Creativity in Asian American Music

About halfway through my nine-year clarinet career, I had somehow weaseled my way into my middle school’s jazz band. This was only peculiar because, as Fred Ho says in “What Makes ‘Jazz’ the Revolutionary Music of the Twentieth Century…,” “replacing the clarinet, the saxophone became the ‘voice’ of the ‘jazz band’” (96). Despite this new norm, my director made room for not only one, but two clarinets, and even gave me a solo during a rendition of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” Only one problem – it was four bars of improvisation.

My favorite repertoire until then only consisted of classical music, and to abandon most of the rote memorization skills I picked up over years of clarinet and piano killed me. The entire process of learning how to improv (hint: you don’t learn, you just go and do) still haunts me, which is why I so admire those who can think outside of the box and on their feet.

These qualities, and the larger theme of discovering identity through creativity and nontraditionalism in Asian American music, apply to all of the artists I explored this quarter. When considering Asian Americans in music, the automatic initial reaction is usually to think of classical music. Looking at my blogs, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that the artists covered a wealth of genres, and none of them classical.

Run River North, an all-Korean American six-member indie/folk-rock band, was the focus of my first blog, and the first Asian American group I had ever come across in the genre. They can reach new Asian American audiences just by virtue of their label as Asian American indie/folk-rock musicians, but don’t label themselves strictly as such. Because their race already makes it easier for them to stand out in the genre, the band must be creative in other ways to draw attention to their music and messages rather than simply using their standing as Asian Americans.

This comes out through the lyrics and music itself – the band discusses the immigrant identity struggle in their song “Monsters Calling Home” and channels traditional Korean instruments through standard violins. “Lying Beast” samples the melody of “Arirang,” one of the most iconic traditional Korean folk songs, on acoustic guitar. RRN combines the customary acoustic, mellow sounds of folk music with their own twists to showcase their identities.

“That song is a pretty clear representation of what we really want to do as a band: not to be K-pop and “Gangnam Style,” which is great and popular. And not to be completely washed out, rootsy Americana.” — Alex Hwang, Run River North

It is interesting to note the identity struggle the group appears to have between being too Asian American and not Asian American enough, one that funk/soul band Trace Repeat seems to have as well. Both groups are members of untraditional Asian American genres of music. RRN claims to be a group of musicians who coincidentally happen to all be Korean American, and Trace Repeat admonishes the “dopey, emasculated, sidekick” stereotypes of Asian American men while pegging themselves as an Asian American funk group (despite only being half composed of Asian American members).

A balance between the embrace and near-exploitation of identity exists, and a question of which identity Trace Repeat is bringing forward can be raised, especially as Trace Repeat plays music with deep African American roots. With the emphasis that Trace Repeat places on their group being Asian American, the racial history of the music that they play can easily get lost.

At the same time, the band attempts to distance themselves from their Asian Americanness while also trying to economically gain from it in the process by raising funds to “combat stereotypes.” They separate themselves from the stereotypes cast on Asian Americans and, specifically, Asian American musicians, by acknowledging them and turning them on their heads. Simply by being Asian American and playing funk/soul music, they are unique. While they are “creative” in the fact that there are very few Asian Americans involved in the exploration of funk and soul music, they focus on covering songs and their originals emulate the traditional styles of the genre.

In contrast, Fred Ho, an Asian American jazz saxophonist, heavily emphasizes improvisation as being central to jazz music and the revolutionary nature associated with it. Ho is the artist I admire most out of these three in terms of creativity. As an Asian American musician of Chinese descent, his music combines two traditional styles that result in something nontraditional: Chinese/Filipino folk and jazz. Though this genre is the most welcoming to variation and change due to its liberating nature, Ho brings together elements of the two musical styles that seem to be on opposite extremes. Saxophone blares through Cantonese opera, and trumpets let loose in the middle of a patriotic Filipino song.

Every piece on every Ho album could have been improvised during each take in the recording studio, and the listener will never know what the other takes will sound like. This thought both horrifies and amazes me – how can music still sound so beautiful unplanned? It brings me back to my eighth-grade self, panicking over the blank measures in the sheet music. These artists have shown me that Asian Americans are capable of defying the robotic stereotypes that Yoshihara discusses in “Class Notes,” and more than able to create something new by letting their music speak for their identities, and, subsequently, letting their identities shine through their music.

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