Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Paul Kikuchi's "Bat of No Bird Island"

"When the children don't know what happened to the house -- that's when a family dies."

My mother spoke those words to me a couple of years before she died, when I told her I didn't know what had happened to my paternal grandfather's house in Honolulu.

I remember when I was young, my mother seemed to remember everything -- the names of all the families that lived on the street where she grew up (on a sugar plantation in Kohala, on the big island of Hawaii, that they used as a set for the Julie Andrews movie Hawaii), as well as all the family members' names; the names of every child in her class of every grade in school; stories about her growing up in Hawaii and coming to the mainland, intending to continue on to Europe before she met my father and wound up settling and raising a family on Long Island. I wish I had recorded some of her memories when she was still lucid. Her last few years were spent afflicted with dementia, traveling around in time through her life. My father had a similar fate, although in his case, I was able to learn more about him in those last couple of years than I had in the previous 50, when he hadn't liked to talk about the past.

My middle daughter, who studied Japanese in college, tells me I'm the worst Japanese person in the world, because I grew up so assimilated, on hamburgers and comic books and rock 'n' roll. I started eating sushi -- the food my mother labored for days to prepare every New Year's, that I wouldn't eat -- when I was 50, because I was in a band with a Japanophile.

But since my parents' passing, I've developed more of an interest in the ancestral homeland I'd never taken much of an interest in (even when I spent four days there going to and coming back from midtour leave from Korea when I was in the Air Force). I devour Akira Kurosawa films, and read books like Marie Mutsuki Moffett's Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. And now, one of my favorite sound artists -- known for his site-specific improvised performances -- has a new work that speaks very directly to the Japanese immigrant experience in America.

On Bat of No Bird Island, percussionist-composer Paul Kikuchi takes inspiration from a memoir written in English by his grandfather Zenkichi Kikuchi -- an early 20th century Japanese immigrant to the Pacific Northwest, whom the composer never met -- as he reimagines songs from his great-grandfather's collection of 78 rpm records to create a song cycle that pays tribute to that immigrant generation. The work is released in three formats: a 10-inch EP that juxtaposes two of Kikuchi's reimaginings with the original recordings that inspired them; a CD and digital download that include all of the studio recordings associated with the project; and a website (link above) that contextualizes the project with memoir excerpts, photographs, and original 78 rpm recordings. Kikuchi will spend part of this year living in Japan on a JUSFC Creative Artist Fellowship, searching for additional photographs, stories, and artifacts to add to the piece.

Zenkichi left Japan because his impoverished family couldn't afford the price of a college education. In America, he worked on the railroad and as a farmer, marrying a "picture bride" (my paternal grandmother was also one) and raising a family before being evacuated and interned in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The music his great-grandson uses to tell his story manages to evoke both the ancient country Zenkichi left and the frontier land to which he came. The string-heavy ensemble, which includes the estimable violist Eyvind Kang as well as the composer's regular collaborators, trombonist Stuart Dempster and guitarist Bill Horist, plays with great sensitivity and delicacy, and their sounds are seamlessly integrated with the electronic sounds of 78 rpm records and walkie-talkies.

Being rooted in one culture and having to develop an identity in another is the classic immigrant story, and a very American one. In exploring the experience of his great-grandfather's generation, Paul Kikuchi has created a work of exceptional depth and resonance.

The heaven always side with just and hard working men, it is proven without doubt in before our eye. We must go without fear, without doubt, without hesitation by honest, hard work, building up our life. Educate our children, thus contribute something to our community and nation. I tried to be fair to all of person personally I like or not.
- Zenkichi Kikuchi


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