Niall Taro Ferguson performing on stage at JACCC Aratani Theatre. (Photo by Albert Chang)

By SCOTT OSHIMA

On Sunday, June 26, Little Tokyo will hear the future of Japanese American music on the historic JACCC Aratani Theatre stage.

The free Nikkei Music Reclamation Concert will showcase three musicians, Niall Taro Ferguson, Sara Sithi-Amnuai, and shinkawasaki. Each artist will premiere new music exploring identity, the legacy of Japanese American music, and the importance of our historic Japantowns.

These young musicians developed their music through a one-year mentorship, which took place entirely online during the pandemic, with legendary musicians and activists Derek Nakamoto, Mark Izu, and Nobuko Miyamoto. Each musician brings their distinct musical style and immense talent to explore what it means to be a Japanese American artist in this political moment. 

Niall Taro Ferguson, working with Derek Nakamoto, created a three-part composition for cello entitled “Mikan no Omoide” or “Incomplete Memory.” As Ferguson explains, “The project explores three memories that are each associated with a specific location in Little Tokyo, as well as a particular time of year.”

The first song, “New Sky,” is for early memories of Oshogatsu/New Year at Koyasan Temple. The somber and emotional song “Fire Season” laments the rise of racist violence against people of color and damage to Higashi Temple. The final song, “Soak to the Bone,” is an elegy and ode to the healing power of nature and community.

“‘Incomplete Memory’ provides interpretations of particular snapshots of my life — snapshots that have come to bear a great deal of significance to me in the exploration of my Nikkei identity,” says Ferguson.

Sara Sithi-Amnuai, who worked with Mark Izu, seamlessly blends music, folk stories, and new technology into her multi-instrumental compositions. She combines trumpet with a theremin-like custom fabric interface that responds to light, touch, and movement.

Nikkei Music Reclamation Project musicians, mentors, and staff at their final convening at JACCC. From top, from left: Alma Guzman, Taiji Miyagawa, Nobuko Miyamoto, Margaux Morales, Derek Nakamoto, Tomi Kunisaki, shinkawasaki, Sara Sithi-Amnuai, Niall Taro Ferguson, Mark Izu (online), and Scott Oshima. (Photo courtesy JACCC)

The four songs reimagine a folk story her mother used to tell: “Crane Wife” or “Tsuru No Ongaeshi,” the story of a crane disguised as a woman who plucks on her own feathers to weave and sell a beautiful cloth for her husband. Sithi-Amnuai explains, “I wanted to touch on themes of spoken and unspoken values or customs common in Nikkei culture which both frustrate and baffle me. What does it truly mean to be free? To be outspoken? To cut through cycles of oppression?” For Sithi-Amnuai, the music allows the crane to speak and be free. 

shinkawasaki is the stage name for guitarist, singer-songwriter, and self-described interpreter of sound and culture Shin Kawasaki. Mentored by Nobuko Miyamoto, he created three songs that became deep explorations of personal identity through his music, such as “Inner Sad Girl.” Similar to Ferguson’s “Fire Season” song, shinkawasaki reflects on this painful moment in our history.

“Take It Elsewhere” was inspired by the 2021 rally against anti-Asian racism in front of the Japanese American National Museum and is a memorial to the Atlanta spa shooting. The song asks an unseen listener, “Know me and know my life / Not just my face” and ends with the repeated declaration, “I am water and no one else defines me / I am here to stay and no one can deny me.”

His third song, “Lullaby,” is exactly that: a song to soothe our community and ask us to care for one another.

Nikkei Music Reclamation Project, produced by JACCC and Sustainable Little Tokyo and organized by Taiji Miyagawa and Tomi Kunisaki, first launched in 2018 in the temporary pop-up ART@341FSN. In many ways, these three musicians represent the future of our Japanese American community: all three are considered “Shin Nikkei,” Japanese Americans who immigrated after WWII, and two identify as mixed race or ethnicity.

shinkawasaki shared, “To call myself Nikkei was a new concept in a way, and I realized I am Nikkei. Everybody’s story is different, everybody is different.”

The artists uncovered a connection to their cultural heritage as Japanese Americans here in Little Tokyo. Expect to feel and hear the echoes of their music for generations to come. 

Nikkei Music Reclamation Concert

Sunday, June 26, at 3 p.m.

JACCC Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo

Free tickets available at: www.sustainablelittletokyo.org/nikkei-music

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