Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Beyond Human Expectation: Music, Teaching and "The Orphan of Asia"

 Luo DaYou
 When I teach writing, I feel like I'm passing on what I best know how to do. When I write or teach about music, I'm talking about my inspiration, things spiritual that continuously forge my identity and broaden my vision. While music has always done this, to some degree or another, there's a reason these particular qualities are associated with the rock and roll explosion that started in the 50s.

Even back then, the ingredients had been around for a long time. American culture has always been defined by its mix of traditions--20,000 year old indigenous cultures and the trade-off between Africans brought here against their will and the various immigrants who settled here--first from Spain then northern Europe, and then everywhere else. Everything cultural that is distinctly American reflects, in some way, both the promise and the original sin of this modern Democratic-Republic.

But something took hold of the culture in the 1950s, something that's never gone away. Perhaps because of the increasingly narrowed thinking of the Cold War, perhaps because of the openings provided by the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps because everyday people for the first time were forging a common musical culture, rock and roll started something new. Different from jazz but a bridge to what hip hop did later, rock and roll created new ways to be at the heart of American culture, prevalent throughout American youth, and distinct from what came before. The mix of music reshaped and repurposed by aesthetics of the African diaspora became a celebration of life beyond the boundaries of narrow expectations. It became a celebration of the outsider. It became a celebration of the "other." It opened American popular culture to the world, and it gave back some of this same liberating potential, worldwide.

My students have long brought me music from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Far East, music that reflects the way rock and roll and hip hop found their way around the globe. In the piece below, my student Rong Zou (already a geographical reporter in China, so I take no credit), shows how the devastating "Terror of War" photograph taken by Vietnamese-American Nick Ut in 1972 influenced Taiwanese musician Luo Dayou, then influencing generations since. As Zou shows, the first wave of rock and roll also plays a role here, in the way it ignited a couple of British Invasion kids, Paul McCartney and Roger Waters (twenty years and lots of expanding choices down their respective roads) to inspire the arrangement.

At one point early on, Zou calls "Orphan of Asia" an "exception" to the songs that serve death. I'm not sure what she means, or if I would agree if I did, but I hear her description of it as a song for all of us living, "deeply and vulnerably trapped in plight." In the video for the song, scenes from A Home Too Far, a story of Taiwan's separation from China, play in the background. It's 1949, a time of civil war, and Chinese who do not want to lose their homeland find themselves trapped between armed forces, sinking in blood-filled water. As she describes it, the song is a blues for carrying on in that world and a gospel or soul song dreaming of possibilities "beyond human expectation." Somewhere in that description is what I think the rock and roll big bang (just around that same time) was really all about...and why the universes created carry on. Just as she says of the song, I repeat to myself more generally, "It really is worth knowing again and again."

With her permission, Zou's essay follows. Settle in. It's worth it.

                                         An Analysis of   “Orphan of Asia”
                                                    by Rong Zou
               After being away from my long geographical report career, I still keep two habits in life. One of those habits is listening to music on a road trip. Another habit, more personally, is that I liked visiting briefly some cemeteries we passed by accidently.  I don’t know what made the connection of the two habits, or if the two things just happened at the same time. When stopping by a cemetery, whatever song happened to be playing faintly drifted into such a quiet place. I read some names of some tombstones, then, sat nearby smoking a cigarette sometimes. As we departed, music in the automobile would continue playing, and at most moments I felt calm and soft in heart. Basically, I think all songs might be for death; however, there is one exception.
             In the spring of 2010, my two fellows of geographic studio, a photographer and a professional driver, and I made an interview along 900 miles of national boundaries between Vietnam and China, where the Chinese government built twenty-one national army cemeteries for fallen Chinese soldiers during the Sino-Vietnam war in 1979.  We went into each cemetery to look for the soldiers who were born in our hometown, Hunan province, then put a red rose before each of their gravestones. Finally, we figured out that more than 1,200 gravestones of my hometown soldiers were among the twenty-one cemeteries. I copied those fallen soldiers’ names and their birth and death years. Most were between 19 and 23 years old and killed within 28 days. If they were alive, I was aware that they were equivalently the age of our elder brothers. Sometimes, the cemetery keeper would tell us about some of the soldiers, saying, “He’s from the urban family, so his family came here one time many years ago; he’s from the rural family, his family never came to see him, too poor, too far away to come. You are the first ones see him.”
            By the last days of the interview, I seemed to become more and more anxious. “Turn music down, please.” I said many times in the car.  “Are you okay? Are you sick?”  “Probably. I don’t know.” I just didn’t want any sounds, any music.  No songs for those in my country.
             Around two years later, I was alone watching a sad movie at home. It was titled A Home Too Far, which was based on the true story of the Chinese civil war 30 years before The Sino-Vietnam war and was produced in Taiwan. In the ending, a song, “Orphan of Asia,” was played, and it was like a flood engulfing my mind. Although I heard it before, at that moment, following the special historical background study and seeing the history of tragic characters dying or becoming homeless in another country, the song seemed to be telling me and crying out the pain I didn’t realize and understand before. Immediately, it reminded me of my suffering when I visited the twenty-one cemeteries.
              Today I can interpret so many implications, metaphors, and multidimensional meanings hidden in  “Orphan of Asia,” which was written and recorded by a Taiwanese singer-songwriter, Luo DaYou, in 1983. I also know what, why, and how this song touched me.  The complicated political and social setting of the song, its unique music structure and poignant lyric, can echo the isolation, fear, and danger of an individual or race, not just Asians, in a society that is too dominant, too privileged, and too arrogant.
Terror of War, Nick Ut, 1972
              According to Taiwan Public Television music TV show, “Yesterday Once More,” in 2016, Luo recalled that the theme setting of “ Orphan of Asia” was directly aroused by a photo of a  “Napalm Girl” running away from a bombing, which was published in The New York Times during the Vietnam War. A Taiwanese music critic, whose name is Ma, ShiFang, in his music radio program, “Listen to,” in 2015, also pointed out that some backgrounds--for example, first, Taiwan reluctantly retreated from the UN in 1971; secondly, America established diplomatic relations with China instead of Taiwan in 1979; thirdly, Taiwanese have hated to bear their identity confusion since 1895 of Japanese colonial period,  --impacted and contributed on this music piece.
               In fact, the title word, “Orphan,” is just a typical metaphor, and it refers to a vulnerable situation, not only in reality but also in spirit, as a race, community, group and, of course, individual.
            There are three verses in “Orphan of Asia.”  In the first verse, Luo kept writing on four colors as allusion: “The orphan of Asia was crying in the wind/The yellow face had a red sludge/The black eyes had a white phobia/A western wind in the east was singing sad songs” (Infiity13.)  For people living in particular times and circumstances, it is easy to feel and understand the lyric imageries because of their exact suffering such as facing racial, political, or cultural experiences of prejudice and discrimination.
          The second verse stepped to a deeper level and continued telling a painful and graphic instance: “The orphan of Asia was crying in the wind/No one wanted to play a fair game with you/Everyone wanted your beloved toys/Dear child, why are you crying?” (Infiity13) So simple were the words but named the truth. Looking back at the human history, whatever race and place, there were countless scenes like this full of inequality, insult, and damage and, actually, such things similar are still happening every day now if you read or watch some world news reports or think about those vulnerable people, or gender, or  Islamophobia, and so on.
            Both above verses expressed experiences and feelings of frustration and isolation. The third verse became more poetic and strongly questionary: “How many people were pursuing the unsolved question/How many people were helplessly sighing in the late night/How many people's tears were wiped away in silence/Dear mother, what is the reason?”  (Infiity13) This verse changed the thought from history to current, from speaking only to Asian people but to all people. Meanwhile, the song offered no answer. Probably, it had no ability to know how to deal with the pain and discomfort when it could only ask “dear mother” like the most helpless people. Obviously, it made it easier for the listener reach the sympathetic response, and pushed people to thinking.
            In addition to the lyric, what “Orphan of Asia” truly impressed on the listener at first should be its unique music structure and processing.
            First, a point to mention is that in 1980s Luo was a Taiwanese icon as Bob Dylan’s followers, also he admitted he was a heavy fan of the western rock-roll music. According to his interview of Taiwan Public Television in 2016, Luo asserted that the music structure of  “ Orphan of Asia” was inspired by  “Mull of Kintyre,” which was performed by the Beatles singer Paul McCartney. Both songs included marching style with waltz beat. For the theme of “Orphan of Asia,” such a music arrangement made the rhythm melodic but the mood dignified simultaneously, just like a small piece of epic. 
            Secondly, the employing of instruments in “Orphan of Asia” was so unique that it easily impressed the listener. While recording “Orphan of Asia,” Luo decided to replace the Drum set with military bass drum and snare drum increasing the marching feeling of the song; and then, from the 2’33 to the 3’08 of this song, his band member played a 35’’ length of suona solo. The horn-like suona is similar to bagpipe in “Mull of Kintyre,” and both are ethic instruments. However, usually, as a kind of funeral instrument in most of Chinese countrysides, suona’s high pitch and sharp timber might make the mood and ambience extremely desolate. Therefore, for a dignified theme of “Orphan of Asia,” the instrument was especially effective and unforgettable. It’s worth mentioning that releasing  “Orphan of Asia” three years later, in 1986, another Chinese rock-star, Cui Jian, also used same way of suona solo in his most famous song, “Nothing to My Name,” at his first rock show. There was the same shock to audiences on the spot.
               Finally, as a special part of the music structure, the chorus appeared in all versions of  “Orphan of Asia.”  In particular, in the original version, the chorus was sung by kids. Ma, ShiFang guessed that the children’s chorus idea probably came from “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” which was performed and recorded by British band Pink Floyd. When the children’s bright, pure, and impeccable voices suddenly joined with the desolate suona, heavy military bass drum beat, and the singer Luo’s hoarse singing, they created such a huge contrast of feelings, almost blowing the heart apart. 
                Regardless most eastern countries traditionally emphasize country over individuality. When this emphasis reflects in Chinese modern music and, especially, if the theme of song related to country or something similar, the music usually showed more symbolized single ideology and less individual feelings. So, for a long time, it was rare to hear a Chinese pop song like anti-war or some other social issues songs in America. Perhaps that’s why when I visited twenty-one national army cemeteries I felt so much sadness. I have to say The Sino-Vietnam war then was just a senseless political war of relentless costing innocent lives, but none of the Chinese songs I knew corresponded to individual pain about that, or, even just a bit confusion, except to praise sacrifice. In a way, “Orphan of Asia” indeed challenged a cold, rigid ideology and political censorship, suggested more complicated and confusing human condition, whether in war or in normal, and this breakthrough not only simply echoed western pop music culture but also reflected its own, both in music and thinking, ethic way.
                Also, I remember one of my studio parties at a music house before I left my newspaper years ago. At that time, so many topics we planned to report and articles we have written were more frequently canceled by censorship, and everyone was very dispirited. In that music house, my newspaper’s editor in chief  talked about his frustration to me, and suddenly said, “I have to sing a song. I have to. Do you know what song I want?  ‘Orphan of Asia.’ We’re just orphans, aren’t we?” “We are.”  Yes, even today, I still think we are orphans, as well as I think all those, who are deeply and vulnerably trapped in plight, whether racial, political, or cultural, religious, or economical, are a kind of orphan. Perhaps just one thing is still comforting: sometimes, what music itself illustrates and educates is far beyond human expectation. So, thirty-six years have passed since “Orphan of Asia” released primarily, however, I sense it is really worth knowing again and again.
          
                                            Works Cited
A Home Too Far, director by Chu, Kevin,1990.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vD3h-Jm4eZg&t=120s (song version: Wang, Dave)
Infiity13. “The Orphan Of Asia,” 2008-2019 LyricsTranslate.com
Luo,DaYou. “Orphan of Asia,” Future Master, 1983.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fqhfVBjeso (original song version: Luo,DaYou)
Ma, Shifang. “Listen to,” PlayerFM, 2015.
https://player.fm/series/series-106981/episode-121383106
“Yesterday Once More,” Taiwan Public Television,2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MzbE-wKx4U (45:59-55:21)

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Sudden Sympathy: Stars at Night and Le Butcherettes


  
I haven’t claimed to be a punk in a long time, though that fire was the thing that first lit the rock and roll path at my feet. Seeing LA’s Stars at Night and Le Butcherettes at KC's RecordBar shook me with a visceral reminder why and how that fire first lit. Though I missed most of their set, Stars at Night immediately caught me up in all the possibilities of guitars, bass, drum and a singer determined to cry for life. These four women rocked hard and fast and big, setting what felt like all the hearts and minds in the house throbbing. You can get a pretty good sense of it from the new record’s opening cut, "Searching"- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8drhYQg9tbI

Then came Le Butcherettes, like Stars at Night a fundamentally Mexican-American punk band, but with a guitar-strapped and red-keyboard-dancing indigenous warrior as its frontwoman. Teri Gender Bender (Teresa Suarez Cosio) is, despite the name, a righteously feminine presence on stage. Her femininity manages to unlock the power of a rock star while, at the same time, embodying the fan who’s making the most of her time on stage. Cosio’s duality took me back to my punk self. For kids like me, who lived and breathed music but didn't understand the world of the Hollywood-Rock-Star culture, the punks were a human-size revolution, as their brothers and sisters in hip hop would parallel and inform. I think of this video for "This is Radio Clash"—https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=this+is+radio+clash+official+video 

With all that was happening with funk, hip hop and soul in the 80s, I soon felt outside the punk world, and I've not kept a close watch there for ages. That said, over three decades down the line, the gap between fan and star that created 70s punk is wider than ever. It's exacerbated by the irony that there is a new immediacy to the media, but YouTube sensations and TV talent show contestants arrive without a sense of a movement or fan base behind them.  

Le Butcherettes have paid their dues, and, over the course of its four albums, Le Butcherettes has taken several forms. What hit Kansas City mid-February was a band's band--drummer Alejandra Robles Luna holding down the beat and kicking up a furor to make Keith Moon smile, while bassist Marfred Rodriguez-Lopez and guitarist/second keyboardist Rico Rodriguez-Lopez played near-stoic foils to Cosio's expressive, explosive, dynamic and achingly vulnerable antics. Watching this multi-dimensional, intimate and hard-fought show reminded me that nearly the whole world of what is most raw and real in this rock and roll history is once again underground. The radio has never felt more like the tip of an iceberg. And the revolution is being fought on levels I never dreamed of before, night after night after night.

I didn’t know Jerry Harrison produced their new album until well after I fell for it, but it makes sense. His first band, the Modern Lovers, were important to me for all the reasons suggested above, but that other band of his, The Talking Heads….They redefined what was possible. A slinky, poppin’ rhythm section holding together knife-play lyricism and Harrison filling the whole thing with the appropriate, impossible colors.

It’s enough to say this record has those colors, but what matters is the way the sound serves Cosio’s vision. This is a record that pushes and pulls at the contradictions and complexities of relationships like a saw taken to the bone. Cosio is playful and deadly serious at the same time. It’s vivid in “spider/WAVES” when she telegraphs the opening chant, “Injuries are slashed deep open/Messiahs hold them still.” It’s terrifying….and inviting.

There’s so much to this hard-focused tightrope between grief and liberation. The folky “in/THE END” complements an irresistible, tender melody with a gut-tugging lyric. “give/UP” begins with a battle cry and a charging verse before reaching a bridge built by compassion. That’s in the lyric, but it’s also in the sound, a meandering stream of colored keyboard. Caught up by those sparkling waters, Cosio sings, “Sudden sympathy invades the very fiber of my vicious being.” Such precious connections have everything to do with why I came to punk in the first place. What's more, they lie at the heart of rock and soul itself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EANtOg0S1Jw

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Flemington Meets KC: Nalani & Sarina Prove It All Night in 45


On the EP and album (2015's Scattered World and 2018's The Circle) I’ve been listening to over the past two years, New Jersey twin rockers Nalani & Sarina have come to represent what I find missing in most contemporary music—a big vision and a firm belief in that vision. When I heard they were opening for Tech N9ne January 26th, I had to be there though three other favorite bands were playing shows the same night. I took my older brother (my first music teacher) and my nephew (the musician in the family) to their set opening for Tech N9ne, the biggest act in town playing a sold out show at the 2000-person room Voodoo Lounge.

Now Tech N9ne fans, and fans of his label Strange Music, are a wonderfully frenzied, devoted bunch. I can’t think of another Kansas City artist who has anything like his following. I was a little nervous for these Jersey artists I cared so much about because I would not personally want to be taking the stage before Tech and his two Strange-label openers. At the same time, it was a moment of great possibility. I plunged to the middle of the floor hoping, almost against hope, that this crowd would have open ears for the rock show that was going to happen before the Strange Music review.

They had only 45 minutes to make an impression, to gain some new fans.

Some musicians seize possibilities in a way that makes it look thrillingly effortless. Nalani & Sarina are just such artists. These two women hit the stage with guitars—mirror twins, guitar necks pointing in opposite directions—another guitarist to their right, a bassist to their left, drums in the back. They said, “Hello, Kansas City, are you ready to see Tech N9ne?” The crowd roared. “We’re here to warm you up!”

And then—I wish I knew how to say this with the appropriate weight—they tore into it all, their whole set, the whole room. They shouted in unison this clarion call—“Wa, wa, wa, wake up now! Wa, wa, wa, wake!”—and they were laying out the house with this slamming pledge to “stay here forever” and promising “the break of day.” More than a few hands in the house immediately went up.  


On the second song, "The Circle," Sarina took to the keys for a stinging funk riff, and Nalani answered with chunky rhythm guitar, their twin vocals full-throated and pledging that we could become a part of a revolutionary circle of change alongside them. Bold stuff for an audience that's never seen or heard the band before, but inviting, the message of freedom so universal and the energy infectious.

(This video from a smaller show in Chicago gives a hint of what it was like--https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wjkrZK4nWQ)

Nalani & Sarina have some wonderful ballads and songs that defy genre description, but they stuck to one hard rocking moment after another. “Wanna Be with You” featured an impossibly fast and facile bass run by Mike Klemash, feeling as much like a pledge to the audience as a love song (which of course it is).  

Things slowed a bit for the reggae-flavored “Deep End,” featuring a primal lead by Ryan Swing. This momentary change of pace allowed a glimpse of the depth of soul that typifies these women. Catchy as hell, you couldn’t miss the poignant hello-goodbye fragility of the desperate relationship at the heart of the song.

 At that point, they traded hard hitting raps and blended those twin vocals for the verses of their flipped bird to the music industry, “Get Away.” The steady beats provided by drummer Sunny Dee held the core of the hip hop/rock mix. The high energy funk of  “Hung Up” raised the room temperature a few more degrees. Though they introduced one of their finest songs, “Pretty Lies” as an experience at a bad frat party, it is tellingly and clearly a song that describes the state of today’s dominant culture and politics.

That’s when the show really got mind-blowing. Their cover of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” might best be defined as sweat-drenched, on stage and throughout the crowd. Then, they launched into the Stephen Foster classic “Hard Times (Come Again No More)” as an intro to one of their most powerful, inclusive anthems, “We’ll Be Free.”

(Here's a clip of "Hard Times/"We'll Be Free" from Chicago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoP2IA-1wrQ)

The show ended with their bluesy “Break of Dawn” as the framework for a medley of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack,” Taylor Swift’s “Never Getting Back Together,” Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” Prince’s “Kiss” and, well, what everyone has to play when they come to our town, Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City.” Sarina hit just the right note by almost apologizing before she did it by saying, “Since we’ve only been to Kansas City one time!” 

It was terrific.

After some wonderful fighting over the keyboards, both sisters playing over and against each other, Nalani stepped centerstage with guitar and began to testify. She shouted, “Just like James Brown said,” and Sarina answered, “What’d he say?” Nalani dropped to her knees calling, “Please, please, please.” The magic of rock and roll is when you are doing it right a moment like that works, and that worked that night as I imagine it does every night. That moment summed up not only the bravery and abandon of Nalani & Sarina’s 45 minute opening set but something close to the heart of the rock and roll universe.  

P.S. On my way out, I picked up their first album, released in 2014. Though they’ve only gotten better, most of what I’m looking for in music was all there even then.  



Set list:

Wake Up
The Circle
Wanna be with You
Deep End
Get Away
Hung Up
Pretty Lies
Hold on, I'm Coming
Hard Times/We'll Be Free
Break of Dawn with Hit the Road Jack, Never Getting Back Together, Think, Kiss and Kansas City.