When Ken Kawashima was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Chicago, he spent his days preparing for the career he now enjoys as an associate professor of Japanese and Korean history in the Department of East Asian Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science.
But at night, he engaged in studies of quite a different kind.
That’s when Kawashima put down his highlighter, picked up his harmonica, and made his way down to Chicago’s legendary blues clubs. At first he was merely a spectator, enthralled to see some of his heroes in action. Eventually he worked up the courage to ask if he could sit in — and ultimately found himself playing alongside some of the best.
“Muddy Waters is the blues god of Chicago, and many of the people who played with him were still playing then,” Kawashima recalls. “Willie Smith, who was Muddy’s drummer for 30 years, hired me as his harmonica player for a summer.”
The music itself just totally took me in. We played at an outdoor gas station that had been renovated into a fish market. In the parking lot, they had a large stage, and people would stream in from the neighbourhood to drink and dance and eat. It was like heaven on earth for me! And then I’d go back to campus and study Marx and Foucault.
Kawashima was soon playing four nights a week on the city’s famed west side, backing up a well-known singer named Tail Dragger Jones and earning $35 a week. “The music itself just totally took me in,” he says. “We played at an outdoor gas station that had been renovated into a fish market. In the parking lot, they had a large stage, and people would stream in from the neighbourhood to drink and dance and eat. It was like heaven on earth for me! And then I’d go back to campus and study Marx and Foucault,” he laughs.
Today, Kawashima complements his teaching, writing and research at U of T with a thriving career as a composer, guitar player and leader of his own band. Known to blues fans as Sugar Brown, he’s recorded three studio albums since 2011, and can regularly be heard playing at venerable Toronto blues haunts such as Grossman’s Tavern and the Cameron House. His next album, entitled Toronto Bound, is scheduled for a fall release.
Onstage, Kawashima shows a deep reverence for blues origins and a knowledge of the art form’s history. Dating back to the post-Civil War period, blues music was created by Black agricultural workers in the southern United States. Emotional and melancholy, it contains elements derived from African music, spirituals and folk music. It’s had a profound influence on most forms of popular music, including jazz, soul, and rock.
Though Kawashima’s sound has been appropriately described as “dark, sweet and inconsolable” a Sugar Brown show is also fast-paced and infectiously danceable. And between the sadness and joy of his music lies defiance — the blues’ real watchword, according to him.
The blues is both irreverent and liberating. It speaks the truth in the face of power.
“The blues is both irreverent and liberating,” Kawashima says. “It speaks the truth in the face of power. If you listen to music from the 1930s and 1940s, they’re talking about problems not only of love, but about struggling to pay the bills and deal with everyday mundane things that have a deep impact on how you make your way in the world.”
Or on broader political concerns, too. In this, Kawashima says the blues speak very much to present day problems. He notes that Angela B. Davis, a Marxist scholar like himself, believed that blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were precursors of radical feminist thought.
How did Ken Kawashima become Sugar Brown?
“Everyone in Chicago has a nickname,” he says. “And when I played there I met all these musicians who would introduce themselves that way — Necktie Nate, Little Wolf, Bongo Joe, Lone Ranger. It was endless.” So Kawashima’s own mentor, Tail Dragger Jones, decided he needed one too.
Because Kawashima is half Japanese and half Korean, Jones suggested either “Japanese Boy” and “Korean Kid”— both of which Kawashima immediately vetoed. In the end Tail Dragger settled on Sugar Brown: “because,” he said, “you’re not Black, and you’re not white either.”
And in fact, Sugar Brown’s journey through the blues really has been multicultural, as befits the spread of the blues itself. Whether in Argentine tango, Portuguese fado, or the rebetiko music Kawashima recently appreciated on a trip to Greece, the melancholy beauty of the blues is indeed expressed in different ways around the world.
Some students I’ve talked to really love the blues. It may be very niche today, but it’s far from being extinct.
Kawashima saw this first-hand when he went to learn Japanese and conduct research for his doctoral dissertation in Tokyo — the site of a vibrant blues scene, but one that was a long way from the west side of Chicago. “The blues clubs in Tokyo were so tiny that the bar would sit about three people,” he recalls. “Then maybe there was a table for four other people, plus the bartender and the owner. There are literally thousands of clubs like that in the city. But I made friends there, and instantly became blues brothers with the other players.”
Several years after starting his career at U of T in 2002, Kawashima started to play with a series of musicians hailing from Indigenous, Latin American, Indian and other musical traditions. Today, his unique blues band includes Trinidadian djembe percussionist Derek Thorne. “I wanted to add in more African and Caribbean rhythms, which I think have been repressed by a lot of contemporary blues,” he says.
Sugar Brown is definitely on a roll: but make no mistake, Kawashima is not about to quit his day job anytime soon. “I’m so happy to be in East Asian studies,” he says. “The great thing about our department is we’ve got history, but also literature, philosophy, language and anthropology — all kinds of disciplines, and all very interesting.”
In addition to his teaching and research — he’s a specialist in interwar Japan during the period from the 1920s to 1940s — Kawashima has published three scholarly books: The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan (Duke University Press, 2009); Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader (Cornell University Press, 2014); and Theory of Crisis (Haymarket, 2023.) His most recent article, titled “The Revolutionary and Anti-Capitalist Politics of the Late Foucault” was published last year in the South Atlantic Quarterly,
The interdisciplinary nature of his work means he may someday be able to unite his passion for music with his passion for teaching. After all, he does share updates on his blues pursuits with students from time to time, with very positive results. “Some students I’ve talked to really love the blues,” he says. “It may be very niche today, but it’s far from being extinct.”
Catch Sugar Brown live
Those interested in checking out Sugar Brown can catch him at Grossman’s Tavern (379 Spadina Avenue) on the night of June 16.