June 16, 2021
Co-sponsored by APIDA+, Ati: Wa:oki Indigenous Community Center, and the U.S. Dept. of Education AANAPISI Program
Vietnamese and Italian American singer, songwriter, and scholar Julian Saporiti details the Asian American experience through his innovative songwriting and multi-media project, No-No Boy. Saporiti (vocals and guitar), is joined by his wife and collaborator Emilia Saporiti (vocals and violin), and Michelle Bazille (bass), for an evening of heartfelt and poignant musical storytelling set to projected archival images.
Saporiti’s knack for melody and the directness with which he sings make the picture whole. Without pretension and preachiness, listeners are drawn into the world of real people and their struggles while also being uplifted by melodies that tug the heart and ears in several directions at once. With the sincerity of a folksinger and a master producer’s ear for minutia, Saporiti probes the edges of pain for joy, using history and its remembered landscapes as a way to understand the ground on which we now stand.
Storytelling has always been at the root of Julian Saporiti’s music as No-No Boy. The project developed as the central component of Saporiti’s Ph.D. at Brown University, drawing on years of fieldwork and research on Asian American history to write folk songs with uncommon empathy and remarkable protagonists: prisoners at Japanese American internment camps who started a jazz band, Vietnamese musicians turned on to rock ‘n’ roll by American troops, a Cambodian American painter who painted only the most beautiful landscapes of his war-torn home. Along the way he started to draw on his own family’s history, including his mother’s escape from Vietnam during the war.
His 2021 album, 1975, was called "remarkably powerful and moving,” by Folk Alley and “gentle, catchy and accessible folk songs that feel instantly familiar," by NPR — a contrast that gets to the heart of Saporiti’s songwriting.
After the completion of his Ph.D. and the release of 1975, Saporiti found himself at an impasse. Seeking refuge from a bleak future of academic posturing, Saporiti — along with his wife and collaborator, Emilia Halvorsen Saporiti — decamped to Blue Cliff, a monastery in New York state founded by celebrated Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and writer Thích Nhất Hạnh. There, they recalibrated. Sitting and breathing opened up a calm space for Saporiti to begin to reapproach many of the stories he’d collected as a part of his research with a new perspective, one rooted in raw honesty and a rejection of perfectionism.
Empire Electric, the third album by No-No Boy, examines narratives of imperialism, identity, and spirituality. It tells stories rooted in years of research and relationship-building, made vibrant and profound through a rich congregation of instrumental, environmental, and electronically manipulated sounds from Asia and America. Every single sound, from the gracious swell of a pedal steel to the warbling pluck of a koto, becomes a part of the poetic recasting of shared post-colonial trauma and the startling joys that can be wrung out of that hardship.
Little Monk, which Saporiti describes as the heart of Empire Electric, is a rare autobiographical song that reflects on the process of opening up that began at Blue Cliff. Mekong Baby was written and recorded almost entirely on a sampler while Saporiti sat in Tryon Creek State Park in his new home of Oregon, taking the sounds of nature and transforming them into a prismatic soundscape of wind rustles, chirps and syrup-slow bird songs, and gentle drum machine. He’s joined by the Vietnamese singer Thai Hien, the daughter of ethnomusicologist and Folkways Records compiler Phạm Duy, their voices blending into a pan-Pacific chorus of yearning, Saporiti’s birdsong overlaid with field recordings from the war. Though the destruction and heartbreak of the past is only hinted at in the lyrics, its sound sits just underneath it all, barely perceptible.
Saporiti talks about these techniques as “bridging space” between Asia and America, creating a sonic manifestation of the places lost to conflict. “I’m sampling instruments from a place that is very difficult, or impossible, to get back to,” he says. “If you’re born into one of these families like I am, your mom’s country doesn’t exist anymore, or its name has changed. The country she was born in was French Indochina, and then South Vietnam. How do you find that place that only exists in the past?” If you’re Saporiti, you take an instrument native to that place, in the case of the song Nothing Left But You, the monochordal dan bau (a Vietnamese monochord), and you sample it, layering until it becomes a wobbling organ drone: a foundation to sing the place back into life, if only for a few minutes.
This is the first performance by Saporiti at the Moss Arts Center.