We first spotted him on a chilly February day in 2014, as he was playing on a corner in Shimokitazawa where a ragtag cast of street musicians gather day after day. Noticeable from inside the station gates but difficult to put a finger on, the sound – and the instrument omitting it – remained a mystery even as we went to observe him up close. When queried, he filled us in on his ‘disposable chopstick piano’, an original creation combining high-flying tunes with a small but fully functional drum set, producing music best described as East Asian-influenced, one-man marching band fare. We stuck around for a long while, just staring at his insistent artistry.
Never expecting to see the man again, we unexpectedly got a hold of this mysterious DIY musician months later via email. He turned out to be Boston-born Sami Elu, who came to Japan in 2006 after graduating from a music school in the US. He’s been travelling the country ever since, performing both at gig spaces and under the open sky. Formerly a contributing keyboardist for a number of bands, he now mainly rolls solo but still plays occasional reggae gigs together with a Jamaican friend.
A product of personal experimentation and a search for originality, his chopstick piano is a sight to behold: piano wires are laid out on a board like strings on a harp and chopsticks are embedded as keys. Even with both hands occupied by the creaky-looking contraption, Sami still manages to add some beat to his melodies – by operating the simple drum set attached to the lower part of the piano.
His current instrument is the fourth incarnation of the chopstick piano, but Sami is planning on building yet another version – perhaps with the help of some generous donations. Portable and easily customisable, the piano is also perfect for overseas gigs, of which he hopes there will be plenty more in the years to come. Although an album may be on the horizon, the best way to enjoy Sami’s music right now is to catch him live, playing his own compositions and improvising to his heart’s content. Your next chance to see him in Tokyo comes on April 18 in Sangenjaya.
For more info on chopstick piano master Sami Elu, check out his personal website.