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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 Jackson—sometimes called the world's best gospel singer—singing 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 activities.

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 personality.

Yuka Kamebuchi & The Voices of Japan play Koseinenkin Kaikan on December 24-25. See listings for details.

credit: Turtle Music Plant

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