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Integrating history into his folk music, No-No Boy to perform at ASU

Julian Saporiti, Ph.D., isn’t your regular musician. He used to be.

He actually spent most of his life in the music world. He was born in Nashville. His dad worked in the record industry, and his first career was as a touring musician.

But, he burned out on the road and as he put it, fell backwards into academia.

Saporiti started auditing classes at Vanderbilt University, then went on to get a graduate degree at the University of Wyoming and a Ph.D. in philosophy at Brown. He fell in love with history and teaching — but, in the end, it all led him back to music.

The resulting project is called "No-No Boy," a reference to the 1957 book of the same name and the history of Japanese Americans who were deemed disloyal during World War II when they answered “no” to Questions 27 and 28 on the country’s so-called "loyalty questionnaire."

Saporiti is Asian American. His mother left Vietnam during the war. And it was when he was in Wyoming that inspiration first stuck.

No-No Boy is coming to Arizona State University this weekend for a show and residency. It's an immersive multimedia concert featuring his unique approach to melding music and history.

Saporiti joined The show to talk about  the Show.

JULIAN SAPORITI: Wyoming actually like offered these really unique interesting histories that when I was on these rock climbing trips, traveling around the desert or the mountains, there'd be these like historical markers of old Chinatown, you know, for the railroad workers and the miners who had come out in the 1800S. And there was this old Japanese internment camp up outside Yellowstone where all these people had been put during World War II. 

And I found a picture of a jazz band that started there. And I was like, wow, these histories are fascinating, and I'm kind of finding something of myself in these sort of misplaced Asian faces living in weird places like Wyoming, like, like myself. And I was like, oh, but I wanna, I wanna share this with people and, and if you know, academics at all, we don't like to share our research. we tend to write these really overly sighed super jargony tomes, these Impenetrable books and journal articles. And we don't do a good job of relating our research to the general public by and large.

So I thought, well, one thing I do know how to do is is write a song and, and I think some of these these stories could really be turned into interesting folk songs, you know, just the music that I came from growing up in Nashville, just a guy with a guitar traveling around real old school, you know, like Homer when, and like singing the Odyssey or something. This is an old technology to tell histories and I did that and, and it got way out of hand to the point where I became a musician again and now I can't even teach anywhere because I'm on tour so much. And I'm just lucky that I get to do stuff like these residencies down at ASU where I get to do a concert and then do some workshops and, and talk about my sort of interesting methodology of how do you do real archival research or take family histories, all this kind of interesting stuff and then how do you produce art that people can interact with. So I can go back to a place like where I was in school in Wyoming, in some small town at a cowboy bar places where I used to sing some songs and you can kind of trick people into learning about the histories of their states that they never knew about.

LAUREN GILGER: So, walk us through that a little bit like that, that unconventional approach to making a song, right? Like folk music tells stories, right? But you're doing this in a particular sort of almost educational way as you said, like you're kind of tricking people into learning the history of where they're from. How do you sneak these in there?

SAPORITI:  It's just the way I'm gonna translate my research, right? So when I was a kid, I wrote love songs because I was figuring out boy girl stuff and I wasn't very good at it. And I, that's how I had to process the world. This was kind of the same thing. I was studying all this fascinating stuff. It was like a second wave of inspiration. Let's go back to when I was living in Wyoming, I saw this photograph of this band called the George Igawa Orchestra. And I interviewed all the surviving members, one of them became like a grandma to me, she told me her stories. I sang songs with her, visited her in Hawaii, dug through the archives and, and learned a book's worth of information about this band and what it was like to play music behind barbed wire and this incredible story. And it turned into this like 10-verse folk song called "The Best Goddamn Band in Wyoming."


GILGER: I want to talk a little bit about the instrumentation of this because I mean, it's folk music, as you said. And there's definitely a lot of that in there, but it definitely feels a little bit different, a little bit more contemporary. Tell us a little bit about the, the way you approach the, the music side of this.

SAPORITI: Part of what I try to do, I'm on this label called Folkways. It's like the Smithsonian's record label. And so it's as institutionalized as one can get. And so I think one of the interventions of this project if I can use an academic word is that it, it's sort of speaking against the overwhelming kind of male whiteness of Americana, right? The sort of exclusiveness of what we consider traditional. And so to me, I think about, yeah, I use banjos and guitars and mandolins and violins.

The stuff I grew up with when I was going to barn dances as a kid in Tennessee. But I also think about folk processes today and the majority of the folk process that is to sort of listen to music, then reinterpret music is done through hip hop production, it's done through sampling is, is done through chopping up beats. And so a lot of what I do is use sort of melding these two ideas of a more antiquated traditional folk process. You know, people in suspenders and overalls on a porch playing banjos with kids on their laptops making music, which is to me kind of just as authentic and even more valid in our society, because that's what they're doing, and sort of melding those together, I think the most interesting thing for me is as a historian, I love going to the field sites that I study.

So the remnants of these old concentration camps or refugee camps where Vietnamese people like my mom might have had to stay in the '70s or '80s. And I take a field recorder and I sort of bang on the barbed wire or the wooden floors of the barracks or record the ambient sounds of the water or the air. And then I turn those into instruments. Like those are the majority of the drum kits that you hear on my records. Ideally if I do it, well, you can't really tell you're listening to barbed wire as a high hat or, you know, an old piece of luggage as a kick drum. But that's what it is. And it's a way to like, at least for myself, to integrate the history. I study into the music I make about that history. So like, it's like a sort of like a snake eating itself or something.

And, you know, I love, I love doing that stuff because it really tickles my academic, intellectual historian's mind, but it's also a way of making music that I've never done before. It was only becoming a historian that gave me these stories in the subject matter, but also gave me new ways to make music a song like "Mekong Baby." This is a song that incorporates water, sounds and rivers from Vietnam where my mother grew up along the Mekong Delta.


And it's sort of a lullaby within a war to this kind of memory of my mother's girlhood and her sister's girlhood and, and my grandmother in Vietnam and the forever leaving that these people had to do, so it's very bittersweet. It's a very succinct threadbare lyric, but the music is where the evocation of history and the story comes into place. You have those natural water sounds from Vietnam that I recorded on the one time I got to go over there. But you also have that mixed in with traditional Asian instruments that have been sort of affected and re-synthesized into something a little off filter. You have a translation of the English lyric in the voice of this in the Vietnamese American community, pretty famous '80s pop singer named Thái Thanh and I had her record that. So it's sort of this broken duet between someone of my mom's generation.


And then during one of the very quiet parts you hear sort of gunfire and artillery fire. And that's actual archival audio from the war itself.


So it's, it's taking all of these things, the beauty and the natural wonder of the landscape in Vietnam and juxtaposing that against the terror of the war that was visited upon these people, on my people, and sort of mixing that all together into something hopefully beautiful but also devastating in a way.

GILGER: Yeah, now it's really interesting stuff. I really appreciate you coming on to talk about it. Julian Sapori, a musician and scholar behind No-No Boy joining us. Julian, thank you again for coming on and best of luck.

SAPORITI: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.