Jon Jang Sounds of Struggle, Parts 7-9: Movement Music


Country Preacher Meets the Butterfly Lovers Song

“Art, in its many forms, often played an important role in the daily lives of Asian Americans. Art, for many, was not something distant or only the ‘privileged’ but was an important and integral element in the home, family, and community. This recognition helps us begin to recover a sense of the actual lived experience of Asian America lives.”

 Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 by Gordon H. Chang

During the 1980s, my unique rendering of the Butterfly Lovers Song was the outcome of my artist activist connections with various mass movement work such as the Jesse Jackson Presidential Campaign and the Rainbow Coalition, as well as the mass movement work in the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). As a result, my unique rendering of the Butterfly Lovers Song was a tone parallel to the mass movement work and became a hybrid and merger of two different music traditions: black music and Chinese music.

Jesse Jackson was the first Presidential candidate to speak in San Francisco Chinatown on many occasions at Portsmouth Square. Jackson did not just talk about his campaign. He also addressed Asian American issues such as the Justice for Vincent Chin campaign and the anti-immigrant Simpson-Mazzoli Act.

A page from East Wind magazine, Spring 1984.

At the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984, Jesse Jackson selected Mabel Teng, Director of CPA, to become the first ever Asian American woman to introduce a Presidential candidate at a Democratic National Convention. This became a powerful historic moment where we witnessed the valorization of black male civil rights leadership of the 1960s with the valorization of a Chinese American women leadership in the Asian American Movement of the 1980s. I expressed in music in which I will explain now.

Wherever there was a space with a piano, Francis Wong and I would perform Country Preacher, which was the anthem for Reverend Jackson that was recorded live by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1969 at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.



In the Fall of 1988, CPA celebrated our 16th anniversary at the New Asia Restaurant. Two weeks before the auspicious event, Mabel Teng asked this ABC (American born Chinese) to perform Chinese music works such as the Butterfly Lovers Song or the Yellow River Cantata for the Chinese immigrant audience.  I asked if there were any recordings or music notation of the Chinese music. Mabel didn’t have any.

I was forced to haphazardly comb the merchant stores on Grant Avenue, the main street in San Francisco Chinatown in search of a cassette tape recording of the Butterfly Lovers Song. Because I did not speak Cantonese, the merchants could not understand what I was looking for.  I tried flapping my arms like Morris Day and The Time performing The Bird to illustrate the butterfly flutter. Unfortunately, my bird flapping was too good as the merchant showed me a tape cassette recording cover of birds flying. Two days before the banquet at a CPA meeting, I faced the music by reporting that I had failed to obtain a recording of the Butterfly Lovers Song. However, I did not lose face or the music when one CPA member Deborah Liu had a vinyl recording of the Butterfly Lovers Song to lend to me. By listening to the recording, I learned the song overnight.

After I performed the Butterfly Lovers Song at the New Asian Restaurant, I could hear the waiters singing the melody. CPA and I made an impact. I also wrote an arrangement of the Butterfly Lovers Song that merges the Butterfly Lovers Song with the rhythmic feel of Jesse Jackson’s anthem, Country Preacher, for my ensemble Jon Jang & the Pan Asian Arkestra.

In both the legend and music history parts about the Butterfly Lovers Song, there is a strong narrative about Chinese women whose acts of resistance defy Chinese patriarchal feudalism.  In the legend part which dates back to the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 AD -420 AD), a young woman disguises herself as a man as an act of resistance to the patriarchal feudal practice that only men could study in schools. The young woman disguised as a man meets a young man and he quickly learns that she is a woman and they both fall in love. However, because of the arranged marriage custom, they were forced to separate. The young man dies of a broken heart.  As an act of resistance of the feudal practice of the arranged marriage custom, the woman goes to the grave site and leaps in where they reincarnate as butterflies. This is not only an act of symbolic transformation but also freedom.

In the music history part of the Butterfly Lovers Song, the melody of the Butterfly Lovers Song originated from the Shaoxing Opera Company, the first all women Chinese opera company in 1923. Before the Shaoxing Opera company, all the female roles in Chinese Opera companies were performed exclusively by men.

In 1958, Chen Gang and He Zhan Hao recontextualized the Butterfly Lovers Song by orchestrating the Chinese opera melody into a concerto for violin and orchestra.   Whereas I recontextualized the concerto by placing the Chinese opera melody into work that is a hybrid of black music and Chinese music.




SenseUS! or CensorUS?

In January 1989, Representative Andrew Jacobs, a Democrat from Indiana and a combat-disabled Marine veteran, reintroduced in the House of Representatives a measure that would change our national anthem from The Star-Spangled Banner to America, the Beautiful.

During the summer of 1989, there was a press release announcement about a multicultural arts festival called Festival 2000 that will present performances, concerts and exhibitions during the entire month of October in 1990. Festival 2000 also announced that they will be commissioning new works to premiere at the festival through an application process.

I met with Francis Wong and Joe Lambert, who was the Executive Director of Life on the Water, a mid-size experimental theater company located at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. Joe was also a cultural worker who had a close relationship with the League of Revolutionary Struggle. We talked about the idea of reconceptualizing the national anthem.  Does one anthem represent of all of us? Why can’t there be more than one anthem? Does the anthem have to be song? Why can’t it be a poem? Based on my practice of naming music works with puns and play-on words such as Are You Chinese or Charlie Chan? and The Ballad or the Bullet?, Joe came up with the title of the project: SenseUs! or it could be written as SenseUS! SenseUs is a pun for the 1990 Census.  SenseUs! could also serve as clarion call to sense artists of color in the context of the multicultural arts wars in San Francisco. SenseUS! could also mean to Sense the United States including people of color not just white America. The primary collaborators for SenseUs! were Max Roach, Jon Jang and John Santos for the music and Sonia Sanchez, Genny Lim and Victor Hernandez Cruz for the poetry. SenseUs! was actually the brainchild of Joe Lambert. But if it was perceived that a white man was “leading” artists of color during the highly polarized multicultural arts wars, Joe and Life on the Water could have been attacked as cultural colonizers. We intentionally downplayed Joe’s role while retaining his crucial role as producer and positioned me as one of the primary artistic directors.


Anthony Brown, Genny Lim, and Jon Jang at rehearsal for Sense Us. Photo from Eddie Wong’s video “The Sound of Pleasure.”

We got funded because Festival 2000 was elated over our ideas and the strong application. Festival 2000 knew they could leverage more funding opportunities because Max Roach and Sonia Sanchez were important artists on an international level. Because Sonia Sanchez was based in Philadelphia, there was a chance that the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia would support the project and the festival.

On September 8, 1990, the day the League of Revolutionary Struggle dissolved, Joyce and I got married. It was a new beginning for both of us. One month later, Max Roach, Sonia Sanchez, John Santos, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Genny Lim and our ensemble performed the World Premiere of our new work, SenseUs: The Rainbow National Anthems, to an audience of 6,000 at Davies Symphony Hall.

Act IX

Come Full Circle, Squaring the Circle

For Baby Boomer Generation Asian American composer-improvisers such as Fred Ho, Francis Wong, Glenn Horiuchi and I who grew up in the white middle suburbs during the 1960s and 70s, we were in a position of “honorary white” or the model minority status without being called that.

While we were all inspired by recordings of black arts music of resistance and books about black revolutionary political thought, it was through the lens of white privilege suburbia. We had no relationship to the black communities. Because the four of us rarely participated in high school dance events, it limited our physical relationship to the music. After I dropped out of UC Berkeley, I did join a band performing music from Donny Hathaway’s Live album. That experience gave me a heavy dosage of soul and the black church. During my Oberlin student years, I later rejected using a metronome after my mentor Dr. Wendell Logan gave me the Charles Mingus explanation of his concept of time as “beats in a circle.”

During a rehearsal of the Jon Jang 4 in One Quartet in preparation for our first recording in 1986, black double bass performer James Lewis made this statement directed at Fred, Francis and me: “You (Asian American) cats sound too intellectual. You don’t have any blues in your music.” After Lewis made that statement, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to substitute for Percy Scott in a blues band directed by Yancie Taylor featuring vocalist Mickey Lynn. Because Percy was on tour with the Whispers, I got the golden and blues opportunity to perform in the “joints” in Oakland such as the Fifth Amendment and the Serenader during the late 1980s. Was that a learning lesson! As the only non-black person in the joints, I was on a huge but modest black music stage performing the “real” blues. Growing up in white Palo Alto, the blues bands that were popular in high school were white male groups led by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. This was much different. Blues is black people’s music. I really felt it. It wasn’t just about the black musicians performing the music and that’s important in itself.  It was also about the black audience feeling it with them. It was a different kind of experience than listening to a recording or attending a concert with the James Cotton Blues (black) Band performing to a white audience. I may not be able to perform the blues the way it is supposed to feel, but I know and feel the difference. I know Fred Ho was influenced by a white jazz blues group called Blood, Sweat and Tears. But I never felt Fred ever reached that level of understanding about what the blues was about in its real context because he didn’t have that experience and perhaps he didn’t want to embrace that experience.

Composer-improvisers and the League of Revolutionary of Struggle cadres Fred Ho, Francis Wong, Glenn Horiuchi and I embarked on a “Long March” to the beat of a different drum, somewhere between Japanese American taiko, Chinese American lion dance and Max Roach. We were not interested in playing jazz standards as sidemen (middle management or the hired help) or as leaders in jazz clubs because this was simply not our thing. As an Asian American leading music ensemble with black musicians, I was often conscious of making an effort to respect the musicians as leaders and shareholders in the democratic music making process of our work and NOT seeing them as the “hired help.”

For those of us who made it this far as to where we were to where we are now, we were initially met with a considerable amount of skepticism. As far as our early relationship to the music field and the League of Revolutionary Struggle, we were 4 square pegs in 4 round holes who did not necessarily fit in any definition or category except how WE continually define and redefine ourselves. But now, like a Chinese coin, we are no longer square pegs in a round hole.  Then and now, we as WAGAM (We Asians are great at math) were squaring the circle in trying to explore and act upon the possible despite being surrounded by a force of skepticism that what we aspired to create was impossible.  Sometimes we were outside the circle. Sometimes we were inside the circle – like Mingus’ beats in a circle. There is no time signature for the mathematical constant, pi.

The concluding installment of Jon Jang’s Sounds of Struggle will appear in June in East Wind ezine.

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