An Interview with Yu Tamura

Japanese dancer, singer and musician Yu Tamura has been interested in Okinawan music for several years and is a member of the re-formed group An-chang Project (featured in The Power of Okinawa book, chapter 3). Yu is originally from Tokyo but has recently moved to Thailand. This week she played with An-chang Project at an event on Yonaguni Island before flying on to Okinawa to visit me yesterday on her way back to Bangkok. I took the opportunity to ask her some questions about her involvement as a new member of An-chang Project and about her musical activities in general.

Tokyo based An-chang Project were formed by Jun Yasuba as a trio and they released two albums. A compilation Monkey Harmonizing Songs was also released in Europe a few years ago and it put together their first album plus five tracks from their second. The striking vocal harmonies and unusual musical arrangements feature songs from the Ryukyus, Taiwan and some islands of the Pacific as well as a few original songs. Sadly, one of the trio Yoshie Uno died in July 2009 after a long illness at the age of 47, but the group are now performing regularly again with Yasuba and four new members, including Yu Tamura on percussion.

Yu Tamura

Yu Tamura

Now for one of those coincidences that would seem too far-fetched if it appeared in a novel. At the start of the 1980s I was a teacher at the same international school in England which Yu Tamura attended as a child – in fact, she was one of my class members. Our paths didn’t cross again for 30 years until I discovered through Jun Yasuba that Yu was a new member of An-chang Project. We had both developed a love for Okinawan music quite independently throughout this time and Yu was equally surprised to learn that I was living in Okinawa. We made contact again after all these years and finally met up in Okinawa last year. The power of Okinawa indeed!

Here are some of the questions I asked Yu yesterday. She answered everything in completely fluent English:

You’ve just arrived in Okinawa from Yonaguni Island. How did you come to be there?

I went there as a member of An-chang Project to take part at a gathering held for the elders of Yonaguni because this Monday (16th September) was old people’s day and they gather every year on that day and have lunch together and just celebrate being old, I guess. They always have children and young people coming to perform and this year they invited us to participate in the event and play a few Yonaguni songs that Jun Yasuba had arranged. This was to encourage the elders to stand up and say “OK, that’s how you arrange the song but we will show you the original version”.

Jun Yasuba plays sanshin and is An-chang Project’s only founder member but you have a new line-up now with five musicians.

Yes, there are five of us now and we play sanshin, guitar, Ryukyu and Japanese flutes and various kinds of drums and percussion. And of course we all sing because harmonization is a great thing for us. We used to just gather in Yoshie Uno’s bar in Tokyo and sing Taiwanese songs and Yonaguni songs as well as other An-chang Project songs, so it was just like a group of people who like to sing and harmonize. After Yoshie became sick and then passed away I approached Jun and asked her if we could sing somewhere if there was an opportunity. Just to keep the songs of An-chang Project alive and for the memory of Yoshie. It came about at a good time because a friend of mine was organising a summer festival event and so we did a few songs there and from then on we started to be a bit more active.

Although you play sanshin you are mainly a percussionist with An-chang Project.

Yes. Jun plays sanshin and I can play sanshin and there was already a guitarist so that position was taken. Of course, we needed drums and so I took on that job and I play shimadaiko and various other kinds of percussion.

And you knew Jun Yasuba before that?

We started working with these new members after Yoshie passed away but I originally met Jun in 1996 so it’s been quite a long time. At that time I organised an indigenous concert with a group of friends. At first the idea was to invite musicians from the Bunun people of Taiwan but it wasn’t enough to just have them so we decided to broaden it and we invited musicians from Okinawa and from the Ainu of Japan and Native Americans. Also, my mother was one of the first people to introduce new Taiwanese cinema to Japan and she was writing about Taiwan contemporary cinema. Jun had read my mum’s book and was actually a fan of her books. They met during the concert and Jun found out that I was her daughter. But besides that we became friends and I saw her again in 1997 when we organised a concert again with different artists from around the world.

You are a musician with An-chang Project but you originally trained as a dancer didn’t you?

Dancing is still my main thing really. In fact, I do some dancing with An-chang Project too and I just did some in Yonaguni. There’s this dance from Okinoerabu which Jun taught me and I joined Shisars and An-chang Project a few times to do it. But when I began dancing I went to New York and learned many different styles of dance. Maybe too many! During that time it was the era of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and Flashdance and Footloose so I imagined that if you wanted to be a dancer then you had to do the things people did in those films. You had to work on the streets and maybe go to auditions. And it was Michael Jackson’s Thriller that really got me to dance. I spent six years in America learning to dance and just doing odd jobs to make ends meet. And before that, of course, I was in England for ten years at Summerhill School.

Did you also want to be a musician at that time?

I always loved music and I also wanted to play an instrument. Even at Summerhill I gave it a go on the drums and played piano. After school I wanted to play guitar because it was easy to carry around and you can play any kind of song. I was listening to Joni Mitchell but the friends around me were listening to heavy metal and Nirvana and things I didn’t really want to play on the guitar. Then Yoshie and Jun started teaching me sanshin in Tokyo. It was kind of simple and the environment was good for me. They taught me the songs of Yonaguni because every year there’s an exam that they do mainly for the children so that the kids will learn the songs of the island. So I started learning those songs for the exam and from then on I really stuck with it, especially after Yoshie passed away. I just wanted to continue with it even though I knew I might never become that good at it. I feel like it’s a gift or something that Yoshie left with me and I don’t think I will ever stop.

Will there be a new album sometime?

We’ve been talking about recording a few songs just to sharpen up our skills and to update the sound. Everything that we play, my bible is the two CDs that An-Chang Project released. I listen to them and I copy all my taiko playing from there.

Is there any special reason why you’ve just moved to Thailand?

Why I moved to Thailand is quite simple. It was partly for economic reasons because the cost of living is cheaper there and I just wanted to try and put some money aside for my own projects such as my dance theatre pieces. I also have several friends in Thailand and they are all into theatre. It was just easy to live there and I knew the country well enough and already had friends there. And I just wanted to be in Asia. I know Japan is in Asia but this is different. Living in another country broadens your perspective about Asia. So now I’m thinking about cultures and traditions and songs and why it’s important to keep them alive. Not to preserve them as they are but to keep them alive by changing them and utilizing them in a positive way.

Is it a problem maintaining contact with An-chang Project?

That was one of my concerns when I was thinking about moving away from Japan. I needed to have easy access to be able to join An-chang Project whenever they were playing and also to my family just in case something happens. We’ll see how it goes but it hasn’t been a problem up to now.

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