The Tamaraw band today. Photo courtesy Tamaraw and credit to: JJ Cariaso.
The Tamaraw band today. Photo courtesy Tamaraw and credit to: JJ Cariaso.


On May 18, the International Examiner article, “Asian Americans Help Pioneer Seattle Soul Sound,” received a positive response from the community who wanted to learn more. Below is an spotlight on several of the Asian musicians who contributed to Seattle’s soul scene, during the 1960s and 70s.

 Y.K. Kuniyuki (Drums) – Cinnamon Soul

Growing up in the Central District, with a mix of cultures from African American to Jewish to Asian, Kuniyuki found himself immersed in a diverse neighborhood rich with a wide variety of melodies. The giant Taiko drums being played at the Seattle Buddhist Church could be heard blocks away during the Bonodori Festival, as well as the drum and bugle choirs that practiced while marching down the street. He also heard soul music coming from legendary Seattle clubs like the Esquire Club, Rocking Chair (renamed “Soulsville”), and the Black and Tan.

“I started becoming aware of the music that was playing there,” he said.

Members of the Japanese American community frowned on soul music, perceiving it as a negative influence at the time, he noted. But, his family was very supportive, helping pay for his drum lessons while he attended middle school. In fact, due to a friendship between his father and Charlie Puzo, the owner of a Seattle club called the Penthouse, Kuniyuki had the opportunity to hear and meet such jazz greats as John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Max Roach (who gave him a set of his drumsticks). His parents also generously let Kuniyuki practice with his bands in the basement.

One of the first Asian American musicians to play soul music professionally in Seattle during the 1960’s, Kuniyuki felt unique being an Asian drummer in a predominately black group.

“I thought it was really cool because I was working on a regular basis,” he said. “It was such a positive experience.”

During his career with Cinnamon Soul, a multi-ethnic band, Kuniyuki toured much of the Northwest. Formerly called “Jimmy Pipkins and the Boss 5,” the band was renamed in the late 1960s by Terry Schmidt, owner of the Trolley Club on Fourth Ave., in downtown Seattle, to reflect his club’s integration. Originally a “white” club, Schmidt wanted to integrate it with a non-white soul band. The club also had an all-white house band called “Peppermint Trolley” that played rock and roll music. Cinnamon Soul was a trailblazing band, noted Kuniyuki, as it was one of the first in Seattle to integrate.

Cinnamon Soul evolved into “Cooking Bag” and lasted for about a year and a half longer. It was during this evolution, around 1972, that Kuniyuki decided to leave the band. He later joined an integrated pop music band called, “After the Rain,” which toured throughout the Pacific Northwest region. Musicians in the band were white, black, and Asian.

Kuniyuki also toured with an all-Asian band based out of Toronto, Canada called, “The Orient Express,” that performed along the East Coast and Canada. The band was comprised of musicians from Korea, Phillippines, Japan, and Indonesia, and who dressed up like Elvis. Only Kuniyuki and one other band member spoke English. Everything else was communicated through a sort of sign language, he noted, but the music was sung in English.

Ken Kubota (Organ, Piano, Saxophone) – Nine Lives

Born and raised in Seattle, and a former student at Franklin High School, Ken Kubota was a founding member of the dance band, Nine Lives. The band played at many of the high schools in Seattle and on the eastside, at universities and colleges, and at local taverns. Influenced by jazz music and rock bands with a horn section, the band drew inspiration from groups like Chicago, Tower of Power, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears.

“It was music we liked,” said Kubota. “We were playing ‘Purple Haze’ in the seventh grade.”

When the group started, it consisted primarily of Asian musicians.

Steve “Puggy” Aspiras (Baritone Saxophone and Percussion) – Tamaraw

A saxophone student of Johnnie Jessen’s, around the age of 10, Steve “Puggy” Aspiras still enjoys playing out in clubs. A member of the multi-ethnic group, Tamaraw (named after a water buffalo that lives on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines), Aspiras reunited with the band just last year, after the group’s 35-year hiatus. With the diversity of its members (Filipino American, Japanese American, African American, Jewish American, and Italian American), Tamaraw was one of the first local bands in the area to break the “color barrier” in the early 1970’s to perform at predominantly white-attended high schools, college sororities and fraternities. They also played a lot of festivals, including an arts festival at Pike Place Market, where they played on top of one of the buildings.

“Back then in the 70’s you basically didn’t go out to Ballard by yourself,” said Aspiras. “To sort of break that color barrier was pretty cool.”

The band was originally formed in September 1972 by a group of University of Washington students, inspired by such groups as Santana and Tower of Power. A proud moment for the band was when they actually opened for a Tower of Power concert at a roller rink in Bellevue.

“We got to rub shoulders with them,” he said.

Aspiras still enjoys performing in Tamaraw, as well as a group called “The Epics” that plays mostly in Eastern Washington.

“I try to play as often as I can,” he said.

Jeffrey Hattori (Baritone and Alto Saxophones) – Creative Energy

Jeffrey Hattori performed in an all-Asian horn section in a band called “Creative Energy” that played soul and jazz hits from 1979 to 1980, including “Slide” by Slave.

“We would play that song for like 20 minutes,” he said.

The rest of the band was African American.

“There was a synergy between Asians and African Americans…through music,” he noted. “Music actually really connected us.”

Hattori still has fond memories of playing in the band.

“What struck me the most was that my parents would let me play in bars when I was 15 years old,” said Hattori, adding that one of the venues was a place called the Pump Tavern, located in South Seattle. “It was a lot of fun…many, many stories to tell of what I experienced.”

The band quit after their audio equipment was stolen. But Hattori’s “creative energy” continues. He currently serves as the CEO of Nikkei Concerns.

Jeffrey Hattori
Jeffrey Hattori

Later on, in the mid-to-late 1970s, Kuniyuki played with pianist and composer Deems Tsutakawa. They formed a band together with Tsutakawa’s brother, Marcus, which was briefly called Tsunami and eventually became The Deems Tsutakawa Band.

“The soul music scene in Seattle back in the 1960s-70s was vibrant and had a big influence on my career,” said Tsutakawa. “Y.K. Kuniyuki and I recorded two 45 RPM singles in the 70s and received airplay on KBCS. It was exhilarating to hear our music on the air. “

They played mostly jazz music, even playing at Kenny Gorelick’s (later known as clarinetist Kenny G) parents’ wedding anniversary. Kenny G often appeared as a guest artist in Tsutakawa’s band.

“He was a young kid just out of school. No one gave him much respect,” noted Kuniyuki of Kenny G. “I always thought that he had the talent to become famous.”

They were also the house band at the King Yen Restaurant, beneath the Bush Hotel. At the time, Kuniyuki also studied in the graduate school of social work at the University of Washington. It was during this time, toward the end of his musical career in 1978, that Kuniyuki met his wife, a woman he harbored a TV crush on from her repeated performances as the dance partner of Fred “Rerun” Berry on “Soul Train.”) She serendipitously walked into the non-profit employment agency he was working at in Rainier Valley, looking for a job. It was in the early 1980s that Kuniyuki decided to settle down and stopped playing the drums.

Deems Tsutakawa
Deems Tsutakawa

“We were more a bunch of guys having fun and not trying to make a political statement,” said Kubota, adding that some of his fondest memories of being in the band include hanging out with his bandmates and going out to concerts with them, like Chicago at the Eagles Auditorium and Jimi Hendrix at the Coliseum.

They played their first gig in the Fall of 1970 at the Mount Baker Community Club and continued to play at numerous proms and other school dances in Seattle and the Eastside, as well as in the community.

“My brother Marcus played with Ken Kubota in Nine Lives, an excellent dance band for sure,” said Deems Tsutakawa. “They would do over 100 gigs per year back in those days. Although the music biz and night club scene has pretty much evaporated, I feel fortunate to have grown up through the core of the Soul/R&B explosion.”

One achievement was performing at the District Tavern, which was located in Seattle’s University District at 50th and Rooosevelt. It was the top club at the time and they filled the club with standing room only crowds. They had been hired as the warm-up band for the 1950’s rock and roll band, Louie and the Rockets.

“I thought once we played there, that was it,” said Kubota. “But, we actually made more money at the school dances.”

The band broke up shortly after their stint at the District Tavern, in the summer of 1972.

Kubota initially started piano lessons in second grade and began saxophone in fourth grade. He continued to study saxophone with University of Washington Professor Joe Brazil, who was a great influence, he noted.

“I learned so much from him,” said Kubota.

Brazil would invite musicians travelling through town to speak in class, like McCoy Tyner.

“I always appreciated that,” he said.

Kubota also arranged and wrote music for Marilyn Tokuda’s play, “The Marginal Man.” He also wrote the songs, “Matsutake Man” and “Sensei’s Song” for Gary Iwamoto’s musical, “Miss Minidoka 1943.” Kubota also played with Deems Tsutakawa, as well as the group Tamaraw. Presently, Kubota serves as a Project Manager/Architect, with the University of Washington and formerly a principal of Architects Kubota Kato Chin.

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