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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: March 7, 2017

Japanese musician Hiroya Tsukamoto brings his ‘cinematic guitar poetry’ to Portland

Written by: Ray Routhier
Hiroya Tsukamoto, a New York-based guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kyoto, Japan, will be performing and offering a guitar workshop Sunday at Mayo Street Arts in Portland. Photo courtesy of Hiroya Tsukamoto

Hiroya Tsukamoto, a New York-based guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kyoto, Japan, will be performing and offering a guitar workshop Sunday at Mayo Street Arts in Portland.
Photo courtesy of Hiroya Tsukamoto

For years, Japanese-born guitarist Hiroya Tsukamoto didn’t know exactly how to describe what he does on stage.

He plays acoustic guitar, performing songs he’s written, as well as old Japanese folk songs. He sings, mostly in Japanese, but some of his songs are instrumentals. Plus, he reads poetry and tells stories about the songs and about Japanese history. The manager of a venue he was playing a few years ago summed up Tsukamoto’s unique genre as “cinematic guitar poetry.”

And he’s been using the term ever since.

“What I do is such a mixture of things, so I think this describes it pretty well,” said Tsukamoto, 41, who is based in New York City. “I like telling stories about the songs, sometimes it’s Japanese history or about a song I wrote in Utah or some other state.”

Tsukamoto will give a guitar workshop, followed by a performance, Sunday at Mayo Street Arts in Portland. The 90-minute workshop begins at 2 p.m., and the concert starts at 4 p.m.

Tsukamoto grew up in a small rural town in Kyoto Prefecture, in central Japan. He said that his father had been enamored with American folk music during the revival of the 1960s, listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, among others. Tsukamoto said his father, during that time, really wanted to learn to play the banjo. But he never did.

So when his son was 13, Tsukamoto’s father bought him a banjo, not exactly common in Japan.

“Where I lived there were no instructors around, so I just sort of played around on it myself,” Tsukamoto said. “But I had friends who played guitar, so I switched to that.”

While in college in Japan, Tsukamoto played in a band with a saxophone player who had attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. He told Tsukamoto that Berklee would be the perfect place for him to study and hone his musical skill.

“It was a big move for me, coming from Japan. I think if it had been a regular college, and not focused on music, it would have been really difficult,” Tsukamoto said.

Tsukamoto performed for several years as a pretty straight-forward solo guitarist. But to make the shows more interesting, for himself and the audience, he started adding poetry and stories.

Many of the Japanese folk songs he plays lend themselves easily to stories that can captivate an American audience, since most of us don’t know much Japanese history. He does one song that’s about 200 years old about the Okinawa region when it was its own country and not part of Japan. Okinawa Prefecture is a chain of hundreds of islands in the southernmost region of Japan, and it was once known as Ryukyu Kingdom. So Tsukamoto talks about Okinawa’s history and culture before it was “smothered” by Japan, and then he plays the song.

Here’s Hiroya Tsukamato performing a song called  “Black Canyon”

As he tours around the United States, Tsukamoto writes songs in many of the places he visits. He’s got a song he wrote while hiking along the Gemini Bridges, two natural bridge rock formations in Utah. He likes to write songs about things he just happens upon.

“I had rented this Jeep, and I was driving around for about two hours when I came to this huge stone bridge. I had my guitar in the Jeep, and I just started writing the song,” said Tsukamoto.

Will he write a song when he’s in Maine this weekend? That’s hard to say, but just in case, be on your best behavior if you happen to run into a man toting a guitar.

Hiroya Tsukamoto

WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $15 to $20; $6 for children 12 and under
INFO: mayostreetarts.org
WHAT ELSE: Tsukamoto will also give an accoustic guitar workshop before his performance, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The cost is $40, $35 for students and seniors, to attend both the workshop and the performance.

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