"One of the most insurgent pieces of music you'll ever hear which re-examines americana with devastating effect...
An act of revisionist subversion"
- National Public Radio
Dr. Julian Saporiti field recording. Photo by Emilia Saporiti
Sounds contain histories and prophecies. If you listen closely, there are winding tales to be found in a string brushed by a handmade bow, worlds to be uncovered in the trill of a bird about to take flight, and truths to be reckoned with in the grain of an unknown voice. This is the revelation at the core of Empire Electric, the third album by No-No Boy, and its songs that examine 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.
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 PhD 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 "a remarkably powerful and moving album,” 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 PhD and the release of 1975, Saporiti found himself at an impasse. “My thinking had gotten incredibly deep,” he says, “as deep as we can train ourselves to get, really. But it was so narrow. I was working on the belief that there was one very small path to walk down and I had to take every footstep in that direction.” 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. “The calcified mask of the intellectual professional began to crack open,” he writes in Empire Electric’s liner notes.
"Mekong Baby" music video still. Photo by Emilia Saporiti
Dr. Julian Saporiti with tape machine, guitar and modular synthesizer by Emilia Saporiti.
“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. “Tend your garden, do not harden, at the cruel and constant spinning of your mind’s demands,” he sings with a collected exuberance over a nearly baroque arrangement of guitars and strings. He embraces difficulty and contradiction, observing the similarities between raging protests on the street and the screaming of the discontented inner child. To feel calm in the face of injustice complicates the narrative, but it is a mindset which can lead to deeper understanding.
When the mind slows down, the world of sound opens up. “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.
Dr. Julian Saporiti composing music at Cape Sebastian where in 1603 Asian sailors were part of the crew that first "discovered" Oregon.
Photo by Dr. Diego Luis.
Saporiti talks about these techniques as “bridging space” between Asia and America, creating a sonic manifestation of the places lost to conflict and geopolitical fuckery. “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, 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.
These deceptively meaningful details are scattered all over Empire Electric. The opening theme of “The Onion Kings of Ontario!,” which tells the story of survivors of the Heart MountainJapanese American detention camp as they start an onion farm in Oregon, was created by throwing samples of koto and shakuhachi into reverse. Saporiti notes that even the “American”instruments here have histories to consider; the electric pedal-steel guitar that underpins country music has its origins in the East-West melting pot of Hawaii, and the tom-toms that anchor the drum kit that were originally called the “Chinese tom-toms.”
Empire Electric is abundant with substantive storytelling. 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. Sings the little monk, “Pro-tip for a good heart, be where your feet are now.
Dr. Julian Saporiti with wife & co-producer Emilia Saporiti. Photo by Dr. Diego Luis.