- Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music
Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music, one of the first authoritative books exclusively about Asian American music in general, is not about "Asian American music" per se nor solely about contemporary Asian "makers of music" (p. 321), but more about power and representation of race exemplified and discussed in the context of the music and performances of Asian Americans. Much of the discussion is framed in terms of interethnic contact, race relations between Black and White, and the often understated or overlooked role of Yellow (at least until now) in the color dynamics of musical performance.
In order to prepare her readers (students and scholars), Deborah Wong introduces the work with a dense theoretical discussion of performativity and raises the question of the existence of the straw man, "Asian American music." She approaches her writing through ethnography including rich observation, participation in the process of performance, and highly telling interviews with Asian American composers, musicians and listeners. Wong is at her best when she allows these Asian Americans to use their own voices to express the meaning of the music they perform and the meaning of the process of their performances; however, her own voice of interpretation is at times heavily encumbered with theoretical discussions of translation, memory, space, gender, power, race relations, politics, authenticity, ownership, etc. sometimes explicitly, and more often, implicitly raised by the Asian Americans about whom she writes.
Wong is the consummate scholar who meticulously cites her sources and acknowledges the help and encouragement she received from an impressively long list of musicians, writers, activists, colleagues, scholars, students, and friends. In fact, an acknowledgement section is included at the end of almost every chapter (except chapters 1, 2, 3, 9, and 14). Up front, she acknowledges that many of her chapters (eight out of fourteen) are based on previously published articles in journals or as chapters in edited volumes. It is perhaps these acknowledgements that help explain the book's presentation; that of an edited collection of essays, stand-alone articles on a particular subject; however, in this case the contributing authors and editor are the same person.
Wong writes ethnographic case studies ranging from Khamvong Insixiengmai, a Laotian narrative singer and poet who [End Page 391] came to the United States as a refugee in 1980 (and awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1991) to Miya Masaoka, performance artist, to Jon Jang, Asian American jazz composer, to music consumers, Rodney Ogawa, her friend and colleague, and her father, John Wong. The Asian American musicians we meet in these chapters and their wide ranging forms of performance and the situations in which they perform, all lend themselves to a discussion of what it means to be Asian American musicians or what the music they perform means to Asian Americans, and ultimately, what it means to the Asian American author. Chapter 9, "Taiko in Asian America" is a case in point.
Much of this book has been written from my perspective as an ethnographer, which has included such roles as friend, sponsor, casual acquaintance, student, and fly on the wall. In this chapter, I write from experience, and I moved into passionate involvement with taiko for all the same reasons that I was drawn to write about Asian American musical activity in the first place.(p. 195)
Wong discusses the use of taiko in the film, Rising Sun, at some length (pp. 209– 14), where the taiko performance by Seiichi Tanaka, founder of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, is constructed as masculine, threatening, and sinister, taking the opportunity to raise questions of representation and racialization. The same ensemble performing in another context represented the opposite characteristics of harmony, peace, and cleansing. Barry Bergey, director of the Folk and Traditional Arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts, describes the context and the performance:
In 2001 the NEA National Heritage Fellowships ceremony and concert were scheduled to occur the week of September 17–21, just a week after the...