Yuri Yamamoto was on a train headed to Fukushima, Japan, a few months after the country’s 2011 earthquake, when she started reading a collection of poems by Masao Tachiya.
As Yamamoto turned through the pages, she found Tachiya’s poems resonated deeply with her and she was taken by the rhythms of his work.
Suddenly, she was sure the poems could be lyrics. Yamamoto, a pianist and singer, started composing then and there.
“All of these melodies started coming out,” said Yamamoto, who grew up in Japan but has spent most of her adult life in Raleigh.
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Now, nearly three years after the earthquake, she has released a CD, “Japan, My Homeland,” a collection that grew out of her compositions on the train. Yamamoto, 53, hopes the proceeds from the album will help support those affected by the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster.
In part, it’s a song that landed Yamamoto on the train.
In the weeks after the earthquake, Yamamoto found herself unable to look away from the news, but she wondered about why the disaster in Japan affected her so deeply.
After all, she reasoned, horrible things happen all over the world. Why should she feel that way after so many years away from Japan?
Today, Yamamoto, thinks that a big part of the reason was simply that she still feels a deep tie to Japan, even as she and her husband have built a life here.
But at the time, it was difficult to make sense of her feelings and to know what she should do to help.
Then, she found herself at a service at Martin Street Baptist Church listening to a rendition of “If I Can Help Somebody” by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
The song’s message made everything clear for Yamamoto. Helping, no matter what, was worth it. She didn’t have to solve the puzzle of her feelings before she could act.
“If you want to do something, you should do it,” she said. “You don’t have to know why.”
Helping in Japan
Yamamoto traveled to Japan where she helped with relief work, performed for refugees and came across Tachiya’s poems. She met Tachiya, who sent her more poems to set to music.
Since then, Yamamoto has performed in Japan with Tachiya as well as at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, where she is the music director. She said the support of members of the church has been instrumental in her work during the past few years.
“I cannot really pretend to say that these things could have happened without me being here,” she said.
Yamamoto also applied for and was awarded a “Regional Artist Project Grant” by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County that allowed her to record “Japan, My Homeland.”
The album includes 18 tracks with Tachiya’s poems set to music by Yamamoto, who sings and plays piano. They features scenes of everyday life and traditions.
The songs include two with lyrics written after the tsunami. But even those that were written before have taken on new meaning, said Yamamoto. When Tachiya writes about the good old days, it suddenly means much more than a moment in an individual’s life, she said.
Now that the album is complete, Yamamoto wonders how listeners who don’t understand Japanese will respond, if they’ll know all she’s trying to convey about a country that means so much to her.
But then she remembers a man who heard her sing at the charity concert she gave in Raleigh. He told Yamamoto that her singing had helped him to understand her feelings about the disaster and Japan.
That sense of understanding is what she most hopes people will take away from the album.
“I hope that people can feel my heart,” she said.
The album is available at CDBaby.com and at Quail Ridge Bookstore, 3522 Wade Ave.