Arts & Culture
1:17 pm
Thu January 23, 2014

Raleigh Musician: 'It’s Amazing How These Poems Brought My Own Memories Back'

Yuri Yamamoto and her father, Shigeru Takeshima, Tokyo, Japan - 1960's
Yuri Yamamoto and her father Shigeru Takeshima, 1960's, Tokyo, Japan

When the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, Yuri Yamamoto was living far from home.  She was born in Tokyo, but has lived in North Carolina since the '80s. Even so, she felt a need to help. And, she's done about as much as anyone here.

She traveled to Japan, directly to the affected area and shoveled tsunami debris. She met evacuated families, and helped them clean their photos. She helped clear out a tsunami washed graveyard. And, wherever she went, she met people, listened to them, took photos and shared their stories. (She even helped WUNC find storytellers from the region.)

More than two years have passed since the initial destruction. Yuri has gone back "home" several times since.

I was sitting on this slow train reading these poems, and these songs came into my mind. -Yuri Yamamoto

On one of her visits, her elderly parents mentioned a book of poems that they were finding meaningful. The poems were written by Masao Tachiya, a relatively unknown poet. Tachiya is from Fukushima, a region strongly affected by the devastation.

Yuri says she was was on a train in Japan, when she opened the book of poetry. "I was sitting on this slow train reading these poems, and these songs came into my mind. A lot of poems were about how [the poet] remembered his home, and missing home, and sometimes there were [sentiments] like 'I wish those days would come back,'" she says.

Yuri is a pianist, and as she was reading the poetry, she began to imagine the poems presented with a musical backdrop.

Some of the poems were written before the earthquake and tsunami, but they have a stronger meaning today because so much has changed in Japan. 

Yuri Yamamoto and her dad
Yuri Yamamoto and her dad Shigeru Takeshima

Yuri planned to write down the notes she was hearing in her head. She wanted to write the music for herself, and also for her father. She knew her dad was very ill and did not have long to live, and she wanted him to be able to hear the music. "My dad was so happy about the whole thing. I felt like he was my biggest cheerleader, even though he had a terminal illness, he would always say when I arrived [in Japan], you are going to Fukushima, right?" she says.

The music that Yuri produced has now become an album, thanks to a grant from the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. She's written 18 original compositions based on the poems she read that day on the train.

Poems And Music Prompt Lost Memories

Yuri says that not only did the project become something she did in honor of her father, she learned something about her mother as well. "I didn't remember a lot of good things about my mother," she says. "I even joked to the poet, and said  'In your poems, you mentioned a lot about mothers, I wish you wrote about dads!'"

But as she got further into the poetry, and the music composition, she began to go through her family photos. She found more than a troubled relationship with her mother. "I discovered that in a lot of those photos we were smiling together."

Yuri Yamamoto and her mother,  Tokyo Japan
Yuri Yamamoto and her mother, Hatsuko Takeshima, Tokyo, Japan. Hatsuko Takeshima died in 1994.

One poem was about how the poet's mother woke him up to tell him about snow. "And sure enough I found a picture of my mother and I in one of the major snowstorms in 1964-1965. And my mom was making a snowman. It's amazing how these poems, they brought my own memories back."

That poem about snow became the second track on the album.

Yuri Yamamoto says that everything came together for her in this project. She gained an appreciation for her mother, and was able to honor her dying father.

"My heart was in the right place. Losing my father who -- I don't know if I love anybody more than my dad, we were very close."

Here is a piano improvisation Yuri wrote specifically for her dad:

Here is a Youtube trailer, a sampler of cuts from the album:

Listen to sample tracks from the album here.  The CD is Yuri's first. She plans to send 500 copies to people affected by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. The CD's are available locally at Quail Ridge Books.