Ken Kawashima

Sugar Brown learned about blues from its Chicago birthplace

Golden's next Summer Kicks performer learned traditional Chicago blues while playing in the clubs on the west side.

Not many people can say that they learned the history of the music they’re playing from the people who made the history. But when Ken Kawashima, also known as Sugar Brown, honed his musical skills in Chicago he was playing in the blues clubs on the west side where the music was born.

“At the time I didn’t realize how unique that was, I was just playing the harmonica for $35 a night,” said Kawashima. “But looking back, it’s like, wow.”

Kawashima might not be what you’d expect from a traditional blues musician. He is of Japanese and Korean heritage, and has a PhD in East Asian History. In fact, the other half of his dual life is teaching history at the University of Toronto.

“I really do feel like I live two lives sometimes.”

Music was a part of his life right from the start, although Kawashima says it was mostly classical music that was played in the house. The first instrument he and his sister learned was the classical piano. But at age 10 his entire world opened up.

“That was the first time I heard Cool and the Gang. I thought it was spectacular,” he said. From there every new song, new band, new genre of music, fascinated him more and more.

“I remember very clearly watching a TV commercial, and being blown away by the song it was using. So I went to the record store and asked they guy what it was, and he said, ‘oh, that’s blues.’ I told him to give me blues, and the first record he gave me was John Hammond.”

He later had the honour of being Hammond’s opening act.

Kawashima grew up in Ohio, so when he went to Chicago for university, he says it felt like moving to a foreign country. And within Chicago, his safe campus felt like an entirely different world from the one he lived in while performing in the clubs.

Chicago is also where he found a passion for East Asian history, which landed him in Toronto. And although he finds his teaching career very fulfilling, Kawashima is very excited to have the opportunity to get out on the road to tour, something he often doesn’t have time to do.

“I am so honoured to be invited out there,” he said. “I’ve never seen that part of the country, so I’m really excited.”

Even though Spirit Square in the sunshine, filled with families, is not the typical venue for traditional blues, Kawashima says it makes for a completely different, but equally exciting experience.

“The clubs in Chicago have that culture of blues music, so the crowd is dancing all over the place. It’s like there’s a certain way to act in the clubs down there,” he said. “In the clubs in Toronto, people, they still dance, but they mostly just listen.

“And an outdoor show, like what we’ll be playing there. I mean, that’s just amazing. Playing in front of that natural landscape is just a dream. I love the mountains, and I didn’t grow up with that feeling of being surrounded by them. I can’t wait.”

Sugar Brown will be performing in Spirit Square on Wednesday Aug. 17 at 7 p.m.