Percussionist Ogawa Keita: From Nagasaki to the Grammys

Culture Music Society

Based in New York since 2005, Japanese percussionist Ogawa Keita has performed around the world. In 2021, his band Snarky Puppy won a Grammy Award. He has played alongside some of the world’s top musicians, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma. We spoke to him about the highs and lows of his career, including his first fateful encounter with percussion, his decision to move to America, and the thrill of that Grammy win earlier this year.

Ogawa Keita

Drummer and percussionist based in New York, where he is a member of bands including the Grammy-winning Snarky Puppy and Bokanté. Born in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, he started playing the drums at the age of 15 and later studied music at Kōyō Ongaku Gakuin in Kōbe. After two years living hand-to-mouth in Tokyo, he relocated to the United States in 2005, where he studied hand percussion at the Berklee School of Music with Jamey Haddad. Has played alongside Yo-Yo Ma and numerous other top artists, and has appeared on two Grammy-winning albums.

The Glitz of the Grammys

The sixty-third Grammy Awards ceremony was held on March 14, 2021. Among the winners of the most prestigious honor in the American music world this year was the innovative instrumental combo Snarky Puppy, whose lineup includes Japanese percussionist Ogawa Keita. The band won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album—the fourth time it had scooped this prestigious prize.

Only a lucky few get to experience winning a Grammy and walking down the red carpet that has hosted so many stars. In fact, the 2021 ceremony was held online, with band members taking part via Zoom, but Ogawa had already experienced the glitter and glamor of Grammy night, when his other band Bokanté was nominated in the same category in 2020. He remembers walking with the other nominees down the red carpet to the adjacent arena-sized venue after the announcement of the prizes and the live performances.

In 2020, the ceremony was held on the day of basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s sudden death in a helicopter crash. A special memorial section was added to the program at the last minute, and huge numbers of fans gathered around the venue to pay their respects. Ogawa remembers: “The place was packed. Artists who had been nominated in previous years were there with their teams of hangers-on. It really hit me: Wow, here I am in the heart of the American entertainment business. It was a really glitzy, star-studded night. The place was just buzzing with energy. It was totally different from the day-to-day music world where I normally spend my life, I have to admit.”

A Life-Changing Drum Solo

Ogawa grew up in the city of Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture, where he started playing drums at the age of 15. He says his interest in drums dates back to footage of a live jazz performance he saw on TV while he was still in elementary school. He remembers being blown away by the drum solo. At the time, he had no idea who the drummer was—though he was to find out many years later, thanks to a remarkable coincidence.

“After I entered high school I started playing in music events at a local coffee shop. The owner of the coffee shop was a drummer, and I started taking lessons from him after school. There was a TV that was always showing videos of live jazz performances, and one day I got a huge surprise. That video I had seen when I was a kid was playing—the one that had first made me want to become a drummer. I looked closely at it again, and realized that the drummer was my teacher, the owner of the coffee shop!”

Inspired by this strange coincidence, after high school, Ogawa went on to study music at the Kōyō Conservatory (now the Kōyō School of Music and Dance) in Kobe, a school closely affiliated with Berklee College of Music, where he would later study in the United States. I’d naively assumed that this was the conventional route that brought him to America, but Ogawa admits with a laugh that things were not so straightforward in his case.

“So many people go on to study at Berklee from Kōyō that I stubbornly resisted the idea. I guess I just wanted to be different. I made up my mind to go to Tokyo instead.”

In Tokyo, Ogawa started working as a roadie to the percussionist Sendō Saori. The two years he spent in the job let him see top Japanese musicians and overseas artists perform up close, and gradually his ambitions turned to the idea of continuing his studies overseas.

“Saori-san was going to be doing a recording with the American jazz singer Marlena Shaw. I went along, and I was just amazed by the quality of the performance. Right then and there I made up my mind that I had to travel to America and learn how to perform at that level myself.”

In 2005, Ogawa enrolled in the famous Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he switched from drums to hand percussion. The more he learned, the more he came to understand the depth and richness of percussion instruments. At the same time, he realized that something was still missing. “Although I sort of understood things theoretically, what I’d learned wasn’t coming together in my own performances yet the way I wanted.”

In 2007, Ogawa decided to use his long three-month summer vacation to travel and study in Brazil. “That experience really changed my musical life. There’s only so much you can learn in an academic setting. Going to Brazil was like being immersed in a flood of music, and in those three months I was really able to consolidate what I’d learned—much more than during the two years I had spent at Berklee.”

Joining Snarky Puppy

Today, Ogawa plays with a number of different bands. He says he became a member of the Grammy-winning Snarky Puppy in “around 2010 or so.”

Ogawa met the band’s founder, Michael League, and sat in on tour dates and recording sessions. “And it just went from there,” he says. “Next thing I knew, I was an official member.”

One person played a crucial role in forging the connection that led to Ogawa’s breakthrough: Jamey Haddad—a percussionist with an impressive string of credits to his name, including a lengthy stint with Paul Simon. Haddad was Ogawa’s mentor during his time at Berklee, and Ogawa says he has Haddad to thank for his success. “I would never have been able to build a career in America without him,” he says.

Although Ogawa first knew Jamey as a mentor figure at Berklee, after graduation they became bandmates and started playing dates together. It was Haddad who introduced him to League.

“Mike was moving from Texas, where Snarky was based at the time, relocating to New York. When Jamey introduced us we just seemed to hit it off. Little by little we started playing together—restaurant gigs, weddings—then they started inviting me to play on albums and tours, and it just developed from there. Before long, I was as an official member of the band.”

The relationship between the three musicians only got closer after that. When League was putting together a new ensemble called Bokanté, he approached both Haddad and Ogawa to join as percussionists.

“I’m always telling Jamey how grateful I am to him for giving me so many experiences and introducing me to so many people. He has a gift for bringing people together. He’s 30 years older than me, but he loves sharing a joke, and today I count him among my closest friends.”

Ogawa Keita in his home studio. (© Albert Cheung)
Ogawa Keita in his home studio. (© Albert Cheung)

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Ogawa hasn’t been able to collaborate with these friends and mentors in person. But things are moving again. In June, Bokanté reassembled to start work on their third record in Spain, with a European tour to follow.

The Years of Struggle

Even in the entertainment superpower of the United States, not many people can make a living just from their music—let alone win Grammies and mainstream success. Life in New York, with its high rents and astronomical cost of living, can be particularly tough. It is also one of the most competitive environments on earth, drawing ambitious artists and aspiring musicians from around the world to pursue their dreams of success.

The reality can be harsh, as Ogawa himself knows only too well: “I know a lot of people who have given up on the idea of a career in music, and a lot of people have left New York since the pandemic hit.” Even for Ogawa, it has not always been an easy ride: “It’s only really in the last six or seven years that things have stabilized.” Looking back on his early years in America, he admits that life wasn’t always easy, despite highlights like an appearance alongside the cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Boston Symphony Hall. “From the outside, it probably looked like everything was going swimmingly—but the truth is that for a long time, I had no savings and was barely scraping by.”

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with a particularly devastating impact on the music business. At first, Ogawa says that many musicians were optimistic about the situation, himself included: “I assumed things would probably sort themselves out over the summer. We all thought we’d just have to take it easy and lay low for a few months.” But as the situation got worse and more dates were canceled, Ogawa started to realize that things might be more serious than he had originally thought. “That’s when I started to think: This could get really bad. I started to worry about how I was going to make it through. But there was no sense just getting depressed about it. I made the decision to change the way I work. I started putting more energy into the online side of things, and started reaching out to people in that way.”

Ogawa started to post collaboration videos on social media and recorded “sample packs” of his own percussion rhythms that he made available for download.

“Live performances and tours went to zero, but that’s been made up for by more recording projects from home and more teaching, so I’ve come through it all right. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Ogawa says that the Snarky Puppy family pulls together when band members or staff are doing it tough. “The band functions almost like a company employer sometimes—it’s nice to know that support network is there for you when you need it.” The band has a large following on social media, and name recognition helps too. Ogawa admits his status as a band member helps draw students to his online classes and private lessons, and says he has had offers from all over the world.

“The pandemic has totally changed the way I work. But it’s helped to open up new possibilities too, so it hasn’t been all bad.”

“Have Your Own Style”

“This city is full of amazing people operating on a really high level,” notes Ogawa, who has experienced the truth of this for himself since he came to New York. Despite the stiff competition, he has continued to follow his own path, without losing sight of himself and without losing his way.

“Lots of players have good technique, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you can communicate. I think the most important thing is to have your own style, your own personality and tone. Artists who understand themselves and can express their individuality stand out immediately.” Of his own approach, Ogawa says: “I’m not trying to copy anyone else, so I’m not interested in trying to compete with someone by doing the same thing they’re doing. I was lucky to understand what I could do and to be given a chance to do it.”

I close our interview by asking him what message he would give to the generation of young musicians coming up today. “You have to be honest,” he says. “Don’t tell yourself lies. And make sure you appreciate the people around you who care about you.”

The support from these friends and helpers has been a crucial part of Ogawa’s success.

“At every stage in my life, I’ve met people who’ve helped me and taught me, and it’s thanks to those people that I’m where I am today. I really feel that. People in the generation ahead of me who’d had success helped me when I was starting out. Now it’s my turn. Hopefully I can pass that on to the next generation, to people who are just starting out with something they want to do. And I hope I can continue to carry on making music into the future, in my own way and in my own style.”

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Ogawa Keita in his home studio. © Albert Cheung.)

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