Published on February 15th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron


Interview: Shuhei Ozaki


— Story and Translation by Yoshi

Based in Kobe, Shuhei Ozaki is one of Japan’s foremost sitarists and is at the center of a thriving underground scene in Kansai. A collective of musicians perform regularly in cafes and gallery spaces in the cities of Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto to small groups of Indian music fans fascinated by the sublime sounds of tabla, tambura, violin, and sitar.

Brown Noise Unit’s Yoshi Fukae caught up with Shuhei for a chat about how he picked up sitar and what informs his wonderfully expressive and individual style.

BNU: Why did you start playing sitar?

When I was 15, I was just a metalhead kid, really into Carcass and Cathedral. But I started reading a called book To India by Tadanori Yokoo during math class in high school, and I was fascinated. It was about hippy culture, UFOs, and spiritual stuff. I was so impressed because I hadn’t read anything like it before. And that made me want to go to India, but I was still in high school and I had no money. So I decided to play Indian music. I went to an ethnic musical instrument shop in Kobe and bought a sitar, just because it’s famous, it has many strings, and also it’s rare in Japan. Even though I hadn’t listened to any Indian music until then.

You had been playing guitar, though, right?

Yeah. At first I wanted to become a guitar player who can also play sitar. So I searched for sitar classes on the internet and found Minehiko Tanaka’s sitar class and started learning from him. Then I started to get bored with metal and started to listen to psychedelic and prog rock, so I got the idea of becoming like a psychedelic sitar player in a band. But I soon realized I liked to just play sitar, because all of my band members sucked. [Laughs]

Ha ha! I think sitar is very difficult instrument, though, right? So how much did you practice every day?

It’s about the same difficulty as the guitar or any other instrument, really. When I was 17, I got to came to grips with sitar after having a breakthough listening to a Nikir Benarjee tape that my teacher gave me.

So I was practicing sitar on average four or five hours every day. I also became crazy about collecting Indian classical music tapes, and listened to them about four or five hours a day, too. I searched everywhere and ended up with over 200 tapes of Indian classical. It was pretty hard for me as a high school student and also the internet hadn’t really taken off, it wasn’t as easy as to find as it is today. I sort of had it in my head that I wanted to be a “lonely musical genius” like Keiji Haino. [Laughs]. I also listened to free jazz a lot, but I kind of realized it was too free for me. So I got to wanting to describe something in a broad way.

10415668_10152461454691154_4020624479804086686_nWhat did you and do you want to say with sitar?

My aim was to describe the mood of the setting sun. That’s not changed since then. I loved the feeling at sunset, and when I was 17, I formed the “Sunset Club” with two of my friends and we watched sunset every day after school.

Sunset Club? WTF?

[Laughs] Yeah, in fact we were just smoking in Jinchoge park between my house and school. And actually I didn’t watch the sunset, I spent most of the time staring at my cellphone. But, don’t know why, I just wanted to see the sunset every afternoon.

So it’s not really the setting sun, but the idea of it? The picture you have of it in your mind?

Yeah, that’s it.

When did you go to India for the first time?

When I was 19. I went to find a pandit (master) and met Partha Das, but I didn’t really get a the right vibe with him, so I just did some sightseeing and came back to Japan.

Oh, really? So when did you find Purbayan Chatterjee and start learning from him?

That’s when I was 22. In those day I was doing what any ordinary kid was doing, drinking a lot and falling in love with girls. But I was on the internet and I found one minute of extraordinary playing by Purbayan. I was so inspired and bought his records and decided to go to India again to learn from him.

You were his first pupil?

Yeah, I was. And he was also very young, like 27 or 28? He wasn’t really thinking about taking students. I sent a passionate love-letter email, and he agreed that I could visit, so I went to his house in Calcutta and played in front of him, and became his first pupil. He found a guest house near his house and I stayed there for three months.

And you go to India every year.

Yes, for five years. And Purbayan comes to Japan sometimes.

Some people say they feel “god” when they are playing. If that’s true, I think they are playing on another level from me

How is life in India? Do you like India or only Indian music?

Well, that’s a good question. Actually the life in India is really tough for me. But I feel like the atmosphere and the soil of India are central to Indian music itself. It’s very different from playing in Japan. So I’m keeping trying to like it. But… I hate spicy food.

Ha ha ha! Really? Oh man that must be tough. So which sitar player affects you the most?

Nikir Benarjee. Purbayan Chatterjee. And Partha Chatterjee, Purbayan’s father. And, he’s not a musician, but Japanese poet Michizo Tachihara. I am very much inspired by his poems.

10156061_651893204847247_4527119560273569846_nWhich Japanese sitarist do you like the best?

Japanese? Hmm, it’s difficult to choose one, but I like Yohei Iwashita’s playing.

His playing style is very different, but I feel something similar in both your playing.

Yeah. But that guy is a sadist for sitar.

I know! Okay so if you get a chance to have like a duel with another sitar player, who do you want to challenge?

Challenge? Mmm, my guru-ji (teacher). I’d like to compete with Purbayan-da on sitar some day.

Indian music is quite spiritual. Has playing made you think about if there’s a god?

God? Well, honesty, I don’t mind if there’s a god or not. Some people say they feel “god” when they are playing. If that’s true, I think they are playing on another level from me, because they can see what I can’t see. But most of them are fake. I watched some truly divine playing in India a few times. But it’s different from my style. I’d like to describe not some much a concrete theme or devotion to god, but to express a more ambient feeling. Like the mood of the setting sun in my mind.

Okay lastly, you released your first recording recently? Is that right?

Yeah. You can listen to a Durut (fast) movement of that recording on my website.

If you interested in it, you can buy a CD via the site. Please email me and I’ll send it to you.

Thanks, I’m looking forward to listening to your new record and seeing you play!

Keep up with Shuhei  on Twitter, @ozakishuhei, and Facebook.

About the Author

Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.

One Response to Interview: Shuhei Ozaki

  1. Thank you. For everything. Life is really bizarre, but it looks like it’s going to get bizarre in a great way. When the going get weird, the weird turn pro.

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