In Conversation with Musician Aaron Choulai

    We’re delighted to welcome one of Japan’s most exciting hip-hop duos, Aaron Choulai x Daichi Yamamoto, to our Open Spaces festival on Sunday 18 November.

    Classically trained by some of the best jazz pianists in the world, Aaron Choulai’s path to becoming one of Japan’s most sought after hip-hop producers is not what you might expect. We chat with Aaron about his eclectic background, his collaboration with Daichi Yamamoto, and the influences that collide in their beat-making.

    You’re a trained jazz and blues pianist turned hip-hop producer and beat maker. Can you tell us about your musical background and your journey to become one of Japan’s most respected hip-hop musicians? 

    As a 14 year old, I was lucky enough to be accepted into the VCA high school, a school for gifted musicians. I got a very thorough education in classical music and improvisation there, studying piano with some of the greatest jazz pianists in the world: people like Paul Grabowsky, Andrea Keller and Tim Stevens. Like I said, I was really lucky.

    I found myself being asked to do gigs with a lot of rhythm and blues bands in Melbourne like Blues Before Sunrise, The Swinging Sidewalks and The Dancehall Racketeers. I think the duality of living in contrasting musical worlds on a daily basis at a young age taught me a set of skills that would help me through a career in music as an adult. 

    After high school I continued to study at the college of arts, almost exclusively playing jazz gigs and getting deeper into composition. This led to a couple of years living in New York, recording and touring around America and Europe, and eventually coming back to Australia to write commissioned works for festivals.

    By this time I was 25 years old and completely burnt out. I wanted some time to input instead of constantly output, so I decided to move to Japan – a place where I didn’t know anybody, couldn’t speak the language and had no real plan. I did my masters at the Tokyo University of the Arts, and it was around this time while studying Japanese aesthetics in classical composition from the 1960s, I decided to buy an MPC (Music Production Controller). 

    It might seem like a weird move for someone with my musical background to start making beats and moving towards hip-hop, but it’s not if you know me. I grew up in Port Moresby, a poor and black city, and was raised by a black mother during the 1980s. She wasn’t playing Keith Jarret in the house, it was always Public Enemy and NWA. Hip-hop has been part of my life every single day for as long as I can remember. Being in Tokyo and stepping away from what I had been doing gave me space and time to try something I’ve always wanted to do, which is make beats. From there, one thing led to another and now making beats is a huge part of what I do, and what most people know me for in Japan. 

    Can you tell us a little about your collaboration with Daichi Yamamoto? How long have you been making music together?

    Daichi and I have been working together for a little over a year.  He lives in Kyoto and I live in Tokyo, so we mostly worked over the internet to make our new album, ‘Window’. We have a lot of things in common which makes it easy to be on the same page musically. For one, amongst our peers in the Japanese hip-hop scene, we are definitely the arty kids at the lunch table. Also, Daichi is half Japanese and half Jamaican, but grew up in Japan. He identifies with Japanese culture a lot but doesn’t necessarily look Japanese. I’m half Papuan and half Australian, I grew up in both countries and I definitely don’t look like the rest of my family because I’m an albino.

    I guess I’m saying we’re both used to not fitting in, both used to not looking like what we identify ourselves as racially, culturally or whatever it is…not that we care. I personally identify with being a musician more than any race, but it is something that not too many people understand, so we get to bond over that. I think you can hear this in our music…I’m not sure how exactly, but it’s there.

    You’ve been living in Tokyo for over a decade. How has the Tokyo music scene influenced your work?

    When it comes to beat making, Tokyo is really one of the creative centres. Deep waters. All my favorite beat makers are Japanese or live in Japan. I see what I do as being an extension of what everyone around me is doing in Japan. I’m just one part of a giant community that’s trying to do something new, and something original. Tokyo has influenced me hugely; if you know anything about the Japan beat scene then you’ll be able to identify the influence of Olive Oil, Budamunk, Bun, Fitz Ambrose, Illsugi, Aru 2 and everybody else around me, in my music. From sample choice, to tempo, to drum placement, to quirky background sounds – it’s all stuff I’ve picked up from my friends and peers.

    You will be performing with Daichi at Open Spaces on 17 & 18 November. What are you most looking forward to about the event?

    Performing. Getting a chance to do what we do in Japan for an Australian audience. I’m curious to see how people will react to us – it’s a little different, but I know Melbournians have a sophisticated ear and I’m excited to see how they react to bilingual rapping and complex beats. It’ll also be awesome to see the other acts and check out what everyone has been up to while I’ve been away.

    What’s in the future for you and Daichi?

    The past six months have been really hectic promoting our album, so when we head back to Japan we’ll both do some work on our solo projects for a bit. Daichi is working on his debut solo album, and while I’m out here in Melbourne, I’ll be recording a new album that will be a mix of live instruments and programed music.

    I’ll also be back in February with another rapper from Tokyo called Kojoe. We will be performing a new composition I have written for the Australian Art Orchestra called ‘Umi No Uzu’. It’s a work featuring some of the most creative improvisers in Australia, a koto player from Tokyo called Miyama Mcqueen Tokita, and Kojoe rapping about the Shinto origin story about the birth of the island of Japan. Should be fun. 

    Don't miss Aaron Choulai x Daichi Yamamoto at Open Spaces on Sunday 18 November. Check out their new album ‘Window’ on iTunes.

    Peep the full lineup of musicians at our two Open Spaces stages over one big weekend on 17 & 18 November.