The Pink Magnolias may be atypical, but they’re certainly no novelty act. The Japanese three-piece is the real deal, with a background as solid as anyone on the music scene.
Keiko Komaki started studying classical piano when she was 5 years old and started playing New Orleans music two decades later in Japan. “I saw the Wild Magnolias at the Tokyo Blue Note. That blew my mind,” she said. “I moved here right after Katrina—followed them to New Orleans. They were the first band I sat in with. After I came here they hired me. Things happened. Being in Marva Wright’s band taught me gospel and how to play the blues.” Since then she’s played with notables including Vasti Jackson, Brass-A-Holics and Benny Turner and Real Blues, and she now tours with Playing For Change.
Vocalist and harmonica player Yuko Kido, a.k.a. Lady Butterfly, has been singing since high school. She made several trips to the U.S. and in 2007 brought her harmonica. “My favorite player is Lazy Lester. He accepted me as a student. I learned from him. I moved to Chicago in 2009 and came to New Orleans a year later. I was walking on Bourbon Street, heard a blues song, and went in the club. Keiko was playing with Marva Wright. Her keyboard playing was amazing,” said Kido.
Mayumi “Shara” Vurzu was a drummer in Japan playing modern jazz and bebop. “Elvin Jones was my god,” she enthused. “I moved here in 1998. I really liked traditional New Orleans jazz music. I went to Preservation Hall almost every day at that time to hear the band. The drummer Shannon Powell is still my favorite. I was soon playing with Tuba Fats.” After that she started learning blues, funk and Mardi Gras Indian music. Vurzu played with the Marva Wright band, Benny Turner, James Rivers and Kermit Ruffins. She continued, “I have my own band, Mayumi Shara & New Orleans Jazz Letters. Victor Goines and Victor Atkins were on my CD.”
Formation of the three-piece came from a gig Komaki was offered at now-shuttered Frenchmen Street institution Yuki Izakaya. “Who do I want to play with? Mayumi and Yuko,” she recalled. “It was the first time we played together—2012. It was so fun. People were like ‘What? Three Asians are playing this!’ People came in and went out and brought many people in.” Kido added, “They enjoyed our music. We thought we should play more together.”
The chemistry worked. Komaki’s influences of Professor Longhair and Dr. John, Kido’s of James Cotton and Slim Harpo, and Vurzu’s of New Orleans funk like the Meters in addition to all kinds of music wove together as a high-energy groove.
One might think the name Pink Magnolias came from the influence of the Wild Magnolias. “We started to think about a band name. I had the idea way before since magnolias are a symbol flower. They didn’t like the pink part. In Japan, if you say pink people have an image of a sexy thing. A club owner told us it was a perfect name. Then those two started to like it,” said Vurzu.
A band created by Japanese ladies who met each other in New Orleans is bound to have unique qualities. “We had somebody request, ‘Play a Japanese song,’ so we put a Japanese children’s folk song with a blues shuffle on the spot and it perfectly fit,” said Komaki. Vurzu continued, “It had a call and response part people liked. We love New Orleans. We love music. We love New Orleans music. We try to get rid of all kinds of walls to combine and create something original.”
This sense of adventure is nothing new for any of them, especially Vurzu, who plays Japanese traditional taiko drums, first in New Orleans with Big Chief Alfred Doucette when she came here almost 20 years ago and more recently with MaDeTo.
Those attending Bayou Boogaloo can look forward to an expanded Pink Magnolias beyond the core trio, with a number of very special guests including Mardi Gras Indian Spy Boy Honey, Norwood “Geechie” Johnson and June Yamagishi. Expect a wide variety by the band, who have an enlarging repertoire of songs and sounds. In fact, they’re working on bringing in three-part harmonies. “We’re still growing,” they all stressed.
Pink Magnolias have seen another transformation at their shows as sometimes skeptical audiences quickly realize how good they really are. “That’s the fun part,” laughed Komaki. It’s a dream come true for these three who found that following their own paths to New Orleans for the source of the music that so inspired them around 7,000 miles away ended up being what brought them together.
It’s important to each that they gain respect and serve as good role models. “I want to show people a woman’s power,” Kido asserted. Vurzu added, “As a woman. As a human being.”