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Guitarist Erik Hokkanen was born into music and continues to push the boundaries and add styles to his repertoire. Photo by Phil Houseal

You can catch Erik Hokkanen playing good music at Hondo's. Visit www.hondosonmain.com for schedule.

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Erik Hokkanen: Born into music

by Phil Houseal
Jan 23 08

I knew Erik Hokkanen was a different sort of musician when he introduced a song by saying, "Here's a little country tune - from the country of Yemen."

The Austin-based artist then took off on a gypsy song in the harmonic minor scale.

The guy first impresses as an insane instrumentalist, equally dazzling on electric guitar and fiddle. But there is something else there. His talent reaches deeper than going pyro on strings. The guy is a born musician. Literally.

"My mom was pregnant with me and was playing the piano," he said. "I was born into music, basically."

He also was led into it by an older brother who shared some eclectic tastes.

"I learned Beatles songs from him when I was 11," Hokkanen said. "Then my brother was playing bluegrass and listening to Irish and folk rock. Then we would practice some old fiddle tune, then next might be a Charlie Parker tune, then Renaissance recorder music. We even listened to Ravel and Debussy."

The young sponge followed a similar journey when it came to choosing a musical instrument. He started playing piano at age 4, then his brother taught him mandolin. Then it was on to sax, which did not satisfy his thirst for musical knowledge, even in 6th grade.

"Since it was beginning class, we were given all the long notes - trumpets and flutes got all the melodies," he said. "I became disenchanted with that because I didn't feel there was enough action - I wanted to keep learning and keep playing."

He tried harmonica, then moved to fiddle at the suggestion of his brother. He took lessons both on old-time fiddle tunes and basic classical violin.

Finally, at age 14, Hokkanen got going on guitar. But all the steps leading to that moment helped shape his musical destiny, which goes beyond the instrument.

"The passion is the love for music," he answered. "If you really learn to respect each instrument and what it has to offer, then any instrument can be your instrument of passion."

Hokkanen has become a legend among Austin musicians, and is revered in the Netherlands. But with his eclectic tastes, Hokkanen realizes he may have passed earlier chances for commercial success.

"Back in the late 80s people told me what I was doing was career suicide," he said. "If I'd had a semi-hit with Texas western swing fiddle, then people would want that formula. But I follow my heart the whole way, man. The way I learned is good music is good music."

The music industry may have caught up with Hokkanen. Today there is a market for "a guy who can play a gypsy tune, then a great old fiddle tune, western swing, a Django tune, a surfing tune, then something totally different from all that."

"The job of the musician is to bring out the beauty of the music," he said. "My thing always was to play well."

The self-effacing man seems bemused by his status as a guitar icon. He barely considers himself as a pro.

"I'm still an amateur at heart - I'm still a student. If I have a drop of talent, I think of myself as a brown belt," he laughed, adding, "it's not for me to say I'm great. I'm still in my early 40s and there is a desire to play well. I'm still learning. I've learned a lot but I don't know very much."

Nor does he subscribe to the gunslinger theory of guitar playing. It's always about the music.

"If some guy can do more than me, go for it man," he said. "I don't sweat that - I'm not in competition. That's for other people. For me, it's to play sincerely."

"When you become an artist you become a personality. Your personality is in your playing. I play honestly and sincerely. It's just music. We play good music."