about Riley Lee
Though I was born in Texas, I don’t remember much of my birthplace. Our family moved to Oklahoma when I was six. The Midwest in the 1950s was a wonderful place for a young boy. We moved to Hawai’i when I was 14. Honolulu in the 1960s was also a wonderful place, especially for a teenager.
I began playing shakuhachi in Japan in 1971.
My primary teacher was Katsuya Yokoyama. A very wise and generous man, Yokoyama sensei seemed to be able to maintain the perfect balance between being always ready to laugh yet always serious, extremely kind yet ever so strict. Sadly, he died in 2010.
I became the first non-Japanese professional taiko player in the early 1970s, as a founding member of Sado no Kuni Ondekoza (now Kodo). Riley toured internationally with Ondekoza as a full-time performer of taiko (Japanese festival drums), yokobue (a high pitched bamboo transverse flute) and shakuhachi, 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.
My 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.
In 1980, I also became the first non-Japanese shakuhachi Grand Master (dai shihan). Again, I didn’t realise that this was another ‘first’ at the time. I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, and to have the right inclination to practice what seemed like all day every day for years.
I have a PhD (ethnomusicology) from Sydney University and an MA from University of Hawai’i. Together, these two degrees took me ten years to complete, one year more than what the dai shihan ‘degree’ took.
A few years ago, I created and taught a semester-long course at Princeton University on the mind, memory, meditation and mindfulness and music, based on the latest research in cognitive science. I’m fairly certain that I learned more from the experience than the students.
So far, I’ve made more than 70 recordings, of music from many genres of music. My first album, in 1980, was on vinyl, because CDs weren’t invented yet. It’s still available on the Smithsonian-Folkways label. More recordings are in the works. In fact, three albums of Hildegard music will be released soon.
Many of my traditional shakuhachi recordings aren’t featured on this site. The music that you will find here has been chosen very carefully to fit the themes of this site.
At present, my wife Patricia and I live in Manly NSW Australia, another wonderful place to be, especially right now for me.