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Friday, December 15

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Detour

The song is as thick as the smoky blue air that hangs over Artis's O-shaped bar. It's as gritty as the dust-covered packs of Newports a woman sells from a cardboard box, and it's as classic as the perfume the patron who buys them wears. It's as strong as the sweaty gin and tonic that's sitting in front of me. It's as refreshing as the first sip I take.

"Blues with a feeling," Billy Branch belts out, between deep blows on his harp, "that's what I have today."

Branch's intense brown eyes stare up from above his shiny harmonica, and they flash bright white even in the shadow of his fedora's brim. I watch as Branch approaches an older man in a long coat and flat cap. His eyes become wide and alive as Branch plays a few raucous blues chords in his ear. The man smiles with satisfaction, as if he hasn't heard Little Walter's classic "Blues with a Feeling," since it was released in 1957 on Chicago's own Checker Records label.

In a bar where the aisles are barely big enough to stretch your arms from side to side, Branch coolly works his way through the crowd, bellowing on his harmonica. He hovers for a moment at the high-top table where I sit. Then, to my surprise, he unleashes a few raw harp notes in my ear. I can't help but smile too.

This up-close and personal encounter with Chicago blues affirms what Jonathan Stockton says about Artis's in Chicago's Best Dive Bars. "The music is as authentic as the blues gets," Stockton writes. As an electric bass shakes the mirrored walls of this tiny 87th Street juke joint, I'm beginning to think he's right.

Branch's crowd-pleasing harp is at the heart of each number, but piano provides the backbone of the set. Rich tones and rickety trills carry the band from "Kansas City" all the way to Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back."

The man rattling the keys the night I'm at Artis's is barely visible. Sumito Ariyoshi, who goes by the name Ariyo (AR-ee-oh), has taken his place stage right, his electronic keyboard sandwiched between a dartboard and an amp. While Branch's bass player wears eye-catching gold chains, Ariyo is camouflaged from head to foot in black.

But his sound is unmistakable. His hands fly over the plastic keys, hammering out rhythmical blues standards with fervor. Even over the clinking bottles and bar noise, you can hear the expertise of this classically trained pianist. He left Kyoto 23 years ago to find the sound that made Chicago famous.

"I'm My Own Sound"

Working blues musicians are necessarily nighttime people, and when I meet Ariyo at a coffee shop in West Rogers Park on a Thursday afternoon, he's just gotten up. A few gray whiskers are showing on his unshaved face, and the sloping lines under his eyes tell me he would have liked a bit more sleep.

The 49-year-old bluesman is of a medium build, his dark hair a bit shaggy. He is dressed in his typical ensemble — black pants, black top. He orders a very small orange juice, which comes in a plastic cup. He takes a sip on the oversized straw, and passes me a thick, bound bundle of papers — his nonimmigrant worker petition, form I-129, and hundreds of pages of documentation.

The bundle cost over $20,000 to prepare, but to Ariyo it's worth much more. As proof of "extraordinary ability in the field of arts," the document served as Ariyo's legal ticket back into United States after his 1989 deportation.

The papers are also a personal scrapbook, and Ariyo has brought them to help tell his story, in part because it is so complex, and in part, I suspect, because it is difficult to translate.

I page through Ariyo's life, a curious soup of Roman type and Japanese characters. Forms, contracts, and checks. Grainy photocopied pictures of Ariyo's face and the faces of black blues greats. A Japanese B.B. King poster showing nothing but a giant watermelon. A review of Ariyo's CD, Piano Blue, accompanied by a translation that isn't totally accurate: "I was blown off by Ariyo's music," has been crossed out to read "blown away." The last exhibit is a letter from Chicago's "Queen of Blues" Koko Taylor, in support of Ariyo. "I grew up in a sharecropper shack on a cotton farm outside of Memphis..." Taylor writes. "While Ariyo and I come from different backgrounds, what we share in common is our delight in making people all over the world happy with our music."

"I don't want people to see my music, my sound, as Japanese," Ariyo warns me. "I'm Ariyo. I'm my own sound."

Critics, including Chicago blues scholar David Whiteis, have noted Ariyo's distinct style. Whiteis accuses Ariyo of treating his keyboard "almost like a rhythm instrument, infusing even his most well-crafted melodic lines with percussive intensity," an intense style of play evident in the polished, body-moving stomps, boogies and shuffles of Piano Blue. Recording director Teruo Kawamura describes both of Ariyo's hands as "extraordinarily strong," and Ariyo's technique as "not playing, but hitting" the keys.

06112007_ariyo1.jpg
by Kenji Oda

It's important to Ariyo that his sound stands on its own. With Ariyo on piano and Minoru Maruyama on guitar, Branch's backing band, the Sons of Blues, had two Japanese bluesmen for nearly five years. In fall 2006, guitarist Maruyama left the band to take a day job.

Ariyo expressed his initial reservations about Branch's decision to have two Japanese musicians play together in the Sons of Blues.

"A lot of blues musicians in the same town, but two Japanese in the same band, that's really unique," Ariyo tells me with a laugh. "That's why I hate two Japanese in the same band."

Two Asian sidemen could attract an unwanted focus on race rather than sound, but I wonder if Ariyo strives for a purity in blues that's hard to come by, even in the genre's hometown.

Ariyo tells me about Toru Oki, a Japanese blues musician who found fame in New York in the 1970s. Oki's Web site is headlined with the title "Mr. Yellow Blues."

"He sell his own music as Yellow Blues," Ariyo says, shaking his head. "Fucking Yellow Blues. If you see yellow blues, it cannot cross over the fence of the yellow." Ariyo's music, a skillful blend of classical piano training and Chicago blues heart, is an attempt to cross this racial barrier, and to let his sound speak for itself.

A Minority Music

"Blues is a minority music," Ariyo explains, offering me a condensed history lesson, in which he traces the sound's migration from the Missisippi Delta up to Chicago. The genre came into being in the late nineteenth century, evolving from the music of poor black laborers in the South, often capturing the gritty realities of difficult lives. After World War II, when many African Americans left the South for the promise of the industrial north, blues traveled to Chicago. Here, musicians plugged their guitars into amplifiers and cupped their harmonicas to mikes. Blues became electrified for the first time, and the Chicago sound was born.

Through the 1950s and '60s, African American artists such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon dominated Chicago blues. Notable white artists, such as Dave Specter, began coming to the art form decades later.

Though the genre remains largely African American, Ariyo is part of a small, highly-respected minority of Japanese blues musicians in Chicago, including Yoko Noge and her Jazz Me Blues and Shun Kikuta of J.W. Williams and the Chi-Town Hustlers.

Despite the national and international success of these artists, James Porter, a blues critic for Time Out Chicago, says that Asian blues artists still turn heads at some clubs. When Porter and I watched Ariyo at Artis's, Porter said he overheard one patron notice Ariyo's expert playing, making this comment, "Damn, that Japanese boy is bad."

"It never fails," Porter says.

"People used to trip out seeing white faces," he adds hopefully. "Now a white person can play and nobody thinks much of it."

Ariyo identified himself as part of a minority early in life, even while growing up in Kyoto. At the coffee shop, he scrawls out a crude map of Japan on a sheet of notebook paper. One dot indicates Tokyo. Southwest of Tokyo, three dots represent a cluster of cities — Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. These cities are part of Kansai, a seven-prefecture region in Western Japan. The area has its own distinct dialect, which differs greatly from Tokyo's Kanto-ben, the most widely spoken form of Japanese.

"We don't want to speak like they speak," Ariyo says. "We kind of the minority."

Ariyo described Kansai as "always against Tokyo." As the most highly developed, urbanized area in Japan, Tokyo is, for some, a symbol for standardization and the mainstream.

"The majority is not right for me," says the musician. He believes "there is something beautiful about the minority."

He looks up and pauses for a moment, squinting, searching for a word that can express the feeling that drew him to the blues. He puts on his reading glasses and takes out a small, gray, electronic translator. He types carefully, and then he turns the screen towards me to show me the translation: "sympathy for the weak."

Jusgadi

Ariyo began playing classical piano at age three. He trained at the Yamaha Piano School in Kyoto for 10 years, before studying with a private tutor for another 11. Though his natural aptitude for the keyboard was clear, Ariyo considered himself "a drop-out classical student," often neglecting his assigned pieces and shrugging off his mother's urgings to practice.

"I don't want to play the music which I don't want," Ariyo says.

Growing up in a middle-class home with three younger siblings, Ariyo pleased his parents with an excellent record in school, and success in piano and sports — even with minimal practice. Nevertheless, they sometimes worried about their son's tendency toward rock music, especially when he took up the electric guitar at age 13, in 1970.

"Electric guitar is a symbol of your son going the other way," Ariyo says.

Ariyo identifies 1973 as the year of the "first blues movement" in Japan. A festival featuring Robert Junior Lockwood and the Aces came to Osaka that year, setting off a blues craze. Ariyo was 16 when an older friend played him the first blues record he ever heard, an album by Son House (Eddie James House, Jr.).

"My big impression was, how did piano come from another space?" Ariyo says of the album. Even over House's raucous guitar, the album's aggressive, rhythmic blues piano was all Ariyo could hear.

Ariyo became one of the youngest in a group of blues enthusiasts that included college students and adults. Together, they imitated the exciting new sounds listened to on vinyl. Ariyo had only been studying English since age 13, and although he and his friends could read some of the lyrics that lined the records, they often did not try to understand the meaning of the songs they heard.

"Listening here," he says, pointing to his head. Then he points to his heart. "Not here."

When Ariyo heard House utter jusgadi before a take, he and his friends repeated the strange word when they played together.

"We only tried to make a copy," Ariyo says, "even if we didn't know the meaning — jusgadi, jusgadi. Now I understand — 'Just got it!'"

Some fans were even worse, Ariyo says, recalling his experience playing piano or electric guitar with "Japanese blues freaks" as a young man. They encouraged Ariyo to imitate the blues records he heard with exacting precision.

"I thought, man, this is the wrong key. They try to copy even the mistake!"

Record shops in Kyoto devoted large sections to blues music, and were often staffed with knowledgeable blues buffs who told Ariyo and his friends which records to listen to — definitely Muddy Waters over the more mainstream B.B. King — and which books to read.

Ariyo listened to his blues albums over and over, until he picked up the "blue notes" that could transform minor scales into brooding blues progressions. His practice paid off. At 17, Ariyo began his "shift toward nighttime," a period in which he spent late nights in smoke-filled coffee houses playing solo material, on both electric and acoustic guitar. Ariyo also took up cigarettes at this time, and came into contact with some of Kyoto's street gangs.

While studying Japanese literature at Hanazono College in Kyoto, Ariyo continued to pursue music. He played not only in a blues band, but in a J-pop (Western-influenced Japanese pop) band and reggae band as well.

Despite his success in the Kansai music scene, Ariyo ultimately decided that he wanted to become a teacher. By the end of college, he had made plans to seek his master's degree in literature. Ariyo believed he would have abandon his notions of playing music professionally if he was going to focus getting into a graduate program, a process he described as extremely difficult in Japan.

But before giving up his musical desires completely, Ariyo wanted to come to Chicago to see "real blues" in person. Maybe he'd even have a chance to jam with real bluesmen for a song or two, he thought. He didn't dare dream of getting his own gig.

"I want to go Mecca, that's all," Ariyo says. "Once, I want to go to Mecca in my life."

Sweet Home Chicago

Ariyo's chance to travel to Mecca came in 1983. At the time, he had been playing piano for vocalist Yoko Noge (now a fixture in Chicago's jazz scene), touring the Kansai area with the singer, her husband Shoji and two other musicians. Yoko and Shoji invited Ariyo to travel with them to Chicago and explore the blues in its purest form. Ariyo planned on staying for two months. He would stay for five years.

Ariyo, Yoko, and Shoji arrived in California in summer of 1983. Together, they bought an oversized Mercury station wagon for $2,000 and headed to the home of the blues. As the only one in possession of a drivers' license, Ariyo drove the group east for six straight days, often veering off major interstates to take historic Route 66. The American TV program of the same name had aired in Japan, immortalizing the famous highway in Ariyo's mind.

Ariyo had brought with him "one big dictionary," and assurances from Yoko and Shoji that together, they would be able to overcome the language barrier.

Though Yoko and Shoji's English was basic, they knew how to ask essential questions. Ariyo quickly found himself dependent on the couple's limited language skills. As a 25-year-old man, Ariyo soon felt "like a three-year-old boy," relying on the couple to direct him everywhere from blues clubs to bathrooms.

"I was not an independent person," Ariyo says. "And the only reason — English."

Ariyo's reliance on Yoko and Shoji created tension in the group, and affected Ariyo's self-confidence.

"I have to be a man, an independent person," he says. "I told them I'm leaving."

Ariyo purchased the station wagon from Yoko and Shjoi, and began looking for a way to support himself financially. He quickly found work at the Ginza Restaurant, a Japanese diner near O'Hare Airport. By day, Ariyo worked as a waiter and kitchen helper, preparing vegetables and frying tempura. At night, he returned to his room at the Tokyo Motel, which was located directly behind the restaurant.

Sunday nights were different. Ariyo would travel to B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, a famous blues club on Chicago's North Side, to hear Sunnyland Slim play blues piano. Ariyo credits Sunnyland Slim, who began recording as early as the 1940s, as one of the fathers of the Chicago sound. Slim's percussive style defined Chicago blues piano, influencing both of Muddy Waters' longtime keyboardists, Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins.

One Sunday evening, a month and two weeks into his visit, Ariyo approached Kansas City Red, the leader of Sunnyland Slim's opening band. He repeats the words he told Red with slow exaggeration: "I came from Japan. I play blues. I play piano. I like blues."

"All right," Red responded. "Why don't you come up?"

Ariyo couldn't understand the words the other musicians were saying, but he knew they were welcoming onstage for a jam session. He didn't feel nervous. Just excited.

"I sit down, play a couple songs, people like them," Ariyo says. "Every time after I play a solo, people clap their hands. I said 'Wow, this feels great. I'm here, playing with real bluesmen.'"

When Ariyo tried to stand up after a song, the bass player shouted, "Hey, where you goin'? You stayin'!"

Ariyo wound up finishing off the first set with Kansas City Red. He thanked Red for having him onstage.

"Oh yeah, thank you too," Red said. "Can you stay? We have a short break. You're coming back next set!"

Ariyo played the rest of the evening, and Red shook his hand at the end of the night. "I want you coming back next week too," he said, slipping Ariyo what felt like a crumpled up piece of paper.

I ask Ariyo if he still has the five-dollar bill that Kansas City Red gave him that night. Ariyo shakes his head and tells me he doesn't. The very next day, he spent it on lunch at a Japanese restaurant.

06112007_ariyo2.jpg
by Kenji Oda

Welcomed In, Pushed Out

Though Ariyo played regularly at B.L.U.E.S. through the rest of 1983, the doorman often mistook him for a tourist. Ariyo always took out money to pay the cover charge until other blues musicians yelled, "Hey, stop it! He's with us!"

Ariyo's piano stylings attracted the attention of blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers, a Chicago legend who had played for Muddy Waters in the early 1950s at the dawn of Chicago blues. Rogers invited Ariyo to play with him and his band for a short U.S. tour. Most members of Rogers' tour band came from Alabama and Missisippi; all were in their 50s and 60s. Ariyo was still in his 20s, but he says his features made him look even younger — like a teenager.

"They treated me right," Ariyo says of the band. "They didn't treat me like a guest, like a tourist. They treated me like their own people. I didn't think I'm Japanese. I'm just a piano player."

After the tour, Rogers asked Ariyo to join his home band back in Chicago. At the encouragement of other band members, Ariyo quit his job at the Ginza Restaurant and abandoned his room at the Tokyo Motel. He moved into a thee-bedroom house in Summit, a suburb near Midway Airport, with the rest of Rogers' band.

Because there weren't enough bedrooms in the house, Ariyo shared a room with Rogers' drummer, Tony Manguillo. Tony, an Italian immigrant, and Ariyo became best friends at the Summit house, where Tony taught Ariyo "Italian-English," even as he worked to perfect his own language skills. Tony would go on to found the famed blues club Rosa's Lounge, which he named after his mother, who still bartends there. Today, Ariyo plays regularly in Rosa's house band.

"After Jimmy Rogers got me, I erased any planning," Ariyo says. "After Jimmy Rogers got me, I thought 'Hey man, I could make a living.'"

Putting away his plans for graduate school, Ariyo began settling in to a more permanent life in the United States, even though he had overstayed his six-month sightseeing visa and was working without documentation.

After Tony opened Rosa's, Ariyo moved into the apartment above the club. In passing, he tried to learn English from homeless people who lived on the streets, offering them cigarettes or beer in exchange for rudimentary English lessons. Ariyo also copied the language he picked up in the blues scene, often imitating tough language without fully knowing its meaning.

As Ariyo's English improved, his career took off.

"Dreaming became purpose," Ariyo says. "Purpose became reality."

By 1986, Ariyo had begun working with the Valerie Wellington Blues Band. Playing for Wellington, he became the first Asian ever to perform at the Chicago blues festival and the first Japanese artist ever to record with Chicago-based blues label Alligator Records.

In 1988, Ariyo joined Otis Rush, another Chicago blues legend famous for his left-handed guitar playing, on an international tour.

Ariyo was flying to New York, returning from Stockholm with Rush and his band, when U.S. customs officials stopped him at the border. Ariyo had obtained and overstayed six-month sightseeing visas several times throughout the 1980s. Each time he had reentered the country, customs officials overlooked his overstay and issued him a new six-month pass. This time, they did not. Ariyo says he always felt nervous when reentering the United States, but on this particular flight, he had an unusually bad feeling. The U.S. Navy had just shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilians, and border security was tighter than normal.

Immigration officials took his fingerprints and his photograph, and Ariyo spent one night in a holding area with other illegal aliens. He described the experience as "a nightmare." Guards at a motel-like complex treated Ariyo like a prisoner, referring to him as "mister" and warning him not to come too close to them. They watched television while Ariyo slept on a cot.

Ariyo was allowed one phone call while in holding. He contacted a Japanese friend in Chicago, who quickly relayed his message to Rush (who was unaware of his piano player's visa situation) and others. Ariyo had made emergency plans with this friend, giving him an extra set of keys for his car and apartment.

The next day, Ariyo was forced to buy his ticket back to Japan. He was escorted onto the plane by two customs officers and was the last passenger to board. He said he felt as if he had been "watching a good movie a long time," and suddenly, the movie ended.

He would be banned from the U.S. for the next 10 years.

The Hot Springs Blues

Back in Japan, Ariyo avoided the English language and any trappings of American culture — reminders of his past life — as much as he possibly could. But his love of blues was impossible to suppress.

Many American artists, including Valerie Wellington, traveled Japan in the 1990s, and Ariyo didn't have trouble lining up gigs with them. He toured Japan consistently throughout the decade, reaching audiences from the far north to Okinawa. Within the Kansai blues scene, Ariyo's name was still widely recognized. As one Japanese critic wrote, "If you have never heard of... Ariyo... you are not a 'real' blues fan."

"It's like a hot springs," Ariyo says of his high comfort level in Japan. "You cannot get out."

Although Ariyo had found contentment in Japan, he missed aspects his life in Chicago. Ariyo says he was dreaming of Chicago when he wrote material for his first solo album, Piano Blue, which features songs including "North Sheridan" and "Windy City." Set to a ragtime beat, "Windy City" is a mix of unfamiliar Japanese words and English phrases I recognize instantly — Lakeshore Drive... John Hancock; Maxwell Street; South Side...West Side. Other lyrics, printed in the liner, are slightly lost in translation — "she is looking like a gorgeous lady, just like a $200-dollar fooker" — but the longing for Chicago is crystal clear.

By the late 1990s, Ariyo had begun working with a team of U.S. lawyers to prepare the documentation that he would need to reenter the United States when his ban expired. He finally returned on an O-1 visa in 2001. This time, when customs officials noticed his high-status visa, they did not interrogate him.

"Oh, you must be a famous musician," they said. "What kind of music do you play?"

In 2006, Ariyo finally received a green card, making him a lawful permanent resident.

On Skill and Soul

Pinetop Perkins, now 93, once complimented Ariyo on his playing. The bluesman told Ariyo he had "first fingers," the gift of hands that move first — almost instinctively.

"My finger moves well," Ariyo told Pinetop, "but blues is more feeling, essence. I say to Pinetop, you're the master of blues piano. He said, 'Yeah,'" Ariyo says, laughing.

Ariyo believes that "blues is a feeling." Bluesmen who have feeling can outplay artists who rely on technical ability alone, Ariyo tells me. Blues was richest in feeling at its onset, he says, when musicians played to express a reality and reflect a way of life. He once told a Kyoto newspaper he was not sure if he was capable of playing "real blues music" because he hadn't lived an authentic blues lifestyle — one full of heartache, sorrow and pain.

"I tried to be a bluesman, but one day I find out I cannot be," Ariyo says.

His solution is simply to be a good musician — to use his strong hands, his classical training, and his percussive style to play the music that he loves.

While this strategy has made Ariyo firmly embedded in the blues community, he says he is still "not in the center of the room."

"I'm just standing by the door looking," Ariyo says.

Back at Artis's, I can't help but disagree. Even though he's off to the side, his sound dominates the steamy, neon-lit club.

To play blues with a feeling is to bring your soul and your reality to the music you play. Though Ariyo's journey to Chicago differs greatly from the African American immigration here in the 1940s, it's been laden with hardships and dramas of its own, revealed, perhaps, in the strength with which Ariyo hits the keys, in the determination of his powerful left hand.

Beside me, a heavy-set man in a bright red shirt and wide-brimmed hat sits at a table. I find out later that it's Magic Slim, a Chicago bluesman who helped invent the city's West Side sound — an electric brand of blues mixed with soul and R&B. I watch him watch Ariyo, and I wonder if he hears blues with a feeling.

He shakes his head side to side in time with Ariyo's beat, as if to confirm that this piano player has simply just got it.

 

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Winkowski edits a series of historical graphic novels. She likes to write about, and bike around, Chicago.

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