Buzzing in NYC, part II: Each Other's Mothers

Kathi Killer invited me to an Each Other’s Mothers show at the Charleston in Williamsburg on Saturday, August 11, 2007. In Brooklyn, my friend and I navigated through blocks of bleak de-industrial structures. Eventually we found Williamsburg, a recently gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn, tucked in a nice, “quaint” neighborhood where a group of folks in their 20s to 30s leisurely congregated for nightlife afforded by the local artsy hipster scene.

A near-hole-in-a-wall place, there were lots of beers and pizzas amidst a friendly crowd at the Charleston. Each Other’s Mothers came on at around 11:45PM. The band began with a song that flaunts a Deerhoof-inflected guitar riff - it’s sweet like “Wrong Time Capsule”. In most songs, Kathi and Rachel alternated between two dissonant riffs on their guitars, sometimes a third apart from one another, other times unevenly dis-harmonizing each other. Angie played solid and complex bass lines while Allison zealously put accents in unexpected spots. No simple power chords, just cleverly composed songs with original melodies, harmonies and rhythms.

Kathi described Each Other’s Mothers’ music to be “instrumental math-punk with some dance rock.” What I heard was refreshing indie-punk sound influenced by Deerhoof (rather blatantly), Franz Ferdinand (my feet danced!), Blonde Redhead (bold dissonance), and Sonic Youth (droney, creamy effects). No bullshitting around. They occupied significant physical and sonic space. The boys and girls in the crowd went nuts for their generous motherly love and pleasure. [Live recording available here.]

Each Other’s Mothers hit the musical sweet spot for me, balancing between rock music conventions and un-conventions. If the planet of punk/rock music is colonized by white men, Each Other’s Mothers has de-colonized a good part of it by rocking out with their serious edgy musical intelligence.


Buzzing in NYC, part I: Hsu-nami

I’ve been hanging out in New York for the last several days – meeting and chatting with musicians, checking out shows.

On Friday night (8/10), I saw Hsu-nami at Desmond's Tavern an Irish pub in midtown Manhattan. The Hsu-nami is a rock band based out of New Jersey. On their Myspace, they self-identify as "experimental/progressive/other". To my ear, the band plays a variety of rock sub-styles including metal, psychedelic, prog rock, and even funk. In place of the lead vocal and guitar, there is an amplified erhu, a bowed two-string instrument often used in Chinese classical and folk ensembles. Jack Hsu is the erhu/violin player of the group. He fronts the band with impressive high-energy fast fingering and bowing on the erhu. The erhu is usually played seated; however, Jack plays it standing, almost like a rock guitar. His active body movement occupied the centerstage while accentuating the hyper sonic projection of the Hsu-nami.

Jack Hsu's rock erhu in Hsu-nami has self-consciously displayed the aesthetic tension between the electric modernity of Anglo-American popular music and the traditional organicity of a Chinese classical/folk instrument. The audience seemed impressed by Jack's newly defined rock erhu virtuosity - it cries like a glam rock vocalist at times and shreds like a metal guitar at other times; every now and then, it sings a Chinese folk ballad. Jack Hsu's innovative style of playing and techniques have managed to transform the erhu into a legitimate rock musical instrument. This kind of musical-cultural negotiation is no easy task, if you asked me.


"Are you Japanese?"

I was at a show tonight. A guy came up to me and my friend Kenny. He seemed curious about all the noisemaking that Kenny and I have been engaged with in our respective projects. He claims that he has me on his videotape. It was a performance of my band at a local theater space back in February. I felt flattered that he remembers our set. This moment of mini-glory lasted until he said, "are you Japanese?"

I floundered around for a clever answer thinking: I'm too tired so I will let this one go. "No, I'm Taiwanese," my rhetorically weak and un-subversive reply prevailed.

Thinking back now, I could've said a million "good" answers such as:

"No, are you?"; "No, but the other members in my group are both Japanese women" (which is untrue); "Do I look Japanese to you?"; or, "No, why do you ask?"

Why Japanese? Why not Filipino or Korean? He wanted to know if I am in any way connected to the Japanese (women) musicians on John Zorn's label Tzadik. (He is unaware that there are quite a few non-Japanese Asian artists on Tzadik.)

Frankly, I wish that I am in some way connected to these innovating Japanese artists. But - ethnicity (neither is gender!) is not the only kind of connection that "all we Asians" have in the US, I would hope. Otherwise ethnicity slips into the objectifying and essentializing trap of race. We are merely aliens who make exotic noises to be consumed by those of avant-garde or cutting edge taste.


Alan Aranas and Brian Le visit class

Last Tuesday, we had the honor of having two Asian American musicians - Brian Le and Alan Aranas - in my class MUSI208D Music in Asian America. Brian is a Vietnamese American hip hop dancer, choreographer and R&B singer; Alan is a Filipino American composer, songwriter, and studio producer (he's the head of NonStop Access Studio). Both Brian and Alan are based out of the metropolitan area of Washington, DC. They have been collaborating for years under the name of Trak N Feel. The premise of their presentations was to relate their career, its present state and history, to their cultural background and ethnic identity. No doubt, the students ate it all up.

A few highlights of the day include Alan's presentations of his scores for video games Robota and Vampire, Brian's hip hop dancer demo and instructions, Alan's live piano performance of one of his songs, and Brian's interactive workshop on issues of representation in the US music industry.

Alan is indeed a music professional. His high-level compositions and songs display convincing statements about his passion for music and professional training. To reconnect with Alan via this opportunity is utmost pleasant. [Alan and I were undergrad classmates at VCU in the late 90s].

I was particularly impressed by Brian's ability to interact with the students in a personal, experiential way. He posed a series of thought-provoking questions that enabled the students to intellectually engage with Brian's concerns and issues regarding the racialized music industry in the US. Later I asked him to consider teaching. He shrugged with modesty and indicated that he's only had teaching experiences in the context of dance instructions. Brian's passion is infectious.

To find out more about Brian, check out Charlene Brown's interview of Brian Le.


Asian-American or Asian-Transnational?

I've lost track of how long I've been browsing the web half-aimlessly. Perfect activity on a Saturday afternoon assaulted by 100-plus-degree heat. I'm looking for music events while planning for my research trip to New York next week. Myspace seems to be logical place to start as it highlights the local affiliations of musicians and music events.

This presents an curious encountering of an online-offline contradiction: regardless of how "virtual" the Internet environment is, people use this virtual social space to construct a sense of local belonging or ties. Not only that, while musicians have a permanent tie to a physical home base, many of them have a transient status of being "on tour" in regions of the US or the world.

I've noticed a particular pattern: many Asian American musicians, particularly those who perform in the format of an indie or rock band, are touring or have recently toured Asia. For instance, Asobi Seksu, a Brooklyn-based indie rock band fronted by Japanese American Yuki Chikudate, just finished their tour dates in Japan and Taiwan (last performance at Formoz Festival in Taiwan) in late July. Also, Johnny Hi-Fi, Taiwanese-American Eric Hsu's Britpop-inspired indie band based out of New York, toured Taiwan, China, and Japan last September and are about to release a bilingual (English-Mandarin) album.

This makes me wonder if Asian American musicians could mobilize their Asian social connections or capital better than those non-Asian Americans. How much of the "Asian tour" has something to do with the personal connections that Asian American musicians have themselves, how much of it has to do with the ethnicity factor? Can ethnicity be translated into a form of social capital?

My speculation is not meant to discount the successful reception of American bands with Asian American members in Asia by all means. I'm sure that there are other reasons (such as a musical compatibility) for Asian listeners to dig music by Asian Americans. (Could this be the reason that Johnny Hi-Fi's "Familiar Voices Pres..." reminds me of Taiwanese indie sound?)

My recent experiences of touring Taiwan with my band (Pinko Communoids) made me realize that without my personal connections to Taiwan, our dream of an "Asian tour" would be halted by a slew of logistical difficulties. Perhaps, with unsigned groups, the possibility of touring Asia would be augmented when a member of the group has some sort of personal or cultural connections to the country. The ability to speak the language and having distant relatives in other countries on a tour could facilitate the international communication and travel arrangement. Believe me, even with that, we still were warped into the alienating universe portrayed in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Perhaps this is the kind of social contact that allows the identity of Asian-American and Asian-transnational to mutually reinforce each other.

If this is the case, why not? It's not like Asians or Asian Americans dominate the music industry in either the US or the world.


last day of class in Music in Asian America

I've been teaching an undergrad summer course Music in Asian America. Today was our last day of class. The students presented their analysis of songs by Asian Dub Foundation ("Debris" and "Change") and M.I.A. ("Pull up the People"). It's fascinating how well students respond to Internet media and pop culture. They interpreted the songs with great details and related the content of the songs to artist's biography. Most of all, I'm happy to introduce them to globally oriented progressive sounds.

My friend I-Jen Fang, who is on the performance faculty here at UVa, came in and gave an informative multimedia presentation of her career. Foregrounding her Asian affiliations, I-Jen narrated moments in her performance career where her ethnicity has been highlighted. We found that that I-Jen was chosen to be (as a token of internationalism) on Mr. Rogers when she was in college! Also she discussed the glass ceiling effect experienced by performers of Asian ethnicity in the US.

It's crucial to consider the practitioners' perspective when commenting cultural production. Thanks for coming to our class, I-Jen!


hello. hello.

Hello, everyone.

Please indulge me in reading what I have to say about my work, my life and my music. I promise that this blog documents most of my thoughts, some of my actions, and few of my emotional strands. As of now, my life is guided by my to-be-realized academic career. This blog will archive my process of dissertate-ing hopefully with some stimulating or entertaining details.