Riley Lee

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.

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In 1976, while on tour in Europe with Ondekoza, Riley met Patricia, who was at that time living in Paris. Patricia returned with Riley to Sado Island, and they left the group in 1977, while on tour in the USA. They were married that year. Patricia is Riley’s primary inspiration, and critic, and has worked full time as his manager / agent since 1992.

After returning to Honolulu with Patricia in 1978, he began teaching privately and performing. He founded the Chikuho School of Shakuhachi of Hawaii. He was a lecturer of the shakuhachi at the University of Hawai’i until leaving for Australia in 1986 to take up a PhD fellowship at the University of Sydney.

Patricia and Riley’s twin daughters, Aiyana and Marieke, were born in 1979 in Kahuku, on the North Shore of Oahu.

Riley completed his BA and MA degrees in music at the University of Hawai’i, and received his PhD degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Sydney. His PhD dissertation topic was on the Zen repertoire of the shakuhachi. He was an East-West Center grantee in 1985-1986 and a Japan Foundation fellow in 1988-1989. He was made Honourary Fellow of the University of Western Sydney in 1997.

He has published scholarly articles and book reviews in leading national and international musicology journals, such as Ethnomusicology and Asian Music. He has translated for journals such as Contemporary Music Review. His PhD dissertation, on the transmission of the Zen repertoire of the shakuhachi, (completed in 1993) is published by UMI (USA).

He has been instrumental in creating a professional presence of traditional Japanese music in Australia. He has introduced the shakuhachi to a diverse audience as both a soloist and with other performers of such instruments as harp, cello, saxophone, tabla, guitar, didjeridu, and symphony orchestra. He and Patricia founded the Australian Shakuhachi Society in 1996. His request in 1988 to the Sawai Koto School in Japan that a koto player be sent to Australia facilitated the immigration to Australia of talented Satsuki Odamura.

In 1995, he also co-founded with Ian Cleworth, Australia’s dynamic Japanese festival drum group, TaikOz. It has since become one of Australia’s premier performance groups, acclaimed both at home and in Japan, performing with the Bell Shakespeare Theatre, in the production Kaidan (Ghost Stories) choreographed by Meryl Tankard and in Chi Udaka, a collaboration with Lingalayam, the Australian-based South Indian Dance troupe directed by Anandavalli.

Riley, together with composer/musician Michael Askill, performed with the Sydney Dance Company in the 1999 Australian season of Graham Murphy’s Air and Other Invisible Forces, touring USA at the end of 2000 and Europe in 2001 with this production.

He has made over sixty commercially released recordings since 1980, which are sold worldwide on a number of labels, most recently with the Colorado-based label, Sounds True.

On January 1 2000, Riley was seen, with five other musicians, on an internationally televised programme, ushering in the new millennium on New Year’s morning at dawn, from the top of the ‘sails’ of the majestic Sydney Opera House – an auspicious start for the next 1000 years for shakuhachi enthusiasts worldwide.

In 2002 and 2003, Riley performed in Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas, California, England, Austria, Switzerland, and Japan, and gave numerous concerts throughout Australia, as well as in the Woodford and National Folk Festivals, Adelaide Festival, and the Sacred Music Festival in Brisbane.

In 2003, he was made Visiting Fellow at Princeton University, New Jersey, the first shakuhachi player ever to be so honored. He was given a second Fellowship at Princeton, lecturing in the Comparative Literature Department during the spring semester (Feb-June) 2009. He returned again in 2011, working with graduate composition students, and performing in Barbara White’s acclaimed opera, Weakness.

Riley was the Artistic Director and Chair of the Executive Committee of the World Shakuhachi Festival 2008, a four day event held in Sydney 4-8 July 2008, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and in the City Recital Hall at Angel Place. Seventy of the world’s leading shakuhachi players attended as invited performers. They were joined by 400 shakuhachi enthusiasts, participating in thirty concerts, workshops, forums, seminars and other Festival events.

Riley started teaching breathing workshops in the late 1980s, at the suggestion of one of his students, well-known Sydney acupuncturist Ross Penman. Riley has since refined and expanded his repertoire of exercises, gleaned from a number of sources and from his long and focused relationship with shakuhachi. The exercises are designed to create an awareness of one’s breath while at the same time, improving the strength and control of the muscles used in breathing. His workshops last from one to six hours, and single sessions have been attended by as many as two thousand people.

Riley lives with Patricia in beautiful Manly NSW Australia, facing both the Tasman Sea and Sydney Harbour.

First Encounter

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.