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Regional Interests

Asian-American history comes alive on No-No Boy’s ‘1975’

"1975" by No-No Boy is out now via Smithsonian Folkways
"1975" by No-No Boy is out now via Smithsonian Folkways

Julian Saporiti grew up surrounded by country music in Nashville, Tennessee: Music City USA. He studied jazz, perhaps the most American of artforms, at Berklee College in Boston. Along the way, he learned the music of the Great American Songbook and the Folk Revival, a collective understanding of historic Americana that includes a broad collection of works by musicians ranging from George Gershwin to Woody Guthrie.

But it wasn’t until he started studying history and ethnomusicology for a career in academia that he came across American musicians who looked like him. Saporiti’s mother is an immigrant who fled war in Vietnam during the 1970s.

“There are not a lot of Asian faces left in the history,” he says of American music canon. “[But] there were a lot.”

Saporiti is now on the verge of completing a doctorate in American Studies at Brown University. His work focuses on the history of trans-Pacific musical cultures. During the past decade, he’s interviewed countless musicians and uncovered stories about swing bands in concentration camps during the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, early Asian settlers in Oregon, and even previously unknown details about his own family’s history. But he found the lack of popular understanding of these narratives frustrating.

“You have all of this rich tradition, which, like most of Asian-American history, is just invisible or in this case it’s silent,” he says.

In response, Saporiti founded No-No Boy, a Portland-based music and multimedia project that combines vivid narrative storytelling with Asian-American history. The band’s latest album “1975″ is a collection of songs that also serves as part of his Ph.D. dissertation. The new record is available now via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the non-profit record label operated by the Smithsonian Institution.

Despite its scholarly background, the recording is anything but academic.

“1975″ is a lush and wide-ranging collection of songs. Country ballads float into electropop confessionals, bookended by psych rock singalongs and straight-ahead folk songs. It’s an inviting genre whirlwind that reflects the diversity of the voices in his subject matter.

But Saporiti also challenges his listeners. The songwriter indirectly poses some fundamental questions on “1975” regarding what it means to be an American, what an authentic American experience looks and sounds like, and who gets to tell those stories to future generations.

Saporiti believes those answers are found in an unlikely place.

“On one of the songs, I say you have to kind of focus on the in-between, and that’s very much where I am. And I feel like that’s where most Americans actually are except we’re so defined right now by one side or the other, which is just wild to me,” Saporiti says.

“I kind of feel like I’m finally comfortable with saying I am mixed. I am of multiple places. My mom comes from a country that we can never go back to because it doesn’t exist because of war and imperialism. And I’m from Tennessee. I live in Oregon. I’ve lived in Wyoming. It’s that in-between which I’m finally satisfied with and which is the thing that we have to explore to get close to the truth.”

Julian Saporiti joined OPB to chat about this personal reexamination of American history and music. Read the full interview below.

Jerad Walker: This record has a fascinating background. You wrote this in part to complete a Ph.D. dissertation at Brown University.

Julian Saporiti: Yeah, I mean, I’m sort of hanging on for the health care for another year at Brown, but this is chapter three. Literally, this album is chapter three of my dissertation.

JW: And what was the catalyst for this project? What are you studying?

JS: I study ethnomusicology in Asian-American studies in history. I really like looking at trans-Pacific musical cultures. Growing up as an Asian-American, we didn’t have a lot of musicians or representation in the media. I think you’re hearing more about that a lot lately, but it was really true. As a kid growing up in Nashville, there was like Jackie Chan and then a bunch of racist stereotypes and movies, and that was all I had.

So it was a really weird spot to grow up in an otherwise wonderful place. And as I got older, I just wanted to sort of collect some kind of musical lineage, right? Find that inheritance that everyone has because everyone plays music. But you just have to dig a little deeper if you’re not like an indie rock skinny white kid. And so it was just picking up these musical legacies I found through my Ph.D. research – rock bands playing in Southeast Asia, playing Hendrix and Doors songs in the jungle for their occupying forces, and jazz bands in internment camps. And like I said, putting these pieces together to try to find some kind of music history of people who looked like me.

JW: Sonically, the record has a little bit of an Americana, folk and country lean to it. Was that sort of a subversive kind of nod to the lack of Asian-American voices in traditional American music?

JS: I wish it was. I mean, absolutely, we can say that because it sounds great. But I think the Americana lean comes from the fact that I was born in Nashville, Tennessee. And the subversion obviously that’s like if, you know folk music, if you know the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, that’s where those people are coming from. Super lefty Pete Seeger then on to Dylan, Baez and Woody Guthrie. And absolutely, that’s music I’ve listened to. So that’s already kind of part of the form, right? That’s subversive. The use of song to speak truth to power.

And I’d like to think that this music does that, but that’s really up to each listener. So if someone takes away a history lesson, that’s great. If someone takes away just a nice tune, that’s great, and if someone wants to really dig deep and say, “Oh, why have I never heard about Asian characters in folk music? Maybe that’s on me to diversify my record collection.” Ideally there’s a kid who’s like 12 years old who looks like me and maybe has a record to kind of enjoy and listen to, the way that I didn’t, that kind of speaks to people who look kind of similar to that kid as well.

JW: From the opening moments of the album, it’s immediately clear that this is going to be a complex and powerful listening experience. You don’t just use lyrics and music to move the narrative forward on these songs. There’s a fair amount of historic interviews and field recordings throughout the record. Where did you obtain the material and why were you drawn to that as a songwriting element?

JS: I think as a songwriter, I’ve always been enamored with how history can inform that art, and as an academic I just saw that we needed to kind of take these amazing things we’re learning in our ivory towers and bring them to more people. And so how else do you do that?

This isn’t a new thing. I mean, the frickin’ Odyssey and the Iliad were sung, right? I mean, this is just how we’ve always kind of passed along history, through plays or through songs and epic poems. And not to put myself in a Homeric lineage or anything like that, but I thought like, man, with all we’re going through with the Trump presidency and how refugees and immigrants are being treated, I’d really like to share some of my research, some of the archival stuff I’ve dug out talking about historical acts of immigration or how refugees were treated in the past and share that more broadly and also share that in a way that isn’t argument driven.

I’m not going out, and God bless them, but I’m not a protest kid at this point in my life. I’m much more about — like if I’m going to use my voice, I want to sing and then I want to be able to speak and discuss with the people that raised me which are a lot of Trump-voting aunties that I have from back in Tennessee. Or when I lived out in Wyoming — friends like that. Or when I go to Eastern Oregon.

JW: Speaking of your personal experience, the album tells a lot of stories from a third person perspective. You unearth a lot of under-told American history, but the opening song, which is called “St. Denis or Bangkok, From A Hotel Balcony,” is seemingly autobiographical. Did you adapt your family’s stories for this album?

JS: Yeah, absolutely. I did. It’s just sort of interwoven because I’m not looking to define an Asian-American experience, which is a kind of silly project in the first place, since we all come from wildly different countries back in Asia that don’t even like each other half the time. I’m just looking to tell you what I’ve studied. So these are all personal in some way. Even when I’m talking about a rock band from the ‘60s, that’s a scene my mom was adjacent to growing up in Saigon. Or if I’m talking about this internment camp band from Wyoming, that’s a state [where] I lived and performed as an Asian-American musician, and I’ve got someone who’s like family to me, still living, who was in that band.

And then there are the very personal kind of Vietnamese-American songs like “St. Denis” or “Tell Hanoi I Love Her,” which try to give deference and space to my mother and her mother in these stories that haven’t really seen the light of day – stories that even being in that family as a kid were very hard to tell. If you come from a refugee family, a family torn by war, that’s a hard story to tell your child. And so it’s only as an adult and as an artist and as an academic that I could excavate these family stories and then, yeah, place them alongside these other kind of missives from Asian-American history.

JW: Julian, my favorite song on the album is “Imperial Twist,” which is set in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Can you tell me about that song? There’s just so much to unpack and chew on in there.

JS: It all started with a visit to a restaurant in Paris. This is where most of my family went after the war. They were refugees in France – that’s a long colonial history. But I’m talking to this old high school friend of my mom’s, Robert Vifian, this very French Vietnamese guy. I just wanted to know about what it was like growing up in Saigon because, like I said, it was a hard story to tell from my mom’s perspective.

And he started talking about how he was in a band. And automatically I lit up. This is how I relate to history. I’ve got to know what songs were being played, what bands were popular. That’s how I have a way in. And he says, “Yeah, we were playing American music for the Americans. Rock and roll because they wanted bands to dance to and listen to. And so they’d buy us instruments and we’d form bands and we’d fly through the jungle in helicopters piled with drugs and prostitutes and then the Vietcong would be shooting at us and then we’d go play Hendrix and The Doors in the jungle for these American G.I.s.”

It just lit me on fire, man. A history never came alive so much as when Robert recounted that story, and I had to pass that along. And then that started a whole excavation, a process of discovery [for me], of all these Southeast Asian rock bands who were just incredible, who made a few scant recordings and they’re in a few compilations. It became some of my favorite music ever.

JW: And that’s sort of caught fire here in the United States in the last few years. There are lot of bands that are deeply inspired by Khmer rock from Cambodia and Thai rock especially. Modern groups like Khruangbin come to mind.

JS: Absolutely. And it’s great that those sonic textures aren’t lost. It’s like discovering new colors. That’s how I felt when I came across those Southeast Asian rock bands. Hearing those tonal languages like Khmer or Vietnamese on top of psychedelic rock music, it was like an almost more perfect language to sing over that kind of like psychedelic acid rock music than English…

JW: You grew up in Nashville. Was the classic kind of Americana singer songwriter that we associate with that town deeply influential for you as a songwriter when you were learning music?

JS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Nashville’s changed a lot. I haven’t lived there in about 18 years, but I used to go to full-moon picking parties out in the park and barn dances and square dances. And my dad worked on Music Row. That’s why we ended up in Nashville. He was a country music executive. He’s the one who brought Keith Urban to the United States from Australia. I used to have these crazy childhood outings where I’d go to Randy Travis’ ranch or get to see Dwight Yoakum or Faith Hill or all these other acts on the label.

So yeah, I’m very much steeped in that tradition. So again, while I wish this was like some abstract subversive plan to utilize white Americana to implement people of color into this, which it can be if that’s how you’re listening to it, it’s just who I am, man. I’m complicated.

JW: I really hear that influence on the song “Gimme Chills.” It’s essentially a country song laced with all this incredibly vivid Filipino history. I found myself going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole while I was reading the lyrics.

JS: That’s the goal. Thank you. Like, I can retire. That’s the goal because I think of myself as a teacher first at this point. I’m a musician in my soul. I’m a teacher by vocation.

[That song is] thinking about the importance of almost starting with Filipino history in that moment in 1898, where we get Hawaii, the Philippines and then a bunch of stuff in the Caribbean as colonizers – the United States. And we build this kind of bridge, these imperial stepping stones to Asia. That’s how a lot of this modern immigration history starts. And so that song “Gimme Chills” is just a love song, right? It’s just a love song. The same refrain over and over. But implemented in that is a super complicated and layered mess of proper nouns from Filipino history that hopefully inspire the listener to do what you did. And if you sit down and you Google every single one of those bold lettered words in the song, you’re going to get an education that I think is just as good as if you sat down and took one of my classes.

JW: You studied jazz at Berklee College in Boston, which is probably the most American artform that there is. And you grew up in Tennessee surrounded by folk and country music which are also cornerstones of what we consider broadly Americana. But there’s not a lot of Asian representation in those spaces, the performers or the traditional songbooks. Was that a motivating factor for your later work with No-No Boy?

JS: Yeah. There are not a lot of Asian faces left in the history. There were a lot. That’s sort of the point of this album, that there were people who, starting with the Americans going over to the Philippines in the late 1800s, are getting American music and are having to learn this music and it’s spreading throughout Asia. And then that’s coming back through these waves of immigrants. In the United States, you have the Chop Suey Circuit, these Chinese-American jazz clubs. You have the Nisei jazz circuit, the Japanese-American clubs up the West Coast. And you have all of this rich tradition, which like most of Asian American history is just invisible or in this case it’s silent.

I guess the motive, if there is one for No-No Boy, is just to one get people to have some difficult conversations by using the past, by using that nostalgia. When we can put a frame around something and then slip in a song about going to the border today. Right? That’s the first goal, is to get people to think about immigration and these tough barbed words through music. But the second thing is to make space and to redefine place, to incorporate not just Asian Americans, but people that have been left out of these stories.

JW: With that in mind, you sing about Japanese-American jazz musicians during World War II on the song “The Best Goddamn Band In Wyoming.” You have a real gift for vivid lyricism, and that song is probably the finest example on the album. Can you tell me who [one of the central characters in the song] George Igawa was?

JS: George Igawa was this guy I really relate to because he was this guy in his thirties who was sent to Wyoming and formed a band. And under much different circumstances, this was my life. I [lived there for a while and] was like one of the few Asian people in Wyoming and had this little jazz band that toured around the state. Except, for George, he was put into a concentration camp. He was rounded up with thousands of other Japanese Americans and sent off to Wyoming to the bitter cold and the dust. And of course, what he did like all musicians kind of do, is they find other musicians because no one else wants to hang out with them. He forms a band [called the George Igawa Orchestra] and he entertains the people in that concentration camp. And not only that, they go out because they’re the only swing band left in the [region] and entertain Mormon dances in Lovell and the prom in Thermopolis – all these places none of y’all have ever heard about but mean a lot to Wyomingites.

And so it’s not only this Asian-American, like I said, place making process of reinserting these musicians who have been overlooked or forgotten into the conversation. It’s also claiming that as Wyoming or Western history. Like this place that I lived [in] and loved, I want people who live in that state to know about this band as part of not only a Japanese-American tradition, or for myself as an Asian-American tradition, but as a Wyoming and American tradition. Because it’s only when we own all the histories that this complicated, flawed, incredible project of America has wrought that we kind of can move on. And I think getting to know these people who played music is an easier way to get into some darker stuff like the Japanese internment.

JW: How did you find out about that story?

JS: I just saw a picture of it at the museum. I’m a big nerd. I was on a rock climbing trip in the Grand Tetons or something and this place, this old internment camp, Heart Mountain, is just outside Yellowstone. And I stopped in because I love history. It was kind of a boring museum like most museums are. And then I saw this picture of all Asian faces with trumpets, trombones, a drum kit and bass.

And again, like you said, I went to Berklee College Music — a fine jazz institution — and took all these history courses. But I never saw a picture like this. And that just blew my mind. And then I looked for any of the people who were still alive in the band and there were two, a trumpet player and the singer. The trumpet player soon died. I got to talk to him a little bit. But Joy [Teraoka], one of the singers in the band, she became like a grandma [to me]. That’s why I tried to tell this story, for her and for her bandmates.

JW: You’ve lived in Oregon for the past few years. Were any of these songs inspired by stories from the Pacific Northwest?

JS: The project I’m working on now is sort of a long-form Oregon Asian-American history project. It’s called Orient Oregon. We released the first set of videos [associated with it] on my website. It was a collaboration with Portland Taiko, the Japanese drumming group here. And it’s looking at basically what I do nationally and internationally, within the boundaries of Oregon.

Because there are these incredible stories – like this woman named Miyo who was called the Western Empress. She was the first Japanese to immigrate here, and she ran a sawmill with her Scots-Australian husband. So think about Oregon in the 1800s. There’s this Japanese woman, her adopted Japanese daughter and then the Scottish dude who’s her husband and their owning a sawmill in Gresham. And the town of Orient, some say, is named after her. So stories like that. Stories like – why is there a place in the very northeast county in Oregon called Chinese Massacre Cove. Right? These places that are stitched into our map, especially out West. Songs that uncover those histories are sort of the [focus of Orient Oregon].

JW: This album was released by Smithsonian Folkways, which is the nonprofit record label for the Smithsonian Institution. For a self-described history nerd, that must be pretty cool. How did that happen?

JS: It’s nuts. Right? I mean, in the Marvel movies it’s like the big deal in Captain America. You know he is important [in the movie] because he has an exhibit at the Smithsonian. So it’s just wild, especially, again, this is a school project that got out of control.

So how it happened is a beautiful story. There were these interns at the American History Museum in Washington and they were doing a music in the museum day. One of them found one of the very early songs I wrote about the Japanese Internment, and they sang it in the museum. One of the guys who was in charge of this grant to put out the Smithsonian’s first Asian American records heard an intern singing one of my songs that had never been released. It was just like a video on YouTube that I had put out for teaching purposes. From there, he looked into who I was and my songwriting and that’s how this record deal happened.

JW: You indirectly pose some fundamental questions on this recording. What does it mean to be an American? What is an authentic American experience? And who gets to tell that story?

Do you feel personally like you’re any closer to answers?

JS: [Long pause] I feel like a few things have happened in the 10 years I’ve been researching and then the five years I’ve been writing these songs. I feel a lot less Asian American. And by that, I mean I’ve seen more of the nuances in diversity within this community, like far beyond the sort of definitional activists who birthed Asian America. That happened in California in the ’70s.

On one of the songs I say you have to kind of focus on the in-between and that’s very much where I am. And I feel like that’s where most Americans actually are except we’re so defined right now by one side or the other, which is just wild to me. Maybe that’s because I’ve lived in liberal bastions like Boston or Portland, but I really come from deep red places. And so you just can’t give up on other people no matter how obnoxious they are or affronting to your values — to a certain extent. To a certain extent.

I kind of feel like I’m finally comfortable with saying I am mixed. I am of multiple places. My mom comes from a country that we can never go back to, because it doesn’t exist because of war and imperialism. And I’m from Tennessee. I live in Oregon. I’ve lived in Wyoming. It’s that in-between which I’m finally satisfied with and which is the thing that we have to explore to get close to the truth. That in-between, which our history books have often left out, which our music has left out. There is no need to define. It’s just there is a need to kind of like look deeply into those small moments that we sort of often just pass by.

JW: We mentioned earlier that you’re studying at Brown. Are you now Dr. Saporiti?

JS: No, no. Like I said, I’m hanging on to that health care for as long as possible. As soon as they give you that doctorate, they kick you out.

[Laughter]

I don’t know when the Ph.D. will be firmly added to the name – sometime in the fall when I hand in the papers and they all get signed. But I’m in no rush. Academia – I love teaching, let me just say that, first of all. I love teaching, but the whole academia thing, I’ve already been through the music business when I was younger. I don’t need to go through another set of hoops like that. I love the learning [opportunity] that Brown gave me and my other schools gave me and I wouldn’t have been able to do this project without that PhD training.

JW: The project is No-No Boy, fronted by songwriter Julian Saporiti – soon-to-be Dr. Saporiti – who has a new album out now via Smithsonian Folkways.

Julian, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your insights on this really incredible collection of songs.

JS: Thanks Jerad. You’re too nice. I appreciate it.

Pictured at top: Musician and historian Julian Saporiti of No-No Boy

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting