Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | boomers
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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.

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.

Betty James just passed away. Who's that, you say? She's the woman whose husband invented the Slinky, and the woman who headed the company that manufactured all the wacky variations of Slinky, from Slinky Dogs to Plastic Rainbow Slinkys, for decades. My friend Leland Rucker, with whom I co-authored "The Toy Book" in 1991, just posted his thoughts about the time we were lucky enough to meet her while researching the book. I vividly remember meeting Betty James. She was appreciative that a couple of aging boomers like us were interested in her company. She was a giant, but unknown to the zillions of kids who grew up with her toy. She gave us brass special edition Slinkys after meeting us. I still have mine on my desk…. The story of the Slinky, which I'll include below from "The Toy Book"'s first chapter, is pretty fascinating, because it was discovered by chance, and was a bellwether -- the first truly original toy for the nascent generation, because it was first sold in the fall of 1945 in the flush of the post-war holiday season. That's why it led off the book. But Betty James was a fascinating story herself. Richard James may have invented the Slinky but Betty made it a generational icon. Around 1960 Richard James left his wife and six children to join a religious cult in Bolivia. He died in 1974. Betty James took over as CEO of James Industries when he left, brought the company out of its debts (her husband had apparently "donated" a lot of profits to the religious group), and then started diversifying the Slinky product line and running the TV commercials that many Boomers can still sing along to. It's because of her efforts that to this day, if you say "Slinky" to almost anyone in in the US of almost any age, they'll hold out there hands, palms up, and wave them up and down to mimic playing with the spring.

Barack Obama's victory last night in the U.S. presidential election brought tears to my eyes not only because of the incredible historic nature of his mere candidacy, and the poignancy of his life story, and the righteousness of overcoming the odds and connecting with the majority of Americans to win the White House. The emotions welled up because of his ability to engage me throughout the campaign -- even though I was early on a supporter of Hillary Clinton -- at a personal level. It wasn't just the emails and text messages and the idealistic ubiquitousness of his campaign's eager, enthusiastic volunteers and supporters. The enthusiasm certainly was catching, however. It was simply the man, and his seeming thoughtfulness and determination. And his determined disregard for the most historic part of his grand run: his color. He didn't really disregard it. He simply refused to make it the focus of his identity. The only time he addressed it head-on was with his speech during the primaries about the nature of race in America. But last night, during his victory speech in downtown Chicago's Grant Park, he acknowledged that he understands the enormity of his accomplishment very well. He mentioned it right away, in a reference to his place in the racial narrative: "It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. "Its been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." That last line struck a familiar note with me. It was a reference to a 1964 Sam Cooke song, one of the former gospel-singer-turned-pop-star's lesser hits. "A Change Is Gonna Come" was Cooke's own acknowledgement of his place in the race narrative, but it was one of his last singles, released after he was killed under mysterious circumstances. (A Los Angeles motel manager claimed she shot him in self-defense.) Cooke had written "Change," his only protest song as a follow-up to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Dylan returned the favor after Cooke's death with "The Times They Are a-Changin'." The slow, measured ballad is not one of Cooke's well-known, bright, sugary love songs like "You Send Me" or "Cupid," where he mixed gospel style with pop sentiments. The powerful chorus of the song, which went on to become a familiar refrain to those in the civil rights movement, is, "It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come." Like Obama said last night, that change has come to America, at last.

One of the great advantages of working for MediaNews Group Interactive is that our office, on the 9th floor of the same building that houses both the Denver Post, which we own, and the Rocky Mountain News, is that we have a terrific view. Located at the corner of Broadway St. And Colfax Ave., our building overlooks Civic Center Park, which is surrounded by us, the City and County Building, the Denver Art Museum and Denver Public Library complex, and the gold-topped Colorado State Capitol. Off in the distance to the west beyond the City and County Building rise the mellow foothillas and then the already-snow-dusted Rocky Mountains. With the sun shining and the air crisp with early fall -- a rarity here, since fall is often skipped in the rush from summer to winter -- it's easy to remember why we love living in Colorado so much. Today, the view off our 9th floor balcony of Civic Center Park showed some event going on. The summertime Farmers Markets had already stopped, and beside, they were held on Wednesdays and this was Thursday. You could hear the amplified sounds of music wafting up off street level, though, and a weird-looking tower was spitting out soap bubbles. There was a large, colorful peace sign drawn on the grass of the park, so I figured it must be an anti-war demonstration of some sort. During lunch, I wandered downstairs and crossed the street to check it out. It turned out to be a peace-and-art event, and a celebration of the late musician-activist-Beatle John Lennon's birthday. Lennon was born in Liverpool, England on Oct. 9, 1940.

I know some of my friends think of me as a gadget freak, but I only get crazed about a new toy every once in a while. iPods, for instance. Or digital cameras before that. Walkmans (Walkmen?) in the '80s. Here's my newest gadget recommendation: We recently bought two Flip video cameras and we're having a blast with them. I had checked out the Flip last year when they were first introduced -- Costco sold them for a few weeks and then stopped carrying them. Several months ago, our pal Bill Imada, founder of the IW Group media and advertising firm, held up a Flip after giving a presentation to the Colorado chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals, and told us we have to get one. At Denver's Cherry Blossom Festival in June, my brother Glenn Asakawa, a former photographer at The Denver Post now working for the University of Colorado, held up his Flip, and I was reminded that I wanted to get one.

I know exactly where I was the night of June 5, 1983: I was freezing my butt off, soaked to the bone but ignoring my discomfort because I was in musical heaven, surrounded by huge sandstone rocks on both sides, a stormy sky above and a hungry young band called U2 just hitting its stride in front of me, its members playing their hearts out despite the crappy weather. That concert was captured on an EP (for you post-CD fans, "extended play" releases were vinyl records with fewer songs than a full album but more than just a single with a flipside) and a video, both titled "Under a Blood Red Sky." The audio recording was actually a compilation of tracks recorded at Red Rocks and elsewhere during the same tour; the video was all filmed in Denver. The combination of the two established U2 as world-class big-time rock stars, not the scrappy new-wavers who played clubs and small theaters. MTV loved the energetic performances amidst the dramatic, almost otherworldly, setting. Radio stations caught on to the band's talent, and U2 hit their stride. In the years since, the concert was hailed as a seminal moment not just for U2, but for pop music: Rolling Stone magazine named it to its list of the "50 Moments that Changed Rock and Roll."

I'm a born-again Asian American. Most of my life, I was oblivious to my rich roots and Japanese heritage. I was a banana -- yellow on the outside, white on the inside. So probably more than some Asian Americans, I like the idea that May is officially "Asian Pacific American Heritage Month" in the U.S. There's a part of me that finds it irritating that APAs get noticed once a year and we're practically invisible the other 11 months. But I'm glad that former transportation secretary Norm Mineta drafted the legislation to establish this month-long celebration when he was a Congressman. I'm pretty immersed in the APA community now -- not just Japanese American, but also the dozens of other Asian ethnic cultures and how they've evolved as they've become established in the U.S. APA Heritage Month makes me think of times when I was less connected to my own roots, and not interested in the vast wealth of culture throughout Asia. When I was a kid, I was into Japanese and Chinese (or more correctly, Chinese American) food. That's what my family ate when we weren't eating hamburgers, steak, spaghetti and pizza. This was before I developed my voracious appetite for Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, Singaporean and Filipino food. It was pre-dim sum. And, it was way before I grew to appreciate all kinds of Asian music, both traditional and Asian American. (Note: For those of you non-Asians who are Asiaphiles, I want to make the distinction that though we Asian Americans appreciate our heritage and understand how we're steeped in traditional values, we're all about the mix of being both Asian and American, or perhaps more accurately, being Asian in America.) One very clear example of my growth and awareness of Asian culture today as opposed to when I was younger, is my appreciation for one particular track in George Harrison's landmark recording, "The Concert for Bangladesh." The track is the Indian music performance, "Bangla Dhun," by the sitar master Ravi Shankar.