Celebrating AANHPI Musical Heritage

May celebrates Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage month! To recognize the amazing contribution that these communities have had in the United States from the past, present, and future, we celebrate AANHPI month! Although, ICAN Radio celebrates these groups all year round we specifically want to recognize the musical heritage of AANHPI musicians and learn about the instruments they play.

As a note, “Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander” is a simplified term to describe a wide array of diverse communities from varying countries, ethnicities, and identities. This blog does not represent every group. There are many people from AANHPI groups who deserve recognition for all that they have done to enrich the culture of the United States. So take some time to learn about each of the individuals below and allow it to inspire you to research more about AANHPI cultures.

An image featuring, from left to right, a close up of a gayageum, koto, erhu, and ukulele.
From left to right: A Close Up of a Gayageum, Koto, Erhu, and Ukulele.

Before reading, let’s learn about some terms that we will encounter as we read the blog below:

Terms to know

Composer – A person who writes music.

Virtuoso – A highly skilled musical performer.

Genre – A category of artistic, musical, or literary style that is know for a specific style.

Marginalized – to be placed in an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group.

Zither – a stringed instrument having usually 30 to 40 strings over a shallow horizontal soundboard and played with pick and fingers.

Bachelor’s Degree – a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study.

Master’s Degree – a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following a bachelor’s degree.

Definitions from the Merriam-Webster

Celebrating AANHPI Musicians and Learning About Their Instruments

An image of Karen Han-Ottosson with her erhu.
Karen Han-Ottosson. Courtesy of artist’s website.

Karen Hua-qi (Pronounced CHEE) Han Ottosson is an erhu virtuoso, composer, and musician. At six, Karen’s father her to play the erhu. Karen continued to play the Erhu and eventually studied Performing Arts from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China. She became the youngest person to receive their bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Conservatory.  

Motivated by her curiosity and work in Hollywood, Karen moved to Los Angeles in 1988. From there, she continued to share her extraordinary talent with the world. With a career spanning over 25 years, many soundtracks from movie and television feature her work. Her performances are in soundtracks such as the Kung Fu Panda movies, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Turning Red.  

What is an Erhu?

An image of an erhu with a white background.
An image of an Erhu. Courtesy of the Wesleyan University Virtual Instrument Museum.

An erhu (Pronounced arr – hoo)  is a traditional Chinese two-stringed musical instrument. Despite being called the “Chinese violin”, the erhu is different from the violin. The erhu is played upright on the musicians lap, rather than close to the chin like a violin. Also, the bow is played between the two strings of the erhu. For a violin, the bow plays on top of the strings.

Listen to this piece to hear Karen Han-Ottosson play the erhu at the Bowers Museum in California:  

Joyce Kwon

An image of Joyce Kwon in a side portrait with a light grey blue background behind her.
Joyce Kwon. Photo by Gianina Ferreyra

Joyce Kwon is singer, composer, and gayageum player. Kwon has a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of California Berkeley and a master’s degree in jazz performance with voice specialization from the Manhattan School of Music. Through her time at school, Kwon’s knowledge of Black American folk music and Korean Traditional music grew. The inspiration from these styles shaped Kwon’s music, resulting in her album “Dream of Home,” which focuses on Asian American identity. Presently, Kwon resides in Los Angeles and continues to create music that uplifts the radiance of marginalized communities.  

What is a Gayageum?

An image of a Gayageum with a white background.
An image of a Gayageum.

The gayageum (pronounced K•EYE•yah•gum) is a traditional Korean zither twelve-stringed instrument. Similar to the Japanese koto, the gayageum is made of paulownia wood. The gayageum is rests on the floor with one end on the player’s right knee.  

Listen to this piece to hear Joyce Kwon play the Gayageum and sing in her song, Little Bird

Mitsuki Dazai

A portrait of Mitsuki Dazai with her elbows resting onto of her koto.
Mitsuki Dazai. Photo by Chris Leck.

Mitsuki Dazai is a koto master who is the artistic director of Oregon Koto – Kai. Beginning her training in Tokyo, Japan, Dazai initially went to study Western Classical Music at Tokyo’s Kunitachi College of Music and the Sawai Koto Conservatory. Her career with the koto started during her studies when she learned about Traditional Japanese Music.

Dazai moved to Oregon in 2002 where she taught at universities in Oregon and later founded Oregon Koto – Kai in 2012. Oregon Koto – Kai is an ensemble that promotes the education and beauty of the koto. Today, Dazai continues to share her amazing talent throughout the United States, Europe, South America, and Japan.

What is the Koto?

An image of three kotos resting next to each other.
A photo of Three Kotos. Courtesy of the Oregon Koto-Kai Website.

A koto is a traditional Japanese zither thirteen-stringed instrument. Like the Korean gayageum, the koto is Made of paulownia wood. In a traditional setting, players may sit on the floor to play the koto. In non-traditional settings, the koto is played while the musician sits and the koto rests on a stand called a rissodai

Listen to this piece to hear Mitsuki Dazai play the koto at the First Presbyterian Church in Oregon: 

Jake Shimabukuro 

An image of Jake Shimabukuro holding his ukulele.
Jake Shimabukuro. Photo by Kurt Stevens Photography.

Jake Shimabukuro is a ukulele virtuoso and composer. Jake was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. From a young age, Jake found a great interest in experimenting with different genres to play on the Ukulele from classical to rock.  Presently, Jake performs many pieces that are a reflection of his admiration and respect for his home: Hawaii. Known for his remarkable ability for telling stories through the music he plays, Jake is a sought after talent around the world. With his latest album release, Grateful, Jake collaborates with many influential Hawaiian artists. He continues to display not only the love he has for his home, but his delight in playing the ukulele.

What is a Ukulele?

Originating from Portuguese immigrants that brought it to Hawaii, the ukulele is a four-stringed instrument that is a popular part of Hawaiian culture. Although, ukuleles seem similar to guitars they have some differences. Ukuleles are smaller than guitars in size and sound softer than the guitar. Guitars also have six strings to the ukuleles four.

Listen to this piece to hear Jake Shimabukuro play Kawaikini with Singer, Kimié Miner with his Ukulele:

Want to learn more? Visit the ICAN Blog here for more blogs about different cultures, books and fun activities to do!