Japanese blues musician Tsuyoshi Kato talks about his experience in Chicago, and local blues scene

As Willie Dixon said, 'the blues is fact of life.' I think the blues is really simple and universal so that everybody can feel it.

Tsuyoshi Kato: Rising Sun’s Blues

Tsuyoshi Kato was born in 1983 at Tokushima, Japan under of the sign of Capricorn. He started playing guitar in 1998, listed Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s tunes and three years later moved to Tokyo. At this point he started going to jam sessions and to see the live blues. At early 2004 moved to Chicago as a foreign student to take English classes. There he spent most of the after-school hours and weekends to sit in, or play on gigs and jams at Windy City and capitol of electric blues with Dusty Brown, Tail Dragger and Jesse Fortune.

                                                                           Photo by Shinichi Yanami

Two years later backed to Japan where he lives now and plays the Blues, usually at Bright Brown blues bar in Tokyo. In 2011 Tsuyoshi started playing mandolin, one from the first Japanese blues mandolinists in his country.

Tsuyoshi talks about his experience in USA, around the south and west side’s clubs in Chicago, Japanese blues scene; and his steps in the blues roads. Tsuyoshi is the best keep secret of the Blues in land of Rising Sun.                                     

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues, what does the BLUES mean to you?

I started playing the guitar 15 years ago, when I was 15. At that time I was into the Beatles. A couple of years later I started listening to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and then I climbed into their roots.  When I was 19, I moved to Tokyo, where I started hanging out at blues bars.

To me, the blues is a part of my life. I don't play music for a living, but just like the other parts of my life - work, food, sleep etc., it's really important for me.

Who were your first idols, what have been some of your musical influences?

Chicago blues guitar players from 50's to nowadays such as Louis Myers, Eddie Taylor, Luther Tucker, Lurrie Bell, Johnny B Moore, Rockin' Johnny etc. Also I've been influenced a lot by local bluesmen in Tokyo and Chicago.

What were the first songs you learned & what was the first gig you ever went to?

My first blues song I learned was either Hideaway (from Freddie King) or Honkey Tonk. The first gig I ever went to see was the Japan Blues Carnival in 2000 or 2001, headlined by Otis Rush, Magic Slim and Hubert Sumlin also played there.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

The blues taught me that life has ups and downs and you can't really control, but just have to accept it. I also met a lot of good friends through the blues.

"To me, the blues is a part of my life."

Are there any memories from the road with the blues, which you would like to share with us?

When I was in Chicago, I had a gig at a Halloween party in Ohio. We drove one car to the gig, but the drummer did not have the drums with him. He had pawned his drums to pay his rent... So the rest of the band lent him money to get back his drum kit that made us out of the money. We had barely enough money for the gas so we could not eat or drink anything until we get to the gig, and you know it takes about 8 hours from Chicago to Ohio...

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

So far, the best days were the days I spent in Chicago 2004 to 2006. I got to play some of the great musicians and played lots of gigs in the south side. I cannot think of the worst, because I've been really enjoying playing.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

It's always interesting to me and cannot point out one, but again the time I spent in Chicago was definitely one of the most interesting periods.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

A lot of bluesmen told me the importance of the rhythm, to stay in the pocket.

Do you remember anything fanny or interesting from your gigs at local bars?

I played at a musical instruments shop in Tokyo as a harmonica and guitar duo. We're put in a show window and played to outside through the window.

      Tsuyoshi jammin at "Bright Brown" in Tokyo. Photo by Fujiyama Hiroko 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

From the owner of blues bar in Tokyo, "Bright Brown". He plays also guitar. To me is the best blues bar in Japan.

What are the international artists who have a special relationship with the blues in Japan?

Not sure if the artists think they have special links to Japan, but from Japanese fan side are Otis Rush and Carlos Johnson.

How do you describe your sound and progress?

As being a sideman, I try not to over-play. In other words I try to play simple as possible.

What is the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

In Chicago 2005, I played on a gig with Dusty Brown and Jesse Fortune at the west side blues bar called Bossman's blues center. I think it was Independence Day and Tail Dragger and some other guys showed up and sat in. It was a fun night.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

As Willie Dixon said, "the blues is fact of life." I think the blues is really simple and universal so that everybody can feel it.

Do you know why the sound of mandolin is connected to the folk blues?

Not sure why, but it really matches to the folk blues.

I guess one of the main reasons why mandolin was used so many recordings in the past is because it was one of the instruments that they could afford or easily found at that time.

What are the secrets of blues mandolin?

I haven't found one yet... but still trying to pick up some.

"I started playing mandolin, because I've never heard playing blues mandolin in my country and thought it is so unique." Photo by  Fujiyama Hiroko

When it all began for the blues in Japan, who is considered the "godfather" of the blues in Japan?

Personally, I do not think there is the godfather of the blues in Japan, but there are some guys from the 70's who actually were the first ones to start playing the blues in Japan and some people think they are the godfathers.

What are the main blues festivals in your country?

We have two major festivals in Japan. Both take place once a year, one is in Tokyo and the other one is in Aomori (the area that the earthquake and tsunami hit).

What are the most popular local bands, do the media help the blues?

At the local bars, the bands do not really have the fixed members or players do mot form the band. This is because the most of the blues players have the day jobs and sometimes not easy to play at night. The media does not really care about the blues, there is only one blues magazine in Japan and that is issued every other month.

Make an account of the case: Blues in Japan. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

I think it is getting more and more interesting now. Lots of players visit to Chicago or other Blues states to play, and they pass on the experiences to younger players.

What mistake of Japanese blues scene you want to correct?

Not all of us, but Japanese have troubles with pronunciations. For example, Japanese language does not have "L" and "V" sounds so the word "love" sounds like "rub."

And the other thing I would like to say is that most of the Japanese players listening records so closely and copy the licks, but never make up their own. Japanese need more originality. This is one of the reasons why I started playing mandolin, because I've never heard playing blues mandolin in my country and thought it is so unique. Let alone me love the sounds though.

Do you believes it has the possibility of someone musician to live only with the blues in your country?

There are only few guys in Japan who make livings with the blues, but not only for playing. They write reviews of new records, they teach instruments, or even run a bar. Therefore, my answer is that when it comes to "playing the blues," my answer would be no.

                                          Tsuyoshi in southside's blues bar of Windy City

"I think it is getting more and more interesting now. Lots of players visit to Chicago or other Blues states to play, and they pass on the experiences to younger players."

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