Four years ago musician Phil Nyokai James had a stroke. His recovery has been arduous, but he’s back – and ready to celebrate with a performance at Mayo Street Arts.

It may appear self-indulgent to throw oneself a public birthday party, but Portland musician Phil Nyokai James has reason to celebrate.

James turns 60 on Friday, and will celebrate with a concert at Mayo Street Arts. James, a composer who plays Japanese bamboo flute (shakuhachi) and piano, will be joined by trumpeter Mark Tipton, flutist Carl Dimow and dancer Maria Kennedy-Castro. They will present a program of improvisational music and movement.

“I want to make it a celebratory event for my birthday,” said James. “I expect a lot of people there, and it should be a good show. I’m really looking forward to it.”

He is grateful for his friends’ support at Friday’s concert. But mostly, he’s just really happy to be making music again – and how.

Four years ago this month, he suffered a stroke while driving away from the Grand Canyon after a winter vacation with his wife, Lara Schneider, who was seven months pregnant at the time. As James collapsed behind the wheel, Schneider frantically maneuvered the car to safety, moved her husband into the passenger seat and drove for help. She was out of cellphone range.


James spent several weeks in a hospital in Arizona before returning to Maine.

He has been recuperating since.

He’s not all the way back to where he was before his stroke. He estimates his speech is about 80 percent back, and he has worked hard to regain the function of his right arm. But his mind is good, and he feels great. He’s resumed a busy teaching career, and is moving back into the performance realm.

He believes he’s a better musician now than he was before his stroke, and is eager to get back on stage in Portland.

“I was very much messed up, but I think I play better now than I used to play. I’m sort of ‘fixed.’ I can play the piano better than I used to. I can play the shakuhachi better than I used to. Magic has happened with my music,” he said.

Because of the improvisational nature of James’ music, it’s hard to offer specifics about what we will hear on Friday. But generally, James mixes traditional Japanese meditations with the electric noise, and on Friday will have the support of other instruments, as well as a dancer who will interpret the music with movement.


James also writes poetry, and it’s likely that he will perform some of his poems as well.

He was born in New York, and received his musical inclination from his father, Philip James. His dad was a composer, conductor and music educator.

It appears he is passing his music down, just as his father did. James’ son, Julian, who will turn 4 in April, has begun playing the violin.

James has lived in Portland for a decade.

In Japanese music circles, he remains an influential figure. He learned to play the shakuhachi from masters in Japan, and is considered a master himself. His students live around the globe, and he teaches them via Skype from his Portland apartment. He has recorded several CDs.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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