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Festival Artist Spotlight: BERNIE ARAI

The 39th Powell Street Festival is almost here! In the days leading up to the festival we’ll be giving you a glimpse into the hearts and brains of some of our incredible performing artists. First up, we have Bernie Arai, drummer and cymbal artist who will be performing with pianist Chris Gestrin at the Firehall Arts Centre, Sunday August 2nd at 4:30pm. Bernie took a few moments between touring and teaching to talk with our Artistic Director, Mark Takeshi McGregor.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Bernie. The first question is one I ask most musicians: what attracted you to the instrument you play? Like, why drums? Was it love-at-first-sight or were there exceptional circumstances that led you to them? Did you play other instruments growing up?

A: No exceptional circumstances. I remember signing up for band class in Grade 6, and putting drums as my first choice and trumpet second. I couldn’t intellectualize the motivation for those choices then, and I wonder what I’d be doing now had I been assigned my second choice. In retrospect I realize that two things drew me to drum set in particular. The most obvious was the immediate, direct and primal rush of hitting things to make music. But the other was the mystery of what appeared to be a machine made of an incomprehensibly complex collection of drums, cymbals and hardware and how all those myriad pieces worked to become one musical instrument. Almost like an engineering problem. That dichotomy between primitive and complex, emotional and intellectual really appeals to me as a musician now.

Q: Did you have any early influences?

A: How early should I go back? My parents, although not musicians, gave us a rich musical upbringing. Between my mum, dad and guitar-playing older brother I had access to a fairly diverse record collection before I was old enough to choose my own music to listen to. When it comes to drums and improvising, my earliest influences all have roots in jazz drumming: Art Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes. My first time seeing Han Bennink in the Vancouver Jazz Fest was also a formative experience.

Q: On August 2nd you’ll be performing with pianist Chris Gestrin at the Firehall Arts Theatre. You had mentioned that your program is going explore the Japanese aesthetic principle of shibusa. Can you explain shibusa a bit for the uninitiated and maybe hint at how this aesthetic might manifest itself in your performance?

A: First off, I need to make clear that I am far from qualified to define or explain Japanese aesthetic, and shibusa in particular.  I know enough to realize that it is an incredibly complex and nuanced notion, and that I remain with an outsider’s view. However, many things about the Japanese arts resonate with me, mostly in how artistic works can be seen as beautiful, good or successful in ways that seem unique to Japan. Seeing ikebana, experiencing chanoyu, hearing solo shakuhachi honkyoku* music or onkyokei** artists like Toshimaru Nakamura inspired me to apply this to my own music. The idea that shibusa utilizes asymmetry, imperfection, incompleteness and mah (space or breath) maps well to the piano and drum set duets Chris and I play. An “incomplete” piano trio (with no bass), the asymmetry of the division of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic contributions between us, the imperfection inherent in improvised music performance (not to mention my own drumming): these are some of the ways shibusa informs our music.

Photo of Bernie Arai playing drum kitQ: In addition to your performance schedule, you’re also really committed to music education – you just recently finished a couple weeks as an instructor at the UBC Summer Music Institute. Do you find teaching informs the way you perform and vice versa? What inspires you to teach?

A: I consider the two to be very complementary pursuits, although it is entirely possible to excel at one and fail at the other. I’m very lucky to enjoy doing both. Teaching certainly forces me to clarify my own approach to playing music and reminds me of the work necessary to improve my musical skills. Likewise, having the opportunity to perform music on a professional level gives a good perspective on what to present to music students aiming for any level of proficiency or art

First of all, my teaching is inspired by the musicians (students, teachers and players) I get to work with and the opportunity to discuss things grand and menial that help develop my students’ musicianship. Teaching is also an extension of the shared experience that music can be, from performer/audience to teacher/student. I value these interactions with people through sound.

Q: When you aren’t engaged as a performer or educator, what kind of music do you listen to? Any other art forms you enjoy?

A: Hopefully I listen to the same music as when I am engaged as a performer/educator! Seriously though, I can only quote Duke Ellington: “There are simply two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.” Like many people, I listen to a wide range of things, dictated by quality and depth rather than genre. These days in particular I’m mourning Ornette Coleman’s recent passing by revisiting his recordings and also seeking out live recordings of some of his ensembles, especially Prime Time and his 60’s trio with Charles Moffett and David Izenzon.

I’d like to say I enjoy all other art forms but the truth is I haven’t learned enough about most to be an aficionado. I mean, I love visiting MOMA every time I’m in New York,  but I have a select few artists that I keep in mind and their work grabs me every time. So while it is technically accurate to state that I enjoy painting, architecture, sculpture, etc., it’s probably a disservice to those disciplines. The closest I can admit to any study (although not expertise) would be food and cooking if you can call that an artistic pursuit. In particular I enjoy experimenting with the definition of wa-fu, or Japanese “taste” for lack of a better term, in dishes I eat and ones I prepare.

*Honkyoku is music performed by Japanese Zen monks on the shakuhachi, the Japanese vertically held bamboo flute. Honkyoku dates back to the 13th century.

**Onkyokei is a form of free improvisation emerging in Japan in the late 1990s.

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Drummer Bernie Arai performs with pianist Chris Gestrin at the 39th Powell Street Festival on Sunday, August 2nd at 4:30pm at the Firehall Arts Centre. Entry for this event is FREE.

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