Featured Musician - March 2008

Name Toshi Onizuka

Toshi Onizuka

Instrument: Guitar

Early Years/Education: Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, my Dad was always listening to music. As a young kid I was interested in drums. I didn't learn to recognize the sound of the guitar as coming from a guitar until I was twenty. I guess you'd say I was a late bloomer. During this time of my life I wanted to be a veterinarian. While I was studying and preparing for my entrance exams to be a vet, I has a cassette tape of Al Di Meola playing “Spanish Eye” with Les Paul. This recording changed my life. I listened to this tape for two years. I didn't even know they were playing guitars; actually, I didn't care what they were playing, it was the most beautiful music.

I had a big problem with my family when I told them I wanted to be a musician. A friend of mine had a guitar he was not using, an old electric Yamaha S-G, so I got it and started practicing. My practice was listening to Al Di Meola and trying to play with him, not copying him. Sometimes I'd watch television and try to play along with the jingles; I'd have to find the key and play along very quickly. This is how I developed my ear. Fortunately or unfortunately, I never took lessons. I'd buy books and analyze what I saw and heard. Mostly I was listening to Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola's trio, which was very popular in the early '80s. I was also analyzing classical string players and noticed violinists used their pinkie a lot, unlike the guitarists at that time. For three or four years I practiced eight hours a day. I love practicing, I never got bored. I never copied my heroes, I think it's kind of disrespectful to copy them. I always tried to find my own style.

My first real work as a musician came at age 24, when I became part of a house band at a kind of cabaret/night club. At that point I became obsessed with moving to Spain. I was inspired by the music of Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. Also, ever since I was a kid I wanted to live near the Mediterranean, and I've always loved the Latin culture. I knew I was definitely moving to southern Spain, the Andalusian district, but wasn't sure where. Just before I left Tokyo, I met Taketo Tomoshigue, a Flamenco guitarist who is Japanese who lived for more then 20 years in Seville. He was performing in Tokyo and said why don't you come to Seville. He was a great contact.

When I first got to Spain, my friend Taketo took me to a local club. I saw such a high level of musicianship, I was really impressed with the local talent. I was so jealous and thought, why was I not born here? The professional level guitarist in Spain is almost over the top, there are so many great guitarists everywhere. 

Flamenco is kind of a closed world, very traditional. My style is so weird in the Flamenco scene because I play with a pick. After moving to Seville, I got hired by the Flamenco fusion group Pata Negra. I toured with them for two years. After that I was still playing and surviving in Spain but could not see much of a future there for me. I lived in Spain for five years until I met my wife Laura, who is from Portland. I didn't actually know where Oregon was geographically. I did hear that Sadao Watanabe had played there for the Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz. I was happy to move to a place that appreciates jazz.

Musical Influences: Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, Django Reinhardt, Vicent Amigo (the next new Flamenco sound), Chick Corea, Larry Carlton, and Earl Klugh.

Most Satisfying Experience: The most unforgettable experience was playing my first gig with Pata Negra. We played at the revered Grand Theater of Cordoba, a 19th century, typically European opera house. I was so nervous and the sound was unbelievable. I thought to myself, what an honor to be playing in a theater where the most famous Flamenco performers had played.

Favorite Recordings: These CDs were a big influence: Al Di Meola “Splendido Hotel,” Paco de Lucia “Siroco” & “Zyryab,”  Super Guitar Trio “Passion, Grace and Fire,” John McLaughlin “Music Spoken Here,” all of the recordings of Django Reinhardt, Vicent Amigo “De Mi Corazon Al Aire,” George Benson “Breezin',” Earl Klugh “Heart String,” Wes Montgomery “Road Song” and Chick Corea “Romantic Warrior.”

Discography: “Voy Confusion,” Toshi Onizuka -- to be released this month (musicians include Damian Erskine, Reinhardt Meltz, Renato Caranto, Israel Annoh, and Jay Mack); “Trios,” Damian Erskine (2008 Notek Music); “Tobaj,” Tobaj (2004 Tobaj Music BMI); “Kadomatsu T's Song from L.A. -- The Ballad Covers Collection,” Various Artists (2004 Avex); “Trio Calzador,” Shoehorn (2003 Katsubera Music); “A Long Way to Go” (2001 Tango Records -- Acoustic Breath series); “Born in the Air” (1999 Tango Records -- Acoustic Breath series); “Toshi,” Toshi Onizuka (1997 OFS records); “Sueno de Blues,” Coral de los Reyes (1996 OFS records).

Gigs: Sundays, 4 to 7 pm, solo, at Paragon; Mondays, 7 to 11 pm with Mariano de Orbegoso at El Gaucho; Tuesdays, 7 to 10 pm, solo, at Andina; Thursdays and Fridays, 7 to 11 pm with Nat Hutskamp at El Gaucho; and Saturdays, 8 to 11 pm Toshi Onizuka Trio at Andina.

Future Plans: My dream is to have my own band and do a concert tour with them. After my newest CD is released, I'd like to start working on developing my own band. It's difficult to find the time when you have regular gigs. As a musician, when times are slow we have no gigs, nothing ... but when it's busy, it's really busy.

Other Comments: I think there are similarities between traditional Japanese music and Flamenco. They both use microtonal scales, which to a Western ear sound out of tune. One of the beauties of Flamenco is the dissonance. By the way, Tokyo has a huge Flamenco scene.

The Spanish don't care if they make money with their art, they all have day jobs, they play music just for their own pleasure. In Spain, my heroes -- Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin -- are not considered real artists because they are workers who play for money ... a fascinating attitude.

My time in Spain affected my style of playing rhythmically. Spain is such a rhythmic place ... at fiesta time people walk around clapping out rhythms; they're so good, they're like a metronome.

I think in Portland, the restaurant business is so good, it's a factor in supporting the musicians.

-- by Rita Rega


Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon