A Review by Peter Horikoshi. When Eddie Wong, editor of EastWind ezine, asked me to review the new CD set by Nobuko Miyamoto entitled 120,000 Stories, I didn’t realize how much reading and research I was going to have to do in addition to just listening to the songs! There’s a lot going on here – a 44 page booklet, the two discs are focused on two different time periods of Nobuko’s creative efforts and online videos. If you decide to order this from Smithsonian Folkways, I would encourage you to read the booklet and watch the videos as they provide context to the wide variety of the songs.
Listening to these songs led to me think about deeper questions concerning music and art. What is the meaning of music and did the artists intend to convey a certain message, or did they create the music primarily for their own artistic satisfaction? In Miyamoto’s case, it’s clear that the music has meaning not only for herself – she wants to share her songs with her communities. She intends to educate her listeners about issues that arise and motivate us to actively express ourselves, not merely be entertained.
I’ll discuss my thoughts on the songs in a bit – I believe that as opposed to what is considered popular music, this kind of artistic expression deserves a deeper review. “Nobuko Miyamoto is an icon of Asian American music and activism.” This quote from the back panel of the CD case is not hype. She has been one of the most influential musicians and artists in the Asian American Movement in the 1970’s along with Chris Iijima and William “Charlie” Chin in the group A Grain of Sand. Their self-titled album, released in 1973 (and re-issued in 2006 in CD form) remains a collection of songs that has inspired Asian Americans, including myself, to take action to try to better our communities. That is one of the reasons that Smithsonian Folkways Recordings wanted to release this music. Over the years, Miyamoto has also performed with the band Warriors of the Rainbow as well as headed the dance group Great Leap in Los Angeles. She also has professional acting and dancing credits, including the original Flower Drum Song play on Broadway and the movie West Side Story (the original 1961 movie based on the 1957 Broadway play).
Editor’s Note: John Lennon and Yoko Ono brought Nobuko (then known as Joanne) and Chris to sing on the Mike Douglas show.
I recently viewed a panel discussion on Art + Politics: Asian American Artivists in the Movement for Social Justice, sponsored by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center that included both Eddie Wong and Nobuko Miyamoto. One of my key takeaways was viewing a video of her song from this CD called Black Lives Matter. Although the song is straightforward and the content obvious from the title, the video adds much more to the meaning of the song. That made me wonder, in this age of videos and social media, why wasn’t 120,000 Stories produced as a DVD/CD with videos for the most recent songs and audio for the older songs that would be more difficult to recreate?
Nobuko and her co-producers Quetzal Flores and Derek Nakamoto have reimagined a few of the songs from A Grain of Sand, shared some previously unreleased recording from Warriors of the Rainbow and produced some new songs written more recently, some in collaboration with friends. The result is an eclectic collection that is reflective of an artist over the past five decades. There’s something here for almost anyone to enjoy, however, as with many musical collections, not everyone will like all of the songs.
Some songs are joyful and easy to dance to, such as Tampopo (Dandelion), Yuiyo Bon Odori and Bam Butsu no Tsunagari, the last a congruent multicultural musical experience combining the best of Japanese and Latinx instrumentation and arrangement. Others, like Mottainai, are easy to like because of their lyrical content and rhythmic patterns. I like the reference to her grandmother – I believe that our elders recycled out of necessity and scarcity of resources, which ironically is where we seem to be headed due to our undying demand for material goods. Both this song and What Time is it on the Clock of the World? have videos available on YouTube.
The title song, 120,000 Stories, has been arranged like songs by the Asian American band Hiroshima that include Eastern and Western instruments and stellar musicianship. Still others, like Gaman, are presented with simple arrangements – soulful, plaintive, and evocative of the struggle to endure hardship in the WWII incarceration camps and the call of Never Again. As I mentioned earlier, some, like Black Lives Matter, are vibrant songs that should be seen with the accompanying video. Songs like Yellow Pearl, Free the Land, We Are the Children and Somos Asiaticos, written and recorded decades ago that still carry the inspiration and fire in our bellies that we felt when we were young and trying to change the world. Finally, there are songs that are reminiscent of DeBarge and the ‘80’s soul musical arrangements and songs that sound like they were written as part of theatrical productions, which was indeed the case.
There’s a lot to unpack and reflect upon here. Nobuko is not yo’ butterfly.
Nobuko Miyamoto’s 120,000 Stories is available for purchase as a double CD or download at major outlets and via Smithsonian Folkways .
Author’s Bio: Peter Horikoshi is a musician who was a member of Yokohama, California, an Asian American “movement” band in the 1970’s, Hot Cha, also an Asian American band in the 1980’s and is a member of the Wesley Jazz Ensemble based in San Jose, California. He remastered and reissued the Yokohama, California album on CD as well as a concert featuring Philip Kan Gotanda and Charlie Chin. All are available at Yokohama CA and various Asian American outlets in California.
Editor’s Note/Bonus Video: Peter Horikoshi mentioned Nobuko Miyamoto’s Warrior of the Rainbow band. Here’s a rare performance videotaped by Hawaii Public Television. Nobuko’s singing is captivating, and the band featuring Benny Yee on piano and vocals, Richard Louie, bass, and Billy Hinton, drums just cooks.