Musical Migrants Radio Series: Jesse Lee Jones and Yoko Noge

Yoko Noge. From Yoko

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I’m really excited about today’s post, a look at the The Musical Migrant radio series now airing on the BBC in partnership with Falling Tree Productions.  So often we feature pieces about artists and activists who rediscover their roots.  But sometimes people feel more at home in a place  far away from where they were born.  This series sheds some light on this complex topic and provides an intimate look both at the successes and vulnerabilities of a few individuals who have chosen this path.  This post also features a short write-up from the series’ producer, who is also a bit of a musical migrant.

So today we’ll feature two pieces from the series, two musicians who have moved to other countries in search of a deeper connection with the music they love.   Produced by independent radio producer  and Western Kentucky University Folk Studies graduate student Rachel Hopkin, these pieces give us a behind-the-scenes look at how these individuals came to find a sense of belonging in music  so different from the styles of their homelands.

Jesse Lee Jones, a musical migrant. From

Ever been to Robert’s Western World on Broadway in Nashville?  That honky tonk/western wear shop is owned by Jesse Lee Jones, a Brazilian man who heads the band Brazilbilly, the house band you can hear every weekend.  From the BBC:

The man now known as Jesse Lee Jones went by a different name when he was living in Brazil. His decision to change his name was an expression of his desire to reinvent himself following his move to the USA.

Throughout a difficult upbringing, Jesse Lee always found solace in American music and dreamed of being there, but as a young man, he “was going nowhere fast”. Then, out of the blue, the members of his church, in an effort to help him, clubbed together and bought him a plane ticket. Shortly afterwards, Jesse Lee arrived in Miami, Florida with a 12 string guitar but no English and no plan. On his first day, while travelling on a Greyhound Bus, he was robbed of the few possessions he had – including his money and that guitar.  

To hear how he wound up as the owner of one of Nashville’s most popular spots, listen to the audio portrait here by clicking on the “Listen Now” button. 

The second piece we’re featuring today is a portrait of  Yoko Noge, a Japanese woman with a passion for blues music who became a famous singer in Chicago’s west side blues scene.  Noge explains her move to the states, overcoming her fears of performing, and her acceptance in the blues community.  To listen to the piece, visit Hopkin’s webpage here and click on the first audio piece  

I don’t know about you, but I’m always curious to hear how writers and producers wind up focusing on their given topics and their own ups and downs in bringing these productions to fruition.  So I asked series creator and producer Rachel Hopkin if she’d be willing to share with readers a little background on the series and what drew her to the subject.  This is what she had to say.

Series creator and producer (holding mic), Rachel Hopkin. Photo by Amanda Hardeman.

The seed for Musical Migrants was sown almost 10 years ago when I received a grant to go on a field trip to the southern Appalachians to explore local music making traditions.  During that trip, I found that a lot of people who were very active in the old time music scene were transplants to the region who had moved to the mountains largely because of the music.  One of the people I met at that time, Bruce Greene (who was described to me as ‘the alpha fiddler’) took part in the first series. 

When I initially pitched the idea of Musical Migrants to the BBC in 2007, Bruce was the only migrant I had in mind.  Once the series got commissioned, I had one of those ‘oh crap’ moments when I wondered how on earth I was going to find four other people to make up the series.   Finding the right people is the hardest part.  It’s not that there aren’t lots of people who move for music – there are – but not all of them are able to express the whys and wherefores of their relocation.  In addition, I’m pretty specific about what I’m not looking for, which rules out a lot of candidates.  For example, I’m not looking for people who move to a place because it has a good music scene in general, or in order to go to music college for a defined period of study and then leave, or to do a short period of field work and then leave.  I’m also not looking for people who take the music from their homeland with them and introduce it to a different audience (although I think that’s a really interesting subject). 

Ideally I want people who’ve moved because somehow the music conjours up for them the sense of a life that they somehow can’t live in their native environment – for example, Ann Savoy, who was born in Richmond VA, told me she was raised to be a southern lady but she was drawn to  Cajun music because  of its “wild freedom”; Yoko Noge experienced a raw emotion through listening to Chicago blues music that otherwise went largely unexpressed in Osaka, Japan, where she is from.

In order to prepare for each series, I send out around 500 ‘search emails’ and then make around 50 calls to prospective migrants to find out a little more about them.  Sometimes I find people in a relatively logical fashion.  For example, I learned of the Italy-based Venezuelan opera singer, Pedro Carrillo, by thinking ‘if I wanted to relocate to Italy for opera, how would I go about it?  As a result, I contacted a number of language schools that specialised in courses for singers and one of them put me onto Pedro.  But sometimes it’s totally serendipitous – I got wind of Yoko Noge via a friend of a friend who had mentioned my quest.  My friend’s friend just happened to have spent some time working in a bar in Chicago where Yoko had a regular gig.

I really enjoy producing these programs; I find it fascinating to learn how people create a sense of home in a foreign place through their love of music.  Their stories also resonate with me because that field trip looking at southern Appalachians music kick-started my own love affair with America’s traditional culture (I’m originally from Britain) which is why, 10 years on, I’m in the final furlong of an MA in Folk Studies at Western Kentucky University. 

To hear more of Hopkin’s pieces visit her online here.    Or check out some of the previous pieces we’ve featured by Hopkin, including a wonderful portrait of one of my favorite people of all-time, Freedom Singer Charles Neblett.  



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