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JEFFERSON PARK : Japanese Singer Puts Her Soul Into Gospel

Her English may not be stellar, but when it comes to spirit Yuko Nagata soars as high as anyone.

On most Sundays, the 28-year-old native of Japan takes her place among the 60-member tabernacle choir at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ and helps raise the roof with swaying, rhythmic hand clapping and plenty of joyful noise unto the Lord.

For the past year, Nagata has been realizing her dream of studying gospel music in the United States through the best way she knows--singing.

“For me, it is like salvation,” said the effervescent Nagata, whose face lights up whenever she talks about the choir. “I love singing at the church.”

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Born and raised in Nagasaki, Nagata is a devout Christian whose family is rooted in the faith: Her great-grandfather was a pastor, her grandfather is active in a Bible society and her cousin is pastor of a small church in Tokyo. Breaking with tradition somewhat, Nagata decided to pursue acting and attended Tamagawa University in Tokyo. Acting is just one of her many artistic passions, which include painting and clothing design.

At school, Nagata struggled with her studies at times and one night felt particularly depressed. Watching television to relieve her mind--and a torrent of tears--she found herself engrossed by a gospel choir performance.

“I felt very emotional, like I was helped,” said Nagata, searching for the right words through her friend and interpreter, Rei Aoo."I had been going to church since I was very young, but I felt something for the first time. It was like I was in shock.”

Nagata took up the study of gospel music with a Japanese instructor who had sung at West Angeles during a visit. She completed her studies in acting with new determination: to somehow follow her instructor’s course and visit the United States, the home of gospel music. She finally made the decision to come in December, 1993. With the help of her former teacher, who contacted West Angeles, she touched down in Los Angeles a month later.

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She was literally in for a shock: Only a few days after Nagata’s arrival, Los Angeles was shaken awake by the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake. “I was scared,” she said of the experience, though it did not alter her resolve to take up gospel music.

By February, Nagata was singing with the West Angeles tabernacle, one of four choirs that performs at the church. Commuting from Universal City, where she stays with a Japanese family, Nagata attends services as well as choir rehearsals and performances. She often has difficulty understanding lyrics but says many other choir members offer to write them down for her.

“I always carry around a paper and pen,” said Nagata, laughing. “I can’t understand English very well, but everyone helps me. They are all very friendly.”

Yet Nagata has no trouble understanding the spirit of the music, said church member and friend Louis Villa. “She’s right in there, like she belongs,” he said of her singing. “What can I say? She’s got a lot of soul.”

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Nagata admitted that many of her Japanese friends and family, who knew little or nothing about African American culture, were mystified by her enthusiasm for gospel music. “There is a cultural difference. . . . Japanese people are very different,” she said. “But this music speaks to me. I feel I can reach God more in the United States than I can in Japan.”

Nagata would like to stay, but she is scheduled to return to Japan next month--perhaps temporarily. She says she doesn’t want to go.

“I would like to stay here,” she said, sighing and shaking her head vigorously. “I would like to see gospel music in Japan, but . . . the people there don’t know what the real meaning of gospel is.”


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