Interview with Japanese salsa singer Yoko and producer Willie Ruiz

The lively, joyous music of Japanese salsa singer Yoko affirms the power of music to transcend national and ethnic boundaries. On October 24, 2008, Yoko and her band performed a rousing show at New York’s S.O.B.’s, to launch the release of her CD, “La Japonesa Salsera.”

Hailing from Osaka, Japan, Yoko has been performing music from a very young age, beginning when she fronted a local rock band in Osaka. While studying at the Kyoto University of Foreign Language as a Spanish major, she discovered salsa music, which took her music career in a new direction. Yoko sang in jazz clubs in Osaka and soon also began performing with local salsa bands, where she found some success, although salsa at that time wasn’t as popular as it is now.

In 1997, Yoko moved to the U.S. to be closer to the music she loved, and continued to perform while working her day job at a financial company. In 2006, Yoko began performing and touring with Chico Nunez and Friends, a major salsa band, where she wowed audiences with her great facility with this music. Around the same time, she began working with Willie Ruiz, a producer, arranger and musician who is helping to take her career to the next level. The S.O.B.’s show proved to be a great showcase for her, as she had the packed crowd on their feet the entire time. After the show, I sat down with Yoko and Willie Ruiz to discuss her album, Yoko’s love of salsa, and their fruitful musical collaboration.

Meniscus: I just saw your show, and I thought it was great. You’re such a bundle of energy.

Yoko: Thank you! I’m glad.

So is this your first time performing at S.O.B.’s?

With my band, it’s the first time ever, anywhere. This is my debut concert – I’ve played at S.O.B.’s before with other people’s bands, but with my band, it’s the first time.

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I’m from Osaka, Japan, and graduated college in Kyoto. I came to the U.S. in 1997. In Japan I started out singing jazz and I started singing salsa in 1995.

You started singing at a very young age, didn’t you?

Oh, you know, everybody who wants to be a musician always forms bands. My first experience was in a high school band, singing rock.

And you moved to singing jazz after that?

Yes, because it was a good paying gig for a college student; I didn’t want to work at a restaurant or something like that. I knew how to sing in English, so I went into that environment and that was my part-time job.

I understand you began studying Spanish in college. Is that what got you interested in salsa? Which came first, salsa or Spanish?

When I entered college, I already spoke English. My mother always told me, you’ve got to know several languages, it’ll be good for you. So I decided to take Spanish, because Spanish is big in the world, a lot of people speak Spanish. And then, I love music, so I wanted to listen to Spanish music. I saw an ad for a Willie Colon concert in Osaka, so I decided to go. I went there with my friend and that was it. I used to listen to rock, pop, jazz, everything. But since then, I only listen to salsa. I don’t listen to any other kind of music anymore – I love salsa.

What do you love about salsa? What was it about this music that grabbed you?

It’s the arrangements! The band, the sound, the big horns, and the rhythms, it’s just so cool. Every single record I buy, they’re all good! And the singers are great, Latin singers sing so good. You can learn a lot of things from Latin singers, salsa singers especially. There are so many flavors in there.

So you started performing salsa in Osaka?

My friend, Cheimi Nakai, who lives in New York now and has a band called Afro-Cuban Jazz, formed a salsa band. She used to be the pianist in my jazz band, and she told me, “I want to start a salsa band, do you want to sing? Because you know Spanish.” And I was like, “I love salsa, I didn’t know there was a band!” And that was it.

How long were you performing salsa in Japan?

I performed in Japan for two years. At that time, not that many people knew about salsa; the dance school was very small. Now they have a big salsa congress in Tokyo with 8,000 people there, it’s unbelievable. When I was singing [back in Japan], if you saw 10 people dancing, that was a lot. But I know people love the music, because we have a famous band…I went to see their farewell concert, and it was packed. So I know people like the music, but [previously] there wasn’t that much information about the music.

And what year was this?

1997. That was the year that I came to the United States.

What made you come to the U.S.?

Well, [Japan] wasn’t that challenging an environment for me as far as singing salsa. And I wanted to learn this music, and go deeper. So I thought, I gotta go to New York.

How did you come to work with Willie Ruiz?

He was my friend’s boyfriend. She’s a salsa dancer, and she connected me with him. I made a mini-album, which I don’t really like now, but she loved it and she said, “My boyfriend is a music producer, maybe you guys can work together.”

(To Willie Ruiz) So what got you interested in working with Yoko?

Willie Ruiz: Yes, Kazu brought Yoko’s demo to me and she told me, “I want you to listen to this girl, tell me what you think.” I listened to it, and I said, ‘You know what? This girl has the sound for the music, she’s different, she’s got a lot of potential, so let me go meet her, I want to see where she’s at.’ And that’s pretty much how everything all came together. I used to see her all the time when I used to do my performances in clubs. She was always hanging out in the clubs, checking out all the bands. I’m always looking down at the audience, and there she is, standing there looking with that gleam in her eye, saying, “I wish I was up there.” And one night, I came up to her, and invited over to the bar for a Coke, and I asked her what she was doing with herself musically, because I knew she had already been in New York for about a year, two years, and she was doing nothing –

Yoko: I think it was more than that, five, six, seven years, something like that.

Ruiz: So then I said, “What are you doing with yourself? Are you singing?” So I started popping her questions like, are you singing, would you like to sing? So I gave her my number and told her, when you get a chance give me a call, make an appointment, let’s meet, let’s talk. And that’s how everything began.

(To Yoko) You’re living in the Bronx now. Is that where you went when you first arrived in the U.S.?

Yoko: No, I was in Massachusetts first and then came down to New York. I was in Queens, and then I ended up in the Bronx. It has to be the Bronx, right? Because I’m a salsa singer. (Laughs)

Ruiz: Yeah, there’s a lot of salsa happening out there, in the summertime with the windows open, you know? All those rowdy neighbors.

Yoko: Maybe I’ll hear my CD out on the street, you never know!

What do you see as the differences between Osaka and the Bronx?

Yoko: Well, the people are different, first of all, but there is a place in Osaka that looks like Castle Hill! I took one of the guys from the band to Japan, and asked him, “Don’t you think this place looks like Castle Hill?” And he said, “Yes, yes it does!” You know, I always think that New York is similar to Osaka.

How so?

Yoko: The people are so nice. Not all the time, but even that “not all the time” is so similar to Osaka, too. People from Osaka go to New York, but people from Tokyo go to L.A.

Ruiz: When you’re in the Bronx you gotta have a lot of attitude, and she’s got a lot of attitude, so she fits perfectly in the Bronx.

Yoko: No, I don’t!

Ruiz: Yes, you do. You’re a Japanese with a lot of attitude, man.

Yoko: Compared to an American girl! (Laughs)

Ruiz: She blends right in there, trust me.

Yoko: Yes, I do have an attitude. I have to be fighting with these people, you know? I have to present myself as a strong woman. I’m in this male business.

So there are not that many female salsa singers?

Yoko: Compared to men, not a lot.

Ruiz: Very chauvinistic. This is one of the things I was trying to say to the Hispanic media, that you have a lot of women that would love to sing salsa, but they don’t get the opportunity to do it and some of them get discouraged. And of course, most of these ladies don’t get respected. They try to seek a contract, and the first thing the guy wants to do is disrespect them.

Is that a cultural thing, do you think?

Yoko: No, I don’t think it’s a cultural thing. It happens in every industry.

Ruiz: I think what it is, it’s that they don’t take women seriously enough. You know, when salsa first started, you didn’t have a lot of women singing either. Remember, this music goes back many years, and women back in those days were home caretakers, they were basically wives and stuff, so the man is always out there getting the main bread and stuff. But Celia Cruz came out of nowhere, she started to break the trend…La Lupe, and people like that, they were out there, but even though those women became pioneers, it was still male-dominated.

Yoko: And another thing I have to say, to learn how to play this music, it takes a lot of devotion. You have to study, you have to commit yourself to doing it, otherwise you’re not gonna get it. That’s a lot of work for a woman, I have to say, because we get distracted, like he said. We have to do so many domestic things, and we have to go to work. Compared to men, I think women are clumsier. We don’t concentrate on just one thing. Me too, I have to fight with myself. I want to do so many things at the same time, but I have to practice.

Ruiz: You’ve got to learn a couple of technical things to be able to function and survive doing this music. There are people that are born naturally with it, they can feel it, but the ones who aren’t born with the natural feeling of the music have to actually go and study how it functions, and learn the rudiments to how it all comes together.

Video: Post-concert interview with Yoko
video by Derrick Henry

Do you think your training in jazz helped you with salsa?

Yoko: Oh yes, oh yes! Improvisation. Jazz is improvisation, salsa is improvisation. Jazz is scat, or faking the melody which is already there. Scat is difficult, because you’ve got to imitate the sound of the instrument, that I can’t do. But then, I am a Japanese native, my native language is Japanese, then you’ve go to come up with a “soneo” – soneo is an improvisation.

Ruiz: In English, you could call it ad-libbing. You have to be pretty much a poet on the spot, be able to compose a song right on the spot. You could look at it that way. When you’re ad-libbing, you gotta know how to throw those words in there [and] be able to also find the rhymes to it if it’s possible. And also you gotta follow it up sequentially, with meaning, which is not so easy to do on the spot. There are people who are natural at that…it’s just like they’re born to speak and sing on the spot, and lay one line after the other, and everything makes sense. And then rhythmically, too…

I didn’t realize there was so much improvisation involved in salsa music.

Yoko: Let me tell you, when we started working together, I didn’t think there was anyone really doing ad-libbing but there are people doing it. But then, guess what? I do that now, right? Not 100 percent, but I do that now.

Ruiz: She has come a long way, let me tell you. Incredibly, because most singers that can follow the rhythm, they have to actually write what they’re going to sing and they stick to that. But then, what happens when you’re in a live environment, we have to stretch the song out. So if you have three ad-libs written for this specific section, and now we gotta repeat the section, do more, you can’t keep repeating the same thing. Because then it’ll be called a chorus, it won’t be called a soneo. That’s where it gets tricky. So if you’re not into the improvisation, then you gotta just write a whole bunch of [ad-libs] and memorize them, and that’s a lot of work. It’s easier to just do it on the spot.

Yoko: When I started singing, I was memorizing everything. You don’t swing. It’s different, the band sounds different every time you sing. So that’s what’s bothering me. I still have to work on that, but so far so good.

Ruiz: And we still work every day, and we learn new stuff every day, and we work harder every day to get better, always. Even me. Sometimes I’m not satisfied with an arrangement I do, even if the audience likes it. But for me personally I’m a little picky about my own thing. So you always keep working harder every day to get better, no matter what, and to learn as well.

You were discussing improvisation in live performance. How does this change when you’re recording tracks in the studio?

Ruiz: In recording, we pretty much have to be selective of the words that we want to say, because when you’re recording a CD, it’s a commercial thing, and we gotta get the right words out there. So pretty much that’s orchestrated. But then when it comes to the live thing, then that’s more work for her. After the CD’s recorded, she goes home, and now she writes, gets ideas, makes her own notes on what she’s going to do because she knows that in the gig, we’re going to stretch out the songs. So the song on the CD is going to be confined to three or four minutes; in a live environment we have to stretch it to 10 minutes. Basically, in a recording setting, we pretty much have it all written out and organized. But then of course we work on the feel, the melodic structure, and the rhythmic structure as well, to make it sound like if she’s doing it on the spot.

Who are your favorite salsa artists? And who would you recommend to someone like me who’s new to this music?

Yoko: Of course me, Yoko. (Laughs) No, no, that’s a joke. I love this singer who’s passed away, called Nestor Sanchez. He recorded so many albums with Larry Harlow, who’s a legend. Him I really recommend. Also, I love Cheo Feliciano, who’s already a legend. I like so many people. Those are the singers I like. My favorite band is Sonora Ponceña. And then there’s Willie Rosario and Bobby Valentin.

Ruiz: Those are hardcore bands from Puerto Rico.

Yoko: These are the top three hardcore salsa bands. All salsa musicians love these three. Willie Rosario is really easy to get into, because he’s more pop than the others. Nestor Sanchez was the god of improvisation.

Ruiz: And those are like my three favorite bands. When I was a kid, I grew up listening to those guys too.

Yoko: That’s why we didn’t have any disagreements, because we like the same things.

Ruiz: Yeah, we were clicking. Musically, we were clicking big time.

Click here to order Yoko’s CD, “La Japonesa Salsera,” on For more information on Yoko and her music, visit Yoko’s official web page and her MySpace page. For more information on Willie Ruiz, visit his web site and MySpace page.