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article imageJapanese bassist comes to the U.S. to fulfill musical dreams Special

By Kim Hartman     Sep 29, 2014 in Music
Tucson - When Koko Matsumoto was 16 years old, she moved across the globe from Tokyo to Tucson for one reason: American rock music.
The current Bryan Dean Trio bassist’s love of bands like Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith inspired her to jump hemispheres, as she yearned to be closer to that classic red-white-and-blue sound.
“No one played that kind of music in Japan,” Matsumoto said. “So I really wanted to go to the source. I wanted to come to the United States to immerse myself in that type of music.”
Neither of Matsumoto’s parents are musicians, but the now 39-year-old with no siblings said her mom and dad were really supportive of her journey overseas to pursue music.
“My parents are very Western-minded, so they loved that I wanted to come to America,” Matsumoto said. “A lot of Japanese parents are really serious and strict with their kids about music, but mine were never hard on me at all. My mom and dad have always encouraged me. They knew it was my dream to come to the United States, so they wanted me to follow it.”
As a Japanese teenager, Matsumoto began her journey in the U.S. by spending 10 months as a foreign exchange student at Amphi High School. She stayed with her local guardians and their two small children, including one who played the violin.
Initially, Matsumoto struggled heavily with the language barrier.
“I didn’t know English, so I was pretty shy,” Matsumoto said. “Japanese people often lack confidence and are always afraid of looking stupid, so I only really talked when I needed to. Like, when I was hungry, I had to tell the family that I was staying with, ‘I’m hungry.’ So outside of things like that, I didn’t really talk to anyone at first.”
But after six months, Matsumoto moved in with a second family and began talking a lot more, since there were other teenagers in the house. Her host parents had four daughters, two of whom were close to Matsumoto’s age. She spent the remainder of her abroad program with this family.
“I had a lot more conversations with the second family because of the older two daughters,” she said. “They taught me a lot of things.”
In addition to the girls, Matsumoto greatly attributed learning English to her English as a Second Language class, which she took while studying at AHS.
“My ESL course was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken,” Matsumoto said. “No one in there was a native English speaker, so it was less intimidating. I also learned a lot about other cultures. That class helped me develop more conversational, everyday, useful English. It taught me phrases and things that weren’t in the textbooks.”
In terms of her music, the Fender bassist did not play in a group, during her initial 10-month stay. Matsumoto did not know anyone in a band and felt she was not skilled enough as a musician.
Things were much different for Matsumoto, however, upon her second – and ultimately final – time to America, beginning in 1994.
After completing her program at AHS, she returned to Japan to finish high school. A year and a half after graduating, the bass player moved back to Tucson to begin her music career in America.
Having background in several different instruments, Matsumoto had many options, upon her return to the U.S.
“When I first started playing music, I took piano lessons,” Matsumoto said. “But I wanted to play the guitar, because there weren’t any girls who played it. So I did a lot of finger picking on the classical guitar, which felt natural to me, when I was 12 years old. Later, I switched to the drums.”
So Matsumoto started out playing the skins for Mid Life Crisis, her friend’s three-piece comedy band. When another drummer entered the group, Matsumoto moved to the bass guitar, which has been her musical weapon of choice for the last 17 years.
“At first, I thought the bass was not cool,” she said. “You know, it’s four strings, and I thought the guitar was much fancier and harder. But my opinion has totally changed. I love the bass now.”
Matsumoto stayed with MLC for three years, part of which she simultaneously played in The Kiko, a rock band which produced mostly original songs. She also thunderbroomed for a Carlos Santana tribute group called ATM.
In addition to playing the boomstick for bands, Matsumoto attended college in Tucson. A student by day and musician by night, she first went to Pima Community College, while staying at a foreign exchange counselor’s house.
Two years later, she transferred to the University of Arizona, where she majored in Anthropology and minored in Art History, and found an apartment of her own.
“I sucked the whole way through school,” Matsumoto said. “I struggled with college level English, along with ungodly amounts of homework, term papers and exams. I still have realistic nightmares about missing an important exam.”
“Also, I was broke and had few friends. My only enjoyment was playing gigs.”
Then it was in 1998 that Matsumoto met the man who changed her life, both musically and personally: Bryan Dean, electric guitarist of BDT and Matsumoto’s husband.
It was music, in fact, which first brought the two together.
On the night she met Dean, Matsumoto and her band at the time MLC were playing a show, in front of what is now The Playground, in downtown Tucson. Her current spouse was performing across the street in a separate band with Sam Taylor, a nationally-famous blues musician who passed away in 2009.
“Bryan saw me first and came over to listen to me play,” Matsumoto said. “Later, we started talking and getting to know each other.”
Shortly after meeting, Matsumoto and Dean started dating and have currently been married for almost 14 years.
“When I met Bryan, it opened a whole new world for me,” Matsumoto said. “I got to be around a lot of great players, and I learned so much by watching their musicianship. It really upped my professionalism as a player.”
Matsumoto and Dean first began performing with each other in a jam band called Deacon until 2004, when the musically-inclined couple incepted BDT. They have been playing together in the three-piece blues rock group for the last 10 years now.
“Playing in a band with my husband definitely helps with feelings,” Matsumoto said. “It helps me put my emotions into the music.”
Now having lived in the U.S. for 20 years, Matsumoto has come a long way since her first time in America. She is now married, fluent in English, a college graduate and a professional musician in the country that brought her classic rock.
Of course, Matsumoto still remembers where she comes from. She makes trips back to Tokyo every three years, and it is a lifetime goal of hers to perform gigs in Japan for her family and friends someday.
Matsumoto did play for her parents once, about seven or eight years ago, when they were visiting Las Vegas, Nev. She brought her mom and dad to Tucson and had a jam session with Dean.
“Bryan and I took my parents to our friend’s studio, so they could listen to us play without a drummer,” Matsumoto said. “I think they understood that we had a special thing together, and that my music was a little more than just a hobby.”
More than a hobby it was for Matsumoto. It was the American dream achieved.
Just like the music that inspired her to come to the U.S. in the first place, Matsumoto knows that accomplishing your dreams is the universal song that rings true in any language.
More about koko matsumoto, Bass guitar, bryan dean trio, Tucson, Music
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