By Wendy Brown, U.S. Army Garrison Japan Public AffairsJuly 19, 2019
CAMP ZAMA, Japan (July 19, 2019) -- When Akiyasu Sumi first asked an American friend about going to a bluegrass festival in the United States, the man cautioned him against it, saying the festivals might not welcome him because he is Japanese.
Sumi soon discovered, however, that his friend was wrong: Not only would bluegrass festivals welcome him, but the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest in Weiser, Idaho, would accept him with open arms.
That was 14 years ago, Sumi said, and since then he has competed in the event seven times. Over the years, festivalgoers have picked him up at the airport, hosted him in their homes and suggested music for him to learn. This year he placed second in his "senior senior" age division--second only to Vivian Williams, 81, a fiddling legend who was the National Ladies Champion from 1966 to 1968. Last year he placed third in his age division.
Sumi, 73, a retired engineer for Canon who worked on interchangeable camera lenses, is a violin instructor at SKIES Unlimited at Camp Zama, and although he calls himself the "Lonesome Fiddler," he has plenty of friends in the United States and Japan.
Teresa Brodsky, director of SKIES Unlimited at Camp Zama, said Sumi has taught for the program for about seven years and they are proud to have him as an instructor.
"He's a very accomplished violinist/fiddler and is our only strings instructor for the Zama community," Brodsky said. "He has a lot of experience with performing solo and in a group that he can pass on to his students."
Sumi said that like his students at SKIES Unlimited, he started playing the violin as a child, and his musical journey to becoming an old-time fiddle master in Weiser took several decades.
There is no difference between a fiddle and a violin, and Sumi said he studied classical violin as a child and didn't branch out to playing bluegrass until he was in college.
Friends asked him to play in their professional bluegrass band called the Smoky Rangers while he was studying engineering at Keio University in Tokyo, Sumi said, and that was his introduction to playing traditional American country music.
The band played at military installations in the Tokyo area, including Camp Zama, Tachikawa Airfield and Yokosuka Naval Base, Sumi said. This was about 50 years ago, during the Vietnam War, and they would often go on at midnight.
After graduation, however, Sumi said he was too busy with his job at Canon to continue with the band, so he left and stopped playing fiddle.
About a year before he retired, in 2005, Sumi gave some thought to a hobby he would like to pursue during his retirement. He bought a guitar and started to learn how to play it, but then he met people in Japan who played country and bluegrass music.
"So many people play fiddle," Sumi said. "So I [thought it would be] fun to play fiddle again. I liked it better than guitar, so I picked up my fiddle."
After 35 years though, his fiddle had deteriorated, and he couldn't use it, so Sumi bought a new one. His guitar is nothing but a wall decoration now, he said.
He soon realized, however, that he had a problem: "No teacher in Japan," Sumi said.
So Sumi decided to teach himself.
"Kenny Baker is a famous fiddler and I love his fiddling," Sumi said. "I hear [his compact discs] and take note by ear and play myself."
Sumi said he joined another bluegrass band and watched many fiddlers in Tokyo, also visiting Osaka and Kobe in the Kansai region in search of good fiddle players in Japan.
Still, Sumi said he couldn't find fiddlers in Japan who could compare to U.S. fiddler players like Baker or Bobby Hicks, and that's when he started searching on the internet for festivals in the United States and came upon the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest.
Sumi, who lives in Yokohama, said that although many Japanese people attend bluegrass festivals in the United States, he didn't like the idea of attending most of them because they are in areas without hotels and he didn't want to camp.
The National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest, which dates back to 1736, has hotels in the area, so that appealed to him, Sumi said, and he called the contest organizers to get more information.
One of his big questions was how to get there, Sumi said.
The person told him he could fly into Boise, Idaho, and that someone would pick him up at the airport and drive him the 75 miles to Weiser. Not only that, but since all the hotels were full due to the contest, residents who lived near there would host him in their home.
He soon realized he had another issue, however.
"I don't know what song I can play, so I [asked a contest member] what song I can play in the contest," Sumi said. "I only know bluegrass songs, but there are never bluegrass songs in the contest."
The fellow contestant helped him come up with three songs he could play for the first round: "Huckleberry Hornpipe" for his hoedown song; "Over the Waves" for the waltz; and "Kansas City Kitty" for tune of choice.
According to the rules, contestants must play a different hoedown, waltz and tune of choice for each of the contest's six rounds--a total of 18 songs.
Since Sumi only knew three songs that first year, he didn't make it to the second round, but after the contest, many of the champions helped him learn new songs.
The champions recommended different CDs and books to Sumi, who then tracked them down and brought them home to study. Some have even given him old-time recordings to study, Sumi said.
"[It's not a] record or CD, but [a] recording by tape recorder," Sumi said. "That's the sound source they give me, so I study that sound source. I take note and I study myself and play here. So they're very pleased."
Sumi said he has expanded his repertoire and has no problem coming up with songs to play for every round. This year the contest took place June 12 through 22, with the fiddle contest beginning June 17.
Sumi said he prefers old-time fiddling to bluegrass because it is just him playing the fiddle with an accompanying guitar, rather than with a whole band. The contest, which can impact the salaries of fiddle teachers depending on how they place, is very intense, he said, and the judges only hear the music through a microphone so they don't know who is playing.
He has no favorite song, however, and that is part of the genre's appeal for him, Sumi said.
"There are many, many good songs. I never knew such songs before," Sumi said.
Sumi said he enjoys teaching through SKIES Unlimited and likes to have his students perform with him in the Japanese community.
Kira Herring, 10, and Kora Herring, 8, sisters who have been studying with Sumi for about a year, said they like him as a teacher and enjoy performing with him at local Japanese venues.
"I like Mr. Sumi because he's calm and he's kind," Kira said. "He's very calm. Even if we do the slightest thing wrong, he says, 'You can try again,' and then we just try again."
"He's a really nice teacher," said Kora. "He's always nice and he's always looking forward to what we can learn … He's always there for us if we need help."
Most recently, Kira and Kora performed with Sumi at a venue in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. Both said they were a little nervous before the performance, but soon got over it and had fun playing before the crowd of about 60 people.
"Mr. Sumi helps us and his band crew helps us too," Kora said.
Brodsky said she appreciates the opportunities Sumi gives students to perform.
"This gives them experience performing in front of a larger audience [rather] than just friends and family," Brodsky said. "It also allows American students to be ambassadors in the community."
Kira and Kora said they enjoy fiddling and plan to continue with the instrument.
"It's an interesting instrument and I have a wonderful teacher who teaches it," Kora said.
Brodsky said the program welcomes new students and has loaner violins students can borrow for up to three months. After that, the program has a list of shops in the area that sell violins at a reduced price so students can have their own violin and let another new student use the loaner instrument.
Parents interested in the SKIES Unlimited program, which offers a variety of music, arts, martial arts and swimming classes for ages 6 months to 18, can call DSN (315) 262-6137 or 011-81-46-407-6137 from overseas for more information. Parents must first register their children with Child and Youth Services to enroll them in SKIES Unlimited classes.