Sara Kohno unites musical traditions in perfect harmony

The Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association welcomed Sara Kohno to their community jam session in 2008, sparking her interest in the genre and kicking off a career in the style of music. Photo By: Dave Golden
The Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association welcomed Sara Kohno to their community jam session in 2008, sparking her interest in the genre and kicking off a career in the style of music. Photo By: Dave Golden
The Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association welcomed Sara Kohno to their community jam session in 2008, sparking her interest in the genre and kicking off a career in the style of music. Photo By: Dave Golden

When one thinks of Japanese culture and music, bluegrass wouldn’t be what normally comes to mind. For Sara Kohno, however, those two blend together perfectly. Sara Kohno, who performed at the Crafted Kup on Wednesday, Feb. 25 with her band, Pirates Canoe, had her first taste of bluegrass music in Poughkeepsie with the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association (HVBA).

The HVBA, which was founded in 1994 by Jeff Anzevino, has a large following not only in the Hudson Valley area, but across the country and even the world. Program director of HVBA educational and concert events, Lynn Lipton, recalled the genesis of the association. She said, “[Anzevino] decided to gather together some people who loved bluegrass music–to get us all together. And he did that… And the organization over the years has grown substantially. We’re now…approximately 300 members spread out over the Mid-Hudson area who either play bluegrass or absolutely love it and want to follow what’s going on.”

As an integral part of the networking for HVBA and an instrumental part of HVBA’s expansion, Lipton helped grow the Association’s online presence.

“One of the things we did in 2007 was we went digital. We started a website…which now has people all over the world on this website. We get notes from Germany, Sweden, Japan. It’s become a really important website in the bluegrass community and our organization has grown to the point where…our mission is to really educate the public and…spread the word about bluegrass music,” said Lipton.

She continued, “In keeping with our mission, we have given courses in local high schools, we’ve given programs to senior citizens…we have a YouTube channel which has two courses on the evolution of bluegrass.”

President of the HVBA, David Angell, spoke about his experience with the association and how it has transformed since he initially joined. He said, “I’ve been a member since somewhere like 1997 or ‘98. I am the president right now, and this is my second two-year term and this is my last year of it. So that means I’ve been the president for 3 years and 2 months. And we have grown from our early days.”

While Angell credits the Association’s online growth to Lipton and nodded to what she has done to expand their reach, he has also had an important role in expanding other aspects of the organization. Angell commented, “If there’s anything perhaps that I might have personally done that’s been positive, [it] has been to try to take the business end of the Association and formalize some of the procedures in terms of making sure that we keep up with our taxes, our tax exempt status, making sure that during meetings all the voices are heard, making sure that before we go forward on anything that we really all want to do that.”

As a strong organization with more range and support than when they began, the HVBA is now able to host bands more frequently. This is where Sara Kohno and her band come in.

Lipton remembered Kohno’s first experience with the HVBA. She said, “In 2008 we were having one of our community open jams down at…a marina down on the river called the Pirate Canoe Club…One summer night a young woman walked in. She was Japanese, she came in with a mandolin. She spoke virtually no English, a few words. She had never played bluegrass before…we looked at her, ‘do you want to take a turn?’”

Lipton continued, “Bluegrass music is about not just playing together but allowing the individual to shine. So the most amazing thing happened, we expected her to fumble around and maybe say ‘Oh, never mind,’ but she played the most amazing break that I have heard and she continued to do that throughout the evening. She was just incredible.”

Although the night that Kohno showed up to the jam was her introduction into the HVBA, Anzevino had connections with her before that. “I met Sara through my friend Youko Yammamoto. Youko is the brains behind Gomen Kudasai, an amazing Japanese noodle house in New Paltz. Youko is Sara’s mom’s friend and Sara, who I understood played mandolin, was coming from Japan to visit America,” he said.

Anzevino continued, “She joined us at the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association jams–then held at the Pirate Canoe Club. She was so moved by everyone’s openness and he[r] experiences at our jams, when she returned to Japan she named her band Pirates Canoe,” he said

Angell also witnessed her musical skills at the Pirate Canoe Club, and spoke to her ability as a beginner. “You know how a person learns somebody else’s language and they can speak it, but it isn’t until they start speaking slang that you think they actually understand your language, [when] they can use phrases and slang and urban dialects and actually fit it in appropriately. And that was the most surprising thing about Sara,” said Angell,

“I was just totally blown away because not only did she play a melody along with [us], but then when she took her turn to improvise, she was throwing in blue notes and doing these arpeggios that were tastefully done. And that was to me like, ‘Woah!’ This girl can’t speak a word of English but she can talk to us musically.”

After this inaugural experience in Hudson Valley’s world of bluegrass music, Kohno remained involved in the HVBA for the rest of her time in the United States, forging relationships with many members of the HVBA.

Lipton reflected on the time she spent with Kohno while she worked in the Hudson Valley, saying, “My husband and I invited her to go with us to a bluegrass festival two weeks after meeting her and…We became really good friends. She was only here for three months to see the country and she was working in New Paltz.”

Anzevino also fondly remembered a special moment he was able to share with Kohno, furthering Angell’s point about connecting through music. “I’ll never forget the time we walked across the Walkway and down through Poughkeepsie and past the train station. There, a young woman was skipping quite happily along. Sara was surprised as she’d never seen anyone skip before. I explained to about skipping and sung her that old chestnut, ‘Skip to My Lou..’ When we got instruments out and began to play, I showed her the song and she ripped off a totally bluegrass infused improvisation,” said Anzevino.

After three months, Kohno went back to Japan, but she kept bluegrass music and the Hudson Valley with her when she left. Lipton said, “After she got back to [Japan], she put out a record that had a song on it called Pirate’s Canoe. It was sweet. Then she got another record contract and she started her own band and called it Pirates Canoe, which touches my heart because it meant that Hudson Valley and that visit meant so much to her in terms of her own musical growth.”

Although Kohno’s performance at the Crafted Kup has passed, there are still two more opportunities to see her band perform in the Hudson Valley area (Gomen Kudasai in New Paltz, and the Falcon in Marlboro) and two in New York City (The Bitter End in Greenwich Village and Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn). Anzevino noted other stops on their tour in the United States, “She’s in America with her band to play at SxSW in Austin, Texas. Before that, though, Pirates Canoe is touring: in Brooklyn, Ashville, NC, Madison and Milwaukee, WS and Hudson Valley.”

Pirates Canoe describes their unique sound on the poster for their tour. It reads, “Americana music from Japan. You have to hear it to believe it.” Anzevino, who plays the Dobro, a resonator guitar, shared his own attempt to describe Kohno and her band, “To try to define Sara’s music would be to do her an injustice. Sara loves bluegrass but has really spread her wings and expanded her style. Perhaps one might start describing Sara’s music as a form of Pan Pacific–with roots in Appalachian, folk, rock and, obviously Japanese influence.”

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