José Tanaka was born in Kyoto, Japan. But his parents were so dedicated to flamenco music that they named him José, to make sure he'd always be tied to the traditional Spanish Romani folk art of singing, dancing, guitar and hand claps.
His father had been captivated by the music as a teenager after seeing legendary flamenco guitarist Sabicas perform on television. His mother, who'd been his father's guitar student, became a flamenco dancer.
"We were a flamenco family," Tanaka says. "There weren't many families like us. In our building, the first floor was our guitar shop, guitar lessons were on the second floor, and the rest was our house."
Tanaka is now 44 and has lived in California since the late '80s. He's become an enormously successful flamenco guitarist who plays big venues in Japan, where the music has become popular. But as a teenager he rebelled from the family craft, eschewing a move to Spain to study flamenco guitar in favor of coming to Hollywood, where he learned electric guitar. (He still has long hair, a remnant from his teen rocker days.) Tanaka came to believe he didn't have anything unique to offer the form, however, and then at age 26 had a realization. Within months he was off to Seville, Spain, to study flamenco seriously.
With his first album, 1999's Gypsy's Dream, Tanaka sought authenticity. But he didn't become well known until he started thinking outside the box. His critically acclaimed second album, 2004's Lluvia, includes a pop ballad and a well-known Israeli song. "Even if it doesn't fit into flamenco rules," Tanaka says, "I use the flamenco feel and what I've learned from years of training to come up with my own type of music."
Today at a small studio in Santa Monica, Tanaka is collaborating with three dancers who are wearing flamenco shoes embedded with small nailheads (to enhance the sound) but otherwise dressed casually — none of the ruffles, bright colors or polka dots associated with the genre's costumes. They're creating an original flamenco dance show from scratch, which they're hoping to shop around later this year. Tanaka strums melodies on his guitar while the dancers stomp in synchronized fashion.
Since he started focusing on his solo guitar shows, he has scaled back on dance accompaniment, he explains. But this is a special exception. As with his solo work, he's interested in playing with the idea of traditional versus modern.
"I want to do this off-the-wall–sounding guitar that doesn't sound like flamenco but still fits with a traditional melody of singing," Tanaka notes.
He still encounters those who question his authenticity because he's Japanese. More often, however, folks hypnotized by his guitar don't realize he's not Spanish until they look closely.
"I'm more established now, so I don't get [judged by my ethnicity] as much as I did when I was starting out," he says. "There will always be those who are only concerned with image, but people who actually understand flamenco give me credit."
He aims to be even more experimental with his next album. It makes sense. Since his birth, it seems, this Japanese José has been destined to shake things up.