Meet Yoshihiro Harada - Explorer,  Pioneer, Panist, Composer, Arranger, Educator, Recording Artist and Band leader - UpClose!

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

On why has the pan risen with such great popularity in Japan, Yoshihiro Harada says:

“The first reason is the charming sound of the instrument. It is a very fresh sound in Japan. The second reason is that we can practice and play with many people. Professionals and beginners can play together. I think these are common reasons. Also - and this is interesting - sometimes with elderly Japanese people the soft sound of a pan can evoke memories and draw them to tears. I can understand that feeling.”

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Yoshihiro Harada heard and fell in love with the sound of the steelpan in the late 80s. That was all it took. For the rest of his life Harada and the steelpan would have an inseparable love affair.

He is one who believes in the power of the human spirit, an intellect, a musician, a composer and an arranger - and much more. Indeed, the name Yoshihiro Harada will ring large to you as one of the corner stones of Pan in Japan. And he is the founder and arranger of the highly respected Panorama Steel Orchestra of Japan.

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, the ultra-talented Yoshihiro Harada shares his significant and considerable history with Pan in Japan and more.

WST - “Who is Yoshihiro Harada? Tell us about yourself.”

Yoshihiro H. - “I am a human being living on the earth. I play steelpan. I am an artist and a composer, a musician and a person believing in hope.”

Yoshihiro Harada
Yoshihiro Harada

WST - “How did you first come in contact with Pan?”

Yoshihiro H. - “In the song called “Palladium” by the band Weather Report, I was shocked by the pan of Jaco Pastorius. Later in 1988 I heard the sound of the actual steelpan in New York for the first time.”

WST - “What drew you to the instrument and art form?”

Yoshihiro H. - “I was attracted by the clear, warm, and sweet sound of steelpan. And I felt a big opportunity to make use of it in my own music. At that time I had no knowledge of Trinidad and I did not even know large steel orchestras existed.”

Panorama Steel Orchestra of Japan
Panorama Steel Orchestra of Japan

WST - “You were the first Japanese to ever play in a local Trinidad and Tobago steelband. What band was that? And how was that experience?”

Yoshihiro H. - “It was PAMBERI. When they came to Japan I talked about wanting to play in Trinidad. After that, I joined PAMBERI and I played pan with 100 people for the first time. It was a wonderful sound that I had never heard in the past, and the experience was interesting and exciting since not much was known in Japan about Trini culture.”

Yoshihiro Harada
Yoshihiro Harada

WST - “How does your family view your love for, and involvement with, steelband - and do any of your family members play?”

Yoshihiro H. - “My family looks at it very favorably. They do not play.”

WST - “Who are your musical influences?”

Yoshihiro H. - “Boogsie” Sharpe! Toninho Horta, Enrico Rava, Pat Metheny, Scriabin, Milton Nascimento, Ahmad Jamal… too many musicians - I can’t write all. My roots are definitely in church music.”

WST - “The steelpan instrument has taken hold and grown in popularity in Japan. What has been the major cause of this?”

Yoshihiro H. - “The first reason is the charming sound of the instrument. It is a very fresh sound in Japan. The second reason is that we can practice and play with many people. Professionals and beginners can play together. I think these are common reasons. Also - and this is interesting - sometimes with elderly Japanese people the soft sound of a pan can evoke memories and draw them to tears. I can understand that feeling.”

WST - “You are also the founder and arranger for Panorama Steel Orchestra, considered by many to be the best steel orchestra in Japan. What was your objective when you put this orchestra together?”

Yoshihiro H. - “There are two main objectives. One thing is to make original steel pan music originating from Japan. Steel pan is of course Trinidad’s instrument, but I think that the music will be rejuvenated by spreading across the whole world. The second is to make every single person happy by playing pan.”

WST - “How did the name of your orchestra come about?”

Yoshihiro H. - “It is “PANORAMA” of Trinidad! I wanted to capture that enthusiasm and the great love of the people.”

WST - “How many musicians are in Panorama Steel Orchestra, and how has it grown over the years?”

Yoshihiro H. - “There are about 45 performers. Membership goes up and down. For a while in the past there were only three people including me! Since it was formed in 1998, it has now been 21 years.”

WST - “Where do your instruments come from, and who is your tuner?”

Yoshihiro H. - “I mainly play tenor and double seconds. I like Roland Harrigin’s instruments. I also like Herman “Guppy” Brown’s tenor. When the pans needed tuning in Japan, Ryo Sonobe was tuning. But now he has stopped tuning. “Guppy” passed away. It’s unfortunate.”

WST - “You yourself are a pan manufacturer and tuner - how did you learn the craft, from whom, and how long have you been engaged in this?”

Yoshihiro H. - “Thank you. But I am not a tuner, I can just repair a slightly broken sound. I’ve observed the tuning methods of “Birch” Kelman, Roland Harrigin, Mario, Chris Wabich, Ryo Sonobe. I mimicked them and learned a little.”

WST - “Talk about the repertoire of Panorama Steel Orchestra?”

Yoshihiro H. - “The repertoire of the orchestra is mostly my original music. I wrote about 50 songs. Other than that I arrange hit soca tunes, calypso, pop, standards... Also, I arrange Japanese folk songs. Those are great sounds.”

WST - “Tell us about “Pan Cake”?”

Yoshihiro H. - “Pan Cake is my own trio that began in 1995. It is instrumental combo of pan and accordion and guitar. I aimed to create a personal style that is different from Trinidad’s musical geniuses. It is all about the joy of conversation and harmony between different instruments. At that time, I was particularly heavily influenced by Brazilian music. It is Pan Cake that pursued the “taste” of the pan music.”

WST - “Is Pan Cake the first Japanese recording artist pan CD ever?”

Yoshihiro H. - “Not exactly... Yann Tomita’s CD (1994) came first. Pan Cake is the first in Japan to use pan freely for improvisation though. Pan Cake’s music was used frequently on television and became famous.”

WST - “You are a composer - talk about your various inspirations.”

Yoshihiro H. - “That’s a difficult question, because everything is an inspiration. The best inspiration is the music of others who came before. The sound is in our atmosphere, and I’m compelled to capture it. It may be a memory or come from my own imagination. I may get ideas from novels or myths, and sometimes I draw from visuals or emotions in movies. Also, I may take a short musical phrase and rework it into completely different music. I see the color of flowers and nature. I like to see its beauties and the perfect law. Harmony also has colors. The human heart also has color. I imagine music that suits various human emotions. By imagining the things we have not experienced, we can also share the same feeling. All such feelings are inspiration. My composition is the work of spending time in imagination.”

WST - “You wear many hats - you are a performing artist, educator, arranger, composer and more - which do you prefer? And how do they complement each other?”

Yoshihiro H. - “This is also a difficult question, but if you are asking me what I like, I like solo improvisation most and I enjoy it. Of course I have always composed... and my arranging is very similar to composition. Also, although I am still immature as an educator, I am still making songs for children. So all my music activities may be connected by composition and complement each other.”

WST - “You’ve released over 16 solo albums to date. What inspires you as a recording and performing artist?”

Yoshihiro H. - “I adore the musical geniuses of the world, and I aspire to join their ranks. I have a feeling of chasing after them. Also, when I was a child my body was weak and half the time I didn’t go to school. This is a big memory. I became an adult and I have been fine for 20 years but now I am fighting serious diseases again. The reason for creating music may be the human desire to want to live.”

WST - “In 2015 Panorama Steel Orchestra participated in the International Panorama (ICP) in Trinidad. How did that come about, and describe that experience for you and your players?”

Yoshihiro H. - “Firstly, in 2013, Pan Trinbago contacted me. I had not been to Trinidad since 1998. The reason was [to focus more on and] pursue my own music. But since many years had passed, I was ready to return, so I decided to participate. But participating in ICP was a big challenge. For 60 people from Japan to go to the other side of the earth, the problem is money. There was no choice but to win a prize in order to pull it off.

“However, members of Panorama Steel Orchestra also included beginners, so we needed music that we could manage... So I composed and arranged. The members of Panorama Steel Orchestra and I had the best experience in Trinidad. I met a lot of people at Pan-Demonium’s panyard (and also had some battles). Rehearsing in the Savannah was like “Panorama”... and then in the blink of an eye the performance was done. After our time on stage was over I ran through the city at night and returned to the panyard and I heard the results at the Grand Stand. For a Japanese man who had visited a long time ago, to return to Trinidad after 17 years with his own band from far-away Japan, and line up with artists from around the globe – it wasn’t just a celebration, it was a miracle to us!

“The experience of preparing only one song for a long time and perfecting it was a wonderful experience for the performers. Also for me, having a winning song for the first time was exciting. By having our music accepted by many people, we understand the history and depth of pan music in Trinidad.”

WST - “What is the biggest challenge facing pan in Japan?”

Yoshihiro H. - “There are two big challenges. One is to make Japanese pan music. Everyone is willing and stepping up to this challenge. The other big challenge is to allow anyone to play the pan and make it a more popular instrument. For that, it is necessary to make sure that the pan does not cost too much money. This is a big issue. The fact that tuners do not live in Japan is one of the big reasons that we need a lot of money to play pan.”

WST - “If you could change one thing about the art form, what would it be?”

Yoshihiro H. - “Actually, I can’t understand the exact meaning of “art form,” but it is important that music has freedom. Music is always changing naturally, and I think there is no need to consciously alter anything. Separately, there may be something about the institution and framework of steelpan music, but I have never concerned myself with that kind of thing.”

WST - “What has disappointed you the most in the steelband artform?”

Yoshihiro H. - “The art form called steel band is a place open to anyone. It is not a closed safe world of professional music alone. This is wonderful, but as various people are around, you need to be careful. Although I just wanted to do music, I was about to get caught up in the crimes of people close to the band. Recently, my precious musical sister Asami Nagakiya was killed. Crime exists everywhere in the world, but it is very disappointing.”

WST - “What are you most proud of in your Pan experience thus far?”

Yoshihiro H. - “My proudest moment of course is ICP in 2015. Another thing that I can boast is that I made 5,000 people enthusiastic about Japan’s biggest Fuji Rock music festival. I feel happiness when my music is reaching someone’s heart and soul. All experience is because there was steel pan in this world. Thank you.”

More on Yoshihiro Harada

Panorama Steel Orchestra of Japan, rehearses on the “Drag,” moments before they graced the Queen’s Park Savannah stage at the International Panorama Competition, Port-of-Spain, August 9th 2015. They are seen here playing “Dance Of The Phoenix”, arranged by the multi-talented Yoshihiro Harada

Panorama Steel Orchestra of Japan, Panorama Steel Orchestra &  BLOCO BARRAVENTO --  “Tabby” by Yoshihiro Harada

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