Island Voices: Yuki Yamazato
Of all the female singers from the so-called first generation of recording artists in the Ryukyu Islands, Yuki Yamazato has long been at the forefront as an interpreter of traditional songs. Now 73 years old, she was born in Motobu on the main island of Okinawa. Her father had a great love for Okinawan minyo and she soon developed a similar interest in the old songs. She began singing and playing sanshin and soon developed into a tremendous singer with an elegant way of performing.
Yamazato became a pupil of Tsuneo Fukuhara, whose father Choki – a musician, songwriter and producer – had established Marufuku Records in Osaka and recorded many of the early singers. Yamazato originally recorded with the legendary Rinsho Kadekaru and in 1965 she became the first woman singer to record the song ‘Motobu Nakuni’. Along with her contemporary, Misako Oshiro, who is one year older, she can lay a strong claim to being the outstanding female performer of Okinawan songs. While Oshiro is probably better known because of her many trips to perform in mainland Japan, the less outgoing Yamazato has maintained her vocal power and is still singing as well as ever.
The best introduction to her recorded work on CD is the 17 track Marufuku album Yamazato Yuki Tokushu which was made several years ago. On here she sings a number of traditional songs as well as compositions by Choki Fukuhara. Haha nu Fuchukuru is another good album from her earlier days but is available only as a cassette tape. On this and some other older recordings she is called Yukiko Yamazato. My own favourite is her duet album with Minoru Kinjo, entitled Miwaku no Duet, which is now available on CD and must rank as one of the classics of island recording history. More recently, she made a solo album Nuchi Tichi Bushi, in 2007, also on Marufuku, and a joint album Doushibi together with fellow singers Katsuko Yohen and Keiko Kinjo. Doushibi was released through Campus Records.
Yuki Yamazato has won various awards for her singing. She also appeared at the annual ‘Sanshin no hi’ event in Yomitan earlier this year along with Katsuko Yohen and Keiko Kinjo and sounded as good as ever. Unlike some singers who run their own minyo ‘live houses’, Yamazato and Yohen host their own bar (or ‘snack’ as it’s known to the Japanese) in Koza (Okinawa City) – which like their album is also named Doushibi. Here they serve the drinks and also sing to a select group of regular customers. When I went there Yamazato told me that she used to have the more usual minyo place but found it was no fun having to perform on stage every night. Here she sings only when she feels like it and takes requests from the small clientele of true Okinawan music enthusiasts.