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East meets West in Japanese-Irish flutist music

Hanz Araki shares sounds at Edgefield on St. Patty's Day
by: Contributed photo Hanz Araki has mastered both Japanese and Irish flute-playing and spent several years as a member of The Paperboys, a critically acclaimed Canadian band that won several awards, including three Junos, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys.

Two island nations - Japan and Ireland - have shaped the music of Hanz Araki, who'll be one of the performers at McMenamins Edgefield's St. Patrick's Day Festival, which runs from Thursday through Saturday, March 17-19.

From 1996-99, Araki played with The Paperboys, an internationally acclaimed Canadian folk band. Since then, he has carved a solo niche for himself playing Irish music on the flute and singing as well.

Araki has played with the Seattle Symphony and the University of Washington Wind Ensemble, and is featured on more than a dozen recordings and soundtracks from feature films and documentaries to popular video games.

Best known for his Irish music, he actually started out on the shakuhachi, the traditional bamboo flute of Japan, and is the world's only sixth-generation shakuhachi player, following in the footsteps of his father. Hanz noted his father experienced Japan's terrible earthquake last week but 'is fine.'

Araki taught shakuhachi at Keio University in Japan for two years before moving back to his hometown of Seattle in 1991.

Living in Seattle inspired Araki - the son of an Irish mother - to teach himself Irish and Scottish tunes on the flute and whistle, inspired by the many pipers and fiddlers in the city.

In 2004, Hanz released a solo album of traditional Scottish and Irish music called 'Six of One, Five of the Other,' earning him liveireland.com's Best Newcomer of the Year award. His 2008 release, 'Little Fires,' mixes traditional Celtic and modern music.

Araki spoke to The Outlook about his life and music.

Tell us a little about yourself.

'I just turned 40, and I live in Northeast Portland. I was born in Middletown, Conn., while my father was teaching music at Wesleyan University. My father had met my mother when she was pursuing Japanese studies at the University of Washington and he was teaching music there.

'I lived in Japan for a brief time in 1975 but spent most of my life in the northwest - Seattle and Bainbridge Island.

'I moved back to Japan in 1988 to study shakuhachi with my father and returned to Seattle in 1992. I moved to Portland in 2005.'

What do you think distinguishes Japanese flute playing and what attracts you to it?

'The shakuhachi has a very distinctive sound, particularly my family's playing style, which I find to be more musical. The solo music is contemplative and somber and also quite complex. The ensemble music is very moving, and since it is all song-driven, once you have a grasp of the story, it's very evocative.'

What do you think distinguishes Irish flute playing and what attracts you to it?

'Irish music is truly an infectious genre. I have always found the sounds, melodies and rhythms of Irish and Scottish music tremendously stirring. The freedom of expression within the structure of Celtic music and the common ground of that structure - which allows you to play tunes in vastly diverse communities - has always appealed to me.'

What similarities do you see between the styles?

'Both instruments are 'simple system' flutes - there's no keypads or levers, just open holes - so the mechanics of playing them are incredibly similar. The breathing techniques are universal, but the breath control required for shakuhachi playing was invaluable in learning Irish music.'

What are the differences?

'The expressiveness of traditional Japanese shakuhachi music - the 'honkyoku' or meditative pieces - bear some similarity to the Irish slow airs. The Irish jigs and reels (dance tunes) don't translate particularly well on the shakuhachi as the ornamentation required to 'make Irish music sound Irish' are very difficult to imitate.'

Tell us a little bit about your life with the Paperboys.

'The time I spent in the Paperboys was pretty amazing. The group got along in a somewhat magical way. We weren't joined at the hip and our interests were quite varied, but we collaborated and toured well together and had a common goal. I got to see a lot of Canada and met some really amazing people.'

Where do you see yourself going musically? Creating a hybrid Japanese-Irish style?

'I have never been driven to be a songwriter. I love collecting songs and tunes and hearing the universal themes that recur throughout the history of music. I hear quite a few popular bands these days that have clearly been influenced by traditional music. There are also bands that play traditional music in a more accessible way. I think my path is more the latter.

'I also love to collaborate, though, and I get great joy in bringing my expertise to other projects. I would like to bring traditional Japanese music into a more mainstream idiom, but not necessarily combined with Irish music.'

If you go

WHO: Hanz Araki

WHAT: Irish flute player and singer

WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday, March 17; 5 p.m. Friday, March 18; 5 p.m. Saturday, March 19, with the Celtic rock band State and Standard

WHERE: McMenamins Edgefield, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale

COST: Free

INFO: 503-669-8610, mcmenamins.com, hanzaraki.com