In case you haven’t heard by now, The Tokyo Tramps are a blues trio made up of players from Japan. After initial recognition for their novelty, this band has become respected for their singing, playing, and songwriting. Bass player Yukiko Fujii and her husband guitarist Satoru Nakagawa were on hand one afternoon to explain the history of their ten year old band.
They did not come to the United States specifically to start an American blues band. Fujii said her husband came to the U.S. to explore all kinds of American music but he found that blues is more his style. Fujii grew up in Tokyo and became interested in American music because there was a radio station in Tokyo for American military personnel. “I listened to the 70s, 80s American Top 40 a lot.” When she came to the U.S. in 1994, she was not yet a big fan of American blues.
The couple met at Berklee and they started a band together. Nakagawa had a lot of influences from blues, so it was a natural progression. They did not fit into Berklee’s jazz program, but they learned a lot at the school.
Satoru said he became interested in American blues when he was still a kid in Japan: “Tokyo is a huge, huge, metropolitan city. You can find any kind of music. Japan is an interesting country. My favorite singer there was Bruce Springsteen. That’s where I get the term ‘Tramps.’ ‘Tramps like us baby we were born to run. But in Japan, Springsteen’s not popular at all. Madonna and Michael Jackson, they’re a lot bigger than Springsteen.”
“When I was in junior high“ Satoru continued, “I started listening to Springsteen. I discovered rock and roll came from blues, so I started listening to blues in high school. My first record was John Lee Hooker. I listened to it one time, then I put it away for like a year because he was so hard, so tough, so heavy, I couldn’t take it.”
“When I came to America,” Satoru went on, “I went to Louisiana because of that history. I was also fascinated by that American imagery, the cotton fields, the Mississippi River, Dixieland, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn. Those are my American visions. That’s how I chose to go to Louisiana.”
When he met his future wife and bass player, he had his own band going, and Yukiko had hers they had had the same drummer. That’s how they met and they soon started their own project together. But it was never the plan for either of them to form a band with their partner. “I wanted to marry an American girl, and she wanted to marry an American guy, Satoru said, laughing as she began laughing too. “So we could get the green card,” he added, and they laughed some more.
Blues audiences no longer see The Tokyo Tramps as a novelty. “I think we’re earning respect,” Satoru said. “Whenever we play a venue for the first time, and people don’t know who we are, then everybody is obviously looking at us, like, ‘What is going on? Asians?’ Once we start playing in the groove, and the song rocks the house, they’re like, ‘They’re serious. They’re serious.’ They start changing their faces, and they start dancing.”
The Tokyo Tramps recently played in Milford with The Ten Foot Polecats, and they were very well received. Louisiana was where Satoru got his blues education. He enrolled in a state university, but he did not get good grades due to distractions. “I was not a successful student. I partied a lot. I was young. I didn’t take life seriously. I was just playing music. I got suspended from college down there, and I went to Berklee. I didn’t want to come. I wanted to stay in Louisiana. As I look back, it was an important time for me. I heard the real guys down there in New Orleans and Louisianan. It was more like a life experience. I think I became a better guitarist and musician here in Boston, but those five years living in Louisiana was my treasure, actually.”
When asked who his blues inspirations are, Satoru answered with an experience. “That’s the hardest question,” he allowed. ““I saw B.B. King back in 1993 in Lafayette, Louisiana for the first time, and I cried as soon as B.B. came on stage and started playing instrumental guitar solo stuff. That was a very, very powerful experience. I still think that was the best live concert I’ve ever been too. It was so, so powerful. B.B. has always been one of my heroes, that’s for sure.”
Yukiko loves Etta James. “She’s great. She’s still powerful.” And Irma Thomas songs made an impression on her. Yukiko majored in voice at Berklee, and the voice department let her sing a lot of R&B. “I had a tough time,” she said. “So many girls used to sing in church. They were in a choir, gospel choir. All the girls sing so strong. And I’m Japanese. I’ve always had a difficult challenge to pronunciations.” Every audition for schools were tough for her.
Yukiko started listening to American music in the 1970s, mostly Top 40 and Motown. Meeting her future husband is when she started to learn blues. Yukiko took piano lessons as a child and she started playing bass in junior high in Japan, but gave up music in her high schools because Japanese students are under a lot of pressure to study hard. In college, she formed a band. So she picked up the bass again. Then she went to work for a Japanese company that let her band play its events. In her Berklee days she couldn’t find a good bass player, so she did it herself.
Her husband at one point thought her voice was too pretty to sing blues, so she focused on Etta James and Irma Thomas to learn more about blues vocal idioms.
Satoru said their new CD With These Hands is “by far the best record we’ve ever made.” The CD has been in production since last March and The Tokyo Tramps were finishing up the art work during the time of this interview. “This is the best thing I have ever done so far in my career. I’m very, very happy about it. I’ve never felt this way about my own music. I’m so excited.”
The Tokyo Tramps have two covers on the new CD. “Highway 49” by Big Joe Williams gave Satoru a chance to showcase his new passion for the slide guitar. They also included “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ by Muddy Waters because it is popular for slide players and because Muddy Waters did a lot of unique things in his songs.
Satoru went slide happy on the CD, and both Tokyo Tramps, along with their drummer, Kosei Fukuyama are excited about it. This could be a good chance for the Tramps and area blues fans to get better acquainted.