No-No Boy teaches Asian American history through folk songs

Julian Saporiti grew up in Nashville. Growing up as a half-Italian, half-Vietnamese child, he felt caught between cultures. This feeling inspired him to study issues of race and immigration. He turned this research into folk songs about Asian American history.

He performs as No-No Boy, from John Okada’s novel about Japanese incarceration and the identity struggle of a Japanese-American student, after refusing to fight for the United States in World War II. world. Saporiti’s music explores stories often ignored by history, especially those about Asian Americans and immigrants.

“These are not necessarily stories of presidents or generals or war,” Saporiti said. “It’s a story of what people did against the background of war, like my mother and the Vietnamese rock bands that formed in Saigon when she was growing up.”

Above all, Saporiti is a teacher; that’s why he did his doctorate. memory into a multimedia project. He thought that many more people would be inclined to listen to an album than to read a long academic article. For Saporiti, music is, as he puts it, a “Trojan horse” for teaching history.

“I wrote these songs to learn about the people I was living with in the United States, the majority white people, that this is an Asian-American, Japanese-American story, but it’s a history of the United States,” Saporiti said. “And to me, you can’t really take an honest look at the past and then do better in the future if you don’t own all of the past.”

The songs range from a Japanese-American jazz band that formed in an incarceration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, to one about Philippine history. One of the most personal concerns his Vietnamese heritage. Almost all include sounds recorded during research trips across the United States

He broke using some of these field recordings in the track “Tell Hanoi I Love Her”.

“The bass drum that makes up the rhythm of the song,” Saporiti explained, “is an old suitcase from a Japanese-American internment camp. A lot of the kind of, like, more little metallic sounds that you’ll hear in the beat as the song goes on, it comes from the barbed wire outside the Dili, Texas detention center. “

Saporiti says attendees of his Seattle show can expect a show that’s almost like a home movie with a concert, plus a history lesson. And the fun and excitement of a Vietnamese wedding.

“It’s a pretty simple project that, at the end of the day. I’ve heard people say some really nice theoretical philosophical things about what I do, especially as an academic. But to me, it’s just songs. It’s just telling a bit of history and I hope it’s positive,” Saporiti said.

Updated: November 12, 2021 6:29 PM PST

The text has been updated to give a more complete description of John Okada’s novel.

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