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A Musical Community

Anthony Brown's 'Family' remembers in music the Japanese-American internment

By Nicky Baxter

To hear the right-wing types tell it, politically centered folks don't appreciate the value of hearth, home and family--the supposed core of American life. But this observation is mostly myth, and like all myths, it disintegrates under closer scrutiny.

The same hawks who proclaim the importance of family are also ardent cheerleaders for Prop. 209; their interpretation of family values is extremely narrow. A healthier view of family has little to do with anything nuclear and everything to do with community. Take percussionist/composer Anthony Brown's Family (Asian Improv Records), for instance.

At once a moving dedication to the thousands of Japanese-American men, women and children locked up during WWII and a celebration of the intractable spirit of community that enabled them to endure, Family is also a profoundly personal statement by Brown, who is of African and Japanese heritage.

Anyone familiar with the Berkeley resident's oeuvre knows that no matter what the musical setting, he is indefatigably forward-looking, and Family is no exception.

Consisting of two conceptual works--titled "E.O. 9066 (Truth Be Told)" and "Never Again! (Mo, Shimasen!)"--the album is full of definitively improvisational music, but with a twist. Like pioneering compatriots saxophonist Francis Wong and pianists Jon Jang and Glenn Horiuchi, Brown is a musical alchemist of the highest order, yoking the African improvisational tradition to Asian folk music forms without compromising either.

Sonic Drama

Listening to Brown's Family is like watching a particularly absorbing film. "E. O. 9066 (Truth Be Told)" starts outs quietly with "Prelude," an abbreviated segment intended to set the mood while offering a glimpse of themes to come. The hypnotic "Loco-motif/Taiko Trane" follows.

"Ichikotsu-cho," one of the most compelling movements, boasts thundering taiko percussion and the hypnotic suona (a double-reed horn that sounds very much like Scottish bagpipes), with Brown's slashing trap drums and cymbal work punctuating the sonic drama. The plaintive "Rhymes for Children" concludes the piece. Ostensibly celebratory, the composition is more mournful than merry. Call it a misnamed cautionary tale.

"Never Again! (Mo, Shimasen!)" commences with "Pika Don" and "11:02AM, August 9, 1945," both of which are characterized by the measured pounding of taiko and O-daiko drumming. Listening to this musical equivalent of Native America's Long Walk, it's not hard to visualize a procession of Japanese families being "escorted" from their homes and forced to board dank, ugly buses.

Wafting above the doomsday thud of these instruments is Wong's ghostly flute. Imperceptibly, West African percussion muscles its way to the fore; the marriage of the two seemingly disparate traditions is breathtaking. (Imagine a film camera panning from those families to shackled Africans trudging toward the Middle Passage.)

In fact, Brown composed "Never Again!" in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the end, the forces of evil light are expelled by the defiant rhythms of the closing movement, "Anthem." This genuinely grand finale surges with primal energy.

Of course, it takes strong musicianship to pull off such an ambitious project, and the San Francisco-born Brown possesses immaculate taste, employing the services of the San Jose Taiko group and his own African/Asian unit, Eclipse.

It's no surprise that these compositions exude the feeling of kozuku (Japanese for family). Brown has often performed with many of these musicians. Anthony Brown is and always has been profoundly committed to the idea of family, of community--which, in the end, are really the same thing.

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