RILEY LEE began playing the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) in Japan in 1971, studying was with Chikuho Sakai until 1980, and has been a student of Katsuya Yokoyama since 1984.He was given the rank of Dai Shihan (grand master) in 1980.
Riley was born in Plainview Texas USA in 1951, and moved to Shawnee Oklahoma USA in 1957, where, aged 13, he became the bass player of the award-winning rock band “The Workouts”. He and his family moved to Hawai’i in 1966. He first went to Japan in 1970, and returned in 1971, when he began his shakuhachi studies. He lived there continuously until 1977.
From 1973, Riley became the first non-Japanese to play taiko professionally, by touring internationally as a full-time performer of taiko (Japanese festival drums), yokobue (a high pitched bamboo transverse flute) and shakuhachi with Ondekoza (now called Kodo) a troupe of traditional Japanese musicians, performing with such groups as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and at venues such as Kennedy Center (Washington DC), Roundhouse Theatre (London), Espace Pierre Cardin (Paris), and the Boston Symphony Hall.
Riley’s studies with traditional teachers in Japan have included such peculiar methods as practicing barefoot in the snow, blowing into his flute under waterfalls and in blizzards until icicles form at its end, and running the Boston Marathon and then playing taiko drums at the finish line.
Riley first heard the shakuhachi in 1967 while attending Roosebelt High School in Honolulu Hawai’i, on an LP recording brought home by his elder brother. About the same time, his Chinese father gave him a dongxiao, a Chinese bamboo flute whose ancestry is shared with the shakuhachi, and taught him an old Chinese folksong on it.
In 1971, he made his second visit to Japan on the end of a six month, round the world backpacking journey, with no funds to make the final leg back to Hawai’i. He planned to be in Japan for three months, long enough to work for his plane fare back home. After a while, remembering his father’s bamboo flute the dongxiao, he decided to buy a shakuhachi. He went to the Hankyû Department store in Osaka, where he found instruments ranging in price from ¥10,000 to ¥50,000. They all looked like pieces of bamboo to him, so he asked the salesperson what the difference was between them.
Rather than explaining why the most expensive instrument was the best, the salesperson, an older man and himself a shakuhachi player, instead looked hard at Riley, and said that if he really wanted to know, he should go to a teacher from whom he could learn the difference. The man proceeded to look up in a telephone directory a teacher that he thought was the best in the area (and that had a telephone) and set up a lesson.
With the old man’s introduction, Riley began studying with this teacher, purchased a shakuhachi, and became ever more immersed in the music and tradition of the instrument. The three months stay in Japan eventually stretched out to seven years, the end of which the shakuhachi was the focal point of Riley’s working life.