Harry Hiro-o Aoki 1921-2013
by John Endo Greenaway
Composer, recording artist, conductor, impresario, orchestral arranger, logger, timber cruiser, B.C. Electric systems analyst, teacher, ski instructor, musicologist, traveler, band leader, advocate for social justice and pioneer in the field of world music—Harry Aoki managed to squeeze several lifetimes worth of experience into his 91 years on this planet. When he passed away on January 24, 2013, he had only recently been forced to give up playing music due to declining health.
As late as May, 2011, on the eve of a special dinner and concert honouring Harry and his brother Ted at St John’s College, UBC, he announced, “Here I am at 89, playing the Mozart oboe quartet on my harmonica. Living in the creative arts—with no compromise! It feels great!”
Harry Hiro-o Aoki was born in Cumberland in 1921 to parents who had been sent by the Japanese government to set up Japanese language schools in BC. When the evacuation order came following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Aoki was faced with a decision. “I didn’t like the idea of being kicked out so when I went east I bought my own ticket.”
After working for a while at a sawmill in Blind Bay, BC, he was injured in a serious logging accident and joined his parents on a sugar beet farm in Iron Springs, Alberta. After the war he kicked around the prairies for a while, getting involved in a little-known precursor to the redress movement.
A group of 200 or so Japanese Canadian petitioners in the Ranier, Alberta area had approached the government in an attempt to get financial compensation for the losses they had suffered during the evacuation. Says Aoki, “I was working with a lawyer who was hired by the Japanese committee. Mostly as a translator, putting things together for the applicants. It wasn’t publicized very much, but you had to hand it to those issei, you know, they pulled it off.” They were able to win a small compensation package. “Just enough to get them started,” he recalled. “And they were very good farmers. Some of them were very successful.”
Aoki’s love of music had begun at a young age in Cumberland, where his father had a record collection that included everyone from Bach to Caruso to Duke Ellington—his father’s favourite. 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. Because his violin came in a cardboard box that was falling apart, he threw his harmonica in his back pocket and with regret left his violin behind.
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. That’s when I really got serious about it and as a matter of fact I was offered a scholarship at the University of Chicago. That’s where David Suzuki eventually went. But at that time I had no status. I went to the US immigration. They said, you stand a better chance if you apply from Japan, then we’ll take you seriously, but not from Alberta. You have no status.”
Unable to accept the scholarship, Aoki persevered with his music. After winning an amateur music contest—and its much-needed cash prize—Aoki 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.”
Aoki laughed when he recalled his first attempts at skiing: “I practiced on a sugar beet farm, it was just a little bit of a slope where the farmer kept water for the cattle, and in winter that froze, you see, there was some snow on it, and I read of this book, in Look Magazine, this French skier started this thing called the heel kick, and I had no instructor . . . I went overboard with it, but I could kick my heel up, which includes kicking the ski backwards a little bit, and then twisting around. I became very good at it, but it’s a very impractical way to ski. There was just room enough to make, say, two or three kicks, you know, and you’re on the bottom. You go back up again, then shovel the snow off. That’s what I did during the winters.”
Aoki broke his leg in a competition and 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 and as a matter of fact I’ve gone through about a dozen basses and ended up with this one. It’s a hand-made German bass, a hundred and fifty years old and ten times too good for me, but it’s nice to have . . .”
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 showed 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. Johnson sang and played guitar, and 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.
Day job or not, it was music that formed the basis of who Aoki was and kept him going through thick and thin.
As he told CBC Radio years later, “I’ve had so much experience with this thing called racism. Music is one of the first places where racism breaks down. Music is so easy to get at: you can just sit there, relax and listen. The colour of the person doesn’t matter.”
Talking to The Bulletin in 2008 he explained, “Through music I was able to deal with not so much the general public, but well, musicians, who were just a little bit different, you know, and they accepted me for what I was doing.
“Duke Ellington, he said, because he toured all over the world, to be really honest, you have to be honest with yourself, you can only be yourself and you are what you are. You are from a certain culture, and so you have to express yourself in terms of your own culture, how this other culture affects you, which makes a lot of sense. Because I can’t become Jewish, I can’t become . . . I can’t even become black, although I’ve played with . . . and so there’s always this sort of reservation . . .”
Over the years, Harry Aoki carved out a life for himself as a respected musician and composer. He was 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 followed his instincts to many new experiences and opportunities. Like many artists, he often toiled away in obscurity, but later in life gained a higher profile within the Vancouver music community, taking an active role in bringing musicians together.
An ongoing legacy of Aoki’s is the First Friday Forum, a monthly gathering of like-minded musicians from various musical and ethnic backgrounds that he started when he was eighty. Originally held at the Nikkei Centre, it is now held the first Friday of every month at Tonari Gumi on East Broadway. A venue for both music and conversation, the monthly jam has attracted musicians from around the globe, including Russia, Mexico, Indonesia and India.
A pioneer of cross-cultural music before the label even existed Aoki got involved with Todd Wong’s Gung Haggis Fat Choy, the annual late-winter celebration that fuses Chinese New Year with Robert Burns Day.
Aoki was active in the local Nikkei community, sitting on the board of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association for many years. He was also active in the campaign to save the Vancouver childhood home of Joy Kogawa, and the Powell Street Festival, the annual celebration of Japanese Canadian culture.
In 2008, a group of artists and other friends formed the Friends of Harry Aoki, dedicated to continuing his legacy through promoting intercultural dialogue. The group subsequently joined forces with St. John’s College at the University of British Columbia to form the Aoki Legacy Fund, which was also endorsed by Aoki’s late brother Tetsuo (Ted) Aoki, an emeritus professor of education at UBC.
Harry Aoki was predeceased by his brothers Tetsuo and Haruo and sister Matsuko. He leaves his brother Tatsuo Aoki and sisters Judy (Hideko) Matsuba and Mary (Michiko) Malcolm, as well as his nephews and niece.