By Peter Horikoshi.
For those who haven’t heard of No-No Boy or Julian Saporiti and you like country/folk music with a message or you have been wondering where the Asian American songwriters have gone, you’re in for a treat. For those who have heard the album “1942” or have seen the band live, you know what kind of a treat you’re in for.
Saporiti is an accomplished Asian American musician and songwriter who has used the band name No-No Boy since writing songs for the album “1942,” released several years ago. He has also been a bandleader in a different life and is concurrently a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University. His research and his music deliberately coincide as he searches for the intersection of music and history. He has written all of the songs on the CD and to me, represents the best of the new generation of Asian American songwriters and musical storytellers. That is one of the reasons that Smithsonian Folkways Recordings wanted to release this music.
The titles of the band’s albums are clearly intentional – 1942 was the year during World War II when Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were incarcerated for being Japanese and Japanese American. The second album, “1975” was the year when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the United States pulled out of Vietnam, affecting hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Not coincidentally, after hearing about the events surrounding the US military leaving Afghanistan, Saporiti composed a song drawing parallels to what happened in 1975 in Vietnam.
Although “1942” was more focused on Japanese Americans, there was a sprinkling of songs about other Asian American groups, mostly Vietnamese, which reflects Saporiti’s background (Vietnamese and Italian American). “1975” takes a slightly different approach, focusing on more of the particular Asian American groups that have made their way to America. Still including songs about Vietnamese and Japanese, he adds stories about Filipinos, Hawaiians, Chinese, Khmer (caught between Vietnam and Cambodia while being neither), and also draws historical parallels in the experiences of immigrants from Central America, Native Americans and Asians who came to American via Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, are we talking about music or Asian American studies? My answer, and No-No Boy’s answer seems to be: both. In the singer-songwriter tradition from the 1960’s and 1970’s, the lyrical content stands in the forefront of the songs.
No-No Boy wants you to learn about the Asian and Asian American experience, discovering the distinct differences of our communities. Among those included in the songs are:
Vietnamese who were close to the French and lived in Paris,
a Vietnamese band that used to play rock ‘n’ roll for American troops whose concert was interrupted by bombs while they were playing Jimi Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”,
a Japanese American jazz band in an American concentration camp in Wyoming comprised of professional musicians and farm kids was the only band available to play at high school proms outside of the camps, and
an “f’d up love letter to the Philippines.”
Musically and creatively, I find that Julian has a way of presenting the songs so that they convey both a feeling and a message seamlessly. He searches for phrases and sounds that support his efforts. During this pandemic, there have been more obstacles than before in recording music. Perhaps to accommodate these changes, or perhaps because his mind has conceived a different way to think about how ”to incorporate the actual sounds of history into” his music, he turned field recordings from research sites into sound samples. He calls this the “folk way” of 2020.
I also want to mention how Saporiti’s work has an impact on the older generation in an unintentional way. In the song “Best Goddamn Band in Wyoming” he mentions that George Igawa left his band to Tets Bessho, the “Nisei Artie Shaw.” A good friend of mine told me that this solved a decades old mystery for him. My friend’s dad was also at Heart Mountain and sang in the band after George left. His dad talked about being in what he thought was the Tets’ Special Band. He didn’t realize that it was the Tets Bessho Band. My friend now lives in Oahu where Julian’s “Japanese Grandmother” lives, and I helped them to meet. Even though Joy Teraoka, also mentioned in the song, didn’t know my friend’s father, this hanging thread in my friend’s father’s life at Heart Mountain had been tied up.
The resulting tracks sound both different and familiar, like finding artifacts when visiting historical sites. Although the vocals and lyrics are in the forefront, the music is also well crafted and arranged. I also want to give a shout out to his “partner” on this album, Emilia Halvorsen, who shared “her voice, ear and hands” to most of the songs. She is also a talented musician and songwriter and the songs benefit from her presence.
I wish I could encourage you to see them live with their multimedia presentations that accompany many of their songs – the best I can do now is to direct you to the websites Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which produced the CD, and nonoboyproject.com. On No-No Boy’s website, there is a documentary produced by Smithsonian Folkways that provides more insight into why and how the band created the songs for the CD as well as videos accompanying some of the songs from the CD. If you’ve got several hours, you can discover more about No-No Boy than you might have thought possible. I would recommend the videos “Imperial Twist”, “Best Goddamn Band in Wyoming” and, if you are interested in hearing Julian speak about how he writes a song, “Honouliuli.”
As an Asian American songwriter who has been waiting for the next wave of musicians to tell our story, my wait is over. I had a chance to meet Julian and even play a song with him in early 2020. He is a thoughtful and intentional musician and scholar. I hope that you share my appreciation for this music. I am curious to hear what the OGs make of this music and even more so what the younger readers of Eastwind think about music like this.
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 1977 Yokohama, California album on CD (including live “bonus” tracks!) as well as a 1979 concert featuring Philip Kan Gotanda and Charlie Chin. All are available at YokohamaCA.com and various Asian American outlets in California. His next CD project is a compilation of songs performed by Hot Cha.
You can purchase Julian’s work here: “1975” by No-No Boy