New Musical Frontiers: Lisa Kori’s “Daughter of the West”

A new album reimagines Asian-American music history

“What if Asian Americans were allowed to keep their music or culture?” asks musician Lisa Kori as she embarks on her new project. (Aubrey Hord)

In a daring act of cultural reclamation, Santa Fe-based musician Lisa Kori is set this week to debut her ambitious Daughter of the West project—a collection of songs envisioned as if Asian-American musical influences had organically permeated the canon of American roots music.

Inspired by her Chinese and Japanese ancestry, as well as the storied history of Asian immigrants in the American West, Kori conducted the project with a $2,500 grant from the Howlin’ Dog Music Group nonprofit, and has crafted an auditory mirage that reimagines her family’s immigrant experiences into an alternate historical realm where their cultural identities were embraced rather than erased.

Old photographs Kori came across of her grandparents in the American West that defied the typical portrayals and pop culture depictions of early Asian newcomers helped plant the seeds for the project.

“They were wearing western boots and cowboy hats, a guy was holding a rifle and they were sitting in front of these 1930s cars,” she recounts. “This is not what Hollywood had taught me my great-grandparents were like...they obviously had hopes and dreams in the West that were very different from what I’d seen.”

So, Kori set out on a speculative history venture, constructing music that might have existed had that cultural lineage not been disrupted.

“What if Asian Americans were allowed to keep their music or their culture? My music imagines what it would sound like if elements of Japanese and Chinese music had become a natural part of American roots music,” Kori says. “I’ve been wondering what songs my Chinese ancestors brought to the US when they emigrated during the Gold Rush, and what songs my Japanese ancestors sang while working the sugar plantations of Hawaii. I wonder about the arduous labor of the Chinese who built the railroads, and wish I could hear their work songs. Why didn’t their music become part of the landscape? I’m making art based on what I didn’t see.”

In pondering her heritage, Kori says she began to feel a strong connection with her Japanese great-grandfather who immigrated to Hawaii as a sugar plantation worker. And the project shifted during the writing process.

“The feeling I was getting was... you’re making it too serious. Don’t make it about the trauma; make it about the adventure. It feels like I’m connecting to this generational thing, tapping into this sense of adventurousness,” she says.

With songs in hand, the next step of assembling the requisite talent represented a formidable undertaking.

“It took a nationwide search to put this band together,” Kori admits.

From New York to the Southwest, she sought out musical masters of not only skill, but authenticity.Those performing alongside Kori include: Danting Qiao, the former concertmaster of the Peking University Chinese Orchestra, who will lend her mastery of the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle; and Jake Larcqua, an ethnomusicologist studying under Japanese master Yoko Hiraoka, who will contribute the distinctive tones of the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument akin to a banjo.

Kori’s own artistic background is curiously disparate, starting as a youngster with folk guitar and later transitioning into classical music and earning a scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory. However, academic music was not for her, so she switched her major to new media. This led to a fellowship researching electronic music and sound art across 15 countries and collaborating with ethnomusicologist David Novak to write a chapter for the book Handmade Electronic Music. Since then, Kori has spent time as an artist-in-residence at artistic research centers like Fabrica in Treviso, Italy; Eyebeam in Brooklyn, New York; and Hangar in Barcelona, Spain, as well as a room-sized interactive sound installation with creative coder Caitlin Morris that premiered at the Sónar Festival in Barcelona in 2014.

But it wasn’t until moving to the Southwest that Kori began to revisit her early love of folk music. She’s been lucky enough to call Don Richmond, John Gorka and Eliza Gilkyson her mentors, and she’s collaborated with local folk-forward acts and artists like Dear Doctor, Clementine Was Right and Lucy Barna. Now living in Santa Fe, Kori hopes to take her reimagined history as far as possible, perhaps even an interactive multimedia opera someday.

That spirit of adventure rings through in Kori’s pensive lyricism and vocals, which at times evoke the clarity and fierce longing of Patti Smith, and the resulting album is a deeply personal voyage. Co-produced with Grammy-winning producer/engineer, Marc Whitmore, Daughter of the West is an illuminating journey into “a Wild West that never quite existed,” Kori says. Ultimately, the music emerges as an exploration of identity pluralized—a dialogue between Kori’s intersecting cultural currents, each fluent in its own sonic idiom, yet united in the respective voices of her ancestors. It’s a profoundly intimate offering that chips away at the monolithic model of racial categorization and suppression.

Daughter of the American West: An Evening of Asian Americana: 6:30 pm Thursday, June 27. Sliding scale/$20 suggested donation. San Miguel Chapel, 401 Old Santa Fe Trail, (505) 983-3974

Tickets available through Eventbrite

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