Toshi Onizuka: Guitarist at El Gaucho Portland

A Japanese man playing Spanish-style music in Portland, Oregon – Toshi Onizuka exemplifies Henry Longfellow’s observation that “music is the universal language of mankind.”

Born in Tokyo, Japan, at twenty years of age he heard “Spanish Eyes” by Al DiMeola and knew he wanted to become a musician. He picked up the guitar, taught himself how to play, and immersed himself in the Spanish music scene by moving to Seville, Spain. For five years, he travelled and played with as many musicians as possible, including Pata Negra, a Flamenco fusion band, and recorded with Gino Vannelli.

While in Spain, Toshi fell in love with an American girl, and followed her back to her hometown of Portland, OR. He started playing at El Gaucho Portland in 2000, shortly after the restaurant opened, and laughs that quickly became known as “the pony-tailed Asian who speaks Spanish and plays at El Gaucho.”

Toshi has become known for his keen improvisational skills and distinctive sound that uniquely combines flat-picking with dynamic percussive sounds made on the surface of his guitar. In addition to playing at El Gaucho Portland, Toshi also plays at Andina two nights and at Paragon one night weekly. He has collaborated with a variety of local artists, including Lawson Fusao Inada, Oregon’s 2006-2008 Poet Laureate, Portland Taiko, Bobby Torres, and Aaron Meyer. He’s also been featured on OPB’s Oregon ArtBeat, as well as KMHD’s Home Grown Jazz and Home Grown Live, and has taken the stage at numerous northwest events such as the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, Art in the Pearl, the Dragon Moon Festival, and the Sandy Summer Concert Series.

Toshi just released his third CD, titled “What a Beautiful Day.” The project was created to help encourage his cousin in Japan battling breast cancer, which she unfortunately lost last December. The entire album features original songs with a jazz guitar feel, unlike his first two albums. His first, “Voy Con Fusion” (a Spanish phrase with double meaning), is a blend of recordings with local as well as native Spanish artists. The second album, “When You Passed By,” titled for all of the beautiful ladies who pass by when he plays, includes two covers and the rest original. All three CDs can be purchased from Toshi at El Gaucho Portland.

When not performing, Toshi enjoys mountain biking and drinking good sake. He “totally appreciates” his situation at El Gaucho Portland. He explains, “I can be an artist here and make money. There are starving musicians in Asia and Europe, but not here. The U.S. mentality is to pay artists for their craft, which is beautiful. Americans love live music. This would not happen in other areas of the world.” His gain is ours, as well!

You can listen to Toshi play four nights a week – Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday – at El Gaucho Portland at 7pm.

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