Album Review: No-No Boy, ‘1975’
Released this week as part of Smithsonian Folkways’ larger Asian Pacific America album series, the new album, 1975, from indie songwriter No-No Boy, aka Julian Saporiti, is a thoughtful, evocative document of the Asian American experience. Saporiti anchors each song on the album around a vignette, a family story, or a particular piece of history. He’s using these snapshots of Asian life to redefine, in a sense, how we think of American music. In the vein of Pete Seeger, this is ultimately protest music, but it’s built on human stories rather than political points. This is folk music for sure, through the lens of a Nashville artist who came up in indie rock first, so he incorporates electronic influences as well as field recordings and sound samples in an effort to build a larger world around the songs. Saporiti’s voice is heartfelt, just a little cracked, but it’s the stories behind the songs that shine through the lyrics and prod the listener to pay more attention, to focus on the history that Saporiti’s trying to convey. As Saporiti says in the liner notes, “This album can be a history book or an early 21st-century diary. To me, it’s a travelogue and family album, straddling borders, some imagined, some physical and darkly drawn.”
The voice of Saporiti’s Vietnamese mother opens the album, moving fluidly between English and Vietnamese French Creole, and focusing his own memories of growing up in the Southern US. “A soft language barrier,” Saporiti sings, “The child of an immigrant / Before the Banh Mi trucks were cool / Lunch table embarrassment.” Saporiti opens with a reminder that even if Asian culture and foodways are more accepted now throughout the US, the stories of Asian immigrants and the children of immigrants are too rarely heard and the traumas of the past remain in the present. It’s a personal perspective to ground the listener, but Saporiti’s also interested in telling stories other than his own. One of most powerful tracks on the album, “The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming,” was inspired by Saporiti’s research into Wyoming’s Japanese concentration camps during World War II. As Saporiti tells it, he’d been studying jazz for years in school, and had never learned about any Asian American artists in the music until he stumbled on a black and white photograph of a Japanese American jazz band in Wyoming’s Heart Mountain internment camp. The photograph made the trauma of internment real to him, but also brought him on a quest to find any of the last surviving band members. He tracked down Joy Teraoka, who was a mere 16 when she joined the band, and became close friends with her. The historical mixing with the personal is a key theme to No-No Boys album, and makes a chorus like this even more powerful: “Under starlight they danced behind barbed wire / Under the mountain, it meant something to sing.”
Saporiti’s search for Asian history in America highlights a different perspective from the European-centric immigration stories we’re usually told. In “Pilgrim,” he reflects on a pilgrimage he took to San Francisco’s Angel Island, an Asian immigration counterpoint to New York’s Ellis Island. He ties the song to his research into the Chinese communities in Providence, Rhode Island, and the church that brought them together, singing “Aren’t we all just some pilgrims in the dark?” On other songs, he tackles American imperialism in the Philippines (“Gimme Chills”), his thoughts on the current American detention centers along the US/Mexico border (“Close Your Eyes and Dream of Flowers”), a student’s Khmer family history (“Khmerica”), a chance encounter with another internment camp survivor in San Francisco (“Miss Burma”), and thoughts on Hawaiian history and culture (“Honouliuli”). Each of these stories or vignettes are informed by historical trauma, but anchored in the personal, either through Saporiti’s only family roots, or through his travels in search of the larger stories of Asian history in America.
No-No Boy’s 1975 is a remarkably powerful and moving album from an artist who may be new to the folk world, but clearly understands the power in the idiom. It’s also a reminder that America is larger than this country. We seem too often to be limited by our own borders, limited by the idea that the white American perspective “founded” this country and moves it forward. In reality, America should be one of the most connected countries in the world. Our history of continual immigration leaves us with strong ties to every country we came from, and projects like No-No Boy remind us that all of the stories of the world live here as well.
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