement, Aoki became involved in a little-known precursor to the redress movement. A group of Japanese Canadians in Alberta approached the government in an attempt to get financial compensation for the losses they had suffered during the evacuation. Aoki was asked to serve as interpreter for the lawyer they hired to petition the government. In the end, due in part he says to the stubbornness of the issei, they were able to win a small compensation package. It wasn’t a lot, but enough to help them get back on their feet, and many went on to become successful farmers.
Aoki’s interest in music had begun at a young age. His mother was a trained pianist and when he was given a violin at a young age, he quickly discovered that he had an aptitude for music. When the Japanese Canadians were given orders to leave the coast, they were told to take with them only what they could carry. With regret, Aoki left his violin behind, instead sticking his harmonica in his back pocket . . .
In Alberta, Harry studied music through a correspondence course arranged by a London-born musician who lived in Lethbridge. “I was told by one of my mentors that there was no music for harmonica, so I should learn theory, composition and orchestration, which I did. In the winter there was nothing to do, so I spent a lot of time on it and I got very good marks.” So good, that he was offered a scholarship in the United States, which he was unable to take because of his citizenship.
After winning an amateur music contest—and its much-needed cash prize—he came to the attention of the concertmaster of the Calgary philharmonic and he ended up played Mozart on harmonica with a Calgary string quartet. Afterwards, the concertmaster gave Harry some advice that would stand him in good stead the rest of his life. “He told me, ‘If you play the bass, you’ll never be out of a job—country and western, jazz, anything.’” Unable to afford a bass at the time, Aoki became a ski instructor in the interim. “They tell me I was the first Asian ski instructor in North America, and probably one of the first ski bums. But then I broke my leg in a competition and I had nothing to do. So I ordered a bass. I was living in Prince George at the time. I remember it was a hundred and ninety-eight dollars for the bass, the case, bow, instruction book—the whole works. I’ll never forget the day this great big package arrived. I expected the bass to sound like a bass, but this one was plywood, you see. So I put it together and pulled the string and it just went, ‘thunk’ (laughs). But anyway, it got me started . . .”
In the sixties, Aoki broke new ground again. Through his brother Ted Aoki, Harry made contacts in the Alberta education ministry. After hearing the music he was making, they offered him all the work he could handle doing school shows throughout the province. He also had connections in Saskatchewan, which he said had its benefits: “They had a socialist government, so they really looked after the schools. There was a lady in charge and she liked us. And then we ended up in Inuvik, playing for the Eskimo kids.” Aoki and his fellow musicians played a mixture of non-commercial folk music, jazz and Mozart—an eye-opening experience for many of the students in those days, when touring school shows were a rarity.
In 1968, Aoki and singer Jim Johnson, an American singer and guitar player who had emigrated to Canada from St. Louis, Missouri, starred in a CBC Television show called Moods of Man. The two had met in Prince George and struck up a friendship based on their music and their experience as visible minorities in what was at that time not a particularly welcoming part of the world. While Johnson sang and played guitar, Aoki played bass and doubled on harmonica. The duo played the local circuit and had a radio show called Wandering. As is often the case with musicians, both kept their day jobs, Johnson as a school teacher and Aoki as a systems analyst for BC Hydro.
Those early collaborations were a jumping off point to a long and varied career. Over the years, Harry Aoki has carved out a life for himself as a respected musician and composer. He is notable for his wide-ranging curiosity—seeking out new challenges and musical collaborators along the way. With an academic’s knowledge of musical history combined with a musician’s ear for what styles can blend together, he has followed his instincts to many new experiences and opportunities. And based on past experience, he’s not done yet.
Sunday, July 20, 2pm
A Special Tribute to Harry Aoki
Firehall Arts Centre
280 East Cordova
See Community Calendar for details