Call Yoko Noge a Renaissance woman. By day, she works as a correspondent at a Japanese financial paper. When the sun goes down, she turns into a sultry vocal powerhouse with high heels and an attitude. Noge's unique brand of Chicago blues and Japanese avant-garde jazz seamlessly blends eastern and western culture for a refreshing and welcome addition to Morikami Museum's annual Hatsume Fair.
The Osaka native grew up listening to and performing blues standards, but, she says, one man showed her the way. "I lived in Osaka during the tail end of the blues boom," Noge says. "It was the blues capital [of Japan] at the time, so there were countless influences. But it was after hearing Elmore James that I knew I wanted to sing. He sent chills up my spine." James, a contemporary of Bo Diddly and Chuck Berry, was best-known for raunchy recordings like "Shake Your Moneymaker" and "Dust My Broom."
Noge toured Japan with the Yoko Blues Band, but she felt the need to search for "the real thing" and for her own identity as a Japanese woman in a predominantly African-American scene. She hopped a plane to Los Angeles in 1984, then made a beeline for Chicago. Not content with just singing the blues, Yoko took lessons from boogie-woogie pianist Erwin Helfer. She eventually formed a band, the Jazz Me Blues, which also features renowned avant-garde bassist Tatsu Aoki.
The discipline of playing piano became, ironically, a vehicle to artistic freedom, she suggests. "I wanted to be able to play solo if I had to, which is why I took up piano," Noge explains. "It was a sign of my independence, and it was a skill I felt I needed to really get my music across. I couldn't just be a vocalist."
Yoko's humorous tales of love gone wrong and no-good men reflect the same fierce independence and dynamic influence of her blues foremothers: Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, and Dinah Washington. But she still infuses her performances with elements and traditions of her own culture. "I can switch from English to Japanese when the mood strikes," she says. "That's what the blues are all about, going with a feeling."
Yoko Noge and Jazz Me Blues perform with special guest Kenny Millions at Morikami Museum on February 22 and 23. This year's festival also features martial arts and barefoot shiatsu, Japanese tea ceremonies, Ikebana flower arranging, orchid and Bonsai vendors, beer gardens, Japanese raku pottery, Asian and American food, a taiko drum performance by Fushu Daiko, and hands-on children's activities, all to celebrate the "first bud of spring." -- Audra Schroeder