Toshi Onizuka to play at First Friday event at Troutdale General Store
by: John Klicker, Toshi Onizuka grew up in Japan, but fell in love with Spanish culture through flamenco music. The 43-year-old guitarist has released a CD, toured Europe and will be among the highlights of the First Friday Art Walk in Troutdale this week.


Tired of the rain, sleet, hail and snow that seems to be delaying spring? Just ask Toshi Onizuka to sing.

'If I sing, there would be no more rain in Oregon!'

What Onizuka lacks in vocal ability, he more than makes up in guitar prowess. The Japan native and Beaverton resident's fingers move like a butterfly fluttering its wings as he shows how he plays his flamenco-flavored jazz-fusion music.

He adds that he's a percussionist in his heart - part of his sound is made on the surface of his guitar - and that flamenco appeals to him because 'it's so emotional and so rhythmical.'

When he struggles to define his sound, he says it's improvisation over flamenco, or, as a reporter suggests, 'flamenco-prov.' He adds that some fans of flamenco wouldn't necessarily like how he plays, noting traditional players of flamenco - Spanish music with strong rhythmic undertones - use only their fingers, whereas he uses a pick.

'It's kind of my dream to realize with my pick what they realize with their fingers,' he says.

You can hear Onizuka realize his dream from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, April 4, at the Troutdale General Store, 298 E. Historic Columbia River Highway, for free. Onizuka's performance is part of the First Friday Art Walk events that take place each month in Troutdale, featuring music, art, food and wine at various sites.

Terry Smoke, who co-owns the General Store with his wife, Jodi, met Onizuka a while back when the guitarist was having lunch at the store. Smoke invited him to play.

'I'm always looking for topnotch players for the store, and he said, 'Sure, I haven't done anything in East County so I'll do it.' '

East County will soon join the many places the traveling musician has visited. Born in Tokyo, Onizuka, 43, has performed in this country as well as Spain, France, Switzerland and Morocco.

It all started when he was 19 and studying to get into veterinarian school in Japan. He happened to hear Al Di Meola, the famous jazz Latin fusion player, on the radio. Onizuka went and bought Di Meola's 1980 album 'Splendido Hotel' and was hooked.

'Then I knew, oh wow, I want to play guitar. After that, I found I had no plans for my life. I was just crazy, almost blind about my guitar.'

By age 25, he was playing regularly, taking any day job, from working in a noodle restaurant to performing in a cabaret band, so he could to save money to live in Spain, the home of flamenco. He also fell in love with the sounds of Paco de Lucia, a leading proponent of modern flamenco.

'I was totally shocked with the sound of Paco. I was like, 'Wow, what's that?' '

In 1993, he moved to Seville, Spain, and immersed himself in the Spanish music scene. He joined Pata Negra, an internationally acclaimed flamenco fusion group, and released his first solo CD in 1997. Titled 'Toshi,' the record boasted all original songs and featured Spanish and Brazilian musicians.

Onizuka also fell in love with an American girl with whom he shared a love for Spanish culture. Since neither was adept at the other person's native language, they communicated in Spanish, he said, and eventually he married Laura and moved to Portland. He and his wife, who teaches dance, are active in the Portland flamenco community, links to which can be found at Onizuka's Web site

In Portland, Onizuka regularly plays at such venues as El Gaucho and Paragon and collaborates with such artists as Israel Annoh, Damian Erskine and Mariono De Orbegoso. He was also featured Jan. 17 on the OPB TV show 'Oregon Art Beat,' and has performed with Lawson Fusao Inada, Oregon's 2006-08 poet laureate.

Onizuka has also appeared on the recordings of such singers as Gino Vanelli, who he said would make him repeat a guitar phrase again and again until he got it right.

'He knows exactly what he wants.'

And Onizuka knows exactly what he wants - to keep playing and recording, noting he plans to release another solo CD.

'This is my fulltime job. I can't complain. I'm living a dream.'

Troutdale will be hosting First Friday Art Walk, featuring live music as well as art, food and wine at various sites along East Historic Columbia River Scenic Highway, on the following dates:

April 4, May 2, June 6, Aug. 1, Sept. 5, Oct. 3, Nov. 7 and Dec. 5.

For more information, call Coordinator Donna Erwin at the Columbia River Gallery, at 503-491-8407.

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