No-No Boy: A Journey Through History, Music, and Sound

Music can be a key into another place and time. For No-No Boy, songs contain clues to follow, like a sonic time capsule.

Dr. Julian Saporiti

Dr. Julian Saporiti with tape machine, guitar, and modular synthesizer. Photo by Emilia Saporiti.

Portland-based singer, songwriter, and scholar Julian Saporiti is the mind and heart behind No-No Boy. This music-meets-history project is the manifestation of Julian’s doctorate dissertation at Brown University, from where he holds a PhD in Asian American studies and ethnomusicology, and is based on years of historical research. Much of his work is inspired by his Vietnamese American heritage and the stories of many Asian cultures that recognize the inextricable link between the personal and political.

The term “no-no boy” is a clue that exposes a dark chapter in American history—Japanese American internment by the US government in the 1940s. Julian sheds light on this in his first album 1942.

During World War II, over 120,000 Japanese American citizens were forcibly imprisoned in internment camps in western states from 1942–1946. The “no-no boys” were those who answered “no” twice on the mandatory “loyalty questionnaire.” Because of their answers, they were separated from other detainees and moved to the Tule Lake Relocation Camp in California.

Julian also takes the name from the novel No-No Boy, written by John Okada in 1957, about the aftermath of the Japanese American internment.

No-No Boy’s second album 1975 transports you to the Vietnam war and the fall of Saigon. Interestingly, both albums illustrate how during each era, there were detainees and refugees alike who still played music and created art, even in unimaginable circumstances. It’s a fact that doesn’t usually come to mind when thinking about wartime in a conventional way.

Julian traveled the world in pursuit of sounds, stories, and history and weaved into his music the experiences of those who lived through historic events, survived, and even thrived.

No-No Boy’s record label Smithsonian Folkways made a short documentary on the making of the album 1975. The film follows Julian during his unusual recording process. What’s fascinating about the music of No-No Boy is the use of sampled sounds from field recordings, sourced from historical, cultural, and politically significant sites, and even objects.

Dr. Julian Saporiti

Julian records sounds from natural surroundings and historic sites for his music. Photo by Emilia Saporiti.

In our recent interview with Julian, he describes where some of these various musical tones were recorded: “Whether it’s ICE detention centers at the border that I’ve visited, refugee camps or old Japanese internment camps… or ambient sounds of the birds and the water or the land itself. We actually banged on barbed wire and old barracks wood, turning those sounds into percussion.”

This experimental musical tapestry lends itself to a unique sound that you won’t hear anywhere else.

Empire Electric, No-No Boy’s newest album, co-produced with his wife and artistic collaborator Emilia Saporiti, continues this exploration. Sounds and stories from Oregon’s history are woven into the music, including facts that may be little known even to longtime residents.

“What I’m really excited about sharing with the Northwest audiences in particular, are songs specifically about the history of Asian Americans up here that very few people know about.”

“There’s one song about this woman, Miyo Iwakoshi, who was the first Japanese settler in Oregon. She ran a sawmill in a town perhaps named after her: Orient, Oregon. They called her the Western Empress because she would help Japanese folks get settled in Portland.”

Julian also explains the origin of his song “The Onion Kings of Ontario”:

“It is this incredible story of over 1,500 Japanese Americans who were offered work in this small town of Eastern Oregon, after the internment camps closed. They became some of the best onion farmers in the region, and they put up this Buddhist temple in the middle of nowhere.”

Dr. Julian Saporiti

Julian at Cape Sebastian, the setting for his song, “1603,” the year the first non-native people arrived in Oregon, on a Spanish ship that included Asian crew members. Photo by Dr. Diego Luis.

One incredible and revelatory piece of history Julian shares is found in his song “1603,” the year that the first non-native people arrived in Oregon, at Cape Sebastian.

“This Spanish ship was blown off course, and my friend Diego (who is a researcher with the No-No Boy project and did his Ph.D. with me at Brown) discovered the crew list in an archive in Spain. There were seven Asian crew members… People from India, Japan, China, perhaps the Philippines, were on that crew as part of the first expedition to ever ‘discover’ Oregon. And that’s 1603! We usually think of Asian-American history starting with the gold rush and Chinese coming over, building the railroad in the late 19th century…1603 is two hundred years before Lewis and Clark, or even the Oregon Trail. So, we went down to that site and made field recordings of the space and the sound of the water.”

For a project that has so much information embedded in it, your first impression might be to expect something abstract or ambient, but No-No Boy is catchy, melodic folk-rock.

“I love all that weird ambient performance art, don’t get me wrong,” Julian admits. “A lot of my friends do that kind of work.” But, he explains, that’s not his musical inclination.

“Melodic content at its core was always really big for me. I’ve always considered myself a songwriter before anything else, and I take the craft of melody and the craft of lyric equally seriously.”

Dr. Julian Saporiti

Julian composed music incorporating sounds from Tryon Creek State Park in Oregon. Photo by Lorma Smith.

Julian’s academic credentials are extensive, and his musical background is just as impressive. He graduated from Berklee College of Music, signed with a record label, and toured extensively in Europe before pursuing academia.

He was also immersed in the country music scene growing up and describes how he had a behind-the-scenes upbringing and absorbed the music around him: “My dad was in the record industry in Nashville, so I grew up hearing these very simple songs played expertly by these incredible singers and musicians on Music Row.”

The influence of some of the best storytellers of music history shines through in No-No Boy. As a kid, Julian listened to his dad’s records and read through the liner notes like they were a holy text. “Every lyric I would part and parcel,” he says.

There are traces of John Lennon and Leonard Cohen in No-No Boy’s musical style, and parallels to the newer generation of folk artists like Sufjan Stevens or Belle and Sebastian, in the sense of distilling intellectual material into succinct, self-contained, thoughtful songs.

Julian explains how folk music is a great way to transmit history: “It can allow you to address really heavy topics from a personal and very studied position. But then turn them into something that doesn’t alienate people automatically. Music can open up more fruitful discussions that don’t take for granted how countries can just stop like I know they can, because that’s where my mom comes from. As part of the show, I’ll tell these histories and talk about these issues like race or immigration in a way that isn’t so divisive.”

Julian hopes that his music encourages people from different backgrounds to explore and share their own personal history.

“Maybe at the end of the night, you’re inspired to either go call your grandma, or auntie and uncle. Ask them about their story. Or maybe if you’re older, you’ll reckon with the life you’ve led and talk to your kids about that a little more deeply. The more grandmothers’ stories that are recorded, the better sense of self that we get and the more we’ll untwist these American mythologies.”

Don’t miss No-No Boy at the Spanish Ballroom on Sept 20th in Tacoma, and the Mission Theater on Oct 4th in Portland. The new album, Empire Electric, comes out on Smithsonian Folkways on September 29th.

1 Comment

  1. Aileen Kaye on October 5, 2023 at 10:19 pm

    I love your music and the lessons that come along with it.

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