Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | arts
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[caption id="attachment_5534" align="aligncenter" width="520"]This group performed a combination Middle Eastern belly dance and a Chinese dragon dance together at a festival. No, it was NOT authentic on either count. This group performed a combination Middle Eastern belly dance and a Chinese dragon dance together at a festival. It was NOT authentic.[/caption] I read with interest a recent Salon commentary by novelist Randa Jarrar provocatively titled “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers.” She made the point that the popularity of “belly dancing” in the U.S. often has nothing to do with the rich cultural heritage that “Eastern Dance” has in the Middle East, where she grew up. She calls out "Arab drag" at restaurants and argues with Caucasians who take up Arabic-style dancing. Jarrar notes the origins of American belly dancing in 1890s “side-show sheikhs” with their harems of exotic dancers. This history of Arabic cultural appropriation has similar historic parallels in the use of blackface minstrelsy and the introduction of Asian images in the American pop culture of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By today’s standard’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy” or the ghastly fake-Japanese of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” seem ludicrous, but they were common ways that Asians and blacks were portrayed more than a century ago. You’d think we’ve progressed – and we have, in many ways. But think back just a few months ago to the American Music Awards, and Katy Perry’s ghastly faux-Orientalist performance that featured the proverbial everything-including-the-kitchen-sink array of props that signaled “Japan” and “The Orient” without actually being authentic Japanese or Asian. Just imitation Asian, like the imitation Middle Eastern exoticism of belly dancing. In recent years a similar discussion has gone on around the origins and current state of yoga, and how far Westerners have taken it from its Hindu spiritual roots to a mere healthy-living fad. A couple of days after Jarrar’s opinion piece, a response essay came from a white attorney, Eugene Volokh, who blogs for the Washington Post. His equally provocatively-titled piece, “What would Salon think of an article called, ‘Why I can’t stand Asian musicians who play Beethoven’?” reminded me that people – even smart people -- don’t get it.

gamelantunasmekar I fell in love with the mesmerizing music of Gamelan Tunas Mekar the first time I heard it. The Denver-based group was my introduction to the rich traditional music of Bali and Indonesia, with its intricate patterns and precise time signatures. It's a music that's propelled by an ensemble of percussion instruments and flutes: Bells, drums, gongs, xylophones and metallophones. The music is groove-y to the max, and hypnotic with its percussive repetition and variations. Gamelan Tunas Mekar is really good at performing Gamelan music, and visually they're dynamic on stage not only because of the orchestra of unique instruments that are arranged on stage, but also because they showcase sinewy, traditional Balinese dancing. The group is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Most of the members of Tunas Mekar are not from Bali or Indonesia, but the group takes the authenticity of its music seriously. The members have learned from two Balinese masters who've passed along their knowledge. Its second master, I Made Lasmawan, moved to Colorado and has been Gamelan Tunas Mekar's Artist-in-Residence since 1993.

There's an embarrassingly small library of fiction books and feature films, about the Japanese internment during World War II. The humiliating experience of 110,000 people of Japanese descent carted away from the West Coast and into hastily built concentration camps is still under-represented in American pop culture. Classics like "Farewell to Manzanar" (in both book and film form) can be hard to find, and better-known Hollywood productions such as "Snow Falling on Cedars" (again, on both the page and screen) can be hits but are fleeting. One of my favorite indie feature films about the era, "Come See the Paradise" starring Tamlyn Tomita and Dennis Quaid, is little-remembered and deserves much wider acclaim. There are still many stories left to tell about Japanese Americans and their time in concentration camps during WWII. So it's cool to see a young filmmaker using the contemporary tools of social media and "crowdfunding" (asking the public to donate money) to bring his original JA story to life. And, it's even cooler to see that Chris K.T. Bright's project, "Tsuru" has caught the attention and gained the support of enough people that its Kickstarter fundraising campaign reached its initial goal of $15,000 in a mere three-and-a-half-days. Kickstarter gives the money to a project only if it meets its goal; if the campaign fails, every donor gets her money back. Now, Bright and his crew are hoping to keep raising money to reach their "Stretch Goals" in the month remaining in the campaign.

Brandon Lee was a handsome actor on the rise in Hollywood, continuing the legacy of his father, Bruce Lee, as an action star. But in 1993, during the filming of the movie "The Crow," he suffered a tragic accident -- a gun that was supposed to be loaded with blanks in a scene shot a live bullet that killed him....

daleli Colorado's first Asian American theater company, Theatre Esprit Asia (TEA), has launched its debut season with a pair of one-person plays in repertory, and I was fortunate to see one of them, "Dust Storm," last week starring Dale Li. If you haven't seen this or the other play, "Spirit and Sworded Treks" starring Maria Cheng, hurry -- they run tonight through Sunday, and then close after next weekend. "Dust Storm" is a monologue about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. It's loosely constructed on a real incident, an attack on Chiura Obata, a celebrated artist, in Topaz, an internment camp in Utah. The story is told from the perspective of Seiji, an angry teenager who's imprisoned at Topaz (with his family, but he abandons them to hang with a bunch of tough teens). Like Obata, Seiji was rounded up in Berkeley, California after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which allowed the camps to be built. Anyone of Japanese descent in the Bay Area, including U.S.-born citizens like Seiji, were told they could pack whatever they could carry, and were first sent to a temporary holding center before being transferred to Topaz.