New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: julian saporiti

No-No Boy’s Savagely Lyrical Songs Illuminate a Troubling Chapter in American History

“We think a lot about individuals,” electrifying singer Erin Aoyama explained toward the end of her band No-No Boy’s riveting Lincoln Center show this past evening. “When you hear a number like 120,000 people incarcerated, what does that mean? It’s a hard number to understand.”

Aoyama’s friend’s mother had been incarcerated at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. Aoyama’s own grandmother had been another of almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans held prisoner without trial throughout the war. Yet among those people – most of them American citizens – “”The power of young love, finding this little bit of joy, even within a prison camp,” persisted, as Aoyama explained. This particular case was a clandestine romance where the young college student and her crush would steal moments to hold hands in the camp dishwashing room . With that, Aoyama’s high lonesome harmonies rose to the rafters as she launched into the wistful, ironically Americana-flavored anthem Heart Mountain. Songwriter/guitarist Julian Saporiti no doubt latched onto the double entendre in the song title, taken from one of the ten concentration camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned.

That was the night’s single moment to salute the resilience of the human spirit. Otherwise, Saporiti’s wickedly lyrical, historically rich double entendres and savage puns confronted hypocrisy, racism and collective amnesia. Like Aoyama, he’s an extremely strong singer, and a hell of a tunesmith, with an anthemic, Elliott Smith-inflected sensibility. What’s more, the band’s new album 1942 is only the tip of the iceberg: they’ve got about four more albums worth of material, and played a lot of those new songs throughout the show. Not bad for a guy who thought he’d never make another record after his artsy late-zeros janglerock band Young Republic broke up. “This project has been nine years in the making,” beamed Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal, who’d booked the band – she’d been entranced by Saporiti’s vocals and songwriting chops since discovering Young Republic while in college.

With No-No Boy, context is everything. Saporiti and Aoyama offered as much insight between songs as during them, providing historical background for narratives that typically focused on Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, but also explored the experiences of Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese immigrants. Saporiti revealed the he’d been inspired to start writing these songs in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, when a Trump advisor cited Japanese-American incarceration as a precedent for the eventual Muslim travel ban. The rest is history.

Aoyama took a wistful, stoic turn on lead vocals on the band’s usual opening number, a slow, steady Romany jazz-flavored, shuffling cover of Smoke Rings,  clarinet wafting pensively through the mix as grim back-and-white imagery of detainees played on the screen overhead. ““Imagine this beautiful song Erin’s singing for you, but behind barbwire,” Saporiti told the crowd.

The duo followed that wiht Tony Ramone, a vivid, delicately bouncy tour of 1980s Chinatown through the eyes of punk rocker from the neighborhood. Guest violinist Kishi Bashi’s spiky flourishes and plaintive washes spiced the harrowing travelogue Boat People, whose collective tales of outrunning the cops and cheating death in flimsy fishing boats in Pacific storms were some of the night’s more harrowing moments.

Both Imperial Twist – a surreal mashup of doo-wop and 1960s Vietnamese faux-French psychedelic pop – and the night’s folk-tinged closing number, Little Saigon each sent a shout out to the pioneering South Vietnamese psychedelic bands of the late 60s and early 70s. The more upbeat, catchy Khmerica pondered the experience of Laotian immigrants whose story is even less part of the popular narrative: “Some kids move ‘cause parents take jobs, some move because of napalm,” Saporiti intoned.

Aoyama moved to keyboards for Saint-Denis, a muted vignette about Vietnamese immigrants in Paris. The skeletal yet anthemic Gimme Chills, with its litany of grim historical events and sarcastic chronicle of American products, offered a look at American imperialsim in the Philippines: “Gimme trial without jury, gimme Imelda Marcos’ shoe,” as Saporiti put it.

The most grisly image of all was the corpse of a suicide who’d put his head on the railroad tracks outside a World War II concentration camp. That image panned overhead while the group played Only What You Can Carry, reminding that while those camps were not designed specifically for killing, a lot of people didn’t make it out alive. And Two Candles, with a soaring Kishi Bashi violin solo midway through, was a somber salute to those who remained silent about their experiences in the camps, Aoyama’s grandmother among them.

And for what it’s worth, the band’s output – both the album and multimedia tour – are Saporiti’s doctoral project at Brown University. Let’s hope the rest of the Ivy League is as open to artistic achievements like this one. As Saporiti said with a laugh, you can reach lot more people with catchy songs than you can with a thesis that ends up gathering dust on somelibrary shelf.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues with a rare Tuesday show this coming Nov 20 at 7:30 PM with Canary Islands chanteuse Olga Cerpa and her band. If you’re in town, get there early if you want a seat.

No-No Boy Bring Their Fascinating, Harrowing, Catchy Songs of Japanese-American Incarceration to Lincoln Center

In one of the more ugly chapters in American history, beginning in 1942 almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans were seized without trial and subsequently imprisoned in a total of ten concentration camps, mostly in the western states. Most of those individuals were American citizens. Virtually all of them, instructed to leave their homes behind with only what they could carry with them, would spend the entirety of World War II imprisoned.

The “no-no boys,” as concentration camp staff first called them, refused to swear allegiance to the United States or serve in the military, which makes sense considering that virtually all of these men had family and relatives were were imprisoned along with them. With their debut album, 1942 – streaming at Bandcamp – elegantly tuneful rock band No-No Boy bring the chilling, powerfully relevant history of that era to life. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. this Thurs, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM. The show is free, but the earlier you get there the better because the venue frequently sells out.

Frontman/guitarist Julian Saporiti harmonizes with singer Erin Aoyama in the album’s shimmering, Elliott Smith-tinged opening track, Pacific Fog, Tessa Sacramone’s plaintive violin soaring overhead. Saporiti’s narrative allusively references John Okada’s hauting1957 novel, also titled No-No Boy.

This album goes beyond Japanese-American incarceration to focus on similarly relevant history. Case in point: Boat People, a gently sweeping, hypnotic ballad that juxtaposes the story of a mid-70s Vietnamese doctor who resettled in Montreal, alongside a more detailed, harrowing account of current-day refugees:

Fourteen hours by car, cargo trucks and cabs
Just to shake the cops, Mom had to stay back
A Chinese safe house and covered tracks…

The floor of the Pacific is littered with Asian bones.

The stories lighten but are no less minutely detailed in Han Shan & Helen Keller: Cold Mountain – an indelibly tense wintertime Boston college-crowd scenario – and then Disposable Youth, a wry afternoon party pickup scenario. By contrast, Lam Thi Dep – a John Lennon-esque anthem named after a female Viet Cong soldier captured in a famous Vietnam War photo – has the most intertwined of all the stories here. Saporiti’s savagely sardonic references reach beyond the fact that many first-generation Vietnamese-Americans voted Republican, to a hilarious account of knee-jerk political correctness in academia.

Instructions to All Persons refers to the FDR edict to round up Japanese-Americans on the west coast; Saporiti and Ayoyama sing in the voice of a survivor of the camps, reflecting on their prisoner friends’ quiet defiance and attempts to maintain some kind of normalcy there.

Saporiti draws his inspiration for Ogie/Naoko, a charming ukulele waltz, from Melody Miyamoto Walters’ book In Love and War: The World War II Love Letters of a Nisei Couple, adding sobering context to an otherwise schmaltzy story. The sweeping parlor pop ballad Heart Mountain – named for the camp where Ayoyama’s grandmother was imprisoned – is another waltz, Saporiti’s narrator hopeful that someday he can consummate a clandestine romance and rebuild his life as a college professor.

Two Candles In the Dark, arguably the album’s strongest song, is perhaps ironically its most Americana-flavored one. Saporiti gives voice to an irrepressible rulebreaker looking to get over despite her circumstances:

Pretty outlaw call a quarter past, light knuckles on a barrack door
She got a brother down in Topaz, I saw that name once in a jewelry store
Wind around past the skaters and pond, looking for a cut in the wire
She’s got a key to the cellar door,
I don’t ask questions, man, just stand there inspired

Dragon Park, the album’s most stoically angry song, traces images from Saporiti’s own Tennessee childhood as a Vietnamese-American fighting off racist idiots:

I know that Southern Stare
Not just back home but everywhere

The album ends with its most Asian folk-inflected tune, Little Saigon, lost in a reverie of a place to indulge in a heritage including but not limited to Vietnamese psychedelic rock and the dan bau, a magical, warp-toned stringed instrument. At its best, Saporiti’s tunesmithing ranks with any of the real visionaries of this era: Elvis Costello, Hannah Fairchild and Rachelle Garniez. You’ll see on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.