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A card-carrying regular guy

by Steve McClure

One interesting aspect of Japanese meishi (name-card) etiquette is that entertainers never give them out. It took me a while to figure out that one. Several interviews with musicians I thought had begun inauspiciously when I handed the artist my meishi only to receive nothing in return.

What am I, chopped liver? I thought in my paranoid way, until I understood that for celebrities, their face is their calling card. Meishi are for the hoi polloi.

So when I met famed New Age musician Kitaro for an interview the other day, I was surprised to be presented with his name card. It described him as a member of the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment, which is comprised of parliamentarians from around the world who are trying to foster international cooperation on global environmental issues.

What, I asked Kitaro, have you become a politician?

“No, no,” he assured me, quickly breaking into a grin that belied his solemn New Age-cosmic-guru image. “I’m the only musician who’s a member of this organization.”

Having such an internationally well-known, Grammy-winning musician as Kitaro on your roster is quite a coup for an organization like GLOBE. And there’s no mistaking Kitaro’s genuine passion when it comes to environmental issues. One pet subject, for example, are the ecological virtues of traditional Japanese houses: “They suit the environment,” Kitaro says. “They’re made only of bamboo, wood and paper.”

Where Kitaro lives also tells you a lot about his need to be close to nature. He divides his time between a house 3,000 meters up in the Rockies near Boulder, Colo., and a 200-year-old farmhouse near Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, that’s 1,200 meters above sea level.

“That’s how I stay high,” he jokes.

Kitaro is probably best-known as a keyboardist, although his first instrument was the guitar. He later switched to bass and then to keyboards when he joined the Far East Family Band in the ’70s.

After going solo, he became a household name when he composed the soundtrack to NHK’s very popular “Silk Road” documentary series in the early ’80s. Word about the synthesizer whiz spread to the States, and in 1985 Geffen Records started releasing compilations of his work.

Since then, Kitaro has become one of the few Japanese musicians to achieve consistent success overseas. His many career highlights include scoring the music for the Oliver Stone film “Heaven and Earth,” for which he received a Golden Globe Award. Then, in 2001, he received a Grammy Award in the Best New Age Album category for “Thinking of You.”

As well as in Japan and North America, Kitaro’s music has also proved popular in Asia, although his hippie-ish appearance hasn’t always endeared him to the authorities in some parts of the region.

“Ten or so years ago I was refused entry to Singapore because of my long hair,” he recalls. “There was a barber shop next to the immigration desk and the guy motioned for me to go in there and have my hair cut. I refused, and so the concert was canceled.

“Recently I went to Singapore again, and I was worried that they would do the same thing again,” he continues. “While they were looking at my passport at the immigration counter, all these officers came over holding pieces of paper. I was worried — but they just wanted my autograph! So I was allowed into the country with no problem.”

Kitaro’s latest project is one that’s very much in tune with his cosmic sensibilities. On July 24 and 25, he’s playing a “full-moon” concert at Honmonji Temple in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. “When we play music under the full moon, we can feel the energy,” Kitaro notes. “And a temple has a special kind of energy.”

He’s also planning a series of concerts in China this year at various cities along the ancient Silk Road as part of the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between mainland China and Japan.

The interview over — and meishi long ago exchanged — we say our goodbyes and Kitaro gives me a hearty handshake. His music, with its highly developed sense of drama, may verge on the bombastic at times, but the man himself is pretty down-to-earth.