In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Embracing “Asian American Music” as an Heuristic Device
  • Joseph S.C. Lam (bio)


“Asian American” has become a commonplace term in current American discourses, reflecting the fact that Asian Americans have become an integral part of American culture and society. 1 And yet certain aspects of Asian American culture, notably Asian American music is a non-issue and has hardly appeared in Asian American and American discourses. 2 Many musicians, audiences, and scholars, including those who are sympathetic to Asian American causes, would doubt if Asian American music exists. Others would ask what it means, and how it demonstrates ethnic identities with distinctive styles and aesthetics. Frustrated by a lack of clear-cut answers, many would simply eschew the problematic term of Asian American music, and use labels that superficially appear to be less problematic: American music, Chinese American music, Japanese American music, Filipino American music, New Age, Fusion Music, and so forth.

Such labels are convenient because they situate musics of Asian Americans in established ethnic and cultural contexts, rendering a diversity of musical works meaningful and analyzable. Such labeling and situating of the musics, however, suppress their commonalities and conceal fundamental issues that should be addressed. Does Asian American music exist? If it does not, can we presume that Asian Americans are not [End Page 29] musical? Anthropological, historical, and musical studies have vividly demonstrated that music is a basic component of culture, and one of the most effective means to project communal and personal identities: music is produced with sonic and non-sonic elements, and consumed in contexts of specific peoples, times, places, and thoughts. 3 If, on the other hand, Asian American music exists, why is it hardly discussed? Even though some Asian American musicians label their creative works Asian American music, many more reject the term. Why? Does it expose fractures and conflicts in the Asian American struggle for social and political empowerment? What does Asian American music, its presence or absence, tell about American culture and history?

To confront these issues, I propose that participants of Asian American expressive culture embrace the term “Asian American music,” and use it as an heuristic device to analyze cultural, social, ethnic, and personal expressions in the musics of Asian Americans. Drawing attention to diverse variables in the making and understanding of Asian American music, the device serves as a flexible and inclusive analytical framework (Diagram 1) to identify sonic and non-sonic particularities, data which would lead to balanced and nuanced interpretations of the musics being examined. And with such data, examinations, and interpretations, we can establish Asian American music as a legitimate site of research in not only Asian American studies, but also in historical and cultural studies of America.

Diagram 1.
Asian American Music, an Heuristic Device
Part 1. The ideal of Asian America and the polarities of Asia and America.
Asia Asian America America
Part 2. Parameters and spectrums of Asian, Asian American, and American musics and attributes.
Traditional Asian music; e,g. Cantonese operas traditional Asian music with American themes-, e.g., taiko drum music contemporary Asian music, serious or pop: e.g., Cui Jian's rock music Asian American pop music, sung in Asian languages: e.g., LABoy z's songs Asian American jazz and pop., e.g., music of Hiroshima, Jon Jang, Nobuko Miyam oto American fine art and popular music, e.g., music of Earl Kim, Mountain Brothers
Traditional styles: e.g., Kinko style of Japanese shakuhachi music adjusted traditional styles: e.g., koto music adjusted for American audiences some combinations of traditional and American styles: e.g. Pipa concerto New Age, Fusion blues, hip hop, jazz, etc. Broadway musical, concerto, rap, etc 12 tone, serial, late 20th century, etc.
Traditional Asian repertories & instruments Asian texts, titles, and thoughts, but American/Western musical techniques of composition some Asian musical elements and some American/Western ones Western musical elements dominate, but include some Asian tunes and other elements mostly standard American/Western innovative and individualistic
Understanding and Use of Ethnic Languages
required not required
Performance Venues
inside ethnic enclaves outside ethnic enclaves
Ethnic Performers Required
Yes (ethnic members who know the languages and musics) No (anyone who...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 29-60
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.