Island Voices: Yasuko Yoshida
Yasuko Yoshida is best known to most Okinawan music fans as one of the founder members of the group Nenes who were enormously popular throughout the 1990s. Along with Misako Koja she was a senior member of the band whose phenomenal success has never been matched by subsequent line-ups of the female quartet. Unlike Koja, she has not gone on to a high profile solo recording career but has nevertheless remained active as a singer and sanshin player and her clear, strong and distinctive voice can be heard regularly at Sadao China’s club Shimauta on Naha’s Kokusai-dori where she sings once a week. She also has a hand in coaching and guiding the newer members of Nenes.
Yoshida was born in Nago in the north of Okinawa’s main island and grew up surrounded by Okinawan music. From 1990 to 1999 she was a member of Nenes but during this time she also released a solo album Ijaibi, which came out in 1997 on the Marufuku label. Nenes helped out with backing vocals and mentor Sadao China also put in an appearance. It was a successful album but since then the only other solo release has been Yanbaru nu Hana her second solo album in 2001, also on Marufuku. On this album she sings a number of songs with strong traditional roots but there are also a couple of songs (including the title track) written by Bisekatsu and Sadao China, and a song by Teihan China. Yukino and Namiko from the original Nenes line-up supply hayashi (backing vocals).
Yoshida has a brilliant voice and a great knowledge and understanding of traditional Okinawan songs. The fact that she has recorded only a couple of solo albums means she is somewhat less known outside Okinawa than some other female singers. She appeared again recently as a singer on several tracks on Sadao China’s 6 CD box set Shimauta Hyakkei which won a Japanese national record award. In addition to singing at Shimauta she also runs her own club together with her husband in Nago.
When I first met Nenes back in their early days, I interviewed Misako Koja and Yasuko Yoshida for a magazine article. I asked them if they ever played in front of foreigners. Yoshida was quick to reply: “If you mean Japanese, then yes, we get a lot of them at our concerts”. Expanding on her theme she added: “I’m not Japanese at all, I’m Okinawan. I think of Japanese as foreigners.” She went on to explain how she and others of her age were forced as schoolchildren to speak only standard Japanese and were made to feel their own language and culture were inferior. But at home she quickly slipped back into speaking Okinawan. Yoshida has almost certainly forgotten this little exchange but I remembered and included it in The Power of Okinawa book. It reveals a lot about a strong woman who is a fine singer steeped in the traditions of Okinawa and still performing at her peak long after the Nenes years.