Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | pop culture
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Curt Yagi"Live My Life," the lead track from the new album, "Close My Eyes" by Curt Yagi and The People Standing Behind Me (great band name) grabs me right away. It reveals Yagi's wide-ranging musical palette with dabs of color -- Yagi's funky acoustic guitar, then a drum flourish -- before he splashes the canvas with bass and very cool horn section riffing, and then Yagi's vocals and grungy electric guitar add a sonic signature that has me tapping my toes and nodding my head to the catchy melody. The album (which is officially released on April 12 but is available for advance purchase online) is full of such sweet pop confections that take diverse musical elements and mashes them together into memorable hooks and melodies. "Sweep Me," the second track starts with a ballad intro but kicks into an acoustic ska arrangement pushed along by that horn section. Yagi, who's a Yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese American born and raised in the Bay Area, credits the reggae and ska influences to his love for the genres when he was in high school. He added alt-rock influences when he was in college. He became a musician relatively late in life -- he started writing songs after his father died of a rare disease 10 years ago -- and started singing at open mics. He holds down a day job as executive director of a non-profit, Real Options for City Kids (ROCK) that serves at-risk children with enhanced public school and after-school programs. He started as a volunteer in 1998 and was also a board member before taking on his current role. So he's an artist who already invests his heart and soul in his day-to-day life and is talented enough to also express it musically. Yagi's now 40 (he looks 25) and he and his band were voted "Best of the Bay" by the alt-weekly SF Bay Guardian, and they regularly play Bay Area venues. I wish I could see him live just to experience the intriguing mix of acoustic, electric and horns in person. It's tempting to pigeonhole Yagi's music as steeped in R&B because of the horns, funky rhythms and his often soulful vocals, but after a few listens to the album, I've decided he's a musical omnivore, who likes a lot of different sounds and is able to call on them all as elements to mix in like pigments a painter might use to get just the right shade, the right tone, the right light and shadow.

Lynn ChenUPDATE:Due to a scheduling conflict, our conversation with Lynn Chen is now scheduled for Monday, April 11 at 7 pm PT. Lynn Chen is a woman after Erin and my own hearts... and stomachs. She's a foodie as well as a talented actress and musician, and she writes one blog, "The Actor's Diet," about "the life of a Hollywood actress. Meal by meal," and recently launched another, "Thick Dumpling Skin," about Asians' diet and body issues, with Hyphen publisher Lisa Lee. We're thrilled to announce that we'll be speaking with Lynn for our next visualizAsian show on TUESDAY, APRIL 26MONDAY APRIL 11 at 7 pm PT (10 pm for you folks on the east coast). Just register here for the free dial-in and webinar information -- if you've registered for previous visualizAsian calls, you'll already receive the info. Wow, you missed a powerful conversation with Lynn on April 11, but you can still register to hear the archived MP3 of the call for 30 days. Lynn Chen, whose "excessive beauty makes us want to rip our eyeballs out," according to the ladies of the Disgrasian blog, was born in Queens, New York in 1976 to a mother who sang at the Metropolitan Opera and a father who is an ethnomusicologist, and she was raised in New Jersey and attended Wesleyan University. As a child, Lynn sang with the Children's Choirs at the Metropolitan and NYC Opera Houses, and made her acting debut in the NY State Theatre production of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center. Television credits include "NCIS: LA," "Numbers," guest roles on almost all of the "Law and Order" shows, and recurring roles in "All My Children" and "The Singles Table," opposite John Cho and Alicia Silverstone. Of her films, Lynn's best-known as "Vivian Shing" in Sony Pictures Classic's feature film "Saving Face," a role for which she won the "Outstanding Newcomer Award" at the 2006 Asian Excellence Awards. Since then she has appeared in over a dozen films, most recently starring in "White on Rice," "Why Am I Doing This?." "The People I've Slept With," and the just-released "Surrogate Valentine," which is making the rounds of film festivals. "Surrogate Valentine" was directed by Dave Boyle, the young filmmaker who also wrote and directed "White on Rice," a terrific indie film, and it's a fictionalized story of the real-life experiences of singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura. The film was the closing night selection of the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, and just screened at SXSW Film in Austin. But Lynn isn't just limited to acting. In fact, she took some time off from acting to deal with her eating disorders, and started "The Actor's Diet" in 2009 as a way to write about food and to hold herself accountable for eating healthy (with the burgers and fried thrown in). Here's how she explains the blog:

The Monsters of Shamisen rock, even though they're playing a traditional Japanese instrument, a three-stringed lute that's plucked with a plectrum that looks like an windshield scraper. The shamisen usually is heard playing traditional Japanese folksongs, and as accompaniment for kabuki and bunraku theater. It has an instantly-recognizable single-note sound that's similar in tone to the banjo. It's a folk instrument. But the Monsters of Shamisen don't play just old-time folk music. You won't hear only a Japanese version of banjoey, bluegrassy songs. Sure, you'll hear that, but the MoS puts their instruments to use on Western classical music, pop and rock and roll, European folksongs, and yes, bluegrass too. Where else are you gonna hear Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" payed on two shamisen (above)? Last night, two of the three Monsters, Kevin KMetz and Mike Penny, performed at the King Center on the Auraria Campus in a concert sponsored by the Japan Foundation and the Consulate General of Japan in Colorado. (The third, Masahiro Nitta, is in Japan.)

Within minutes of this commercial airing during last night's Super Bowl game, emails, tweets, updates and blog posts began zipping across the Interwebs decrying the insensititvity of Groupon using the plight of Tibetans, who've been suppressed by the Chinese government for decades, with the Dalai Lama ruling in exile. The spot starts out sounding like a call to help...

It stands to reason that the country that invented karaoke is one that takes karaoke very, very seriously. It takes singing to backing tracks so seriously that in Japan, Kohaku Uta Gassen, the annual singing showdown that airs live on New Year's Eve, has been like the Super Bowl of the country's broadcasting industry, drawing huge numbers of viewers year after year. And Colorado's Japanese-speaking community has brought the tradition to Denver by hosting its own Kohaku Uta Gassen every January for 36 years. Since 1951, the year Japan and the US signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and Gen. Douglas MacArthur -- the "Gaijin Shogun" who ruled Japan as the Commander-in-Chief during the US occupation of post-war Japan -- was fired by President Dwight Eisenhower, the annual karaoke singing contest has been one of the highlights of the country's cultural calendar. Kohaku Uta Gassen (literally translated as "Red and White Singing Battle") has pitted women (the Red Team) against men (the White Team) in a competition to see who has the best singers. That first Kohau Uta Gassen was broadcast on NHK radio on January 4, 1951. When television broadcasting began in 1953, the show moved onto the small screen, and to New Year's Eve. Along with sports shows such as wrestling (there was a huge fad of Western-style, not sumo, wrestling in the 1950s) and baseball, Uta Gassen helped boost sales of television sets because no one wanted to miss the shows. Over the decades it became so popular, featuring the country's best performers in evolving styles from traditional "enka" (Japan's version of blues or country music, mostly about heartbreak) to the current Jpop and rock sounds, that it's become an institution. Denver's Uta Gassen has also become an institution, with some performers singing every year. This year's contest, held at the Denver Buddhist Temple's auditorium in Sakura Square, was filled as usual with about 300 audience members, including the singers and their families and friends. It's always an all-Japanese affair -- the one year I served as a judge, I understood about 30% of the jokes and even less of lyrics but was able to vote on the merits of the performances. It's extreme karaoke, spending an afternoon hearing 32 singers belting out songs in Japanese to nothing but backing tracks. At least they don't need to refer to a TV screen with the lyrics scrolling by -- they've been rehearsing their songs for weeks.

From Huffington Post: Rush Limbaugh took the opportunity of Hu Jintao's state visit to the U.S. to show off his "ching-chong" impression of the Chinese language. How mature... it's so juvenile to make fun of a foreign language and foreign people by mocking how you think they sound. That's third-grade stuff. Many Asian Americans have heard "ching chong" aimed at them growing up, and it was always by schoolyard bullies -- ignorant schoolyard bullies who pull the stunt to make themselves feel superior. I've felt the sting of this taunt, followed by crap like "Ah-so! Harro! Go home, chink/Jap! Ching-chong ching-chong!" The bullies always pulled back their eyes into slits and bared their lips to show buck teeth while they spat out their hatred. It's one thing for ignorant children to use racist taunts to put down others. It's another thing entirely for an adult to do it, and especially shameful for someone with the public reach and potential impact of Limbaugh. He's showing his ignorance for all the world to hear.

Ada Wong, befor and after "The Biggest Loser" We weren't regular viewers of "The Biggest Loser" until last fall's Season 10, because of Ada Wong. I read an interview with her in the Pacific Citizen and some blogs, and Erin tuned in to the show. She got me to watch On-Demand and we were hooked. So we're honored to be able to host Ada Wong as our next guest on She made it to the finals of "The Biggest Loser," and along the way lost 99 pounds and regained her relationship with her hard-ass Asian parents. She's an incredible inspiration for Asian Americans. Our one-hour live conversation with Ada will be on on Tuesday, Feb. 1 at 7 pm PT (10 pm ET) -- just register for the call and you'll receive the call-in information for our conference line, and the URL for the Webcast. As always, you can submit questions for Ada before and during the show via our Webcast page. UPDATE: Sorry, you've missed the live Feb. 1 conversation with Ada Wong. But you can still register for the next 30 days to listen to the archived MP3 recording of the show! If you've tuned in to a visualizAsian show before, you don't need to register -- you'll receive the login info in an email reminder. If you're new to visualizAsian, welcome to our 2011 season! We interview Asian American Pacific Islander leaders and newsmakers on a telephone conference call (long distance charges may apply) and Webcast (always free). Our goal is to inspire all AAPIs to find your voice and follow in or guests' footsteps. Ada was truly an inspiration during "The Biggest Loser." Alone among the contestants, she didn't have the support of her family. Several episodes of the series focused on her relationship with her immigrant parents, who were very critical of her growing up, and unlike every other contestant, refused to send in a video greeting urging her on. They criticized her weight and even blamed her for her brother's drowning death when she was just a child. Despite of these challenges, Ada excelled in the show, and worked hard to lose weight.

Charmaine Clamor, Queen of JazzipinoThe music is straight ahead jazz -- the classic, swingy stuff with lots of space between instruments and a smoky, sultry voice caressing the lyrics. It's jazz, the classic American artform. But the words... aren't... English. The words to the lovely "Dahil Sa Yo (Because of You)" are sung in Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines. It's a jazz standard nonetheless, written for a Filipino movie in 1938 and better known for an English-Tagalog version recorded in 1964 that made the charts in the US. The singer is Charmaine Clamor, the self-described "Queen of Jazzipino," who sings with a lovely voice in both English and Tagalog, a range of songs from traditional jazz to a fine jazzy version of the U2 rock hit "With or Without You," to traditional folksongs of the Philippines in her jazzipino style. Clamor's built a loyal following of Filipinos worldwide by bringing her jazz chops to songs in Tagalog, updating her cultural heritage with a modern sheen. She was born in the Philippines and started singing when she was just 3, entertaining bus riders. She later learned to play the piano and accompanied her mother, who sang Filipino torch songs called "kundiman." Her family moved stateside when she was 16 and she retained her cultural ties to the Philippines. She's released four albums, including the wonderful, low-key "My Harana: A Filipino Serenade" that's almost entirely in Tagalog, and mostly sparingly accompanied with just a guitar or percussion. For fans of Brazilian jazz and samba sung in Portuguese, sitting back with Clamor's Tagalog songs has the same lilting, lulling effect. Clamor kicks off her 2007 album "Flippin' Out" with a wonderful take on "My Funny Valentine," "My Funny Brown Pinay," a powerful affirmation of her ethnic identity that starts out with a spoken poem backed by piano, bass and drums before she breaks into the melody: