Interview: Harry Aoki
I sat down with Gary Cristall and Harry Aoki last week at Nikkei Place. Gary is writing a book on the history of folk music in Canada and had been wanting to talk to Harry for quite some time. When I invited him along, he jumped at the chance. We covered a lot of ground in the course of our conversation and the following is just a portion of what we talked about.
JEG I You were involved in a redress movement in Alberta right after the war, something I’d never heard of before.
Yeah, that was . . . that was a tough one, you know. There was this Justice Bird. Lot of brain. You know, photographic mind and photographic reading, and the attorneys were arguing, you know, arguing their cases, and he’s looking at this evidence, you know, he’s going like this, slowly (mimes turning pages), and he’s reading the darn thing. It’s in his brain.
JEG I This was like a mini redress movement, then?
Yeah. This is when people were allowed to leave and to move around, and it got some people like the Ohamas started. They moved to, what it’s called, Rainier. And others did about the same sort of thing. They were very successful as farmers, they were good farmers. So, yeah, that was the first redress. It was just a handful, you know, able to do something about it. They had to have a few bucks themselves too, you know.
JEG I In order to hire the lawyers?
JEG I So this would be like 1948 or around there?
JEG I And you actually got a settlement from the government?
A small one. Just enough to get them started. And they were very good farmers. Some of them were very successful.
JEG I So you were just involved as an interpreter?
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.
JEG I They can be pretty stubborn . . .
Oh, God, yeah.
JEG I You were bilingual, obviously?
Yeah, at that time. It’s very interesting how you can forget a language if you don’t use it.
GC I And you started playing music during the war, essentially, when you were in Alberta?
Yeah. 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.
GC I So when did you first hear jazz?
I was brought up with it, you see.
GC I What, in Cumberland? In the ’20s?
Yes, in Cumberland. See, my father liked the music of Bach. He liked Duke Ellington. He didn’t think much of anybody else. I didn’t realize at the time, you know, we had these records. We had a recording of Caruso, and stuff like, you know . . . so it was very interesting how he honed in on something that Duke Ellington did, you know. As a matter of fact, the interesting thing about him, him and his arranger Billy Strayhorn . . . you know, a lot of those solos played by Ricky Williams and everything were written out for them. That’s why they were successful. But when they went out on their own, all their playing themselves, they weren’t quite the same. They were never as successful as they were with Duke Ellington.
GC I So where did you start playing professionally? But you became a ski instructor instead of a musician?
Yeah, well . . . yeah (laughs) . . .
JEG I The money’s probably better.
(laughs) Yes, that was interesting. I started to ski, and 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. (laughs)
JEG I Downhill or cross-country?
No, no, downhill. And 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. But anyways, 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, even this skiing. I ended up going to Sunshine lodge, I was just going to ski that afternoon, catch the train, then keep on coming down to Vancouver. But I liked it so much, that I became quite a skier, you know. I could handle skiing and there was a fellow, his name was Scofield, Universal Newsreel, and there was a fellow called John Holland, he was a member of the Canadian ski team, and he had us risking our lives, jumping off cornices, stuff like this . . .
GC I One of the things that I found interesting when I ran into the recording that you and Jim (Johnson) made in Qualicum Beach, I said, these guys were way ahead of the curve. Who was thinking about putting an Israeli folk song with Japanese melodies together, done by a black guy and Japanese jazzer and black folk singer, who were these guys . . .? You’ve played with a lot of musicians from different cultural backgrounds . . . How has that changed over the years?
Well, it changed, you know, in the sense that well the Duke Ellington, he said, because he toured all over the world. And he said, 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 . . .
GC I And when you were doing this, you never played much Japanese music, or did you?
I went through that phase.
GC I When, how?
Well, when I met Takeo Yamashiro. As a matter of fact Overture (performing arts booking organization) tried to program this trio, Takeo and Theresa Kobayashi and myself, and you know, you cannot sell Japanese music, Chinese music, and music of India to the public. We tried a couple of universities, and no you cannot. It’s not for the public. It just doesn’t . . . and as for playing the instruments themselves, the shakuhachi, to get a proper tone, takes seven years. I’m not gonna spend seven years just getting a tone!
JEG I And you were raised with western music anyway, right?
Yeah. I’m a western musician. And speaking of western musicians, I get PBS—music out of China, Japan . . . NHK, the Japanese broadcasting system. God, what they do is amazing, and one of the most interesting things, well . . . Japanese humour is very . . . not very sophisticated, kind of boffo, you know, and almost childish in a way . . . and I was thinking about the very good jazz musicians in Japan, because for instance, Lionel Hampton took his band to Japan and he met this group called the Sharps and Flats, kind of a corny name, but these guys were so good, he sent the whole band back except for his rhythm section, and ever since that time Lionel Hampton has always had one Japanese guy in his orchestra. And there’s more black musicians playing in Japan and Korea than in Canada. But the quality on NHK just bowls me over.
GC I What did you think when second and third generation, younger folks, like John here, et cetera, put together the taiko groups, Katari Taiko, Uzume Taiko, what did you think of that?
Oh, I think it’s . . . it’s a good idea. With music and the arts, it’s one thing to just listen, it’s another thing to be involved yourself, you know. And of course there are various levels of performance. For instance, I saw Ondekoza when they first came out, but the thing that bugged me was people saying, oh, these guys run 20 kilometres a day, or whatever. Because I don’t give a dam (laughs). Oh, they run 20k . . . it’s the drumming that counts!
I went to this thing at the Chan Centre, there were these musicians from Japan, and they were so good at what they did, almost too good, gone beyond. And this is the norm, the quality of music coming out of NHK sometimes is amazing. And I got to thinking, you know, the ijusha, the recent immigrants from Japan, have an attitude, which I in a way resent, I couldn’t understand why. And it’s because this is where they are, especially the ones involved with music . . .