“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.