RILEY Lee heard the music of the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, while he was a teenager here in Hawaii. Four decades later he is an acclaimed master of the instrument and one of the few non-Japanese to be accorded that honor.
Born in Texas and a Roosevelt grad, he began studying shakuhachi in Japan in the ’70s. He currently lives in Australia, but his parents live here, so his current visit is multitasking in the best sense of the word—he helped his parents celebrate their birthdays, played a concert in support of the Lawai International Center on Kauai and attended the East-West Center’s 50th Anniversary Alumnae Conference, where he was named one of 50 distinguished alumni.
"They did a beautiful publication, ’50 Years 50 Stories’ … and for some reason, I don’t know why, I was chosen to be part of that. There’s the president of Singapore and the prime minister of India (and) these people who are Nobel Prize winners," Lee said during a telephone interview July 6, sounding genuinely bewildered, albeit honored, to have made the cut.
RILEY LEE AND JEFF PETERSON
Where: Doris Duke Theater, Honolulu Academy of Arts
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $30 ($25 HAA members and seniors, $20 students and military)
Also on his schedule: a concert with slack-key guitarist Jeff Peterson, Sunday afternoon at the Doris Duke Theatre.
LEE and Peterson made local music history when they recorded their first album together, "Maui Morning." It was the first time that a slack-key guitarist and shakuhachi flutist had recorded together. They followed it with "Bamboo Slack Key," "Haiku" and then "Haleakala," which won Best Instrumental Album at the 2009 Na Hoku Hanohano Awards.
New ideas usually inspire copycats, but the duo’s blending of shakuhachi and slack key remains unique.
"I don’t know of anyone else (who is doing it), but even though it works so well, I think it’s not just the instruments," Lee said. "It’s the people involved."
Lee describes Peterson as "wonderful" to work with.
"Not only is he a great performer, but he’s just a superb composer," Lee said. "That’s another reason why this combination works so well. He can compose pieces that work well for us."
The evolution of Hawaiian music over the past century has been punctuated with objections from traditionalists that pioneers and innovators such as the "Hawaii Calls" musicians, Richard Kauhi or the Brothers Cazimero were ruining Hawaiian music. Lee says he hasn’t gotten any such criticism from shakuhachi purists for his albums with Peterson.
"The people who really only like the traditional (music) just choose not to listen to the music that Jeff and I do," he said. "It’s not that they’re against it. They just ignore it. On the other hand, the shakuhachi players in Japan are in many ways more receptive to this sort of innovation (than those elsewhere)."
Lee drew an analogy to the way that the Japanese language spoken in overseas communities tends to be "archaic" compared with the way it is spoken in the home islands.
He also noted that he is constantly exposed to musicians playing instruments that are not traditionally Japanese, playing music other than traditional Japanese music. "If you’re a musician, you’re naturally going to work with your fellow musicians," he said.
One of the mysteries about Hawaiian music is why the Hawaiians adopted and adapted some musical instruments and ignored others. Hawaiians have their own traditional bamboo flute, but no one is known to have combined shakuhachi and Hawaiian music before Peterson and Lee.
Lee suggests that one reason for this is that the shakuhachi is not suited to multi-instrumentalists. "It’s not something you can just pick up and noodle with," he said.
However, he adds, there is at least one other non-Japanese shakuhachi player with a non-traditional repertoire: John Neptune, who discovered the instrument while studying ethnomusicology at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. After intensive training, Neptune has played shakuhachi as a contemporary jazz instrument, with considerable success in Japan.
Meanwhile, Lee’s work with Peterson is setting a fine example for Hawaiian-music fans.
The big question, Lee says, is whether shakuhachi will ever have a larger presence in Hawaiian music.
"Who knows, once I’m gone, if anyone else with pick this up. I hope so, because it certainly works."