Old-time fiddler follows his passion across decades and oceans

By Mary Glen Hatcher

The foreign fiddler

In the thick humidity of June, at a small-town North Carolina park, a few hundred locals gathered to celebrate the music of their mountains.

As the intercom static cleared, a voice announced the next competitor in the 54th Annual Mount Airy Blue Grass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention: a foreigner.

Shohei Tsutsumi from Osaka, Japan!

It was the 24-year-old’s first performance in America. He picked his favorite tune to play, a West Virginia reel called “Head of the Creek,” so his hands wouldn’t shake. Onstage, his mind raced.

He started thinking about his day: the generosity of strangers at the park who opened their campsites and coolers to him; the musicians who shared their songs and tunes; the Blue Ridge Mountains that called him away from home to join the chorus of Appalachia’s old-time music.

He picked up his fiddle, and paused.

The father-daughter duo that performed before him would go on to claim the convention’s grand prize.

But he’d already won.

Disney and Davy Crockett

Shohei Tsutsumi lived for the weekends he spent with his grandparents in Osaka, gathered around his grandad’s cassette player.

The compilation of Disney movie soundtracks was a family favorite. Tsutsumi would serenade his three sisters with whimsical songs from Snow White and Pinocchio, but one tune never left his mind: The Ballad of Davy Crockett.

“Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!”

“I’m the only one from my family that really remembers that song, and can still remember the harmony and melody exactly how it goes,” Tsutsumi said, humming the cheerful refrain.

This was his first taste of a genre he’d spend the rest of his youth searching for, and the rest of his life trying to comprehend.

Playing it by ear

It was high school before Tsutsumi picked up an instrument. He wanted to learn piano when he was younger, like his sisters had, but his grandmother forbade it. It was a girl’s instrument, she said.

But he found his rhythm playing the guitar. Without formal lessons or instruction, he plunged into Japan’s rich musical subcultures: heavy metal, hard rock, Bosa Nova, Bollywood, and eventually, bluegrass and country.

He trained his ear to play by sound, replaying his favorite recordings until they echoed in his thoughts, and picked up a few other instruments — mandolin, fiddle, banjo and dulcimer — along the way.

“He’s such a quick study, musically, and learns how to play an instrument really, really quick,” Joe Thrift, an old-time musician from Surry County who played with Tsutsumi, said.

After settling into Japan’s bluegrass community, Tsutsumi felt like he’d finally found his niche. But his undergraduate program in Kyoto was coming to an end, and he needed to figure out his next steps. So, he did what he usually did when he needed space to think — he went to a jam session.

The beard behind the band

And there, he met Bosco.

With a handlebar moustache and a long, braided beard, Tsutsumi thought the fiddle player looked “very much like a foreigner,” in his native Kyoto because of the odd way he held his fiddle on his chest instead of under his chin.

In the late 1970s, Bosco Takaki traveled down South to learn deep-holler fiddle and banjo music from Appalachian legends Tommy Jarrell and the Hammond Family. He brought these lessons back to Japan, enchanting audiences with his eccentric fiddle playing.

For Tsutsumi, this introduction to old-time was eye-opening.

Bosco’s playing exposed an opportunity to sculpt his music obsession into more than a hobby. He became fascinated with the music’s roots, history and culture. He wanted to trace it, study it, master it.

“For the first time, I saw this contrast between old-time music and bluegrass, and it really took me,” Tsutsumi said. “I tried a lot of things, but it was this American folk music that took me. It grabbed me by my heart, actually.”

Bosco knew the feeling. His ensuing mentorship and friendship with Tsutsumi reminds him of falling in love with old-time traditions at the same age, 40 years ago.

A place for modern pilgrims 

Five years and two graduate programs later, Tsutsumi’s passion for old-time brought him to the foothills of North Carolina.

He’s the latest in a succession of musicians from around the world who, mesmerized by the music and traditions of Appalachia, have made a pilgrimage to this corner of the state to understand it.

After earning his Masters in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University in 2018 — the first non-American to do so in the program’s 45-year history — he moved with a friend to the quiet mountain town of West Jefferson and embedded himself in the old-time community.

He played at the community center’s Thursday night jam sessions, began taking a violin-making course under local old-time musician, Joe Thrift, and started teaching beginning banjo and fiddle at the local community college.

An outsider only on the outside

As one of the only Japanese people in the area, Tsutsumi said he’s lived a unique juxtaposition as a visible “outsider” researching and mastering an intimate part of the region’s culture.

“I’m in this place I’ve kind of dreamed of for a while, surrounded by people who are able to teach me about their local music and traditions, yet almost nobody who sees me on the street ever imagines that I am actually really good at playing music from this area, you know?” he said, laughing.

But, as his fellow musicians and the blue ribbons from local conventions will tell you, his talent speaks for itself. After a two-year hiatus from the dulcimer, Tsutsumi began practicing the instrument again for fun, and decided to enter a competition in Galax, Virginia to test his skills.

He walked away with first place after only a few days of practicing.

“I hope to go to the fiddler’s conventions to compete for personal growth,” he said “but also so I can get as many ribbons as I can before I go back to Japan.”

A link to the past 

Kilby Spencer, a fiddler with White Top Mountain Band who plays with Tsutsumi, noted that more than Tsutsumi’s meticulous style shines through when he performs.

“There’s a lot more to the music than just the notes,” Spencer said. “I think what makes him so special is he’s got a good grasp on and appreciation for the people behind the music.”

And that’s exactly what Tsutsumi wants his music to show.

As a self-proclaimed “ultra-traditionalist” in the old-time world, he strives to imitate the style of the legends he listened to and learned from — Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed and Fred Cockeram — so that their contributions are never forgotten.

So that others can find themselves in the music, just as he did.

“If someone mentions I sound like Tommy Jarrell, or I remind them of their grandpa or friend, that’s a huge compliment because they are not just listening to one person, not just to me, but many,” Tsutsumi said.

“If I can allow others to listen with their own memories and emotions, to go back to a time or place before, where I don’t belong to really, but I’m kind of part of…yeah, that would kind of be enough.”

Edited by Molly Sprecher





Carolina Hip-Hop Institute lets students form own culture and experiences

By Brandon Callender

Where Is It? 

Hill Hall is a quiet space on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus. The building is tucked away on North Campus, far behind the yellow bricks of South Building. Continuing past the Old Well, it’s still possible to miss it. It’s not a building most people spend time in, and it is often almost empty. The only sounds are the clack of heels against the tiled floors and students in the middle of rehearsal.

This is true every day of the week except for one.

On Friday afternoons, Hill Hall becomes electric. Behind the doors of Room 109, the sounds of pounding basslines can be heard. But there is no live instrumentation or band rehearsal scheduled.

Songs from the Billboard Top 40 fill the tight hallway with sound. The songs don’t sound the way they normally do, and at times they feel faster or the pitches sound different. However, the transitions between the songs are almost seamless. This is normal. Everyone’s used to the extra bit of noise.

Cracking open the room’s door leads to a musical (and UNC-CH-themed) wonderland. Entrants are greeted by a graffiti art mural of Ramses scratching on a turntable with lightning shooting from his equipment.

What Is It? 

Hill Hall Room 109 is home to the Beat Making Lab, a project started by Mark Katz, a professor in UNC-CH’s music department. The Beat Making Lab is used as part of several courses focusing on hip-hop production and history. This summer, Katz is planning to take these courses to the next level. During the upcoming Maymester, Katz will serve as director of a new initiative from the music department: the Carolina Hip-Hop Institute.

The institute is made up of three classes: the beat making lab, the rap lab and MUSC 286: Dance Lab, a newly-created course. Katz hopes that word will spread about the institute because of its popularity and how quickly the courses fill up during the academic year.

“We call it an institute because it’s not just a collection of three classes,” Katz said. “These classes will collaborate. In the beat lab, beat making students will spend a lot of time [in the beat lab], but the rappers will come here to work with the producers. The beat makers will make beats for the dancers as well.”

The institute is 11 days of intensive workshopping where students get experience creating their own beats, lyrics and dance routines.

How Did It Get Started?

Katz started the Beat Making Lab in 2012 when he chaired the music department. He had been teaching courses about DJing since 2006 when he started teaching at UNC-CH. However, there was no way for students to get actual experience.

“I’d get questions from students asking how they could take classes in rap, beat making and how to create music,” Katz said. “Unfortunately, my answer was, ‘you can’t.’ I knew there was demand and it wasn’t being met.”

In 2011, Katz applied for a grant to create the courses students wanted. He wanted to combine entrepreneurship, artistic practices and community artists to create what he believes to be “a new kind of music education.” With the grant money, he purchased equipment for the Beat Making Lab and hired co-teachers to teach for-credit courses during the academic year. These courses include MUSC 155: The Art and Culture of the DJ, MUSC 156: Beat Making Lab and MUSC 157: Rap Lab.

“I remember the first time we taught [the Beat Lab course]. I had a huge waitlist and people were almost harassing me to get in, in a nice way,” Katz said. “It was touching and almost inspiring to see how dedicated they were.”

Who Will Be Involved?

The institute courses won’t be taught by professors, but by professionals from their respective fields.

Dasan Ahanu, a spoken word artist and community organizer, will teach the rap lab. Ahanu was an assistant professor of English at Saint Augustine’s University and a Nasir Jones Fellow at Harvard University. Junious Brickhouse, the founder of Urban Artistry, an organization seeking to preserve urban dance culture, will teach the dance course. Kerwin Young, a member of The Bomb Squad, the production crew which backed the hip-hop group Public Enemy, will teach the beat making course.

Jan Yopp, the dean of Summer School, praised Katz’s recruitment efforts.

“This is all due to the great connections our faculty have with their colleagues and professionals across other institutions and out in the profession,” Yopp said. “The people Mark Katz will be bringing in are people that he’s worked with in these hip-hop programs elsewhere.”

Katz said there is a possibility other guests will come through as they finalize instructor contracts. He hopes students make meaningful experiences out of the coursework.

Why Is It Important? 

“I want people to be able to find powerful ways to express themselves through art,” Katz said. “That can be extremely transformative for people. I’ve worked with lots of people who are either artists or students who have had difficult lives, and they find ways to heal through art.”

Mu’aath Fullenweider, a senior enrolled in the rap lab course, has grown more comfortable expressing himself because of the class. He’s able to recite some of the lyrics he memorized from one of his verses about forgiveness and love.

“I’ve been able to approach different topics,” Fullenweider said. “Left to your own devices, you get comfortable writing about things you can access. With the class, he’ll throw a topic at you that you haven’t thought about before.”

Davis Kirby, a junior also in the class, is happy courses like the rap lab exist, because it brings unique groups of people together.

“Music is one of the most diverse things,” Kirby said. “Not just diverse in culture, but generally. I went in expecting to see more students of color, a different culture than my other classes at Carolina. It’s lived up to my expectations and because of that, I’m a lot more comfortable.”

Edited by Molly Sprecher

Three ways Orange County recycling creates more trash

By Megan Cain

It Starts at Your Stove

It’s taco Tuesday inside the little yellow house on the corner.

Jess Griffin stands next to the stove, sipping a margarita out of a Solo cup. She empties the ground beef from its foam casing into the pan. The meat cracks and sizzles alongside the sautéed garlic and onion.

Without a second thought, Griffin tosses the plastic wrap covering the meat into the garbage. She begins to do the same with the foam casing until her housemate, Nadia Parashkevova, stops her.

“Isn’t that recyclable?”

Griffin side-eyes her housemate. Parashkevova has always been an Earth nut. She flips it over, noticing the chasing arrows on the bottom.

She throws it into the recycling bin with little bits of meat still clinging to the bottom. She does the same with a glass jar of salsa. But she ties two unrinsed cans of black beans in a grocery bag to avoid drippage.

Then, the two proceed with their evening, unaware of the trouble they’ve caused.

Who is an Expert

“Just a little extra effort can go a long way,” the solid waste planner for Orange County, Blair Pollock, said.

Pollock started Orange County’s recycling program in 1987 and says he forgot to leave.

Since his arrival, the county has cut its waste from 1.36 tons to about half of a ton of landfilled trash per person.

They can do better, he says. Especially when it comes to his three no-noes.

What Not to Do 

Contamination by food waste is the first.

“Somebody is working on the other end of that line, and during the summer, after sitting in the hot sun for a few days, that dirty can is going to be pretty rank,” Pollock said.

Just a light rinse of your containers, particularly the plastics, goes a long way.

Plastic can’t be heated to 1000-degree temperatures like glass and steel, so food and liquid remnants can complicate the sorting plant process or contaminate clean pieces, creating more trash.

Pollock’s second no-no? Plastic bags.

Bagging your recyclables might keep them from dripping, but with more than 140,000 tons of recyclables coming into the sorting plant each year, there isn’t enough time to open each bag.

“They don’t know if you put the dead cat in there, the dead goldfish or the bag of kitty litter, so they’re not going to open it,” Pollock said.

Bagged recyclables take the scenic route to the landfill. And all that effort was wasted.

Finally, don’t put your garden hoses or hangers in the recycling bin. These items can jam the belts and pulleys at the sorting center.

Other non-recyclable materials get mixed in too, but are less destructive than the big three.

Solo cups aren’t recyclable in many places, including Orange County, but they often find their way to recycling bins. Looking at the bottom of one, you’ll see a number six, which stands for polystyrene. It’s made from natural gas.

Pollock says as long as practices like fracking keep natural gas prices low, there isn’t much of a market for these materials to be recycled.

When Solo cups and other non-recyclable materials end up in recycling bins, they go right to the closest landfill, wasting energy and resources.

Recycling right makes a difference. If the container isn’t listed as an acceptable material on the label on your cart, don’t put it in there.

Even if it’s not on the label, it might still be recyclable. Large plastics, tires and scrap wood are among the materials accepted at five waste and recycling centers across Orange County.

What Happens Next

Just a few days later, it’s the most exciting day of the week. It’s trash day.

Taco Tuesday’s remnants sit in a brimming blue bin on the curb, anticipating pickup.

Black liquid oozes from the cans into the plastic grocery bag. Leftover margarita from the Solo cup seeps into Griffin’s notes from last semester. The salsa jar remains intact, for now. The smell of 3-days-old juicy, beef-soaked plastic foam wafts from the bin.


The contents of the bin and the rest of the county’s recyclables are picked up and dumped into a massive pile at the Orange County landfill.

A bulldozer packs these materials by the ton into a tractor-trailer that drives it all down to the sorting center in Raleigh.

There, the bag of cans and the Solo cup will be thrown away, perhaps along with the notes, depending on how badly they have been damaged by the margarita.

Some unlucky worker will have to deal with the hamburger tray and everything contaminated by its stench.

The glass jar is the only thing that’s going to be melted down, turned into usable material and sold back to companies.

How You Can Do More

But the loop isn’t closed yet.

If your favorite brand doesn’t use recycled material in its packaging, Pollock advises that you call and request for them to.

“If people will do that, and oil gets to $100 a barrel and natural gas gets to $5 a therm, then we’ll have recycling nirvana,” Pollock said.

According to Pollock, you contribute to the first arrow by recycling. But many consumers forget that they can serve a vital role by closing the loop and buying products made with recycled material.

“I know I tend to be a finger-wagger about this, but the good people of Orange County truly are doing a great job. We’re consistently at the top of the heap when it comes to waste reduction per person,” Pollock said.

Edited by Molly Sprecher