While much of Maine was hunkering down and getting ready for another big snowfall, a few lucky ones made the trek to Mayo Street Arts on March 12 to get schooled in a guitar lesson that blends East and West.
Hiroya Tsukamoto, a New York-based guitarist and singer from Kyoto, Japan, led a workshop on “Cinematic Guitar Poetry,” a program which includes music, storytelling, and poetry.
In this intimate workshop, Michael Libby of Lewiston, Jon Sweeney of Eliot and Steve Bizub of Cape Elizabeth learned various techniques of fingerstyle guitar, wherein one plays guitar with the fingers or fingernails in place of a pick. Tsukamoto demonstrated various chords as well as basic musical theory.
In the workshop, he shared techniques that blend contemporary stylings with traditional aspects of the music from his home country. His musical influences growing up were decidedly Western — a lot of American rock and folk music, and of course some Axl Rose. He often enjoys mixing traditional Japanese music with an experimental side, using a loop pedal to record his voice and guitar in real time, and then creating layers on top of that.
“Though I play by myself, it sounds like an orchestra atmosphere,” Tsukamoto tells us. “I also improvise and some songs I keep very simple. I tell a lot of stories during a show, giving the Japanese background and history so people can connect with the music.”
Tsukamoto has been leading concerts internationally for several years now, including several appearances at Blue Note in New York City with his group and on Japanese national television. He performs more than one hundred shows a year across the U.S. and internationally.
“My first instrument was a five-string banjo,” he said from the Big Apple ahead of the Portland workshop. It’s an instrument he picked up when he was five. “I’d been playing different kinds of music, but listened to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, the Carpenters, as well as bands like Guns ’N’ Roses. After Berklee, I became more focused on jazz, which made me think of moving to Boston permanently to study deeper.”
He stuck around Beantown for a year and then moved to New York City.
“I thought it would be good, but there are too many musicians there. It’s so competitive. In the beginning, I was more focused on jazz, after seeing all these talented guitar players, I started thinking about doing something different,” he said. “I became more of a solo guitar player and did whole concerts by myself. It was a big change. Also, after I moved to New York, I tried to follow the ‘train’ of the city, the contemporary vibe, but six years ago, I decided to go back to my past, all the way from where I came from. Now I try to compose songs with that base.”
In 2000, Tsukamoto received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and came to the United States. In Boston, he formed his own group called Interoceanico, or Inter-oceanic, which consists of unique musicians from different continents (including Latin Grammy nominee Colombian singer Marta Gomez). The group has released three acclaimed records, “The Other Side of the World,” “Confluencia,” and “Where the River Shines.” Tsukamoto has released two solo albums, “Heartland” and “Places,” on the Japanese record label 333 discs.
Tsukamoto appeared as part of Mayo Street’s International Heritage Music Series, which is based on the idea that music is inherent to strengthening community in cultures around the world. The series celebrates regional music and dance traditions.
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