It wasn’t so many years before his Rome Prize that Akiho didn’t think of himself as a composer at all. He grew up in Columbia, S.C.; his white Southern mother met his father, a Japanese hibachi chef, when she went out to eat.
Akiho’s father wasn’t in the picture for much of his childhood, and his older sister helped raise him; she was into rock drumming and introduced him to her kit. In high school, he dived into the world of drum lines, and at the University of South Carolina stumbled on an unexpectedly rich musical environment. There was West African drumming, jazz ensembles and, crucially, steel pan, for which Akiho quickly showed an affinity.
“I became the steel pan guy,” he said over onigiri after the Sandbox rehearsal. Akiho traveled to Trinidad to experience large pan ensembles, then moved to New York in 2003. He played with bands in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; did cocktail party and wedding gigs; and helped to organize a steel pan program in two public schools.
Reunited a few years later with his father, who was living in Washington, Akiho briefly went to work there as a sushi chef. “It’s like music,” he recalled realizing. “I could devote the rest of my life to doing this. But I have to pick one or the other; I can’t do both. So I picked music.”
He hadn’t had to read a score in years, but was accepted into the contemporary performance program at Manhattan School of Music as his class’s only percussionist, which placed him in high demand as a player. The program didn’t focus on composition, but after full days of classes, he would go home and write.
Having met the renowned composer Julia Wolfe, he began to study with her on the side, bartering rhythm lessons for her children. “I had creative ideas, but I didn’t know what I was doing yet,” he said. “And her vibe was not trying to sculpt me into a specific dogma.”