Far East blues: Chicago guitar hero becomes world ambassador of the blues

By Mark Guarino

From a nondescript house in a quiet Des Plaines neighborhood, Shun Kikuta can be heard playing his guitar.

Walk down the sidewalk and you can hear the music float down the driveway. On this unusually warm early fall afternoon, the front door to Kikuta’s house is propped open, his two daughters are in school, his wife is at work, and he is home alone stealing valuable practice time. The blues may be perceived as simple music, but to anyone who supports a family by playing it knows, that’s hardly the case.

Kikuta, 41, is the modern face of the blues. The oldest paradigm came from black Southerners who migrated to Northern cities to escape the hardships of the rural South. The second paradigm came by way of white British guitarists who heard the music and interpreted it with volume, technique and flash.

Kikuta is representative of the third wave: As a teenager growing up in a Tokyo suburb, he became infatuated by the British Invasion and also contemporary rock groups like Van Halen that played with a strong blues bent. He emigrated to Boston to learn how to play the music and then to Chicago to actually play it. Tokyo-Boston-Chicago: Now a typical trajectory for a style of music that has long since become global.

“He has a very complete blues knowledge. He really studied this music,” said Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records, the most famous contemporary blues label in the world. “Contrary to what people who don’t know much about blues think, there are hugely different blues styles and not all blues sound the same. There are very distinct ways of playing that fit individual songs and individual cities … (Kikuta’s) very knowledgeable of that and you can hear that in his playing.”

‘Machine’ head

As the lead guitarist in Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine over the past eight years, Kikuta has seen the world, playing major festivals, theaters and even cruise ships, from Huntsville, Ala. one weekend to Lucerne, Switzerland the next. Playing with one of blues music’s great voices and defining songwriters has advantages that are illustrated throughout Kikuta’s home. On his walls are photographs of him posed with legends like B.B. King, Otis Clay and Buddy Guy and posters advertising festivals he played all over the world, from Thailand to Switzerland.

His stature as a schooled musician who plays with originality also holds firm in his native country, where he publishes a line of guitar instructional books, releases his own CDs and endorses his own line of guitars. Crisscrossing both continents as a blues pilgrim is certainly not unusual, but for Kikuta, it is a long way from 1990 when he played for tips outside the Marshall Fields on State St. to people whose culture and language he wasn’t entirely yet familiar with. It would take perseverance and faith to break through the barriers of both.

“The Chicago blues scene is really open,” he said. “Once you can play, they’ll let you be a part of it. Of course it took time. Even though I didn’t understand what’s going on in the culture, I still could play with them and made a job. So the music came first.”

Kikuta first picked up a guitar when he was ten and living in Utsunomiya, a city located 60 miles north of Tokyo. Thanks to his father, a company president who also dabbled in classical guitar, Kikuta was encouraged to invest time with classic music, then jazz, then pop. Out of the 600 kids in his high school class, he was the only one not interested in becoming a doctor or lawyer. “I was like a black sheep,” he said.

When it came time for college, he told his parents he wanted to go to the U.S., where not only could he have a chance to learn the music he loved from the very people he listened to at home, it might be followed by a career. His mother, a high school teacher, was the most hesitant and had to be convinced. “But my passion was so strong, I could think of nothing else but playing the music,” he said.

After a year attending music school near his home, Kikuta landed in Boston to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music. He knew no English but through the support of dorm mates, he learned beginner tasks like how to open a bank account. In the beginning, he communicated mainly through playing music.

Before he graduated, Kikuta set his sights on Chicago thanks to a trip here his junior year which included an inaugural visit to Buddy Guy’s Legends, where the titled club owner happened to be headlining, and other South Side clubs. In 1989, it was still possible to go to any neighborhood club on a weeknight and hear seminal first generation figures like Jimmy Rogers, Junior Wells or Sunnyland Slim perform just feet away. Suddenly, a whole class of legendary figures was not just around, they were accessible. Kikuta thought: “Wow. This is happening.” He moved the following summer.

He ended up, like many first-time Chicagoans, in Rogers Park, just a few blocks from the Evanston border, where he rented a room from a senior citizen for $200 a month and took a job washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant in Evanston. Nights were spent at blues clubs. When the restaurant job ended, he bought a street performer license and, with a bass player he met, staked out the corner of Madison and State. The informal gig would net him, on his best day, his largest financial windfall of his musical career yet: $70.

“Seventy bucks was big money at that time. I thought, ‘I gotta keep doing that’,” he said.

The post-Christmas season was less lucrative and although he kept going for a year, the money he’d earn would mostly afford him a ride on the subway and a slice of pizza for dinner. But by then, it didn’t matter: His nightly commitments were beginning to pay off.

Hitting the stage

“What’s unusual about Shun was that he was not a passing-by person, you can tell by the type of dedication that he was going to achieve something,” said Tony Mangiullo, owner of Rosa’s Lounge, the celebrated West Side club. “First of all, he knew who to pick as a contributor to his education. That is really the key. He knew who to pick. You could tell he was studying himself to become a greater musician.”

Kikuta spent a year handing out cards and attending jam sessions that would give him the chance to play with veterans three times his age. He ended up with an offer to back up Louis Myers, the guitarist known for his work in the 1950’s as a member of the Aces, the seminal backup band for Chess veteran Little Walter.

“He didn’t like people,” Kikuta said, laughing. “When he saw me onstage, he was like, ‘man, who the hell you are?’ I was young and Asian, you know what I’m saying? Soon, as we start playing, he was yelling at me. I was so embarrassed. Then, after maybe three months, we started getting along okay. He started showing me how to play some stuff.” In retrospect, those were valuable sessions; Myers died in 1994.

Word spread and soon, Kikuta became a popular sideman, joining tours to backup major figures like Junior Wells, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Rush and others. He also kept busy recording solo albums for release exclusively in Japan on King Records, the county’s largest independent record label. He regularly asked his elders to appear on his albums, which included Koko Taylor, who in 1996, contributed vocals to two songs. She would remember Kikuta’s chops; in 1999 she hired him to join her band.

Iglauer said Kikuta is considered an asset because he is easy to work with but also because he is knowledgeable of different playing styles and of the many obscure strains of the music’s deep and disparate history. Also, unlike most musicians with college degrees, he is less reliant on technique than he is on instinct, which dictates “which notes and in which order and what emphasis do you put on them.”

“Music is always about stirring human emotions and if you can’t figure out how to stir emotions, you’re not a musician, you’re a technician,” Iglauer said.

On “Rising Shun” (Yotsuba/Beat Club), his new album available in the U.S. only through Cdbaby.com and Amazon.com, Kikuta displays a nuanced playing style, from fired-up funk riffs to a more introspective, minimal style. He also incorporates this music with his own heritage by combining guitar blues with the shamisen, a three-string traditional Japanese instrument that dates back to the 16th century.

The attention to detail is what keeps Kikuta a significant blues hero in his native country, where Chicago blues is played in shoebox-sized clubs and there remains a strong core following, enough to support a major yearly festival. Because Japanese pop stars dominate local radio, the blues is relegated to local performers who obsessively listen to and learn classic recordings and then perform them with exacting detail. Kikuta taps into that audience through the two instructional books with accompanying CDs that teaches the history of specific songs and allows local players to play along to jam sessions he recorded with local Chicago players.

His efforts make him somewhat of an ambassador of what he picked up since his earliest Chicago days. But, even during his leanest times, he insists that, “playing music is not a job.”

“Playing the guitar is my life. If you don’t play, you really get sick mentally,” he said. “You go through bad stuff, so playing guitar, you release all that emotional stress. That kept me going.”

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