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Drummer Immersed the World of Jazz – Bernie Arai Is Steadfast in His Pursuit

Bernie Arai

Is Japanese Canadian Bernie Arai a pioneering jazz drummer? Answering this question during a recent interview, he was quick to say: “I don’t think of myself as a pioneer…I just want to keep working on making music.” As a longtime fan and a “lowly” part-time guitar player, I definitely consider Bernie, if I may so call him, to be a pioneering artist, as I’m sure many musicians and aficionados both in Canada and overseas would agree.

Inasmuch as every first-class musician has his or her “own sound,” I discern the influence of taiko drumming in the way Bernie, age 42, strikes his drum heads with just the right amount of force—not too hard and not too soft—to make them resonate best. I could of course be totally wrong, given the complexity of all kinds of music that make up the monster called jazz.

As a multi-instrumentalist comfortable with drums and percussive instruments of all manner from around the world, and one who also plays the shakuhachi (“Only for myself…”), he is able to cultivate new areas through experimental formats, as well as playing in combo, big band, and other more conventional formats (see his partial Discography).

Where does Bernie’s cross-cultural approach to music come from? His Japanese Canadian experience begins with his parents who met while they were working for Japan Airlines, he as a steward and she as a flight attendant, and got to know each other on flights between Tokyo and Copenhagen. They then lived in Copenhagen for a while, before discovering and falling in love with Vancouver on one of their frequent overseas trips. Eventually they settled in Richmond, where Bernie was born in 1973. He also has an older brother here, and a sister who now lives in Melbourne with her Australian husband.

In other words, a truly “borderless” family and, incidentally, one of the Shin (new) Issei (post-WW2 Japanese immigrants), which makes Bernie a “Shin Nisei.” Whether because of that and/or because of Vancouver’s truly multi-cultural environment, some of his music is “out there,” i.e. outside the envelope of conventional jazz.

For the interview, the writer met up with Bernie one evening in Oppenheimer Park after his combo gig at the nearby Hotel Patricia Pub. He was in a hurry as he had another gig later that night. Among musicians playing standards as well as more experimental composers and musicians, he is a much sought-after drummer/percussionist.

It was, coincidentally, apt that we met there, as both the park and the hotel and its bar room are closely linked to our legendary pre-WW2 Asahi baseball team. The park, back then known as Powell Grounds, was the Asahis’ home ballpark, and the historic Patricia Hotel used to sponsor a semi-pro team that played the Asahis regularly. It was, in fact, against Patricia Hotel that the Asahis played their second to last game before they were disbanded forever in 1941. (You might recall that the first “pioneer” in this series was Mr. Kei Kaminishi, the last surviving member of the Asahis.)

The Patricia bar room was a popular hang-out in the pre-WW2 days when this area was the city’s main entertainment district. The legendary jazz pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton and his band stayed in and gigged at the hotel for a time back in the 1920s.

Just before the interview, I had told a Caucasian friend, another drummer, that I was meeting Bernie Arai. A seasoned veteran on the Vancouver jazz circuit, the friend had responded: “You mean that Japanese drummer?” To him, Bernie born and raised in Canada, is still somehow “Japanese.” Canadian Japanese folks in particular and (North, Central, and South) American Japanese folks in general would surely all understand. We have all “been there.” When I told Bernie about the “Japanese” reference, he chuckled, and I think I know how he felt. What can we do but shake our heads, because—like PM Justin Trudeau said about equal rights for women—IT’S 2015! for crying out loud!

On this key Nikkei dilemma, Bernie said, “When I was growing up, I focussed on the Canadian side of being Japanese Canadian, unfortunately missing out on learning the Japanese language, but as I grew older I began to explore and appreciate Japanese culture and my connection to it.”

Bernie, who speaks some Japanese, recently went to Tokyo to meet an old friend, a trumpet player and ex-Capilano College classmate married to a Japanese lady. He happens to be Caucasian. “It was funny when we went out,” Bernie recalled, “because everyone would see the two of us and address me in Japanese, but he was the one who spoke better Japanese.”

When asked whether there still existed within the Nikkei community the prejudice that “classical music is somehow higher in status than jazz,” he replied: “The distinctions between genres of music and their supposed hierarchy are less meaningful for a generation of listeners who grew up with the internet, and definitely not significant to me anyway.”

Finally, Bernie was asked if he had any advice for young people who want to take up jazz. This was his answer: “In my case, I was lucky because I had great teachers and supportive parents, but I feel that nobody would make a choice to pursue a career as a jazz musician. You do it only because you have an insatiable need to make music; it chooses you.”

Sounds like a Zen koan? Come to think of it, Bernie with his clean-shaven pate does remind you of a Buddhist monk. Anyway, his performance is well worth checking out especially if you are a jazz or music fan. He will be appearing with combos during “Jazz STOCK”—Vancouver’s recently-launched independent jazz festival to take place at Pat’s Pub (tel. 604.255.4301). He also plays regularly at restaurants and pubs featuring live jazz.

Bernie Arai Discography (partial)

2015 Bernie Arai Chris Gestrin Wabi Phonometrograph (drums, cymbals). Nominated for a 2016 Western Canadian Music Award.

2015 Brad Turner Trio Here Now (drums, cymbals)

2014 Paul Keeling Ancient Lights Independent (drums)

2008 Joani Taylor In My Own Voice Westcoast Records (drums)

2007 Altered Laws Metaphora Artist (drums, percussion)

2006 Ugetsu Live at the Cellar Cellar Live (producer/drums)

2004 Brad Turner Trio Question The Answer Maximum/Universal

2002 Sharon Minemoto Quartet Side A Cellar Live (drums)

2002 Ross Taggert Quartet Thankfully Cellar Live (drums)

2001 Various Artists Magnum Jazz Presents Live at the Cellar (drums)

1997 Another Girl In The Galaxy RCA (drums, percussion)

1999 Ken Aldcroft Trio + 1 His Mistress Never Sleeps Independent


*This article was originally published on The Bulletin: A Journal of Japanese Canadian Community, History & Culture, on June 23, 2016.


© 2016 Masaki Watanabe

Bernie Arai drummer Japanese Canadian Jazz music musician shin nisei vancouver