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Category Archives: Multicultural Music

Does your organization represent a shamisen ensemble or an orchestra?

Today was our annual shamisen performance at the Brooklyn Botanic
Garden’s Cherry Blossom Festival.  Rehearsing our pieces reminded me
how challenging it is for our ensemble to perform together.  Not only
do we usually practice just one on one with our teacher (only rehearsing 4 times as a complete ensemble), we also function without a conductor.

In an orchestra, the conductor keeps the ensemble together.  They’re
almost always on a platform elevated so all members of the ensemble
can see them and follow.  By comparison, we have to pick up on subtle
body language from our key shamisen and koto players who are seated in
and performing as ensemble members.

Mind you – were we a small group, e.g. a string quartet, this wouldn’t
be such a big deal.  But when you’re dealing with 30 people, this proves to be quite challenging.

But each year we pull through with relatively few glitches.  And I think
this occurs for two reasons.

The first is that the key shamisen and koto player guide us rather than hold us to a strict baton rhythm.  What this means is that we REALLY have to listen to each other.  All the time.

At the risk of possibly oversimplifying (and because I’ve been reading
a shitload of business books lately), it’s like a business with
horizontal leadership, where the leadership consists of talented
listeners and gentle leaders.  And I think it works because we’re all
deeply committed to our ensemble (why else would we spent up to 15
hours in a given day preparing for one 5 minute performance?)

Does your organization represent a shamisen ensemble or an orchestra?
Which do you think is better?

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Brooklyn 2 Beantown – Concert at B.U.

This morning found me getting off the subway at 53rd/Lex and walking 4 avenues and 10 blocks while carrying two backpacks, a guitar, three coffees, a box of Dunkin Donuts munchkins and a partridge in a pear tree.  En route to Matt Sia’s (www.myspace.com/mattsia) apartment, I looked fracking ridiculous.  But several munchkins later he, his fiancé Marisa, buddy Rob Lara (http://www.myspace.com/roblara) and I were on our way.  No major hitches until I, as C.S.N. – Chief Spaztic Navigator, mixed up I-84E and West, I believe.  The exits are no less than 15+ minutes apart.  So if you miss your exit, oh well… you’re F*CKED.

Despite my inability to comprehend the most basic of directions, we eventually managed to make it to Cambridge when we hit a car (not Rob’s fault, the other driver was taking a left onto two lanes of oncoming traffic, appearing to intentionally slow down when Rob laid on the horn and breaks).  What ensued post accident was an amusing exchange between two American-born Filipinos and a considerably older, fobby Chinese-American couple.  Fortunately, the police officer that came by was very patient and even-handed about everything (despite looking painfully ridonkulous in an oversized, poofie hat, Starwars Storm trooper boots, chewing gum like a COW and also talking with the thickest Bahstahn accent I have EVAH heard).  On several occasions he had to tell the old Asian woman to “go back to your CAHHH!” since she kept attempting to peer over the officer’s shoulder and change the story around.

I’m sure the police officer returned to his precinct with some interesting stories… “Hey Joe!  You’ll never guess what I had to take care of today.  How many Chinese does it take to…”  ::drum roll/cymbal crash::

We eventually met the rest of the “roaming Asian mafia” (as I dubbed the 8 of us) and headed over to Matt’s sister’s apartment.  While the rest of the gang went to 5 o’clock mass, Annarei D. and I (the Agnostic and the Jew) watched “13 Ghosts” while I hid behind a mountain of pillows.  Wow – if you want to see a movie that’s bizarrely awful AND gross, so much so that it ends up being cultishly campy, then this is the movie for you.  No matter how hard I tried while watching it, I could not shake the image of Tony Shalhoub, who’s the main actor in the movie, portraying any character other than Monk.

Prepping the B.U. show was a blur of tuning, sound checking and catching up with Alfa Garcia (www.myspace.com/alfa), who I haven’t spoke to in months.  She opened the event performing material from her forthcoming album (which you MUST listen to – it’s awesome).  Her growth as a songwriter over the past few years has been profound, and I was honored that she invited me to the stage to perform two songs with her.  Matt Sia’s set followed.  I’m always floored by how cool and collected he is on stage – a true folky (albeit one with a fine understanding of how to use a loop pedal!), just having a nice conversation with the crowd.  He invited Jay Legaspi (www.myspace.com/jaylegaspi) and Rob up on stage for a great cover of Tenacious D’s “Tribute (The Greatest Song In The World)” and then Jay joined on stage to beatbox for another one of Matt’s songs.

While enjoying their set, I tried to gauge the audience based on what they reacted best to.  I decided to start my set with my 80s cartoon theme song medley, which everyone sang along to except when I got to the theme song for “Jem.”  Apparently only gay audiences know that one!  I then played my Missy Elliott/John Denver fusion version of “Work It,” followed by my ode to the joys and pitfalls of internet dating, “Even I’ve Got Standards.”  This was followed by a debut of “Arcee” from my forthcoming “More Than Meets the Ear: (Selections from) Transformers the Musical,” then I continued with an emo moment – “You’ve Just Begun to Discover.”  In case I wasn’t campy enough, I ended the set with “Karma Chameleon.”

Upon concluding my set it occurred to me just how unfiltered a set it was.  If you’ve seen me perform live, you know I swear like a sailor.  (Heck, you can see it in my blogging, too.)  At a divey bar in the East Village, that’s all good and fine, but when you’re performing for a predominantly Filipino/Filipino-American audience, there are undoubtedly some audience members who are good and churchy.  Hope I didn’t offend anyone!!!  Well, too much at least 🙂

For Jay Legaspi’s set, he introduced a Talk Box – perhaps best known from the weird vocal intro riff to Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”  Despite this neat gadget, the audience was quite subdued throughout his set until Matt Pana (http://www.myspace.com/panapresents) guest bucket-drummed for a song.  The banter between Jay and Matt reminded me of the banter when I’ve performed with my sister.  I’ll be rambling on about some story behind a song and she’ll interject with “Danny – nobody cares.”  I think at one point, Matt said something to the effect of “Uh, Jay?  Just play the song…”

Matty P. (www.myspace.com/mattpereyra), a Berkley College of Music senior, entertained with an all original set.  While played on acoustic guitar, his songs would definitely fit with a rock band.  Seeing his confidence on stage got me wondering where I’d be with my music career had I gone to Berkeley instead of Sarah Lawrence, where I chose to major in the murky scrubland between Asian/Asian-American Studies and Queer Theory, instead of pursuing a music or performance studies major.

I was reminded how much I enjoy performing for college audiences tonight.  They possess this rare combination of awkwardness, sincerity and idealism.  Performing for them reminds me of how I saw the world 10+ years ago, and how, while I wouldn’t trade anything for what the real word has taught me since, I’d like to be able to see it again. That’s to say that while time has taught me to roll with life’s punches, I sometimes long for the burning energy and almost blind idealism I had when I was 19.  And I think that longing is part of the reason I enjoy sharing the stage with younger performers, or if they’re older, then performers who are young at heart.

In earlier ramblings, I’ve reflected on the challenges that come with presenting oneself or having oneself be presented as an Asian-American singer/songwriter as well as the challenges that come with playing to predominantly Asian-American audiences.  Those challenges being what they are, I was particular struck by how diverse the musical styles were that we presented at B.U. And I was further struck by how almost all of the songs performed were about universal themes, rather than any sort of stereotypical Asian-American themes, e.g. the immigrant experience, experiences with racism, experiences with stereotyping, etc.  Not that there’s anything wrong with songs that cover those themes; protest and political songs definitely have their value and I think they can be important to one’s finding their artistic voice – if you don’t know yourself, how can you write for others?

But seeing what went down at B.U., I’m curious if the “Asian-American music scene” might be growing in tandem with the larger Asian-American population, and the political empowerment that goes along with growing numbers.  What I mean by this is if we are at a stage in the Asian-American community’s voice where talking about identity isn’t essential anymore.  As the Asian-American music scene evolves and defines itself, there might be less of a desire to write and perform songs that are specific to the collective Asian-American experience.  Or there might be MORE of a collective desire.  Iunno…  I guess time will tell.  And I’m sure I will return to this topic again and again as I try to sort it out.

But while I’m rambling about collective experiences, I think something a lot of touring musicians contend with is the issue of where “home” is for them (regardless of ethnic and cultural upbringing).  I certainly return to this question time and time again – and I’m not even on the road that much!  Playing this show pushed that question to the forefront.

Years ago, I asked my mom what she considers to be home, since although born and raised in Japan, she’s lived more than half of her life in the U.S.  Now a practicing Jew, she hasn’t relinquished her Japanese citizenship for an American one.  When I asked her what she felt home to be, she said something to the effect of “home being something that’s inside of you and that’s shaped by your life experiences.”

As we drove through Boston, I kept looking out the window thinking “I could live here…” but would it ever truly become home?  New York definitely feels like home; with the exception of a year living in Japan, I’ve lived within a 40 mile radius of NYC my entire life.  Yet home for me has been shaped by PEOPLE.  Home is someplace I feel I belong, where I meet groups of people with whom I have a shared set of experiences.  What was reinforced playing B.U. was that the more I perform outside of New York, and the further I get from the people who have made this feel like home, the more important it is to find a sense of home wherever I am – by being able to connection with complete strangers and to achieve something like small-town feel wherever my touring takes me.

I think the small town feel appear to me in particular because I grew up in the suburb of Scarsdale.  While the population of 20,000 doesn’t sound like a small town, it had a small town feel- most people knew each other in one capacity or another.  Now it may be partly growing up and/or partly the culture of NYC, but since moving from Scarsdale to the city itself, I’ve learned to connect with people intensely for a moment, knowing full well it might be days, weeks, months and possibly even years before our paths will cross again.  And while there are plenty of amazing people here that I’d love to get to know better, I’ve come to accept that there’s not enough time.  The ability to connect on the go and still feel part of a larger community is particularly important to my surviving away from the geographically specific home off NYC but it’s a skill I’ve been learning BECAUSE I live in NYC.

At the same time, I think in order to articulate what home really is, I may need to leave it, for long periods of time.  Rob Lara and I spoke at length on our ride back to NYC about his and Matt’s experiences growing up in Marquette, Michigan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquette,_Michigan).  They both left behind an amazing town to be in the thick of NYC’s insanity, but have somehow managed to still be small town boys at heart.  Why did they leave?  Perhaps Matt explains it best in song “Marquette.”  I think the lyrics speak for themselves.

Marquette, MI

by Matt Sia

Cold outside, it’s so
Rust-orange sun inside a periwinkle glow
Fifteenth Hole

Coming back, I understand now
How much more I do appreciate this town
Miss those sounds

Chorus:
Silence breaks away from the stone wall along the lake
And the air is sweeter than it’s ever been
With every breath, I take in memories of way back when
I left this place long ago
Now I’m home
I’m home

I’m paintin’ the rock tonight
The island fog is lifting, making for a perfect drive
Red and white

Cruising third at 3 a.m. over icy roads of sand and snow
Things have change and all the same, I let them fade
But still I’ll keep these memories not to return
Until I’d grown enough to see

Stars instead of lights
Cricket sounds instead of honking horns and sirens fill the night
Dragonflies

Chorus:
Silence breaks away from the stone wall along the lake
And the air is sweeter than it’s ever been
With every breath, I take in memories of way back when
I left this place long ago
Now I’m home
I’m home
I’m home

 

Making Music in Judeo G(Asian-)America

Wow.  What a remarkably pretentious (and incomprehensible) blog entry title, hahah…  Last night my buddy PL and I caught Hank Kim perform at Parkside Lounge off of Houston (yes, it’s pronounced How-sten, not Huoo-sten – lived in and around New York City my whole life – still no idea why).  I’ve been a big fan of Hank’s work ever since hearing his version of “Candy Bar Killer” from his “Blue Alibi” album on Luna Lounge’s internet radio station.  He has a singing style that reminds me of They Might Be Giants mixed with the arrangement styles of The Postal Service.  And he weaves some great noir.  His live performance is a bit more rough around the edges, but that plus his self-depricating humor make for a great performance. 

As he launched into his song “Saratoga,” PL leaned over and jokingly said “Well, he’s definitely no Kevin So.  You don’t get whiter than Saratoga!  What a sell out, haha!”  PL’s comment reminded me of the challenges of being an Asian-American performer in the white-dominated singer-songwriter market.  Beyond the regular “getting your music out there,” you’re often going to be perceived by someone as either “too white” or “too Asian.”

For years, I’ve peripherally struggled with retaining cultural authenticity in my songwriting, though I suppose that being a Japanese/Jewish gay guy, that comes with the territory (ha!)  Fortunately, I think, my songwriting has gone beyond the overtly identity-politics crap of my college years, e.g. “Look at my half-almond eyes/Look at my smooth semi-Asian thighs/When u see me out and proud/with my boyfriend in the crowd…” 

Yeah.  That bad.  Or worse, if you can imagine.  With lyrics like that I ran the risk of niche-marketing myself to death!  And while I still see the value in personal-is-political songwriting, I gravitate towards songs that bring people into a shared experience.   I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’m sure there’s a Japanese/Jewish gay community just waiting to make me their poster boy. 😉 

Perhaps I’ve sold out.  Or at least am trying to, haha, since no one’s offered me a good price for my soul.  C’mon – it’s a nice one, covered in fabulous sequins.  Right.  See?  Erasure IS a big influence on me.

I’ve found I’m most comfortable in the pop song medium, and introducing Japanese instrumentation through my use of the shamisen is a way to pay homage to my cultural upbringing without letting it suffocate me or alienate audiences and fans.  But the whole issue of authenticity and the risks of “playing to your own insular crowd” come to mind whenever I attend and/or perform at Asian-American music events.  While most are chill and inclusive, I wonder if shows that use Asian-American-ness (the definition of which can be remarkably subjective) as the organizing theme run the risk of keeping their performers in a cultural ghetto, albeit one with many rich stories to tell, but an insular one nonetheless. 

Last year, I performed at Ramapo College’s Asian Expo event (a night of Asian-American song, dance and poetry).  The audience was almost exclusively Asian/Asian-American.  That was… until the last act took the stage.  Fronted by Jack Hsu, who plays Er-Hu, Hsu-Nami does this awesome fusion of (at the risk of sounding like a ridonkulously cheesy suburban buffet) East meets West.  But it works well because the musicians have the chops to back up the concept. 

I believe Jack is the only non-white guy in the band (though I could be wrong).  I mention this because when Hsu-Nami started playing, suddenly all these white kids showed up, dancing along and cheering loudly.  It was straight out of a Staind or Dave Mathews live concert shoot.  And all I could think coming out of that event is that if you’re an Asian-American fronted band, you better have some white band mates or else you’ll never make it mainstream, and you’ll be stuck with a limited audience of Asian-Americans.  Which is not to say the Asian-American fans won’t benefit from seeing you do your thing but still… perhaps I’m totally wrong but it’s hard to shake that impression.

And the thing that gets to me is that the dearth of Asian-American pop stars is definitely not from lack of talent, as my experiences at Sulu, TeaBag/Five Points and watching vids on YouTube have shown me.  But unless American demographics shift I can’t imagine any Asian-American, beyond the token 1-2, “making it mainstream.”

Perhaps I’m a touch pessimistic about it.  And no doubt some of my perception on this stems from my own multicultural upbringing, and being part of several communities’ shared expriences. And while it’s possible that some might say things like “Danny Katz’ songs aren’t gay/Jewish/Japanese enough” I’d like to think that the quality of my songwriting is not limited to the gays, the Jews, the Japanese and all those that fall in between.  Good grief, I should start my own club!  Membership… 1?

This is an ongoing theme thought that I’ll no doubt refer to in future blogs.  But I did forward an article in
ImagiNation (a newsletter about Asian-American music and arts) about Hank Kim to PL, saying something along the lines of “Little did we know.  Apparently Saratoga is an Asian-American hotspot 😛  Or something.”

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2008 in Multicultural Music, Music

 

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