Musician. Historian. Asian American. Julian Saporiti is all these and more. But though he’d already led a successful indie rock band, studied history in graduate school and music in college, and grown up in a biracial family, he’d never put all three of those fundamental identities together.
Until he saw the photograph.
He found it at a museum at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, one of the concentration camps (euphemized as “relocation centers”) into which the US government forced American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. He was on a Grand Tetons rock-climbing break from American Studies in graduate school at the nearby University of Wyoming in Laramie.
The vintage 1942 photo showed a jazz band that performed in the camps during the war. But it wasn’t the vintage instruments that stunned him. It was the faces — all Japanese Americans.
“I’d never seen faces like mine that played pop American music,” he told Brown magazine, “and it gave me the courage to look into what it means to be Asian American, after suppressing that side of myself growing up in the American South in the eighties and nineties.”
The encounter spurred Saporiti on a journey into history — his own, his family’s, his country’s — that led to his project No-No Boy, which Saporiti brings to downtown Hillsboro’s Walters Arts Center for a multimedia concert Feb. 10 and a workshop Feb. 18. No-No Boy combines Saporiti’s original music and storytelling with vintage images to tell stories about Asian American history — including his own.
(Also see The Story of No No Girl, Dmae Lo Roberts’ Stage and Studio podcast interview for ArtsWatch with director Paul Daisuke Goodman and actor Chris Tashima about their film No No Girl, based on the fraught legacy of FDR’s Executive Order 9066, and screening Feb. 19 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall.)
Music City to Jazz Mecca
Saporiti’s own story starts in Nashville, Tennessee. His Boston-born Italian-American father, an erstwhile hippie folksinger, was a record label executive. Julian’s mother had grown in up what was then South Vietnam and immigrated to the US after the war.
But while the fabled home of American country music offered Saporiti plenty of musical inspirations and delights, especially in the US country/folk tradition that marked his early teenage songwriting, it gave him little connection to his Asian background, beyond the racist stereotypes and occasional taunts that prevailed in the 1980s and early ’90s. He knew only a single other Asian American kid, and even spoke French (the colonial language) and English, not Vietnamese, at home with his mom.
Even when he went off to college at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music, studying jazz guitar and classical orchestration, Saporiti never encountered a single mention of Asian-American jazz or pop musicians. This was long before acts like today’s Japanese Breakfast (from Eugene), Joe Kye (from Portland), or Kishi Bashi.
So when he formed a band with other like-minded Berklee students in the early 2000s, singer-guitarist Saporiti wrote and they played indie rock and folk. Young Republic scored a good record deal, toured North America and Europe for five years, cut records — the whole indie rock deal.
After five years, the band broke up, and Saporiti returned to Nashville, craving the broader education he’d missed out on in his pursuit of music. He spent days at the public library, reading books on philosophy and history. “I wanted to fill in the undergraduate education I didn’t get,” he told ArtsWatch. “I was a searcher. I wanted to learn.”
At one of his self-impelled educational stops, an art museum lecture, Saporiti met renowned history professor and polymath Michael Bess from the city’s Vanderbilt University. Electrified by Bess’s wide-ranging ideas , Saporiti traded one of his band’s CDs for one of Bess’s books, and the latter became “my man on the mountain.” After a year of sitting in on university classes in history and philosophy, at Bess’s urging, Saporiti followed another of his mentor’s suggestions: applying to graduate school.
That’s what brought him to the University of Wyoming’s master’s program in American Studies. “I felt like I needed more out of life” than playing in a rock band, he recalls. “I literally wanted to climb mountains. I lived in a basement apartment and climbed mountains and read books for three years.”
Ironically, it took moving to one of the whitest states in the nation to fully awaken Saporiti to his Asian heritage. One of those climbing trips took Saporiti to the Heart Mountain interpretive center where he spied the 1942 photo of the young Japanese-American musicians playing horn, drums, bass. As an Asian American musician himself, “I related to them,” he remembers. “My favorite thing in the world as a musician is rehearsal. That act of creation and honing and conversation is a miraculous thing. And now here’s this picture of a bunch of guys who look a little like me in rehearsal. I’m there — I see myself.” Seeing other Asian Americans playing swing music made him feel less isolated, out of place in Wyoming, because as in Nashville, he felt alienated from his heritage, knowing only a single other Asian American musician there.
So he looked to history to discover more about Asian Americans in American music. He tracked down and interviewed the two surviving band members from the camp’s 16-member George Igawa Orchestra, which toured to other concentration camps as well as playing proms and other local shows — before returning to their frigid, barbed-wire prison. “I didn’t know about the incarceration camp bands,” he says. “I had to know about the music they were playing. I’d never learned about Asian folks playing jazz. What I uncovered through that photo is a whole body of work of Asian musicians on the West Coast,” such as the so-called Chop Suey Circuit of Chinese American jazz clubs, or the Japanese-American Nisei jazz circuit.
“This picture opened my world to Asian American history, to alternative histories of America and the West, opened the door to talk about the darker history,” including a relative who’d been a singer in a ‘60s Vietnamese rock band. That single photo expanded into a much bigger picture.
Using his academic training, Saporiti pursued the elusive muse back through American history, including the slide and pedal steel guitar sounds whose origins spring from Hawaii. “It’s not only this Asian American place making process of reinserting these musicians who have been overlooked or forgotten into the conversation,” Saporiti told a Vietnamese Portland interviewer. “It’s also claiming that as Wyoming or Western history. Like this place that I lived [in] and loved, I want people who live in that state to know about this band as part of not only a Japanese-American tradition, or for myself as an Asian-American tradition, but as a Wyoming and American tradition. Because it’s only when we own all the histories that this complicated, flawed, incredible project of America has wrought that we kind of can move on. And I think getting to know these people who played music is an easier way to get into some darker stuff like the Japanese internment.”
From Academia to Art
Saporiti’s quest led him from the Mountain West to the Ivy League at age 30, to pursue further study at Brown University, where his research into ethnomusicology, Asian-American studies and history converged and eventually focused on trans-Pacific musical cultures. That research included archival explorations as well as interviewing Asian American elders from around the country, including his mother, about their musical experiences, preserving dozens of hitherto untold stories.
Academia gave Saporiti the time (a decade total), tools, critical skills and credentials (two masters degrees, in ethnomusicology and American studies, and a doctorate) to pursue his quest for hidden truths about Asian American music, such as the bands that formed behind barbed-wire fences in World War II internment camps. It helped compensate for Tennessee school system’s depriving him of stories of his ancestral and other Asian and Asian-American cultures.
It also led to his next musical adventure.
After his old band broke up, Saporiti pretty much thought he’d left being a musician behind. But his research gave Saporiti a treasure trove of material to transform into music, reawakened his muse. He started writing songs again.
“World building is so key to any good songwriter,” he explains, citing the work of contemporaries like Sufjan Stevens as well as the great country music sages. “And it’s even cooler when those worlds aren’t fictional.” Some lines in the new songs he began writing sprang verbatim from interviews and archives. He squirreled away dozens of those songs, which became the seeds of No-No Boy.
“I love learning so much,” Saporiti explains. “That was the impetus for me to go to grad school in the first place. I did all this research. Then I turned the research into songs. That’s how I relate to history.”
When he completed his coursework, Saporiti returned to Nashville and wrote more songs (now six dozen or so and counting), played some in a concert, and got an immediate response, not just from fans, but also his dissertation advisor, who suggested he use the songs derived from his research into Chapter 3 of his actual dissertation. Brown bestowed his doctoral degree this past fall.
An academic career was, and (if the right situation came along) remains a possible goal for Saporiti, who is the first in his immediate paternal family to complete college. “I think academia’s great,” he says. “People should pursue knowledge at that level.”
But Saporiti started as a songwriter with no particular affinity for institutional academia, where rewards such as tenure often depend less on teaching (which Saporiti loves and has done at various colleges and other settings — see my 2021 ArtsWatch story) and more on “jumping through hoops,” he says. Several hundred doctoral graduates compete annually for fewer than a half dozen tenure track jobs per year.
Moreover, his prior experience playing before a wide range of audience members in a rock band whose gigs ranged from cowboy bars to throngs of thousands at festivals like England’s famous Glastonbury contrasted sharply with academia’s sometimes arcane language and insularity. At a major academic conference where he presented his research a few years back, the room contained at most two or three dozen fellow academics. Each of his performances might draw several times that number. And he can bring his stories and insights to diverse audiences outside the academic bubble.
Finally, songs and stories can reach people (including the distinctly non-collegiate, audiences in some of the rural red-state bars Saporiti’s played) in a way that academic treatises and rhetoric can’t. The stories he recounts in his songs paint the kinds of creative portraits that couldn’t find a place in traditional academic literature.
“As a history teacher, I want to zoom in on a small moment to tell a larger story with bigger themes,” he explains. “I want to know about waiters, musicians, the people who did the laundry, not Presidents. Start with a band playing in a camp, then zoom out gradually to bigger questions, like why was this band that did nothing wrong in a prison camp? Songs create a pathway to empathy. Then people can take history more seriously rather than it just being a bunch of numbers and dates.”
Although he continues to teach workshops (including a few this summer at Ivy towers like Dartmouth and Yale), Saporiti concluded that the best way to share those stories and insights he discovered over the past decade was through his songwriting. His dissertation research complete, he decided to return to making music, now energized and informed by his previous decade of exploring Asian American musical history.
The name for Saporiti’s current project comes from a 1957 book by John Okada that in turn cites the two questions that incarcerated Japanese Americans were forced to answer to “prove” their loyalty to the United States. If they answered no to both, punishment, including further imprisonment, ensued.
Saporiti calls No-No Boy “a multi-media project blending film, sound, story and song into works which illuminate untold histories of immigrants and refugees in the United States. Through original lyrics, sound design, and carefully curated and edited archival imagery, difficult histories come to life.” That’s what the audience will experience at Hillsboro’s Walters Center Friday.
The project’s acoustic folk emphasis draws on a long tradition of narrative storytelling through song, which makes it ideal for recounting the stories Saporiti is excavating. It also makes No-No Boy portable — no band, acoustic guitar, some images to project, one or two singers. Saporiti tours the project’s songs around the country, and also continues writing songs, making films, perusing archives and compiling oral histories where he travels. He also tries to help out where he can, whether it’s helping build shelters or entertaining through music or giving workshops at public schools. As the project’s scope continues to expand beyond his own family’s history to various Asian ethnicities and now to other immigrant stories during a time of politically stoked anti-immigrant backlash, he’s performed, presented and more in places as varied as remote Alaskan villages and immigrant enclaves along the southern US border.
“I guess the motive, if there is one for No-No Boy, is just to, one, get people to have some difficult conversations by using the past, by using that nostalgia,” he told Vietnamese Portland. “When we can put a frame around something and then slip in a song about going to the border today. Right? That’s the first goal, is to get people to think about immigration and these tough barbed words through music. But the second thing is to make space and to redefine place, to incorporate not just Asian Americans, but people that have been left out of these stories.”
No-No Boy’s ongoing series of archival video and album releases includes two compellingly tuneful, lyrically evocative albums so far. The first, 1942, takes its title from the year the American authorities began imprisoning innocent Japanese American citizens. It even incorporates field recordings of sounds from immigration stations, even barbed wire.
The second, 1975, released in 2021 by the Smithsonian Institution’s record label, refers to the year his mother’s native country disappeared into the newly unified Vietnam and reflects in part Saporiti’s research into the Southeast Asian rock bands of the time.
Both albums and Saporiti’s live performances have earned acclaim from critics around the country. And No-No Boy’s video component, Orient Oregon, has issued a fascinating collaboration with Portland Taiko that covered Japanese American stories in Oregon history. More are on the way, and so is a new album on Smithsonian Folkways label.
The Portland Taiko partnership is one of several he’s embarked on since moving to Portland, where his mother had retired in 2018, just before Saporiti completed his coursework on campus at Brown. He’d enjoyed previous Oregon encounters — “a place that’s pretty in the rain” — on his band tours. His wife and artistic partner Amelia, now finishing up law school at Lewis & Clark College, enjoyed the Portland vibe and ever-popular mix of urban and natural amenities too. They rented an apartment — a week before the pandemic descended. Despite the virus-enforced long lull in live performance, Saporiti’s been able to do plenty of research, teaching, composing and other creative work and even a few gigs. Hoyt Arboretum, where he has an artist residency, is a particular favorite, and so is the easy availability of Vietnamese food and Asian culture in general, especially compared to Nashville and points south. And it looks like, after an eventful creative journey, he’ll be in Oregon for awhile, even after the No-No Boy project concludes.
“I want to stay around here,” Saporiti says. “I love it. I feel comfortable when I get into nature. Oregon’s got some mighty fine places and I’m looking forward to exploring them more. It’s good place if you’re a little odd and introverted.”
Performance and Workshop
Friday’s immersive performance mixes Saporiti’s story telling and original folk songs, sung by Julian and Amelia with his acoustic guitar accompaniment, synced to projected images and archival films (including excerpts from 20th century Asian American home movies, videos shot in the concentration camps, and more) he curated during his dissertation research. He’ll also set up each song with stories about where it came from. The emotional range veers from heavy to joyous, and there’s no lecturing. “The Hawaiians have this term, ‘talking story,’” he says. “I talk story a little bit.”
Saporiti also wants to empower others to transmute their own ancestors’ history into creative expressions. On February 18, Saporiti will present his workshop Taking History Off the Page at the Walters. The presentation includes the exhibit re-member, featuring artwork by Mika Aono and Sandra Honda, two Oregon artists of Japanese descent who explore questions of cultural identity, assimilation, and ancestral roots. Saporiti, an experienced teacher, will facilitate discussion and guided activities to help participants transform research, oral history and community stories they gather into poetry, visual arts, songs, films and more. The idea is to make the methods he learned in grad school available to anyone and encourage them to talk to their grandmothers and other elders and turn those memories into art.
Saporiti’s upcoming work features some fruits from his recent exploration of his Vietnamese heritage, including sharing a song with a Vietnamese singer and using instruments from the culture. Future activity will embrace his recent Oregon experience too, including collaborations with well-known local artists such as Laura Gibson, Alicia Jo Rabins, poet laureate Anis Mojgani, and field recordings of Oregon birdsong, ocean sounds and more. “The sound of Oregon is all over my next record,” he promises, and Oregonians can look forward to Julian Saporiti’s continuing transformation of his new home’s natural and human history into songs, stories and images.
Julian Saporiti brings his No-No Boy project to Hillsboro’s Walters Cultural Arts Center on Friday, February 10 at 7:30 pm. Tickets at Hillsboro-Oregon.gov/WaltersConcerts. Saporiti’s workshop is 10 am-12 pm, Saturday, February 18. Register at Hillsboro-Oregon.gov/WaltersClasses.