Tatsu Aoki is a leading advocate for the Asian American community, a prolific composer and performer of traditional and experimental music forms, a filmmaker, and an educator. Aoki was born into the Toyoakimoto artisan family in Tokyo, a traditional house for training and booking geisha, and began performing from the age of four. Aoki is now one of the most in-demand performers of bass, shamisen, and taiko, contributing more than ninety recording projects and touring internationally during the last twenty-five years. Aoki is the Founder and Artistic Director of Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival, which observed its twentieth year in 2015. Named President of San Francisco–based Asian Improv Records (AIR) in 1999, he has managed or produced more than forty AIR albums. Aoki was named one of 2001’s “Chicagoans of the year” by Chicago Tribune for his cross-cultural music.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and content.
Patricia Nguyen: Thank you so much for taking a time to do this interview for the “Beyond the Box” series at Links Hall. It is a deep honor to sit here with you and learn more about your creative practice. I’d like to ask you first about the sonic experience you will be creating for the Beyond the Box series and what you are excited about in terms of being a part of the project.
Tatsu Aoki: I have participated in a variety of different projects for the musical preservation of Asian-American cultural diaspora. For example, I have a music-driven performance project every year at the MCA called “Reduction” that is similar to the “Beyond the Box” series. And I often create musical pieces that incorporate dance or other forms of performance. But this new project for Rika is the other way around: it’s the performance project that incorporates the music, and that’s a rare occasion for me.
Patricia: Rika has mentioned that you have been an amazing influence and mentor for the work that she’s been creating. How has it been working inter-generationally with Rika across your separate histories and varied experiences?
Tatsu: I think our generational gap has been more interesting for us than negative. Rika is a member of the ‘new second generation’, or ‘shin-nisei’, and her generation is just about 10 years behind mine. So, there is different in the interpretation of being a part of the Asian-American community. But rather than there being a culture clash between us, we’ve experienced more of a merging of our two generations in our art. We influence each other because we share core aesthetic values that thrive in the original Asian-American immigrant spirit. Of course, fundamentally, because of our age difference, I’ve started to consider myself as an older person now!
Patricia: Can you tell us more about how your identity as an Asian-American artist forms or shapes your aesthetics and practice?
Tatsu: I think most people would probably agree that you have to go through several steps of evolution—of realizing what it means to be an Asian-American. And then you create and evolve your art by interpreting yourself and positioning yourself in that identity.
I am a member of the immigrant generation of the late 1970s, and I was always a little bit ‘off’ the timeline of already existing Asian-American experiences. In Japanese-American terminology, I belong to the ‘shin-issei’, or the ‘new first generation’ after the second World War. Being a part of the ‘new’ Asian-American immigrant community, I had to evolve my life into the preexisting Asian-American community.
It took me more than three decades to go through several stages of evolution: becoming an immigrant, becoming an Asian-American, and becoming a part of the Asian-American community. It was a process of assimilation, a search for origin, and then a process of transfusion. And my music—all the art that I’ve created—went along with my personal development.
Patricia: How did arriving in the United States during the 1970s shape your coming into this notion of Asian-America?
Tatsu: It was a really big learning process for me. I grew up in a classical Japanese music environment, had thrown everything out and wanted to do all the rock and pop music that American people did. But I was met with rejection from the mainstream Chicago music scene from the late 70s into the 90s. What’s interesting to me about my migration to Chicago is that the work I began to create here was very much a collaboration between Asian-American music and African-American music. And a part of that was my desire to perform with all these avant-garde jazz performers who accepted me and didn’t care who I was, what I looked like.
Patricia: How have you brought together all the threads of your past works to create the music for the “Beyond the Box” series?
Tatsu: My music is all about Chicago; the music I make with my friends in the city is not going to be heard anywhere other than Chicago.
The dance culture that Rika is creating around her is also a representation of Chicago, and that’s very attractive to me. I know the original traditional songs and Kabuki plays she’s working with because I grew up with them myself. So I watch what she does, and I listen to what she wants to do, then I go back to my original interpretation of the classical work to rediscover how I can customize it to Rika’s vision.
Patricia: What do you want people to walk away with this project?
Tatsu: It’s a very simple thing: acceptance. I would like people to look at this contemporary transfusion of Japanese dance and this modern setting and think it’s okay. And that it’s cool to do it! It’s great to watch, it’s great to listen to, and it’s such a wonderful experience to have, created by artists from the Asian-American community.
“Beyond the Box” means we are trying to change the Asian-American stereotype in the arts. Every one of us in theater, performance, singing, music, literature, or poetry — we have to fight for our representation as an Asian-American community. And we need to remember that people liking our art may be good in a sense, but it may not be our goal.
And for Rika, “Beyond the Box” means more than just ‘beyond the box’ of classical training. It’s about Asian-American women doing something provocative. We should encourage the idea of taking challenging new steps. I think things are better than they were 20 years ago. We have Asian-American theater, music, literature; it’s a little bit more than 20 years ago. But I think we still got a lot more to do.
Patricia Nguyen is an artist, educator, and scholar who was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. As a child of refugees, her performance work is grounded in her family’s stories to critically engage with issues of forced migration, notions of freedom, inherited war trauma, memory, home, and healing. In her practice as a performance artist, she works creating durational performances and devised theater pieces that bring together oral histories of Vietnamese/American refugees through poetry and labor intensive movements while working with a juxtaposition between natural and fabricated materials (such as water, soil, fish sauce, fabric, and plastics). Her work in installation art seeks to play with the tactile and sensorial affects of audience witnessing and participation. Presently, she is experimenting with the place of ephemerality in performance and installation, asking, “how can we archive an experience?” and “where does the body dis/appear in installation art?”