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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 30, 2003

Unlikely duo together again on stage, new CD

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

 •  Riley Lee and Jeff Peterson

Virtuoso shakuhachi and slack-key artists

7:30 p.m. today

The Doris Duke at the Academy



Also: Lee and Peterson will perform selections from their new "Haiku" CD at 2 p.m. Saturday at Borders, Ward Centre; and 2 p.m. Sunday at Borders, Waikele.

Call it a mixed marriage of two musical styles and two cultures.

When shakuhachi artist Riley Lee did a University of Hawai'i concert four years ago, he sought out a ki ho'alu performer to accompany him. The slack-key player was Jeff Peterson, who introduced Lee to arrangements of island music that were suitable for both instruments.

From such humble beginnings, an unlikely partnership resulted, one that bridged the gap between a Japanese instrument and a Hawaiian-style guitar-playing method, and linking Australia with the Islands.

Lee — who lives in Australia, because that's where he went to pursue a degree — and Peterson, who still lives and works here, have carved out a special niche in the annals of music. Their third Hula Records CD, "Haiku," being released today, will be the focus of a concert at 7:30 p.m. today in the Doris Duke theater at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

"He's like a nomad, moving around most of the year, performing throughout Europe, Asia, Australia," said Peterson of Lee. "I send him music that I write and arrange all year round; we keep in touch, of course, and when he gets here, like now, we have only a few days devoted to playing. But it works."

Lee, who's hapa haole (his dad is Chinese), said he's amazed how comfortably the two instruments fit. "The important thing is not only that the shakuhachi fits the guitar, but my playing fits Jeff's playing," he said. "People forget that even though musicians play the same instruments, how they make the instrument 'speak' is different. Different musicians make different sounds, and my playing works well with Jeff's playing."

Lee, a Roosevelt High graduate, is the first Western-born master of shakuhachi, the traditional Japanese bamboo flute. While studying in Japan, he found joy and his art in Japanese instruments, playing taiko and shakuhachi. When he returned home in 1978, he became the resident shakuhachi lecturer at UH. In 1980, he became the first non-Japanese to achieve daishihan (grand master) status in shakuhachi.

"Some songs are hard to play," Lee said of the bamboo instrument with five finger holes. "The cultural difference is not the problem; the technical aspects are challenging."

He explained: With five holes, you can achieve five pitches. Pitch variation depends on how he cocks his head, or if he half-covers a hole or two. "It's hard to play fast, because your fingers don't move as fast, and for different notes, there are shakuhachi of various lengths."

Literally, he said, shakuhachi means 1.8 shaku — or 1.8 feet, the length of the normal instruments. But lengths vary, to produce various notes, such as an E flute and C flute and an A flute. The tones are determined by the lengths of the bamboo.

Peterson, who arranges all the duo's music, must always remember that the shakuhachi is based on the pentatonic (five-note) scale, unlike the traditional 12 notes in western music. "But Riley's able to get other notes by the way he performs," said Peterson.

The duo has performed together in Sydney and Canberra; at a national folk festival that lasted four days, they combined shows with workshops. "It was like an Australian Woodstock; thousands camping with music from 15 stages," said Peterson.

Lee first heard the shakuhachi in a recording his brother had brought home. Subsequently, his father bought him a Chinese bamboo flute, and that triggered his interest in the genre. The Japan trip cinched it for him.

"I picked up a shakuhachi in Japan as an instrument for a spare-time hobby, but when I found a teacher, I studied and stayed there — for seven years," he said.

Lee and Peterson have recorded two other instrumental CDs, "Maui Morning" and "Bamboo Slack Key," providing an idyllic flavor and a quiet eloquence to island tunes. "Haiku" builds on their poetry without words.