Japan is a country that is very much a blend of traditional meets contemporary. This becomes apparent simply by walking around the streets where you’ll be likely to see a Shinto shrine next to a block of modern apartments; or when you visit someone’s house and see the world’s latest technology sitting alongside tatami mats. The contrast can also be found a bit deeper below the surface within areas such as Japan’s music scene.
A talented artist who wears a combination of older and newer influences on her sleeve has slowly been gaining popularity over the last few years. Her name is Yuko Suzuhana (鈴華ゆう子).
Yuko had a very early introduction to music and also traditional Japanese culture. She started learning classical piano at only three years old, and a couple years later began learning the art of shigin (詩吟). Shigin is an ancient form of poetry recital which started in China and is said to have been introduced into Japan during the 5th century. At such a young age, it probably wouldn’t have been Yuko’s choice to pursue something like shigin, but we can thank her family for guiding her towards something which is normally in the realm of much older people.
Yuko persisted with both piano and shigin and eventually won many esteemed national competitions in both arts during her youth. Her talents led her to pursue a Major in Music at Tokyo College of Music, and she has also obtained formal qualifications to teach shigin. Most relevant to the rest of us is that her formative years also led to a career in music which has allowed her to showcase her combined talents within various guises.
Yuko’s very early releases included a few self-released mini-albums of her shigin poetry recitals. She also formed a group called “Asty” with two college friends, where Yuko sang pop-style ballads backed by the piano and violin of her friends. The group released three mini-albums via their Myspace page. However, after those earlier forays into music, Yuko made some important connections which took her musical career to the next level.
A desire to add instrumentation to her shigin repertoire resulted in her forming a musical trio called “Hanafugetsu,” recruiting the talents of shakuhachi player Daisuke Kaminaga, and the koto of Kiyoshi Ibukuro. Along with Yuko’s distinctive and wide-ranging vocal ability, the light yet dramatic strings of Kiyoshi’s koto, plus the beautiful and emotive flute sounds of Daisuke’s shakuhachi combine to create a captivating traditional sound. The group also provide something beyond that sound by including Yuko’s piano playing in many of their songs.
To date, the group has released four albums, including a triple CD release in June 2017. Their songs come in a variety of forms, comprising vocal tracks, instrumentals, original compositions, and cover versions of beautiful songs such as “Hanamizuki (ハナミズキ)” and “Yuki no Hana (雪の華).”
Hanafugetsu Website *Japanese only
Formed in 2012, Wagakki Band propelled Yuko’s career to much greater heights. In addition to Yuko and the other members from Hanafugetsu, the band also includes the strings of the shamisen and the drum rhythms of the taiko. “Wagakki” actually means “traditional Japanese musical instrument,” so the band is definitely being true to their name in that respect. However, they add something very different to that tradition as the group also includes an ensemble of rock musicians i.e. a drummer, guitarist, and a bass player. The fusion of those elements with the constant of Yuko’s outstanding vocals result in Wagakki Band providing a sound that is energetic, unique, and multi-dimensional.
The blending of modern music with traditional isn’t a new thing in Japanese music. In fact, the female trio called “Rin'” spring to mind instantly as a group that became known for such a blend of music. However, Rin’ only had subtle leanings towards contemporary music, as opposed to Wagakki Band whose upfront heavy guitars and pounding drums add a powerful sonic drive to the melting pot of instruments. Those harder rock sounds do occasionally dominate the more subtle traditional instruments in the mix of the busier songs, but it doesn’t detract from the quality and appeal of the many layers functioning in unison to create the band’s music.
The band’s imagery is almost as significant as the music itself. Many of their music videos are elaborate collages of traditional color and artistic flair as the costumes and overall image of the band is a mesh of traditional Japanese clothing, visual kei, and the fantasy of anime. The same can be said for their live performances which are a spectacular display of rock edge combined with the grace of ancient tradition, highlighted by Yuko leading the way with graceful moves whilst singing with a fan in one hand.
The song that really made people take notice of the group was “Senbonzakura (千本桜),” which is a cover version of a song by Vocaloid artist Hatsune Miku. As I write this, the song has more than 65 MILLION views on YouTube!
The band’s first album release, “Vocalo Zanmai (ボカロ三昧),” followed the same strategy of covering Vocaloid songs. Since then, the group has released two more albums which contain original songs, some being theme songs for anime and drama series. Their song “Kishikaisei (起死回生)” was actually used as a theme for TV Tokyo’s 2016 Olympics broadcast, and recognition of their international popularity was evidenced by the fact that they went on tour in the US in 2016 and have also held concerts in Taiwan.
2016 became an even bigger year for Yuko with the release of her first official solo album called “Cradle of Eternity.” For this project, she put aside traditional music and gave us a sound placed in a more typical pop sphere.
Admittedly, the songs on the album don’t appeal to me as much as Yuko’s group efforts, but her voice can carry most music to places that many other singers can’t. The songs range in style from pop-tinged rock numbers to dramatic J-pop ballads, and Yuko’s piano playing is also evident on the album. A couple of the songs are quite reminiscent of the Wagakki Band style, albeit they lack that special something extra without the traditional instruments. However, by all means, seek this album out if you’re a fan of any of Yuko’s other work.
I listen to a wide variety of Japanese music, but I do find that some of it can be rather derivative of Western music. One reason I like Yuko’s music so much is that she offers something distinctly Japanese, but with added elements that make her music more accessible for younger Japanese people and non-Japanese; both of whom wouldn’t normally pay much attention to traditional music.
Also endearing is that her music is created with a sense of integrity and maturity which sets it far apart from some others of her generation who have achieved fame via the rather soulless idol route. It doesn’t hurt that she has an amazing vocal range either. Most importantly, it’s via young people like Yuko that ancient traditions can be maintained and preserved for the future, and thus, I hope the career of this talented woman keeps blossoming.
Yuko Suzuhana Official Website *Japanese only