Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area

Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra of San José, California performing at California Theater in 2006

The San Francisco Bay Area is a Metropolitan region encompassing San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose as well as a number of surrounding cities and ‘burbs.  With a population approaching 8 million, it is also home to one of the largest concentrations of Chinese Americans in the US at a little over half a million according to the 2010 census.

What I’ve discovered is that the Bay Area is also home to probably the greatest concentration of Chinese Orchestras in the US.  As I’ve been compiling a database of ethnic orchestras in North America (though concentrating, in particular, on the United States) I’ve since discovered just a little over two dozen ensembles in the Bay Area alone.  It seems that California in general has the highest concentration of Chinese Orchestras of all the States (cf. the geographic region between Chicago and Detroit which seems to have the highest concentration of Arabic and Middle Eastern ensembles and Orchestras in the US).

What’s particularly striking about the Bay Area’s ensembles is the number of Youth Orchestras, and, in a particular case, a k-5th grade Chinese Orchestra.  The other striking thing about these (and other ethnic ensembles throughout the US) is the number (roughly half) that have formed since the internet revolution (early to mid 90s), and the number that have formed within the past ten years or so (nearly a third of the total number).

I’ve yet to do a rigorous statistical analysis of the numbers as I’m still just compiling the database and doing the tedious task of getting numbers (year formed, number of musicians in the ensembles, etc.) so the preceeding paragraph is just a very rough sketch, but if the trends I had been seeing in the Middle Eastern ensembles is any indication of what’s happening with the Chinese ensembles, there is definitely growth in the number of groups formed and the rate is accelerating somewhat.

Granted, there might be some bias in the number of groups as obviously those groups that are no longer active are less likely to show up in simple internet searches.  For all we know there could have been many more Chinese Orchestras in the years or decades before the internet.  Indeed, there seemed to be a high number of Chinese Opera troupes operating in the states during the last half of the 19th century to first half of the 20th century (see Rodecape, 1944 and Mina Yang, 2001).  The situation was similar in New York Chinatown during the period of the National Origins Act when there were up to five separate Chinese Opera Houses in operation (Rao, 2000; 2002).

On the other hand, there is also the fact that many cultural institutions with ethnic minority groups will stay well below the radar of the majority population (cf. MacLachlan, 2008 for a discussion of ‘underground’ intra-congregational music dissemination, performance, and support) for reasons that are systemic as well as cultural (Rao, 2000). Continue reading “Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area”

Keep Louisville Weird with Thai-singing Klingon Cellists!

Jon Silpayamanant as j'onn, the Klingon Cellist, during a show at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis (Indianapolis), March 2011

So a couple days ago I was actually asked to play an upcoming event, the Terrabeat Showcase, that is going to “feature local ‘worldbeat’/cultural musicians from the city’s immigrant communities who are not yet fully integrated into Louisville’s mainstream music scene so that worldbeats influence in Louisville can be enhanced.”  Some of the other ethnic musicians to be featured will be Indian, Somali and Bhutanese immigrants.  I supposed I’ll be representing the Thai and, um, Klingon ethnic groups?

As I’ve been doing more solo cello as well as music/dance related duets lately, it’s only natural (I suppose) that I *ahem* boldly go where no cellist has gone before.  Not that this would necessarily be much of a stretch for me.  I already sing in Thai (and Klingon plus a few dozen other languages) while playing cello (and other instruments, such as dumbek).  I already have a huge untapped reservoir of material to use and styles to combine (though I’m not sure how I would incorporate beating amplified sheet metal through effects pedals into this show–though I could totally see Klingons doing this kind of thing).

Point is, it’s always nice to not have to rely on the schedules and limitations of others, especially when experimenting with new things.  I still have yet to fully develop Klingon Music theory given the existing canonic (and not so canonic) material, though that is still [yet] another work in progress.  And while I don’t often sing in Thai (just not that much opportunity for that yet, or rather not enough time to develop that) the first tunes I ever learned how to sing were Thai songs, and I still occasionally sing them when the need hits.

Jon Silpayamanant singing a Thai Classical Chant for Kristi Renee who is doing a fusion dance with Thai Fan Leb (fingernail dance) and Bellydance. Kira's Oasis (Dayton), January 2007.

But the idea of showcasing ethnic music (whether dressed as a Klingon or not) just appeals to me, and as my mother often tells me when she wants me to look for Thai movies and/or music or her, sometimes I just get tired of hearing the English language.  And more ethnics [sic] need to play out if only so that local communities don’t get a false sense of what’s actually out there in their [local] worlds.

And with a little luck, folks that perform can be what’s called in psychology, disinhibitory contagion.  This is a robust psychological phenomenon where folks who would generally follow the pack, because of whatever psychological rationalization they have made, do something that they really wanted to do after having experienced someone else going against the grain.

We sometimes see the negative side of this thing as when a high profiled (in the media) suicide coincides with a sharp spike in suicides by folks who somehow identified closely with the media personality.  But I think the positive side of this is to have more and more folks, who don’t normally play Western music (whether Classical or Pop) decide that it’s really OK for them to get out their sitars, koras, tablas, ouds, kavals, or whatever instrument from the homeland and get their funk on.

And from my own experience (which is considerable as I’m active playing in or working with 1) Balkan Band, 2) Klezmer Band, 3) World Music Ensemble, 4) Greek Musicians, 5) Central Asian dance/music project, 6) tabla/cello Indian/Middles Eastern Fusion project, etc.) Caucasian Americans are getting just as interested in this new music.

Jon Silpayamanant and Maja Radovanlija playing Balkan music in Kermes at the Runcible Spoon Gypsy Market (Bloomington), October 2010

Let’s face it, you can go anywhere to see a Symphony (though that might be getting rarer these days) Orchestra, or a cover band playing top 40 hits, or an original band singing in English and playing in an Anglo-American rock style, right?  And that’s the stuff that permeates the normal radio and other traditional media outlets.  How many Beatles cover bands do we need anyway?

Anyway, I’ll be developing a show for this and I suspect it will be something completely different than all the other things I do–or rather, it might be something that completely melds everything else I do!

Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Markos Sifnios, Marika Papagika and the Greek Cello

Marika Papagika

I wish I had more information about Markos Sifnios, but as there is only been a recent resurgence of interest in his collaborator Marika Papagika and I’m not in a position to be doing extensive research into her career in the US during the earlier part of the 20th century (yet).

I had first come across Sifnios’ work when I found this wonderful youtube video (see below) of a tune called Smyrneiko Minore (Smyrnaean Air) which, given the date (1919) here (if it is correct) would coincide with Papagika’s first recording in the states with Victor Records.

There is a brief snippet about Sifnios’ collaboration with Papagika at the Wikipedia entry which I can’t really verify or attest to the truth of though interesting in its own right:

Cellist Markos Sifneos [sic] collaborated with Marika Papagika on at least 24 separate occasions. Aside from Kostas, he is her most frequent collaborator, and was one of the few people to play cello on Greek recordings before World War II. There are no records of him recording with anyone except the Papagikas as Cello was not an acceptable instrument for Greek music at the time.

So I came across this video and though I had already known about Marika Papagika I knew nothing about the fact she had a cellist in her Greek band.  So that was something of a revelation.  I doubt cellos were typically a part of traditional or folk Greek ensembles as the above quote seems to indicate, and more than likely, as is the case with Klezmer and other folk music ensembles (and “pick-up” bands in general) Sifnios and his cello just happened to be at her disposal.   But what this also says is that Sifnios could be considered one of the first “Alternative Cellists” in the US (if not the world).

Continue reading “Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Markos Sifnios, Marika Papagika and the Greek Cello”