By Oliviero Zanalda
In a crowded Mcdonald’s next to Taipei Main Station, I sit across from Yoshi, a man from a rural coastal province of Japan, whose infatuation with Blues saw him drop everything and travel the world with his guitar. I met Yoshi (full name Yoshinobu Ozaki) at Rev-Nov in Taipei, Taiwan. I heard about Rev-Now by word of mouth and decided to go to their live music show on a lazy Saturday night. This underground, family-run music bar hosts a variety of performers almost every night, both local and international. Yoshi was the guest at Rev-Now, and I was impressed by his covers of classic American Blues and Folk songs. His voice not only matched the tone of industry titans like Bob Dylan but the lyrics were all translated into Japanese, yet sounded like they belonged on the original versions of the songs.
I talked to Yoshi during a brief intermission and we planned on an interview. Yoshi’s self-taught musical skills and passion for the art of Blues are unmatched, and his story is equally impressive.
After this interview, check out Yoshinobu Ozaki’s album Shunka (2018), available on all streaming platforms. But you can also find him in Taipei, performing in a dimly lit bar or on the side of the street.
When did you fall in love with music?
When I was in elementary school, 5 or 6 years old, my father listened to Beatles records in his room and played guitar as well. I was intrigued by the pleasant music I heard. I immediately went into my father’s room and we listened to music and did my homework together. At that time, I thought, “It would be cool if I could play music!” When I reached Junior high school, around 12 years old, I started playing music with his father’s acoustic guitar. I fell in love with music even more. I was never great at school, and I preferred playing music, so after High-School I decided to dedicate my life to music.
How many instruments can you play? What’s your favorite instrument to play?
Acoustic guitar, steel guitar, 10-hole harmonica, ukulele, kazoo, and vocals. I like to play traditional folk songs, country blues, and ragtime on a pure acoustic guitar. I also love to play the steel guitar.
Are there musicians or people you know personally who inspired you to pursue music?
My guitar teacher, Tokio Uchida. He’s a famous acoustic guitarist in Japan. I learned a lot of great fingerstyle blues guitar from him. He encouraged me to listen to older Blues music, 1920s to mid-40s. He introduced me to Bob Brozman, an American musician and authority on National resonator guitars.
What made you want to explore/play the blues?
The range of music is wide, but I think blues is one of the most important music genres of all musical elements. It also influences today’s pop, rock, and jazz music. Blues is characterized by rhythm. I fell in love with the atmosphere of the blues and started playing.
What is the difference between Japanese blues and American blues? How does it reflect Japanese culture/traditions?
First, the rhythm is different. While respecting the original American blues, I play blues freely with my own atmosphere because I am Japanese, so of course all the lyrics of the song are in Japanese. The lyrics have no deep meaning. It depicts casual daily life in Japan.
I used to not sing in Japanese though. I was a student in Mississippi about 10 years ago. Mississippi is very important for Blues music. One time, when I was playing music there and singing music in English, some guy came up to me and said “Why don’t you sing in your country’s language, Japanese?” After I got back to Japan, I started to write my lyrics in Japanese.
Who are your favorite musicians of all time?
I like bluesmen who were active from the 1920s to the mid-1940s. But there are also bluesmen who were active in the 50s and rediscovered in the 60’s with the country blues revival. For example, Blind Blake (1926-1932), Rev. Gary Davis (1930s–1970s), Big Bill Broonzy (1927–1958), and Robert Johnson (1929–1938).
Who are you listening to now?
In my opinion, the music played by Japanese people is the best in the world. The music I’m listening to now is from Japanese musician Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi. He’s the Japanese Neil Young. He inspired me to sing, play guitar, and play harmonica at the same time. He basically taught me how to.
Do you have any plans to release a new album?
I want to record in Japan or Taiwan someday. I haven’t decided yet. I think that my next work will be a sequel to my previous work.
What made you come to Taipei?
My hometown is Mie, and it would take me 6 hours to go to Tokyo, so I moved to Tokyo when I was 20. Every high-level musician plays in Tokyo, but it’s not a good job. Every musician needs to work part-time to support themselves. When I was 26, I went to Mississippi to study and music trip for 8 months, and when I got back to Japan, I decided to quit my part-time job and focus on music. I would play 10-12 shows per month for about a year. But I wanted to travel the world, I wanted to leave Japan. I wanted to meet more people and make more friends. First, I went around Asia. I visited Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Then I went to Europe, Norway, Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland, Italy, and many other countries. The first country was Taiwan. No matter where I went, I couldn’t forget Taiwan’s livable feeling, so I decided to live in Taipei for a while. Because of the pandemic, I stayed in Taipei longer than I intended, and now I live here full-time. I love Taipei because I’ve met many talented musicians.
How did the different places you lived influence your musical style/taste?
In Tokyo, where I lived for a long time, I had the impression that the day was over at a dizzying speed. Even in such a short time in Tokyo, I met a lot of real musicians and learned from them. The musicians in Tokyo are really high-level. I am proud to say that the genius musicians I met there are my friends.
How does your hometown influence your musical style?
It really doesn’t. Tokyo played a bigger role in influencing my music style. When I was in Tokyo, I was inspired and influenced by playing with the best musicians in Tokyo, rather than reflecting the streets and atmosphere of Tokyo in my music.
Do you have a thought-out path or are you just waiting for things to come?
I want to keep performing music! Now that I’m living in Taiwan, I’ve tried singing in Chinese, and I want to continue that in the future. I want to sing old fashion folk music in Chinese. I plan to stay in Taipei. There are not many people who play old fashion Blues in Taipei and I want to introduce more of that style of music to the city.