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No access to Asia at fusion fest

Expat Asian artists fall short as cultural ambassadors of their motherlands

Remember two months ago, the day the internet lost its collective shit over pseudo-Soweto poppers Vampire Weekend? While you were out dancing, bloggers everywhere were getting their faces kicked in by the critical establishment, a.k.a. Bob Christgau.

A lesson was learned: assessing cultural reappropriation is a tricky business. So you can imagine the bind that I was in, charged with reviewing Asia in Fusion – the concert sampling performers from the upcoming Access Asia festival – when my knowledge of oriental art starts and stops with Asian porn classics.

The name Asia in Fusion says it all: a showcase of expatriate artists combining Western and Asian traditions to push cultural boundaries and promote Asian art. But while my limited experience with Asian culture makes me liable to misread their performances and the traditions they’re working within, it’s also an asset, since in many ways I’m the festival’s target audience. Yet to my untrained eyes, these fusion artists were often ineffective cultural ambassadors. I couldn’t figure out whether they were trying to break free of their roots or just re-map them according to their own experiences.

At first glance, the first billing, the Taikonauts, seemed to scream orientalism at its worst. The band, including members of both European and Asian descent, took the stage in kimonos that just dared me to call them out on their cross-cultural bullshit.

But a second later, the gong resonating throughout the room stopped me in my tracks. I had jumped to an unfair conclusion based on their costumes, but their music immediately redeemed them.

The thunderous opening sound gave way to a chugging rhythm, as the band’s two drummers plugged away at their Taiko drums. Their movements were startlingly graceful and possessed a remarkable sense of economy.

Gradually, the structural dynamics of the Taikonauts’ music became evident. As one drummer kept the insistent beat, the other wrung melodies from a single drum, pounding you into hypnosis. The rising intensity eventually culminated in a momentous peak, which pulled the two into raucous unison. Intermittently, this pattern of tension and release was pushed aside by the band’s flautist, whose placid, oriental-tinged melodies gave the audience a chance to breathe, if nothing else.

Their music is fiercely tribal – think Drum’s Not Dead-era Liars, stripped of the noise and enhanced by a technical virtuosity that held emotional resonance. And much like that album, the resulting sound is alien, breezily transcending the band’s homage to Japanese culture.

Yet the cultural debt, it seems, is only part of the story. Shortly after their segment, I caught up with one of the drummers – a petite, white woman with a slight East-Montreal accent. All folkloric genres share common undercurrents in their appeal to an instinctual sense of rhythm, she told me, and Taiko is no exception.

Surprisingly, however, she insisted that the use of Taiko drums in their performance was distinctly un-Japanese. But her claim is reductive: the Taikonauts’ performance was the only time during the night that I felt privy to a fresh insight into Asian culture. They may have breached tradition from a stylistic point of view, transposing jazz forms onto Asian sonics, yet their use of folk instruments framed their innovations within a specifically Asian tradition. The Taikonauts’ fusions were certainly more effective than those of the other artists that night, whose performances drew on old stereotypes or delved into esoteric improvisations with no references to Asian forms.

Shanghai poet Shin Uet Wang spent his stage time speaking in a third language – French, incidentally – contrasting the experience of exile to dreams and nature by way of unwieldy metaphors. I’d hoped that his impassioned performance could’ve made up for them; it didn’t.

But neither he nor the remaining two acts could take away from the Taikonauts’ fantastic show. I’d recommend you go see them, but Google insists they don’t exist. Still – if anything – the Taikonauts’ fleeting nature makes their culturally transcendental performance all the more memorable.

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