Paul Kikuchi photo by Daniel Sheehan
By Peter Monaghan
For several years, Seattle-based percussionist and composer Paul Kikuchi has been delving into the archives of Japanese-American life in the city, and for his 2017 Earshot Jazz Festival appearance has created a singular work merging past and present.
His 9066 commemorates a dark chapter in American history: the imposition, 75 years ago, of Executive Order 9066. It resulted in some 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them U.S. citizens, being incarcerated in internment camps in the interior of the western United States during World War II. Among them were thousands of Seattleites.
Among his goals, says Kikuchi, is “to illuminate just how much Seattle lost in terms of cultural diversity, and how thriving a Japantown we had, and how much was decimated and never came back.”
To do that, he has created a set of linked sound installations that incorporate 78rpm recordings from the large collection held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington, as well as live performance by him, on percussion, and Haruko Crow Nishimura, of the Degenerate Art Ensemble, on vocals and electronics.
9066 is the latest of a series of projects in which Kikuchi has explored the lives of Japanese immigrants in the Pacific Northwest. His acclaimed and intensely moving work for chamber jazz ensemble, Bat of No Bird Island, which premiered at the 2013 Earshot festival, was inspired by a small collection of 78rpm records, as well as memoirs, that his grandfather, Zenkichi Kikuchi, left upon his death. He had come to the United States in 1901 from rural Japan, and, during his years in the Northwest, laid track for the Northern Pacific Railroad and farmed in the Yakima Valley.
In 2015, Paul Kikuchi’s Songs of Nihonmachi merged jazz standards of the 1920s and 1930s with improvisations inspired by popular Japanese songs of the era. The performance was held at the Panama Hotel, in the International District, a center of Japanese community life before the resettlement forced by Executive Order 9066.
Kikuchi’s interest in such legacies led him to the Japanese Cultural and Community Center’s sound archive, with its assortment of now 1,300 recordings, growing all the time as members of the Japanese-American community become aware of the work he is doing to catalog and digitize the artefacts. He says 9066 “has grown out of getting to know the collection better, and wanting to share that process with people.”
The archive’s hundreds of 78rpm recordings date from the early 1900s to about 1950, many from before World War II.
“The earlier ones were potentially brought over by Japanese immigrants, at the turn of the century,” says Kikuchi. “From there, it was either people bringing records over or, as of the early 1920s, there were shops in Seattle where immigrants could buy the records.”
The 78s range from traditional, older Japanese music to more popular styles that came into fashion around the time of the war, often incorporating Western influences into Japanese instrumentation and sources. Kikuchi says: “Some of the donations we get at the Center come from the Japanese American community, and some just come from people who find the 78s. So much was lost during the internment.
Shellac records are not the easiest things to carry around; they’re pretty heavy. Obviously a lot of stuff got lost during the internment, was just given away or was lost.”
Kikuchi says he wants his production to suggest “how can the music of a community help us to get an idea of who people were, and humanize immigrant populations, which is pretty important in the politics of today.
“But also,” he adds, as an amateur archivist he can admit, “I’m just interested in what people’s musical collections were like.” He has started working on a further project in which he will try to imagine the lives of particular individuals based on collections that have come to the Center.
9066 will be like earlier projects in which Kikuchi made innovative use of such spaces as a decommissioned nuclear power plant’s cooling tower, Seattle’s Union Station, and the huge underground cistern at Fort Worden State Park. The last of those is near where Kikuchi grew up on the Kitsap Peninsula.
As another of his “site-responsive works,” 9066 will seek to bring to life the spaces of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center, which is housed in a building that was used as temporary housing for Japanese Americans returning from concentration camps to resettle in Seattle, after the war. Among his goals, he says, is to give audiences a tactile sense of the building, as a living historical location.
Audience members will be able to navigate a variety of spaces, as they wish. In one room, 78s from the Center’s collections will play, while in another, he is presenting soundscapes he has created with portions of the 78s. In the Center’s largest space, he and Haruko Crow Nishimura will integrate prerecorded sound material from the records with their live performance, along with projected archival film footage.
Also part of the presentation will be the Center’s small Hunt Hotel exhibit, which shows what the building was like while it was known, after the war, as the Hunt Hotel because Hunt, in south-central Idaho, was the closest town to the Minidoka War Relocation Center, where the majority of Seattle’s exiled Japanese Americans were held.
The result of that use of the Center’s spaces, Kikuchi says, will hopefully be an “intensive, immersive experience that’s really not like a sit-down concert experience.”
The war-time experiences of Japanese Americans resonates powerfully in the community, today, including in his own life, Kikuchi says. He has spoken, in relation to his earlier Bat of No Bird Island, of his forebears’ “profound struggles that certainly contextualize the ups and downs of my life today.”
Of 9066, he says: “I want people to walk away with an experience of humanizing this group of people in a way that they maybe aren’t humanized through reading about them in a text book or being told about them, and then hopefully, from there, being able to humanize a lot of people who are being marginalized now.”
Paul Kikuchi: 9066
Friday, November 3, 7pm
Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington
1414 S Weller St
Tickets and more information at earshot.org.