“Piano was my first instrument. I started to play when I was five years old; my mom wanted my older sister and I to learn. We grew up listening to classical music and I remember my mom, she loved ‘The Nutcracker.’ When I saw ‘The Nutcracker’ ballet in New York for the first time, two years ago, I knew all the songs.
I grew up in Kagoshima, Japan. When I graduated from classical studies, I decided to be a keyboard player. My dad always wanted me to work a real job, not a musician, but I was like, ‘No, I want to be a keyboardist.’ Started a part-time job, joined a band and started doing gigs in Tokyo.
Then I met a guy who loves New Orleans music. He started his own band I was in doing New Orleans funk, like the Neville Brothers, the Meters, Papa Grows Funk. In 2004, the Wild Magnolias and Papa Grows Funk came to Japan. That blew my mind. I thought, ‘Wow! This is so much fun.’ At that time, we decided to visit New Orleans and came to the Jazz Fest in 2005. I knew I had to move here; I knew I had to come here to learn this music.
I was preparing to move here when Katrina happened. My mom, dad and sister all were, ‘No! Not New Orleans.’ But at that time, I felt, ‘If I don’t do it now, it will never happen.’ I was 29 years old and it was the turning point in my life.
The most beautiful part of New Orleans music culture is that it is a part of life. At night, people want to go out and listen to music and dance and have a little drink and have a good time with the music. How I grew up in Japan, music was something I listened to. Sitting in a club or theater, just listening to music. Nothing like here, everyone enjoying the music together. Participating in it. That is the great part.
The first person who let me play here was Marva Wright; she and her bass player, Benny Turner, taught me how to play blues. I used to go Monday nights to the Maple Leaf, the first place I played when I moved here, to sit in with Papa Grows Funk. Being it’s New Orleans, I learned jazz. Now I mostly tour with Playing for Change, which has taken me to Europe, South America, Australia. Here, I play with Marc Stone, Yakamein, was in the Brass-A-Holics for five years. Sometimes Johnny [Vidacovich] calls me to play in his trio. I started Pink Magnolias, an all-female, all-Japanese blues band.
When I moved here, I couldn’t speak English at all. But I knew the Meters or Papa Grows Funk tunes. So when I sat in, at the beginning, they were like, ‘What is this Asian woman doing? Wow!’ Music is the best communication tool. It is the universal language. Now I travel the world and share the music and know that we can enjoy the music together and we can be friends after the show.”