Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Multi-Culti Musical Star Of Michigan

Yo, yo, yo! Can Your Hip Hapa just say that you Hip Hapa Homeez are the hippest of all hapa homeez in the world! You’ve exceeded all of Your Hip Hapa’s expectations by: 1. “liking” our Watermelon Sushi fan page on Facebook to the tune of 1,700 members; 2. generously purchasing Hapa*Teez t-shirts to help support the Watermelon Sushi film; 3. interacting with us on the Hip Hapa Homeez group page on Facebook by posting cross-cultural and multi-ethnic news and discussions, and; 4. following our erratic tweets on Twitter. Give yourself a big up!

And, while you’re taking your bows, be sure to check out this week’s featured Hip Hapa Homee, Toko Shiiki-Santos, a former actress and current photographer and musician with the multicultural band October Babies. That’s Toko with the band in the shot below and, beneath that, a picture of her solo.

Here are the links:

Hey, if you’re in Michigan, you can join October Babies at "Top of The Park/Ann Arbor Summer Festival" on Thursday, July 8, at 6:30 p.m. They'll also join the lineup at "Concert of Colors Detroit" at the Max M. Fisher Music Center on Sunday, July 18, at 3:15 p.m. And, be sure to listen for October Babies' new album release--also in July. 

Q: What's a nice Japanese girl like you doing in an American rock band?

A: Around 2001 in Japan, I lost many things at the same time including my job, one of my family members, and so on. Also, I got into a car accident. Needless to say, I just could not do anything for a while mentally or physically. However, about a year later, I finally started thinking, "I want to try something that I really want to do. I don't want to stay in a small room forever!"

I had joined an actor’s guild right after graduating from high school, so I didn't have the experience of college and started thinking about studying at one. Luckily, I met a great American man who stayed in Japan for six months during the winter of 2002. He told me, "There are many good schools in Ann Arbor, Michigan." So, long story short, I visited Ann Arbor to check out the schools in the summer of 2003, and decided to move there. I saved money, learned English, got the TOEFL scores within two years, and finally moved to the U.S. to learn photography in May 2005. I was supposed to be back in Japan in 2007, but I eventually married the person who suggested I go to college in Michigan. He is our bassist, Erik Santos. 

After moving to the U.S., it was very hard everyday for me because of my lack of English. I could not speak it well. It was really bad, and I could not tell people about my thoughts and feelings. I felt so much frustration. At the time, I got to classes by riding my bicycle so I just sang out loud--anything that was in my mind--while riding. It became a huge stress reliever. Eventually, I created songs while on my bike.

One day, Erik found out I wrote a song. I was so nervous because he’s a professional musician--a music composition teacher at the University of Michigan, and I'm just a music lover. You could imagine how nervous I was, but he was great. He didn't laugh at my song, but rather said, "Let's record it!" So, we immediately recorded it, and he arranged it so beautifully and powerfully, and gave back it to me on my first birthday celebration in the U.S. When we went out for my birthday dinner, he turned on the car stereo and I heard my song! I didn't expect it at all. I was just shocked. That became the first song--Let's Fly to the Moon Tonight--for our first album.

Eventually, we created the entire album Ao-zora Radio. Around us, there were many great musicians and they listened to the album, but almost all the songs were in Japanese. I did not expect to be able to sing those songs in front of people in the U.S. because I thought no one would enjoy listening to Japanese songs at live venues here. But, Erik and our other friends (now my great band members) encouraged me to do it. They said, "No problem. People are going to like the songs." They were right! I’ve been amazed by the open-minded U.S. audiences, and the power of music.

I almost always write songs in Japanese and present them to Erik first and, then, the other band members. They start arranging them, but mainly Erik first. It’s a very intriguing creative process to me because those arrangements are something I never expect when I write the songs. For example, one song had more of a Japanese influence to me, but they took it as a Western influenced song. And, a miracle happened. The song became an interesting mix of cultures! If I had recorded those songs with Japanese (or someone raised in Japan), the songs might be different. I really love those unexpected outcomes. I feel so lucky to be here and to be with all the people whom I love. I have no reason to go back to Japan because I love staying here.

Q: Years ago, Sakamoto Kyu had a huge hit in the U.S. with a Japanese song re-titled Sukiyaki. Do you feel you can do something similar?

A: At first, I was so scared to sing Japanese songs in front of American audiences. I wasn’t optimistic even when I knew Sakamoto Kyu-san's song had been widely accepted. Since I was a child, I really listened to foreign language songs all the time because people around me were like that. I really didn't have any barriers to enjoying songs that I didn't know the meanings of. I just simply enjoyed the musical flow. Always. I believe in the power of music. No matter what language the songs are in, if they fit someone's taste, I believe anyone can enjoy them—and, our music, too, anywhere in the world.

Q: What was your life like in Japan? What do you miss, or don’t?

A: I was an actress for about 10 years. I acted in some television dramas, but was more of a stage actress. My first actor's guild was Bungakuza, which gave me my first professional acting experience. It’s a huge company and I learned a lot, but left a few years later because I didn't like the system and acting so often. Somehow, I continued to act in movies, TV dramas, and theater.

Towards the end of my time in Japan, I was a sports instructor--before the car accident. Being in show business is a different kind of lifestyle from ordinary people. It's very tough. Most of the time, I was thinking about other people's lives; the lives I portrayed in my roles. I rarely hung out with my friends and stayed out of normal Japanese society. During that time, I was kind of crazy--thinking about other people's lives all the time. Many of my good friends also told me that I just disappeared for a while.

But once I decided to be a sports instructor, I started re-connecting with my friends. After moving to the U.S., I opened myself more to almost anything. I try to do many new things. I'm actually not an extrovert, but I try to go out to meet people. This is a huge change.

What I miss about Japan is family, friends and, of course, the food; and, places where I love to be. What I don’t miss are the intense societal rules and high expectations for the individual.

Q: You’re also a photographer. How is it similar to or different from acting?

A: The similar part is telling stories to the world. Something I enjoy the most is thinking of the stories thoroughly and visualizing the world that is inside myself. Those things are common between acting and photography. What’s different is that in photography, I show the inner world by involving others (people or nature around me), but for acting I use myself directly, and live in it and tell other people's stories. But I think it's still connected to my life and my inner world even if I've had a role in someone else's stories. It’s difficult to think about boundaries.

Q: What’s your husband’s ethnicity, how did you meet, and what’s it like being in a mixed-race marriage?

A: My husband is of Scottish American and Filipino mix, and has lived in the U.S. since he was born. Erik was in Japan as a resident composer for a famous Butoh dance company, Dairakudakan. I met him after their show and had a chance to talk with him for around half an hour although I hardly spoke English. We somehow could talk about music. But, after the meeting, I already started thinking, "Maybe it would be great to learn something in another country."

To be honest with you, I didn't have any good expectations about marriage because of my parents. If I had stayed in Japan, I would have avoided it. I didn't think I needed a marital partner in my life. However, I met Erik. I really don't know the differences between a mixed-race marriage and same-race marriage. In any case, this is an everyday learning process. I guess that no matter what kind of marriage it is, there are difficulties. I think; "So far, so good." 

My mom also didn't think I would marry anyone. Like I said, I'm not that kind of woman. But, she loved him from the first time she met him. She even said she wanted to marry him! Ha-ha. My grandma, who passed away a few years ago, had difficulty accepting the marriage because I moved to the U.S., but even so, she liked him. And, Erik’s mom loves me so much and I love her. I sometimes think, “Do I really deserve this? Is this real?” But I deeply appreciate all the encounters in my life.

Q: Where does the name October Babies come from? Don't tell me you're all born in October!

A: Yes! My husband and I were born in October! His birthday is on the 21st and mine, the 14th. And, we started playing as a band on October 19, 2007!

Q: What's in the near future for you and October Babies?

A: The second album that we made as a band that’s very close to our "live" sound is on its way! I can't wait to share it with everyone. Also, we’re playing in Japan again next year. This is one of our big plans. And, we hope to play more in other states in the U.S. and, eventually, all over the world!

Gambatte, ichiban, Toko-san and October Babies!

Meanwhile, Hip Hapa Homeez, this week’s featured Amazon product is the book A Wealth of Family by author Thomas Brooks. You may recall that he was interviewed here last year:

Until next time, I leave you with a multi-culti song in your heart.

Your Hip Hapa,


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Practice makes perfect.............................................................

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