When Hiroya Tsukamoto began strumming an old banjo in his small Japanese hometown, he instantly became the coolest teenager on the block.
“My father was a big bluegrass fan and he found a used banjo at a thrift shop in Kyoto,” Tsukamoto said. “He brought it home one day. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know how to play it, but I liked the fact that nobody had it.”
It was impossible to find a banjo instructor in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture, he said, so he taught himself to play it by listening to American records.
“It was hard. It is pretty fast.”
But Tsukamoto persevered, and the dulcet tones of the American instrument he plucked matched nicely with the rural environment of Kameoka, he said, a small city of about 90,000 near the city of Kyoto.
“It is a pretty rural town in the mountains. I grew up there surrounded by nature.”
Already exposed to traditional Japanese music and American folk and pop, Tsukamoto’s musical horizons would expand even further during his time as a foreign exchange student with a host family in Chiapas, Mexico.
“They had two kids who were almost the same age as me,” he said. “I got interested in Latin American culture. They were very good at playing guitar, so that is when I started playing guitar, when I was there at about 15 years old.”
After completing high school back home, Tsukamoto left the sleepy city to pursue a career in music.
His first stop was at Osaka University.
“I went to the university majoring in Spanish and South American culture and music,” Tsukamoto said.
In 2000, Tsukamoto received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and came to the United States.
To receive the scholarship, Tsukamoto first had to audition before a group of traveling professors in Japan, he said.
In Boston, Tsukamoto honed his musical skills.
Later, he formed his own group in Boston “INTEROCEANICO” which consists of unique musicians from different continents including Latin Grammy winner, Colombian singer Marta Gomez. The group released three acclaimed albums, “The Other Side of the World,” “Confluencia” and “Where the River Shines.”
Tsukamoto has also released three solo albums: “Solo,” “Heartland” and “Places.”
In 2018, Hiroya won second place in the International Fingerstyle Guitar Championship.
Both with his band and as a solo act, Tsukamoto has traveled the world, appearing at Blue Note in New York City with his group and on Japanese television.
“Because I spend lots of time on the road, when I am in a new place it is somehow easier for me to compose,” Tsukamoto said.
While Tsukamoto’s musical style could be compared to John Mayer, he said the fusion of his Japanese, American and Latin roots is hard to describe.
“One concert organizer in North Carolina came up with the name of cinematic guitar poetry.”
Tsukamoto will perform his unique style at 7:30 p.m. May 24 at Rainshadow Recording in Fort Worden State Park.
“Hiroya Tsukamoto brings an obvious classical influence to both his playing and compositions,” said Everett Moran, owner of Rainshadow Recording.
The result is a virtuosic performance that is tasteful and not flashy, Moran said, with Tsukamoto playing with grace and sensitivity.
“Close your eyes and prepare to embark on a musical, magical journey,” Moran said.