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Interview: No-No Boy and Exploring History and Race with Music

“No-No Boy” 

Defined as: a colloquial term for detained Japanese Americans who answered “no” to questions 27 and 28 of the “loyalty questionnaire” during World War II. Those who answered “no” were segregated to internment camps.

Directly outside the south entrance of the Hult Center exists a small garden.

It can often be obscured by the tall hornbeam trees that line the pavement along 6th Street, or be overlooked by eager concert attendees bustling past to make it to their seats for a show. However, sitting behind those trees sits a somber reminder for this region – the Eugene Japanese American Art Memorial. It is there to remind us that art, culture, joy, and excitement were not the only emotions to be felt at this location as prior to the Hult Center, and other buildings, the site once housed the office where local Japanese Americans were forced to register for internment.

While this is a part of local history that many are aware of, it also represents a portion of our history that is essential to never forget. Part of that drive to remember can also be found in the amazing music of Julian Saporiti, a masters student of Asian/Vietnamese/Swedish/Italian heritage who performs as No-No Boy and who will be on the Soreng Theater stage at the Hult Center on November 20, 2021 as part of our ongoing 10×10 series to highlight incredible emerging artists (with all tickets only $10).

Julian / No-No Boy explores the history of the Asian American experience through music that includes essences of indie, folk, and country music.

We were lucky to connect with Julian, who currently resides in Portland, OR, to speak about his music, the connections to history, and what people can expect at his live performances:


 

Tell us about the project and how it came about?

Well, it’s been about a decade long journey. A lot of it explores my identity, which is mixed Asian and white sets, like Vietnamese, and then Italian and Swedish and some other stuff.

This project sort of explores American history through that Asian American lens, which I was never taught in school. So, you’re talking about folk songs that come from my actual PhD that I’ve been working on and hammering home now. All these oral histories of people who, you know, had family come over as Chinese immigrants to work in the mines and railroads or people who were in Japanese internment centers, like friends of mine now. And, of course, my family’s Vietnamese War history and other Southeast Asian folks and Pacific Island folks, just kind of taking these stories to illuminate a hidden history or hidden histories.

I grew up in Tennessee, went to school in the ’90s. And I learned about the Civil War, probably eight times, and still was confused about who won. So, it’s all relative to how you’re taught and what you’re taught. And this is just trying to balance the ledger a little bit, I guess, you know, it’s important to know that, in the state of Oregon, you had this riot, this white riot in the 1920s. Down along the coast, where all these Japanese and Korean Lumberyard workers were driven out of town by a white mob, and this happened all over this state. It’s important to just kind of be honest, about a reckoning with the past. So, you can do a little better, we can get along a little better. And that’s kind of what this this project tries to do.

Part of this project saw you capturing audio from unique locations and structures that you then worked into your music as forms of percussion and background. Were there any sounds you captured that you were especially fascinated with?

I beat on this big tank, this big metal tank that was like either an oil or water tank or something at an internment camp in Texas. It creates this beautiful reverb which I use a lot on my recordings, just kind of use the tail of it to give space to some of the big percussive hits. But I think one of the things I’ve used a lot particularly on a record called “Tell Hanoi I Love Her”. There’s these little cliques of Japanese “Geta” which are like those woods sandals that I recorded at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, (formerly Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center). And I love it. It’s like these great little woodblock sounds. And of course, they go into the computer and pitch them up and down. So, I can use them make almost like a little toy xylophone.

So, something about using these sandals, which were made in the camps right out of the necessity and ingenuity of these people who are unfairly incarcerated. I love the idea of like this Japanese man or woman walking through the mud, to the bathrooms, and just I can kind of hear in my head, those footsteps, like footsteps are very profound to me. So I think like those sandals, those getas are just something that stick with me, you know, and every time I hear them, kind of helps me breathe and kind of helps me walk through history, you know, in a metaphorical, but almost literal way.

Part of your research involved capturing oral histories – was there any specific oral history that you were profoundly impacted by?

I studied these jazz bands that formed in the Japanese American incarceration camps. Partly that’s because when I lived in Wyoming I actually led a jazz band around the state. And probably the only other person to do that was this guy named Georgie Igawa. Like, I’m the only other Asian person to lead a jazz band around Wyoming. It’s a very small, niche, but like I have that connection with them. So, I felt like this kinship to that band in the state i live in the Heart Mountain concentration camp, when I came across it. The problem was that George and all the band leaders, because they were in their 30s or 40s at the time, were all dead, right? But I found the only living band leader of any of these bands. A guy named Mickey Tanaka, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. But he was 101 when I interviewed him in Sacramento. So, I got in touch with his brother in law and drove out to Mickey’s little house. He had had a stroke a few years back, he was in a wheelchair. But he was still all there, up in his mind.

It was amazing because he could remember in Sacramento where like the corner, the street corner where the music shop was where he took lessons on the clarinet in the in the 20s. Man, he remembered playing in a band called The Nighthawks. That was part of this Japanese scene, what they called the “nisei” jazz circuit up and down the coast. He was like, had so much history and he was the only bandleader left, the only adult who had played in these bands, the rest were like high schoolers who were living. And he told me this story about being in the Tule Lake concentration camp in northern California very close to the Oregon border. This place called Tule Lake and he led a band called The Star Lighters or Star Dusters, and they couldn’t find a place to rehearse there was like another band that camp so maybe my thoughts are they had rec hall to rehearse in. But Mickey took his band out to the field. And it was like a real rough group, high schoolers and junior high kids like Bad News Bears type of band, like not a very good band, because you know, you just find who you can find.

So, Mickey was like a music teacher back in Sacramento. And he like kind of led this ragtag group and they would go out once a week to practice in a field. And they didn’t have music stands. So, the little kids who want to just hang around the band would hold the sheet music up in front of all the musicians. So just to picture this. Right? Just like that’s what I love. That’s one moment of the pointillist history, right, let’s go zoom in on this one point. Mickey Tanaka, bandleader. 1942. Tule Lake. This field, these little kids holding the sheet music just happy to be around the magical alchemy that is moving air molecules. That is music, right? These kids just playing trombone bass and drums and piano which they would truck out to the field on a flatbed truck. And then zoom out to the barbed wire right that beautiful incredible, like movie worthy experience but encapsulated by barbed wire. And within that barbed wire to that band are all the questions of white supremacy, economic jealousy, anti-immigrant rhetoric that made the Japanese incarceration happen and have largely defined parts of American history. So I love that moment. And Mickey letting me have that moment, especially knowing that I was probably the first person to talk to him outside of his family. Like, this is a dude who is wheelchair bound and with strokes. 101. All his friends are dead, you know, and I was probably the first person in a long time to talk to him, who didn’t have to, and the last person, you know, and that’s heartbreaking. But that’s kind of the importance of like, tracking down these stories.

What kind of show can people expect when you perform?

Well, I tried to, you know, assuming that’s the first time a lot of people have seen me perform. I try to just strip it down to myself, my partner and co-producer Amelia, who sings harmonies into just sort of a real kind of folky show, just like early Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie kind of thing. Joan Baez kind of thing. Just a guitar some simple chords, some folk songs, and a few a fun little stories, just sharing, sharing stories, singing songs. And behind us is a nice, usually big screen of projected archival images, which sort of accompany the lyrics of each song in some way. This comes from like my dissertation work of going through archives. So, using like these home movies of Asian American people or historical documents, to kind of sync up with the songs. I try to create a an intimate but immersive, or intimate and immersive experience, I guess you would say, through this through film and storytelling and saw.

But I hope that between the films, you know, or the stories, like let’s say you’re an old baby boomer, white dad, and you really love historical nonfiction, I think this is a concert for you. If you’re also like someone who loves good songwriting, and melody, I think this is a concert for you. If you’re like a film buff, or love archival footage, I think this has something for you. So ideally, you know, you can get a history lesson out of it, or you can just get a pure concert out of it, depending on what you’re bringing. And, and yeah, and we do a little q&a at the end, to give a little bit more of that historical context, if anyone wants to stick around for that.


Interview conducted by Rich Hobby.

Find out more and keep up with No-No Boy on the official No-No Boy Project website

Reminder that all tickets to the 10×10 series are only $10 in thanks to the incredible support via a grant from Nils and Jewel Hult Endowment – Arts Foundation of Western Oregon Fund of The Oregon Community Foundation.