Improvised Music from Japan / Shoji Hano

Interview 1

Most of the following are excerpts from "Shoji Hano: A Style All His Own," published in Tokyo Today monthly magazine, August 1992 issue. The interview was conducted by Floyd Cowan and Yoshiyuki Suzuki and the article was written and edited by Floyd Cowan.

It would seem a simple process to become a drummer--get a set of drums, get the rhythm and go for it. For your average drummer that would be the route to take, but Shoji Hano didn't want to be an average drummer. So for him there was no easy, direct route. He believes there is more to drumming than rhythm, beat and even style; there is a feeling or spirit that comes from the soul which is necessary in order to develop a unique and individual expression of music.

Hano has been playing drums since he was four years old, having started with traditional Japanese drums. But it wasn't until he was fifteen that he got his first drum set. Hano is small, hard, and quick; rhythmic like a set of drum sticks flicking here, sharply making a point there while being totally in control of his thoughts and movements. His hands constantly emphasize words that need no extrapolation.

"My first influence was Ringo Starr, the Abbey Road album, but I quickly moved to jazz and began listening to the more interesting and challenging rhythms of Max Roach (who played with Clifford Brown) and Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers," he says.

He copied the American jazz musicians, getting into bebop before he entered university. "I felt had mastered the style but I couldn't get the feeling. I'm not black American, I'm Japanese. There is something in their spirit, in their soul, that I just wasn't able to capture."

This feeling was reinforced while attending Kyoto University. Hano went to a jazz Drumming Clinic being held by the black American drummer Elvin Jones, who had some of the audience play the drums. "When I listened to those Japanese playing drums, I noticed they played like Elvin Jones but I felt that it was not their style. I felt that they should be trying to get their own spirit into their music, but if you are simply copying someone else's style then you can't put your own spirit and feeling into it. So I stopped playing mainstream bebop."

Even though Hano recognized what it was he wanted, and where he wasn't, it was still going to be many years before he would close in on the niche he would establish as his own style.

In University he met Toshinori Kondo, a trumpet player who introduced him to Shintaido, a martial art. (Hano relates this lisping through gapped teeth; earlier in the week while training, a very strong friend accidentally took a swing at his mouth, breaking one of his front teeth and making his smile look like a piano with a key missing.)

Kondo became Hano's musical master, helping him develop his own style and professional gigs. Kondo played regularly in New York, and many American and European musicians came to Japan and played with him, which gave Hano valuable exposure to these artists.

However, after eight years he wasn't happy. In fact, he was deeply worried. Hano didn't feel that he was playing drums the way he really wanted to. He had not yet found the way to fully express himself.

"I didn't know what to do, maybe I should die, maybe I should shoot myself," he said. Instead, he chose a less radical approach and gave up his drums and music. For two years he didn't play at all.

"I became a sushi chef," he says, smiling now at the thought. "I am very good at cutting fish." But when it came time to make a decision, he couldn't stay in the business. "The owner liked me. He wanted me to become a professional sushi chef and I knew I had to make a decision. I chose the drums."

During the period when he wasn't playing, he was reading philosophy and psychology, looking for spiritual answers to his dilemma--answers he eventually found in Shintaido. He read a book by Master Aoki which impressed him deeply.

"The book says to throw away everything, return to the basics and start again. I decided not to follow the style of other people, to forget tradition and other forms of jazz," Hano explains. "I produced my first tape, KI-Improvisation, which was my first success. I mailed cassettes to foreign musicians and got an answer from German musician Hans Reichel."

Hano planned to go to Europe in 1989 to play with him, but didn't get there until the following year. He played 15 times in Switzerland and Austria before going to Germany, where he played at the Moers Jazz Festival for three days. He then went to Berlin to play at Peter Brötzmann's FMP Workshop.

Success continued in April of 1991 when Hano played with Eugene Chadbourne, doing 10 concerts throughout Japan. In September and October, Brötzmann came to Japan. The two musicians toured the country, playing 16 times together and putting together a CD entitled Dare Devil. This is Hano's second CD; the first, Tayhei Nipon, explores African rhythms while being stylistically independent.

Despite Hano's acceptance by foreign musicians and audiences, he goes unrecognized in his home country. "I would like to play more in Japan, but it's not easy. If foreign musicians play with me, then the crowds come. If I play by myself it is very difficlut to attract an audience."

"I far prefer to go abroad and play," he says after explaining about his tour in the United States and Germany that kept him busy from November to January. "One reason is the audience reaction. Japanese audiences don't show their reaction. Foreign audiences are very responsive. They are much more open about what they are feeling."

After that tour, he met and played with Yukihiro Isso, who plays the Japanese flute. "We played well together," Hano says, "so we decided we would like to play together more often."

No longer wishing to follow the dictums and styles of other musicians, Hano has formed his own group, Kamadoma-Poly Breath Percussion, which includes Isso.

Hano has been studying folk music from around the world, even going back to his own Japanese roots. "Kokura Daiko is a Japanese percussion instrument which is played in Kokura," he says, adding, "I was born in Kokura. In the festival, four percussionists play two Kokura Daiko, and one cymbal player forms one group. Each two percussionists play each side of a Kokura Daiko. I want to do this by myself, play all the parts. I want to express that polyrhythm by myself. Different parts of my mind are controlling different parts of my body and they all come together in a free style. I don't need to think when I'm playing; it just comes out of my spirit and my soul."

And what does come, in combination with the other musicians he plays with, is an avant-garde mixture which is sometimes rhythmical and purposeful while other times grating and clashing, creating exactly what Shoji Hano wants--a style all his own.

Last updated: August 16, 1996