Home from Japan

After mastering Japanese music, Kumiko Yayama Bar-Yossef now feels most comfortable with 'piyutim'.

kuimko bar yossef 224 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
kuimko bar yossef 224
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Even in an era where cultural and ethnic boundaries are leapfrogged with ever increasing frequency, the idea of a Western classically trained Japanese woman immersing herself in Eastern Jewish liturgical texts and music takes some getting used to. Today, Kumiko Yayama Bar-Yossef knows more than a thing or two about piyutim (liturgical poems) and, in fact, can enlighten most native Israelis about the subject. Yayama - who is married to musicology professor Amatzia Bar-Yossef - first came to Jerusalem in 1992 to pursue a PhD in musicology, but her music education began much earlier. "I studied ballet from the age of four and I took up Western classical piano from the age of six," she explains in fluent Hebrew. While Yayama didn't exactly come from a family of musicians, there was always something interesting to listen to at home. "My father was just a taxi driver. He didn't have a lot of money but he was crazy about stereo technology and we always had the best system going at home. We listened mostly to Western classical music and, at some stage, my father also taught himself to play guitar." Yayama was born and raised in Fukuoka, a city of around one and a half million on Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu, one and a half hours away from Tokyo by plane. After completing high school, she enrolled at Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo. Her choice of direction for her first degree was perfectly natural, but when it came time for her master's degree, she decided to return to her roots. "I studied classical piano and musicology for my BA but for my master's I focused on ethnic Japanese music. I felt it was time to understand more about my own culture." Before long Yayama began studying areas like gagaku, the music of the Japanese royal courts, and the ritualistic music played as an accompaniment to traditional Noh theater. "Almost all classical Japanese music is connected to some ritual and theater," Yayama explains. "It is hardly ever played just on its own." After completing her master's degree, Yayama decided to look even further afield and enrolled at the Hebrew University. "I wanted to get out of Japan, to experience a different culture for myself, but I didn't fancy the States - all the Japanese go there." In fact, it was another classical violinist who unwittingly convinced Yayama to try her luck here. "I heard Shlomo Mintz playing in Japan and he made me curious about Israel with its rich ethnic mix." Initially, Yayama had no clear idea of the specific area of musicology she wanted to research and took a variety of courses at the Hebrew University. The turning point came when a professor invited a number of students to go with him to attend a bakashot (liturgical musical entreaties) session at the Ades Synagogue in Nahlaot. Yayama was immediately taken by the simple beauty of the bakashot sessions. "The singing was so beautiful. There was something mystical about it but there was no stringent ritual involved. There was no rabbi or priest conducting a service. People just came there to sing, that was all. It is very different from Japanese music, which is very orderly." From that moment Yayama was hooked, not only on the music but on the surrounding ambiance. "There is something unique about bakashot in the context of Jerusalem," she says. "It was only after I'd been to a few sessions at the Ades Synagogue that I learned that all the paytanim (liturgical poets) in this case came from Jerusalem and the area near the synagogue. Everything felt right about it." Yayama spent the next few years working on her ethnomusicology thesis on different aspects of the custom of singing bakashot, learning to play the oud in the process. "As a woman I wasn't able to sit with the men in the synagogue and sing with them, but I wanted not only to research the subject but also to take an active part, so I learned to play the oud with a young Arab musician from Galilee." It was quite an odyssey. "Arabic music is very different from Japanese and Western classical music, where there is no improvisational element. But I learned that I needed to listen a lot, and that I could only play what I had in my head. That was a great lesson." Although at first Yayama was considered by the bakashot community with some suspicion, and even a degree of disdain, she gradually earned their trust and respect. "I can understand them. Here was a Japanese woman who wanted to learn all about their tradition. But they realized I was serious. I was also referred to a well-known paytan called Ya'akov Cohen. He made sure I knew some of the scales before he agreed to teach me. I learned a lot from him." Being under Cohen's tutelage also greatly facilitated Yayama's doctoral research. "It's not like in Japan; if an Israeli goes to Japan no one goes near him. But here, everyone heard that I was studying with Ya'akov Cohen and they came looking for me, to tell me stories about bakashot and the tradition." After so much searching, and all these years in Jerusalem, Yayama appears to have finally found her cultural and spiritual place in the world. "There is no place like Jerusalem anywhere," she says. "This is home."