By Peter Horikoshi. Posted February 7, 2024.
Empire Electric, the latest and third album from the group No-No Boy, is different from their first two albums, 1942, about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and 1975, about the exodus of Vietnamese from their home country when the US withdrew all of their troops. Musically, Empire Electric is what No-No Boy calls a sonic pastiche – drawing inspiration from “traditional” American folk sounds, Asian instruments, electronics, and field recordings, and also a “letting go” and a “coming back.” The result is a sound that is varied and feels full of life and creativity.
The lyrical content of the songs reflects the work of research, archives, oral histories and site visits. The primary songwriter Julian Saporiti says in his introduction, “Would you read my dissertation? No, but you are listening to it.” It is enjoyable to hear the stories through song and innovative instrumentation and orchestration with particular emphasis on stories from Asian America and Asia that Julian and his co-conspirator Emilia Halvorsen Saporiti have created.
The band name No-No Boy is taken from a novel of the same name by John Okada about a young Japanese American man during World War II who answered “No” to two unanswerable questions posed by the US government about loyalty to Japan and serving in the military while family members were still unjustly imprisoned. Similar to how the band that I co-founded, Yokohama, California, in the 1970’s, whose name was taken from the anthology of short stories of Japanese Americans in the Oakland area of California by writer Toshio Mori, No-No Boy the band shares stories of the Asian American diaspora.
In Empire Electric, No-No Boy has uncovered lost bits of Asian American history such as the story of Miyo Iwakoshi, in “Western Empress of the Orient Sawmill”, the first Japanese settler in Oregon. The story of a Filipino ship and crew reaching the Oregon coast two centuries before Lewis and Clark but too ill to make landfall in 1603. The Japanese American “Onion King of Ontario” who established a farm in eastern Oregon after being incarcerated during WWII for being Japanese Americans.
I was happy to see Julian write more about his own family’s experience in addition to stories of other Asians in America. “Nashville” is an ode to his father, Bob Saporiti, who is not Asian, and who worked in the country music industry. As a result, Julian was able to meet well-known musicians. If you see No-No Boy in concert, be sure to look at his special Gibson acoustic-electric guitar.
Michael Martin Murphey, Randy Travis, Bob Saporiti and Roy Rogers (yes, THE Roy Rogers).
“Mekong Baby” is a lushly melodic song about his mother’s journey from the Mekong Delta, featuring Thai Hien, “a Viet musical auntie” singing in her native tongue. There’s also a song about loss of country when South Vietnam was taken over by communist North Vietnam (“Nothing Left But You”).
In the introduction to the song “Sayonara,” Julian says that “Asian America is an amnesiac, imbalanced and useless term.” In a conversation that we had last year, he said that those of us living in California, the West Coast and the East Coast in the ‘70’s era were easily able to participate in the Asian American Movement. Asian Americans in areas like Nashville, where Julian was born, didn’t have the same opportunities to experience culture and community.
This difference in perspective has made me think about all that I have learned and experienced over the past half-century. For me, Asian America was and is reality. When I was younger than Julian and Emilia are now, college students had to fight for our history, language and struggles to be recognized. We protested and organized strikes to demand the right to research and discover and tell our stories about the Chinese who built the railroads, the Japanese who were incarcerated and the Filipinos who worked hard in the hot valley sun harvesting fresh vegetables.
In the album Yokohama, California, we wrote songs about our individual communities in songs like “Tanforan,” about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. “For the Manongs of Walnut Grove” told the story about the Filipino farm laborers. In “Different Pictures,” Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo re-told the commonly heard story where people ask us “Where are you from,” not knowing if was from the Philippines or Japan, while in reality, he is from neither and from both. That was our Asian America. We shared our songs to encourage Asian Americans to return to their communities to help seniors and youth who were not being supported well enough by traditional social service agencies. We helped to create our own non-profit organizations, some of which continue to help our people.
What unites us as Asian Americans is that our history in America includes parallel experiences of racism, discrimination, political “otherism” physical segregation in Chinatowns, Japantowns, Manilatowns, Koreatowns, Little Saigons. That is how and why I began to think of myself as Asian American rather than Japanese American more than 50 years ago. For better or worse, when the Covid pandemic hit America, we all became “Chinese” again, and now were blamed as spreaders of the coronavirus. Anti-Asian hate incidents reached all-time highs (again). “Go back to China” became an often-heard phrase (again).
Even as Julian talks about the uselessness of the term Asian America, No-No Boy’s songs are, indeed, about Asian America and Asian Americans, as well as Asians in Asia. The lyrics say that we are Asian/we are not Asian, that we are American/we are not American, that we are people first. I think that this is what No-No Boy is trying to do – to tell us to think about these things, not just accept what has been taught to us. In his mind, this also applies to the concept of Asian America.
My friend, Professor Emeritus Michael Omi, also a music afficionado, has told me that Asian Americans who have come to America since the ‘70’s, like the families of Julian and Emilia, identify more strongly with the individual ethnic culture and traditions rather than broader concept of Asian America. I don’t believe that Julian and No-No Boy are wrong – more that his songs make me think about this in a different light – the viewpoint of his experiences and that of his generation. That’s one of the things that I really like about his music. It makes me think.
One last note – in recent years, streaming has become much more popular than physical CDs, and in fact, most of the content that has been consumed by young people has been from streaming platforms. One of the reasons to buy the Empire Electric CD instead of or in addition to streaming the songs is to read the accompanying booklet that contains information about the songs and the printed lyrics of the songs. The booklet also contains cover art by Emilia and photos that are related to the songs. Another way to see what No-No Boy is doing is to visit their website at nonoboyproject.com. There are samples of songs and videos that are connected to the lyrics of the songs, not only from Empire Electric, but also 1975 and 1942. No-No Boy is currently on a national tour through this spring, with concert dates soon to be listed on the website. I hope that you will listen to this music and that it will make you think and appreciate that they and others in their generation are expressing their reality and perspective.