Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | music
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Dengue Fever, an Asian American band featuring a Cambodian American singer and European American musicians. I loved watching Dengue Fever's new documentary, "Sleepwalking through the Mekong," and listening to the great music by the band as well as some of its antecedents collected on the soundtrack. I've written about Dengue Fever before, but didn't get a chance to see the show when they played Denver on a tour. So I'm glad this documentary has been released. The film follows the band on a 2006 visit to Cambodia, where singer Chhom Nimol was born. She moved to the U.S. where she was discovered singing in a karaoke bar in Long Beach, south of LA, by the Holtzman brother, Zac and Ethan. The Holtzmans had fallen in love with old recordings of Cambodian pop and rock music during a trip to Southeast Asia and had decided to perform that music in America. Since they -- and the rest of the band -- are white, they went in search of someone who could sing in the Cambodian language, Khmer, and came across Nimol, who's an enchanting singer with a strong voice and an undeniable beauty that practically glows whenever the camera focuses on her. Together, over four albums, two EPs and now this documentary film, the group has recorded a body of work that's consistently interesting, compelling and challenging, with its dreamy mix of psychedelia, folk-rock, surf music and Cambodian melodies. The end result, for me, is a perfect expression of that tired cliche, "East meets West," or better yet, a reflection of one aspect of Asian America.

Musical interlude: I saw on Facebook that Kinna Grannis had posted a video of herself with David Choi, sittin' on a couch and humming and strumming the pop standard, "What a Wonderful World." It's a very sweet version, and the two harmonize beautifully together. I blogged about Grannis a few months ago when I stumbled across her version of "Sukiyaki."...

Jero, the first African American Enka singer in Japan, learned the musical style from his Japanese grandmother.Enka music is often referred to as "Japanese blues." The comparison is apt for a couple of reasons: the music is almost always about heartbreak and inconsolable loss. You can hear it in the singing. And, enka singing relies a lot on vocal inflections that are also common to American blues and gospel music: vibrato and melisma (the bending of notes to show emotion). But fans of Enka in Japan probably never expected to see and hear an African American from Pittsburgh, PA make a name for himself as a rising star in the genre. (UPDATED: See bottom of this post for a video of Jero's historic New Year's Eve performance) Jerome Charles White, Jr. (coincidentally a name that would sound cool for a blues musician), who goes by the stage name Jero, is unique among Japanese pop stars, in that he's young (27), gifted, mixed-race black and American. He sings (and speaks) in perfect Japanese, and more important -- and more unusual -- he sings a style of Japanese pop music that many consider to be "old-fashioned." Enka music isn't quite blues -- aside from some of the vocal inflections and the sad subject matter, it's not a rhythmic style. It has roots in folk music like blues, but it's always presented in slick, orchestrated (stagey and theatrical) arrangements. Young Japanese have drfited away from this style and seem to prefer more modern genres like R&B, rock, disco and rap.

Sierra Club decalThe folk-rock group I play with, Mallworthy, was asked to perform at a holiday party and awards ceremony for the Sierra Club in Boulder last night. The event was held in the cafeteria of a Unitarian church, and there was a constant clatter with a couple-hundred people standing in line for the array of potluck food and then sitting and eating the food, while they talked and laughed. We could barely hear ourselves play our brilliantly rehearsed setlist, never mind anyone in the "audience" paying any attention. One woman who stood about four feet in front of me while she waited in the food line leaned over and said she could barely hear our instruments but not our voices at all. So when a well-heeled middle-aged woman in all black began banging her wine glass with a fork -- during one of our songs -- so the crowd could quiet down and listen to her announcements and several pages of "Bushisms" that she's collected, I had had enough. It was a reflection of how invisible and unnecessary we were to the festivities at hand. Almost half an hour later, while the merry members held their raffle giveaway, we decided we should just pack up and go home. We couldn't even consider this a rehearsal since we couldn't hear each others' parts. It was nice to just get out of there. But I had a cloud nagging at me all night, long after I'd gone home and started watching TV to distract my brain. Even before the presumptuous woman interrupted our playing, I had looked out over the room and noted a disturbing fact: Besides myself, there were two Asian faces (women, who appeared to be there with Caucasian partners) and one African American woman. I wasn't sure if anyone in the room was Hispanic. But it was clear that overwhelmingly, the room was filled with eager, erstwhile, Earth-loving white people.

hapa singer-songwriter kina grannis Surfing YouTube videos can be like the early days of surfing the Internet. Following links to random Web pages is a leap of faith, a trust in kismet, that what you're about to see is both somehow related to what you were seeking in the first place, and hopefully entertaining. In the midst of one of my YouTube forays, following related videos then backing up and taking another path to other videos, I came across one of my favorite songs of all time, "Ue O Muite Arukou" by Kyu Sakamoto, the Japanese pop star who had a worldwide #1 hit with the song in 1963. You probably know the song better by the name put on it by its American label, "Sukiyaki." It's been covered in English by a number of artists, most notably Taste of Honey in the '80s and the Viet pop singer Trish Thuy Trang more recently. She sings both English and Japanese in her version. (See Sakamoto's, Taste of Honey's and Tran's video versions below. They're all available on YouTube.) From there, I clicked to a cover version of the song by a hapa musician named Kina Grannis and was pleasantly surprised by the sweet, cool, understated quality of her version of the song -- which she sings in the original Japanese -- as well as the scope and depth of her talent on other videos. Here's the video: Grannis is from Southern California, and won a songwriting contest sponsored by Doritos with the catchy song, "Message from Your Heart," which was aired during the Super Bowl in February. The contest led to a deal with Interscope Records.

Meiko, a one-quarter Japanese American, or "quapa," from Georgia by way of Los Angeles, is at the vanguard of the new folk music. At least, that's the category where you'll find her on iTunes. She strums and picks an acoustic guitar, so she fits the folksinger/troubadour image. But her music isn't based on the traditional "folk" music of the 1960s folk boom. Meiko's the latest in a long line of singer-songwriters who came out of that earlier folk boom. Starting with the likes of Bob Dylan, and peers and disciples from Tom Rush and Eric Andersen to Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, singer-songwriters have skirted the edges of the rock-pop mainstream, playing their own music instead of traditional songs, with acoustic instruments as their foundation. Their subject matter is mostly introspective and personal (hence, anti-pop by design) but when it clicks commercially, singer-songwriter music, like alternative rock, can hit the sweet spot and rise up the pop charts. It's a style of music that in recent years has become quieter and quieter, almost a whisper instead of the declamatory protest music of, say, early Phil Ochs, or Peter, Paul and Mary, in the '60s, or the folk and country-rock of the '70s. The new folk music can be mopey (then again, weren't Jackson Browne's songs mopey too?). And, it's become a signature style of television soundtracks. Although many shows now, from "Bones" to the "CSI" franchise, feature this type of music, I think of "Gray's Anatomy" first and foremost when I hear the new folk. The genre fits perfectly with the introspective spoken narration that closes each episode of "Gray's." "Boys with Girlfriends," one of the best songs from Meiko's first full-length recording, "Meiko," was featured on "Gray's Anatomy on November 20. Once you know the song, you'll chuckle at how perfect it is for the romantic tensions that are at the heart of the series: "I know better not to be friends with boys with girlfriends," Meiko sings. Boys With Girlfriends - Music Video
Meiko has a handful of equally terrific songs, the kind that get in your head and bounce around like a superball, keeping you humming for days. She's perfected the new folk sound, a dreamy, world-weary singing style that's colored with just a hint of a husky rasp. But it's her way of fitting words and phrases into cadences that stretch and contract to conform to her lilting sense of melody that stay with you.

Although I covered pop music at a time when punk, hardcore, "alternative" rock, rap and hip hop were the coolest sounds, I always had a soft spot for the sweet sugar of pure pop. I once wrote an essay comparing Michael Jackson to Prince, as if Jackson were the Beatles and Prince were the Rolling Stones. In my essay, MJ won out (but this was before MJ got weird). I was, it's true, a Beatles fan over the Stones. And a lot of the reason was the vocals, not just the pop brilliance of the Lennon-McCartney and Harrison songs. I loved the Beatles' harmony. When I listen to Beatles songs, I can hear their voices dancing and meshing with each other; sometimes trading melody for harmony, sometimes taking an aural upfront position, sometimes laying back. That's the same quality that turned me on to artists such as Simon & Garfunkel in spite of Paul Simon's brainy-nerdy lyrics (I was a brainy nerdy kid, after all, so I identified with him). Simon and Art Garfunkel's voices were a natural fit, and I still love to hear their duet vocals, especially on their earlier, unadorned music. Their solo recordings, even when they're great records, don't thrill me as much as the ones they made together. Peter, Paul and Mary were for me, the pinnacle of the melody/harmony interplay. Like the Beatles, they could sing high or low parts, and the sound was fuller than a duet to have all three filling in gaps. Yes, PP&M were an "artificial" group, the folk version of the Monkees, who were assembled as a hit-making enterprise by their manager to cash in on the urban folk boom of the times. Following the success of the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and others, Albert Grossman's formula for pop success was to bring together "a tall blonde, a funny guy, and a good looking guy" and watch the cash flow in. That it did. But they also rose above their commercial crassness and made some fine music for the ages. The trio, Noel Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were earnest lefty-touchy-feely folksingers, a natural progression from the Woody Guthrie balladeer of the Depression era forged with the commercially viable groupthink of the '50s Weavers (where Pete Seeger made his original mark). They had a string of hits, including folk songs like "500 Miles," pop ballads like "Lemon Tree" and protest songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." They popularized the emerging voices of the new generation's "protest singers" like Bob Dylan (the trio's take of "Blowin' in the Wind" is still my favroite of many cover versions and the original). They also sparked the public's imagination with the silly controversy over "Puff the Magic Dragon" (was it or was it not about smoking pot?), and closed out their hitmaking career with a pair of terrific sunset singles, John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and " the gospel-infused "Day Is Done." They caught the zeitgeist of their times -- a spirit of searching and questioning of values, the possibilities of youthful exhuberance, and a lust for life. They still perform to nostalgic crowds, but their golden era was inexorably and permanently affixed to the folk era's comet.

Erin and I have great respect for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders' need to preserve our traditional heritages -- they enrich our lives and help give us our sense of identity with the countries of our ancestors. I think too few young Asian Americans hold on to their ethnic heritage. At the same time, we're not just about kimonos and martial arts and traditional music and dances, and don't appreciate that outsiders (white people, mostly) view us through the exoticized filter of our cultural and social traditions. That's why, during her tenure as editor-in-chief of Asian Avenure magazine, Erin sought to paint Denver's AAPI communities with a broader palette. Major stories were about AAPIs in politics, the popularity of Anime with non-Asians, Asian Americans in the U.S. military, multi-racial Asian Americans and even how Asian Americans are excelling in hip-hop dance. Erin also wrote this month about Namita Khanna Nariani, the founder of Mudra Dance Studio, who's a terrific example of how AAPIs can synthesize their respect for traditional culture with the modern energy and pan-cultural richness of being Asian in America.