Art and Activism
I want to be transparent about my artistic intentions. “Why am I doing this?” Environmentalism, social activism, and mental health are fundamentally important to me. I want to create music that raises awareness. Through sharing my stories and experiences, I wish to encourage others to find their voice and have the courage to put it out there. I want to create a community where we support and lift each other.
Growing up in Hawai’i, I learned the importance of living harmoniously with nature and respecting the ‘Āina. We all recognize the importance of protecting the environment, and that belief has stayed with me wherever I have lived or visited.
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 1981, I met and worked with recording artist Hiroshima. It opened my eyes to the Asian American story I had not experienced growing up in Honolulu. Stories of the Japanese American struggle after World War II, the Asian American Movement in solidarity with our Black and Hispanic Brothers and Sisters in the '60s. The fight for Social Justice was fought peacefully through the Arts. I learned so much through the stories of others, and I loved creating music bigger than ourselves. This became a deep root of my inspiration.
Many artists struggle with mental health. In 2017, Viola Davis, giving an interview after winning a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, spoke of her long-time battle with Imposter Syndrome. She was describing me! Learning more about this condition that has plagued me, I have learned that many suffer from it, some worse than others… especially BIPOC people. I never believed I had any talent, would deflect any praise given to my work, and constantly feared being found out as a fraud.
While that voice is still there, I have learned to ignore it. I have received therapy and, through self-education, learned how to rise above it. I speak often about it, especially when I meet someone who I see is struggling with it. I have seen how sharing my story has opened a door to others, letting them know they don’t have to feel alone. Help is there.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Mental Health has been an epidemic. It saddens me especially to see how many young people are struggling, be it depression, anxiety, or severe traumas leading to addiction. Most tragedies occurring in our country can be rooted in mental health disorders.
In this section, I would like to introduce three friends who have inspired me as artists and activists over the years.
Nobuko Miyamoto & Great Leap, Inc.
In 1983, June Kuramoto, from the band Hiroshima, introduced me to Nobuko Miyamoto. Nobuko was looking for a producer for her new album, and June thought we would be a good fit. Forty years later, I would say she is right!
Nobuko’s album would be my first album production in Los Angeles. “Best of Both Worlds” opened my eyes to the Asian American movement I had not experienced growing up in the Islands. It presented an opportunity to enlist talent I met working in mainstream genres, such as John Barnes, one of the premier R&B session keyboardists, and Marva King from Stevie Wonder’s band “Wonderlove.” I hired Cuban percussionist Luis Conte, Mexican artist Fernando, and Enrique Toussaint, a talented drummer and bassist I met in a band assembled by French composer Michel Colombier for Canadian singer and songwriter Paul Anka. Together with June Kuramoto and Jesse Acuna from Hiroshima, these artists provided the worldwide breadth Nobuko’s music demanded.
Working with Nobuko was like one master class after another. I arranged and produced the music for Great Leap’s stage shows such as Talk Story and Sacred Moon Songs, the production of her second album, “To All Relations,” and her Obon music with environmental themes such as “B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Chopsticks)” and “Mottainai (Don’t Waste).”.
“The Triangle Project,” her collaboration with PJ Hirabayashi, co-founder of San Jose Taiko, and Yoko Fujimoto, vocalist and percussionist from Kodo, resulted in a powerful stage performance of three women storytellers from different traditions. Whatever the cause, Nobuko always contributes her thoughts through a song.
Producing her double CD project, “120,000 Stories,” for Smithsonian Folkways Records in 2021 with Quetzal Flores from the Grammy-winning band Quetzal felt like my work with Nobuko was coming full circle. The project was completed right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recording twelve new and reimagined songs for this double CD album allowed me to help Nobuko present the arc of her life’s work.
Nobuko taught me about the Asian American movement in the 60’s. She shared stories of solidarity with the Black and Chicano movement. Nobuko taught me the power of a song. She graciously and selflessly introduced me to movement icons, world music artists, writers, dancers, and poets. Nobuko has always “walked the walk.” I can’t imagine what my life and perspective would have been without having her as a colleague, mentor, and teacher.
She’s also my close friend. My family lived in Reseda when the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck. Our home was a mile from the epicenter, and while the damage was not as catastrophic as many, our home was a mess and unsafe to live in. Nobuko called me, asking how we were doing. Once I told her what state the house was in, she said “You are coming to stay with us.” She and her husband, Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, welcomed the four of us into their home. Once we got situated, Tarabu and I drove back to my house to clean up and survey the damage. We shoveled broken glass from all corners of the kitchen into the garbage cans, cleared walkways, and packed some personal items. We stayed with them for several weeks until we moved to a hotel. I will never forget that selfless act of kindness and friendship.
I can say without hesitation that the most meaningful work I have done as a musician has been with Nobuko and Great Leap. She has earned a special place in Asian American history as a fighter for social justice through the arts. She’s a role model and an inspiration for generations to come.
Judy Mitoma and the 1999 World Festival of Sacred Music – the Americas
“In December of 1997, I received a letter from Tibet House inviting Los Angeles to participate in a global millennial project slated to begin in 1999 and take place sequentially on five different continents,” recalls festival director Judy Mitoma, who founded UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures. “We held a series of public forums to see if there was an interest in doing one here, and discovered people were incredibly enthusiastic. Hundreds of people donated their services, L.A.’s Cultural Affairs Department donated $70,000, and from there the budget grew to $875,000.”
Festival Director Judy Mitoma – LA Weekly Interview.
I remember Nobuko Miyamoto and Great Leap being invited to participate in this unprecedented event. After attending the first open meeting at UCLA with festival director Judy Mitoma, we began planning our event to be held on the opening day, October 9, at Senshin Buddhist Temple, as well as two other events at Barnsdall Park and McArthur Park.
At one of the second artist gatherings, I saw the scope and diversity of artists contributing to this event. There were plans in place to film as many events as possible, with the goal of creating a documentary memorializing the festival. I asked Professor Mitoma if there had been any discussion about doing an audio recording of the concerts. She smiled and shook her head.
I brought up the idea again and she reminded me that this was a grassroots event with no corporate support. She had approached a major label who asked for a budget of $500,000 to do two remote recordings, including one at the Hollywood Bowl. They would also have the right to determine who the performers would be. She also approached a smaller indie label that requested a smaller budget, also wanting to make selections of which events they would record. She wanted curatorial control over the selections: she felt that NOT having control went against the community-based concept of the festival. She also said obtaining clearance from all the artists’ record companies would be a legal nightmare.
Kevin Costner’s film “Field of Dreams” has always been my benchmark. Build the field, and they will come. I volunteered to produce the recordings.
Out of the 85 events taking place over 68 venues across the city over a 9-day period, I selected the musical performances that would portray the breadth and depth of the festival. The subtext that can be seen in the documentary is artists performing in spaces they would normally not, partnering with artists that would never otherwise take place for political or ideological differences. It was beautiful and happening!
I organized a team of recording engineers, DA-88 Digital Recorders, and digital tape. All these services were selflessly donated. I implemented a plan of non-invasive recording and managed to record 24 complete musical performances. I spent the next few months reviewing the recordings, selecting 3 of the best songs from each performance, and presented a 15-minute compilation to the festival committee for approval to proceed with the project. I recall the gathering at Judy’s home and how nervous I was during the playback. Once completed, I looked up and saw tears in Judy’s eyes. I knew we had something special.
The next weeks were spent cleaning and mixing the record at my studio in Santa Monica with my old friend, Craig Burbidge. When it came to mixing live recordings, he had magic ears. Together, we brought the project home.
This is where the “Field of Dreams” metaphor comes into play. We did not have all the clearances, especially with a few acts signed to major labels. I believed that once the project was mixed and presented, everyone recorded would want to be on this compilation. I was right. The festival was a unique gathering, and I doubt it would ever again happen on this scale.
This double CD compilation of the beautiful artists who came together selflessly to perform in this festival is unparalleled, something I wanted the City of Los Angeles to be proud of. Later in the year at a gathering at Judy’s home, I recall a tearful conversation with an organizer in Germany, sharing that he could not present the festival like we did because of church and state politics. I also heard at that meeting that, other than the main concert in New Delhi, no other festival in the world accomplished what had taken place in Los Angeles. People came together for a cause bigger than themselves; importantly, everyone donated their time and talents. There was no corporate sponsorship. It showed me how people can unite if the cause is clearly articulated and presented. I am most proud of this work because it represents the heart that does exist in Los Angeles.
1954 – 2020
I was introduced to Waldemar Bastos in 2008 when Shout Records produced a project entitled “In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2.” Waldemar and I worked on a song called “Love is Blindness,” and connected artistically and spiritually. Before leaving, he looked at me and said, “I want to do my album with you. I shall be back.”
A year later, he surprised me by returning to my home. With the help of a friend’s son, they drove around searching for my home because he didn’t have my address or phone number. He looked at me and said, “I told you I was going to do my record with you!” He knew it would be true because he saw me and my studio in a dream.
We worked together, off and on, for about a year in between his performances in Lisbon. Several of these songs had been previously recorded, and I asked him why he wanted to redo them. He shared that while he loved all his recordings, they were never recorded as he envisioned. The tracks were often produced to the producers' satisfaction without his presence. His performance was often limited to a few takes. My role as a producer was clear: to organically follow and support his vision.
I recorded his voice and the music, but I now wish I had also recorded the hours of stories he shared. I learned of his struggle starting at an early age. He didn’t trust politicians and was forced into exile because he would not align with any political party. The government confiscated his home. His son was killed in Lisbon for what he always believed were political reasons. These stories, along with his love of his country and the people, are what his music celebrates. I could hear it in the melodies he sang and the dialogue he composed between the layered guitar parts.
Once this foundation was laid to his satisfaction, I began building the supporting framework with additional musicians and singers, all subject to his vision. His desire for a symphonic element was tough to conceive with a small string section in Los Angeles. We discussed which orchestra would be best for the arrangements I heard in my head. When I said the London Symphonic Orchestra, his eyes lit up. He felt the same! He left for another trip to Lisbon, and we met when he returned to Los Angeles. I knew from the smile on his face he had secured the resources. He reminded me of what he said when the idea first came up, which was “to believe.” Miracles happen around this man.
Waldemar had a deep relationship with nature. We recorded a song called “Humbi Humbi Yangue.” When we were recording it, all the sparrows would start singing in the trees just outside the studio window -- quite loudly, I might add. The humbiumbi is a species of bird that flies high, while the katchimbamba lives on the ground, seldom fly, and, if so, low. Every time Waldemar sang this song, the birds would accumulate and start singing. While he was away in Lisbon, he called while I was working on the song, and while we talked with the song playing in the background, the birds came. He could hear them, and we both had a good laugh.
Waldemar was a very complex man. He was revered as the voice of the people, the voice of Angola. His songs sang of the beauty of his country and its people, along with the struggles and pain of oppression. When the record was completed, he looked at me and said, “I can go to heaven peacefully now. I did the record that was once just a dream.”
Waldemar took me to perform with him in his homelands of Luanda and Lisbon. I witnessed the responsibility he shouldered as one of the first African artists to sing in Lisbon with a symphonic orchestra. Returning to perform in Angola was equally tense. While he loved the people, he was very cautious of his surroundings. We briefly met at his apartment one day in Santa Monica, CA. When I left, he stepped out for a bicycle ride. He shared with me the freedom he felt living in the United States. He said how lucky I was to live here. “You don’t know what it is like to walk in the sun, not having to watch your back.”
Working on the record “Classics of My Soul” for over a year with Waldemar was an education in life and music, a privilege. In 2018, we began working on another album before he returned to Lisbon. There was no way of knowing it would be the last time I saw him.
Waldemar passed away in Lisbon in April 2020. He was an extraordinary, simple, yet very complex man who loved his country and his people, not its politics. He called himself a citizen of the world and found great joy and solace in creating and performing his music. Rest in peace, dear Waldemar, and thank you for the adventure of a lifetime.