Always good to own up to your idiocy. Or ignorance.
It helps clear the air, start things fresh.
Which is why it’s necessary to begin an interview with Dr. Ken Kawashima by apologizing.
See, the thing is, when asking for a contact for Canadian bluesman Sugar Brown, who is the one of the main headliners at this year’s Calgary International Blues Festival, taking place until Aug. 6, it was Kawashima’s name and email info that was provided.
Now, even a cursory knowledge of Sugar Brown would have revealed they are, in fact, one in the same. But, well, derp.
So an email exchange with Dr. Kawashima to set up an interview with Sugar Brown was embarked upon, with the former representing the latter and facilitating a conversation at a later date — the preceding research to prepare for the chat with Sugar Brown then necessitating that aforementioned apology to both.
“I also sometimes refer to myself in the third position, which is a bizarre thing but it can be useful sometimes,” the now T.O.-based artist says and laughs again.
“So I apologize, I might have also been part of a larger deception there.”
Sugar Brown is, naturally, his “blues name,” one that he’s made known thanks to a pair of albums — 2014’s Sugar Brown’s Sad Day and the next year’s Poor Lazarus — and a fiery style and soulful wail that have earned him acclaim.
As for the moniker, that was bestowed upon him in the early ’90s by (in)famous Chicago blues musician Tail Dragger Jones, “who played with Howlin’ Wolf and all the old masters.”
The Ohio-raised Kawashima, at that time an undergrad, was teaching himself the harmonica, learning by listening to the music of Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers.
He was also friends with two members in a band on the north side of Chicago called the Ice Cream Men, which Jones would often perform with.
One night while he was in the audience, they asked Kawashima to sit in with them. Obliging, Jones then asked him if he knew how to play Baby Please Don’t Go, which he did.
On the strength of that night and his skills, the elder bluesman asked him to join his band The La-Z Boys to play every Wednesday at Chicago’s famed 5105 Club — giving the Korean-Japanese-American Kawashima his new name name after saying: “You ain’t black, and you sure ain’t white — you’re Sugar Brown.”
That band, which featured guitarist and friend Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, who will also be performing at this year’s Calgary blues fest with Kawashima, cemented his love of the electric blues.
“It was the biggest sound you’d ever heard,” he says. “It was a like a train going through your living room.
“After that you can’t really be the same, you really can’t. Unless you deliberately walk away from it and say, ‘No more.’ And really put your foot down.
“If it gets you, it’ll get you — the blues, will do that.”
Kawashima played in that band for a couple of years “before the shit the fan,” he says laughing at the understatement.
That was, in possibly the most bluesiest story other than one involving crossroads, Tail Dragger’s imprisonment for second-degree murder, after he shot fellow bluesman Boston Blackie in an argument over money.
Following that, Kawashima left Chicago and pursued a PhD in modern Japanese history at New York University, later taking a job in 2002 at the University of Toronto, where he’s now the Associate Professor of East Asian Studies.
He continued, though, following and exploring his love of the blues — specifically in North Mississippi, Chicago and Texas styles — eventually also teaching himself how to play the guitar out of what he calls “pragmatic necessity.”
“As I left Chicago I was looking always for guitar players who would understand how to play blues guitar for the harmonica — and that’s a fucking challenge, I tell you,” he laughs.
“Because all the blues guys they want to sound like B.B. King and start wanking off on the high end, and you just want them to lay it down for harmonica.
“So I had to play guitar myself to teach these people what to do.”
In fact, Kawashima admits that he began to love the blues guitar so much, that he began to stray from his first love of the harmonica, only now really beginning to synthesize the two more properly thanks, in part, to some technical advancements in rack designs that make it much more comfortable to play the two.
Calgary blues lovers will get a healthy dose of Kawishima and Sugar Brown in various forms this week, as he’ll be pulling quadruple duty at this year’s blues fest.
The first is performing the free Blues at Noon concert Wednesday at the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer (218 7 Ave. S.E.); later that night sitting in with the A Walk Through Blues History talk — also free — with local musician and historian John Rutherford at the King Eddy in Studio Bell; and then he’ll perform Sunday afternoon on the Mainstage at Shaw Millennium Park before wrapping things up with another ticketed event, as part of the Twilight Blues Series at the Kerby Centre (1133 7 Ave. S.W.).
Again, organizers are getting their money’s worth from the artist.
“I’m excited, I’m happy to do it,” he says, noting that a clincher was conversations he had with festival director Cindy McLeod and her obvious love of the blues. “I appreciated her enthusiasm and her appreciation of my music.”
And presumably also for the fact that she knew exactly who she was talking to.
Sugar Brown performs during the Calgary International Blues Festival, which runs until Sunday at various locations around town. For more information, please visit their website.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com.