What AAPI Heritage Month Means to Two Jazz Musicians at SFCM

Helen Sung (Credit: Jimmy Baikovicius) and Akira Tana (Credit: Stu Chambers)

Helen Sung (Credit: Jimmy Baikovicius) and Akira Tana (Credit: Stu Chambers)

Pianist Helen Sung and drummer Akira Tana talk about how their identities come into play in their music—and vice-versa.

By Alex Heigl

"Jazz is an incredibly generous art form," SFCM jazz piano faculty member Helen Sung says. "I really believe it. It takes in everything, it welcomes everybody, and yet somehow it keeps its core identity."

It's a notion that takes on special resonance during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, celebrated in May in recognition of two events that help define, for better or worse, the experience of those groups in the U.S.: May 7, 1843: The arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States and May 10, 1869, or "Golden Spike Day," celebrating the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the States, an achievement which would not have been possible without Chinese immigrants.

Even discounting the enormous toll on human life that the transcontinental railroad took for its construction, those with AAPI heritage in California have another fraught legacy to grapple with: The first internment camp constructed in the U.S., Manzanar, where over 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, was located in Inyo County, California. (In a cruelly ironic twist, the closest town was named Independence.)

SFCM jazz drums faculty member Akira Tana is intimately acquainted with the history of the camps. His father Daishō, a Shin Buddhist minister, was detained at the Tuna Canyon Detention Station in Tujunga. "My dad was actually one of the first ones arrested, because they had been down in Lompoc, and he had just opened a new Buddhist church, so as soon as Pearl Harbor happened, they came and got him."

On May 27, Tana will be paying tribute to his father's experience with a free concert of era-appropriate jazz and swing music at the Presidio Tunnel Tops. "Music Makers: Bands Behind Barbed Wire," is a tribute to musician George Yoshida, a saxophonist who brought his instruments and records to Poston Detention Camp in Arizona and began organizing swing band concerts there.

"I never imagined or thought a long time ago that my heritage was actually gonna have an impact on part of my career, because I didn't go into music and thinking, 'Oh man, I have to really pay homage to my cultural background.' But it seems like I can't escape it."



Sung's experience with her parents and her heritage was a little different. "My parents actually met in Taiwan, my dad came to the U.S. for graduate schooling, and then I was born in Houston, Texas. And my parents didn't talk much about what happened before: They went totally Americanized. I didn't know there was a Chinese New Year until, you know, my friends from church had these red envelopes, and I was like, 'What's that for?'"

Sung says she felt fairly "Americanized" as well and didn't spend much time investigating her heritage. "It wasn't until really the last decade when I started performing in Asia. My parents' hometown in Taiwan has a very incredible international jazz festival and I played it for the first time with the Mingus Dynasty Band. And I remember seeing the program and it said 'Korean-American pianist,' because of my last name. So I went to my contact at the festival and explained the situation." 

"And then when they heard that," she continues, "there was a group of young Taiwanese jazz musicians there who were like, 'Oh my God, you're one of us!' And I just felt embraced by them in a way that I never experienced from Asian people, and it was really moving to me."



Sung said she feels like she's "right in the middle of trying to figure out" how to begin exploring her heritage through her music, a process that began with her asking her parents about their stories. "I asked them about their journey, about showing up in a country, not having anything, not knowing anyone. And my dad said, 'Well, I just found a motel and checked in and then went to work.' That generation worked so hard and sacrificed so much so that we could have the luxury of thinking about our feelings and studying music."

"Learning to see the world like that, through a different lens that belongs to someone else, it's disconcerting and disorienting," she finishes. "But ultimately I think it's good."

Learn more about studying Roots, Jazz, and American Music at SFCM.