Born in Papua New Guinea, Aaron Choulai resides on a different level when it comes to musical talent.
As a rapper, beat-maker, producer and classically trained pianist, Aaron has trodden a path through the genres of jazz (in all its multi-faceted sub genres like free jazz) and hip-hop; the two genres evidently existing in a gorgeous harmony perfectly exhibited in seminal albums like Guru’s Jazzmatazz vol 1,2 and 3.
Musically he has traversed the globe like some wandering ninja trying to attain the knowledge for the ultimate move. He attests that in Australia people knew about ,music and just ‘fucked’ with jazz but it was his time spent in New York where he solidified what ‘he’ wanted as an ‘artist’ due to a jazz movement that he felt was in many respects, ‘underwhelming’.
Fired by a wish to find a pure expression of his musicality, Aaron travelled to Tokyo to study and it was here that the proverbial doors were opened. Musically he found a place saturated with a history of lumineers like Mayazumi Toshio-consequently they welcomed his ideas of avant-garde jazz and improvisation.
Eight years later and fluent in the language, Aaron has become one of the central figures in the jazz and hip-hop movements of Tokyo.
Let’s get some background on you and your musical journey.
I started learning the piano when I was about 5 or 6 years old, learning the fundamentals of music and studying pretty basic classical music. I didn’t really take it seriously until I moved to Melbourne at around 14yrs old. It was mainly New Orleans style pianists that got me interested in playing music and opened up a whole new thing that could be done on the piano for me. Musicians likes Professor Longhair, Jelly Roll Morton and James Booker were my heroes when I was a kid. From there I went to a specialist music High School where I began to learn how to play jazz and from there it was wrap.
What does music mean to you and indeed what does hip-hop mean to you?
It might seem surprising to some people that I started making beats, as if all of a sudden I wanted to make Hip-hop music-it wasn’t all of a sudden, I’ve been listening to Hip-hop since I was a kid. I was raised by a black women in a poor black country during the 80’s. She wasn’t playing Frank Sinatra in the house. The music my family played in the house when I was young was varied. My mother listened to a lot of Sam Cooke and Peter Tosh but she was also listening to Public Enemy and NWA. Being young at the time, I gravitated to all the Hip-hop records she was listening to and started finding artists that I liked. During the time I was at the music high school studding jazz in the late 90s, I was still listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Common et al.
So the defining moment when you decided to make beats?
The decision to start making beats came when I moved to Tokyo. When I first got here I wasn’t playing many gigs because I didn’t know many musicians. I had come from New York where I was playing all the time so the need to make music every day was strong. I decided to get an MPC and start making music by myself. One thing led to another and nowadays I probably do that more than I play the piano in public. I still gig at least 3 -4 times a week though but I work on beats all day everyday.
How important was your period working within the improvised jazz music scene to your growth as a musician?
Most people probably don’t know what improvised music is in its truest meaning-it’s music that you just make from nothing on the spot. Freestyle rap in its truest form is improvised music but I guess the characteristics of what people would call improvised music now days is more closely related to Free Jazz or Noise music or in some cases avant-garde classical music. This for me is probably the style of music I feel most close to. The idea of being able to just make music on the spot with other musicians or on your own, excites me. While living in New York I had a chance to play a lot with people like Jim Black who seem to have an endless amount of creativity and can make music under any circumstance. Since moving to Japan I’ve found myself playing this kind of music with Tokyo based musicians like Sugawa Takashi, Yoshimoto Akihiro, Nishiguchi Akihiro and Yoshimine Yujiro. Tokyo has a great legacy of improvised music and the scene here is very strong.
Talk about the New York music scene and how (if it did) help your music.
I get asked about my time in New York a lot and I’m going to answer this honestly-I didn’t really like the Jazz scene in New York and found it underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of incredible musicians there in fact everybody is pretty much amazing but the sort of music I ended up playing a lot of while there, didn’t really speak to me. In Melbourne, where I grew up learning this music, there was a huge emphasis on doing your own thing, having your own voice-jazz was something to be fucked with, something to turn into your own, I didn’t get that same experience in New York. It seemed like there were ‘right ways’ and ‘wrong ways’ to play that music and that just didn’t sit right with me.
So from New York to Tokyo-apparently worlds apart discuss your change of environment?
I came to Tokyo to study. During the 60s, Japanese classical composers were writing incredible music. A lot of that music was tied in with concepts borrowed from musique concrète, improvised music, Cage-ian concepts of music as organised sound. Japanese composers such as Takemitsu Toru and Mayazumi Toshio were creating new music borrowing ideas from all these different forms of avant-garde music and putting it through a uniquely Japanese filter. This was something I was interested in so without knowing about Japan, its music scene or it language, I moved here in 2008 and started doing my Masters Degree in composition at the Tokyo University of Arts.
The acts I have heard from Tokyo scenes like jazz, rnb, soul to hip-hop appear to have fallen for a sound that is purer less tainted by commercialism if I am right-what’s your thoughts?
I would agree with that. The jazz scene and the hip-hop scene are pretty closely linked in Japan. I think a lot of producers think more like jazz musicians-in that they’re possibly more experimental in nature than a lot of producers I listen to from elsewhere. Also, Hip-hop isn’t as commercial here so if you take many out of the equation, all people making music in this scene are really seeking (at the end of the day) respect from other people in the community which is achieved simply by creating something unique.
So musically what are you doing-I know you have some work with UK rapper Apex (who we will feature) tell us a bit about that?
Hip-hop wise, right now I’m really just making a lot of instrumentals and trying to get better as a beat maker. I don’t like working with too many rappers but when I find someone who I think really resonates with me musically, I throw a ton of music their way and always keep them in mind when I’m working. Apex is definitely one of those dudes, he’s got his own thing going on, from his rhyme schemes, subject matter and to the beats he picks. The 2 main guys I work with a lot are Kojoe and 5lack-both are Japanese rappers, both really dope, everyone should check them out.
And apart from Apex and other rappers what else do you have?
Outside of the hip-hop stuff, I’ll be releasing an album of jazz music I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. I will also coming out on a Japanese label called Apollo Sounds sometime in April.
Name three pieces of music that would encapsulate some of the qualities of Aaron Choulai.
That’s hard… I can tell you some music that’s really influenced me over the years though-any early Duke Ellington, Morton Feldmans’ string quartets, Raw Cartoons by Flying Lotus, Any MF Doom any Madlib or J Dilla, The Live at the Plug Nickel box set front the Miles Davis Quintet, Lennie Tristano, The Keith Jarret Quartet (the American one with Dewy Redman) and also Wu Tang and Public Enemy.
The last time you heard a track which transported you to your childhood.
The new Tribe album-sounds totally current but also made me feel like I was walking to school listening to Low End Theory (1991) on my walkman.