Berry Liberman on Riley Lee
Zen and the art of Shakuhachi seem an impossible path for a Chinese-American boy born in Texas in 1951, who grew up loving Led Zeppelin and country and western music. But for Riley Lee accidental journeys are what life is all about.
As a young traveller in the 1970s, Riley found his way to Japan, an exotic, remote place at that time, still emerging from the rubble of the Second World War and steeped in tradition. One fateful day, he ambled into a music store, thinking it would be fun to buy a Shakuhachi flute. Instead of selling it to him, the man behind the counter gave him the number of the only Shakuhachi teacher with a phone.
What followed were seven years of deep and rigorous training in the traditional ways of Zen Buddhist practice. Like a young Jedi learning his craft, Riley ran barefoot in the snow, blew his flute under waterfalls and in blizzards and experienced the ancient ways of the Shakuhachi. He emerged a consummate musician able to evoke a deeply spiritual sound from a tiny piece of bamboo. Riley, however, is reluctant to take any credit for the music he makes. According to him, the music which flows from his flute is an accident of sorts. A skillful accident. The music plays him, not the other way around. There’s the breath and the sound. The flute and the audience. Riley is just the vehicle.
Riley Lee’s music was the soundtrack to the births of both my children. I’m expecting a lot: Buddha on a mountaintop, Enlightened being. As I arrive backstage at Hamer Hall, a small, shaven haired, Japanese-robe-wearing man greets me. Perfect. The first words out of his mouth are, “I need a coffee before we start”. Unexpected. Caffeine? What I find, instead of my idealistic imaginings, is a very real human being who battles with asthma, a quick temper, frustration and pain like the rest of us. He avoids answering my questions in any definitive way. As though he is not the protagonist of his own story but rather a Journeyman traveller, an observer and practitioner of breath and music, here to share some accidental magic with whomever happens to be listening.