by Dan Grunebaum
Yuka Kamebuchi & The Voices of Japan
It's clear from the moment Yuka Kamebuchi steps on stage
in a recent concert at the Setagaya Public Theater that we're
dealing with something different. In contrast to the petite
scale and bird-like quavering of many Japanese women vocalists,
Big Mama Yuka boasts the barrel chest and dominant
persona that one might associate with someone more like American
soul icon Aretha Franklin.
This, it turns out, should not be a surprise. Franklin is
one of Yuka's idols, and was an inspiration for her as
she developed into perhaps Japan's biggest gospel singer.
As leader of her gospel choir The Voices of Japan, Yuka is
a one-woman missionary for the great tradition of black American
spirituals. Her work can be heard most recently on the recent
release Dedication, which stated its case plainly with stirring
renditions of standards such as Down By The Riverside
and Amazing Grace.
The 58-year old Yuka has come a long way from her birthplace
on Japan's northernmost isle of Hokkaido. Relocating
to Tokyo as a child, she says she experienced a revelation
as an elementary school student when she was brought to tears
by Mahalia Jacksonsometimes called the world's
best gospel singersinging in the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival
documentary film Jazz on a Summer's Day.
Making her own debut as a vocalist in 1968, Yuka later moved
to Miami in 1980 after getting married. After this period,
during which she was able to experience gospel first-hand,
Yuka returned to Japan in 1987 and began to get serious about
her musical career.
Boosting her profile with appearances in musicals and on film
and television soundtracks, Yuka went on to become a voice
trainer to stars like Speed and Misia. In 1993, she also launched
The Voices of Japan (VOJA) as a vehicle for her and her growing
numbers of disciples.
At present, the group numbers more than 60 members ranging
in age from teenagers to those in their 40s. VOJA engages
in a wide variety of activities, from live concerts to TV
appearances to appearances at high schools. It's annual
Christmas concerts have become a tradition since 1999, with
over 300 members participating in a special chorus.
Meanwhile, Yuka has also been a virtual ambassador for gospel,
leading gospel workshops and tours to LA and New York, and
running her VOJA chorus academy. In 1998, she also set up
the Turtle Music Plant production company as a focus for her
But first and foremost, as her rousing concert in Setagaya
made clear, Yuka is a natural performer, working the ears
and hearts of the crowd with her big voice and even bigger
Yuka Kamebuchi & The Voices
of Japan play Koseinenkin Kaikan on December 24-25. See listings
credit: Turtle Music Plant