Even these days, when electric guitars and keyboards rule and mountain music is the stuff of Smithsonian recordings and PBS specials, a banjo player is easy enough to find. Asheville writer Gene Senyak recently published Banjo Camp!, Tyler Ramsey picked his way through a Band of Horses song, and Shindig on the Green — now in its 42nd year — is rife with banjos. But for Swannanoa-based musician Akira Satake, picking up a banjo had little to do with revisiting his roots. As the Japanese-born player puts it, "Appalachian music was world music to me. It wasn't my national music — it was exotic, like listening to African music."
Satake (who performs as part of the town of Black Mountain's Park & Rhythms outdoor concert series at Lake Tomahawk) is also a ceramist, and moved to WNC in 2003. It was a move that he says "had nothing to do with music," yet represents an important coincidence: "My big influences in high school were Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs and I ended up living in their home town," the musician says.
Swannanoa is a long way from Osaka, but thanks to the roots revival that swept not just the U.S. but the globe during the 1960s and '70s, folk artists like Bob Dylan (and Dylan predecessors Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie) gained popularity in far-flung locales.
"When I started playing music, my brother brought home a record by Doc Watson," Satake explains. "When I was growing up in Japan, bluegrass music was much bigger than it is now [although] many people still play bluegrass because Japan is that kind of country." The large population means every genre, from pop and punk to salsa and reggae, is represented. As a teen, Satake played banjo up to three night a week in clubs, but because he wasn't banking on a future as a professional musician, he pursued photography, which landed him employment in San Francisco. From there, a visit to New York City turned into a 24-year layover and an unlikely foray into the music business.
Satake's 1997 album, Cooler Heads Prevail, references an oft-stamped passport of influences, from the Irish lilt of "Tail Wag Dog Jig" to airy flutes wafting behind the meditative string progressions on "Nobody's Hat." "Basho," named for the 17th century Japanese haiku artist, calls to mind both a Vince Guaraldi refrain and a Noh score.
A decade later, Satake's band still represents a global crossroads: Percussionist River Guerguerian brings Middle Eastern rhythms, fiddler Duncan Wickel is versed in Celtic traditions, and cellist Julia Weatherford completes the Appalachian leg of the journey. As for Satake, even though he plays the banjo in a three-finger bluegrass style that comes from Appalachia, he says that "it's hard to deny I'm Japanese. The composition has some Japanese influence, even if I'm not trying [and] I'm happy to do that."
In 2009, World Music is as familiar as Pad Thai. But in 1979, when Satake (jobless and new to Manhattan) decided to pick a tune in Washington Square Park, Peter Gabriel's genre-defining Real World Records was still a decade away. What happened was, Nashville songwriter/guitarist Ollie O'Shea invited Satake to audition for a band that included Larry Campbell on fiddle and Jim Lauderdale as vocalist. Campbell and Satake went on to collaborate on many projects, including those created by the Alula Records label that Satake founded. Ahead of the world music curve, Alula produced reggae, hip-hop and Celtic. Prevail, Tim O'Brien's The Crossing and Mamadou Diabaté's Tunga: Those are Alula albums.
Unfortunately, the stress of the music business took a toll. So bitter was Satake's parting from Alula that he couldn't pick up an instrument or turn on a radio for years. "For a good three-to-four years I lived a music-less life," he says.
So, "For my mental health, I took up pottery," the artist says. That hobby evolved into an occupation: Satake is a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild and Piedmont Craftsmen; he took part in last year's Smithsonian Craft Show and in 2007 received the National Award for Excellence in Contemporary Clay. Not that Satake is any stranger to accolades: Prevail shared the 1998 German Music Critics' Award for Best World Music Recording with the late Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
But, like Satake mentioned, it wasn't music that brought him to WNC. After September 11, he felt "uncomfortable living in New York." That, and Manhattan didn't afford space for a kiln. When a relative suggested Asheville, the idea struck a chord. Here, the artist built a Japanese Kyushu-style oil kiln and a wood-fired kiln and uses earthy, Japanese-inspired glazes. Just as Satake's gorgeously organic pottery is sought-after, so is his uniquely innovative music. Soon, he was reaching for both his banjo and Shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese instrument) and collaborating with area musicians.
"The Asheville audience is is so open-minded," he enthuses. "They understand Appalachian music, but also someone who does something creative. They don't judge music from a shallow understanding."
This week's performance represents Satake's return (albeit slowly) to music. There's a mention of another CD. Compositions are in the works — but Satake seems happy to take things slowly. "I feel very comfortable playing and listening, and I've met a wonderful group of musicians," he says. "I'm back."
who: Akira Satake Band
what: Appalachian-world fusion
where: Park & Rhythms outdoor concert series at Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain
when: Thursday, Aug. 6 (7-9 p.m. Free. www.townofblackmountain.org).