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My Hapa Story

5 Aug

Last week our gamelan ensemble from the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C., performed a wayang kulit (shadow puppet play) with guest artists from Java. After our first rehearsal together, their director—realizing I couldn’t converse with him in Bahasa—asked me where I am from.

“Philippines,” my director answered for me.

“No!” I argued, surprising both of them and myself. “I’m from California!”

I’ve never really identified as Filipino, even though it’s half my blood. I’ve never identified with the quarter of English or the eighth of Irish. Maybe I accidentally embraced my eighth of mystery ethnicity.

I’ve never felt strongly like an American. I didn’t feel like a Sacramentan until I moved to Los Angeles, and I didn’t feel like a Californian until I moved to the East Coast. Davis was the only place where I truly felt like a member of a community, and even then I knew I couldn’t stay in such a small town.

My mom with me (the baby) and my brother Allan, I think on Maui, 1986
My mom felt the same way. Full-blooded Filipino but a dual citizen, born in the Philippines on an American military base, raised back and forth between Okinawa and all over the United States, drawn alternately to the Bay Area and Tokyo, she told me once that she never felt like she belonged to any one place. As an army brat, it was very weird for her to live in Sacramento—in just one house, no less—continuously for 24 years.

As a result of my mom’s immigrant identity crisis, I know little of Filipino culture. Since her parents wanted to raise Americans, didn’t teach the kids Tagalog or their respective dialects, my generation is left with only a few traditional recipes, the word for fart (utot), and a giant fork and spoon in the kitchen.

Instead, my mom filled our house and her childhood anecdotes with pieces of Japanese and especially Okinawan culture. I’ve been far more interested in learning about and visiting Okinawa than I have ever been in the Philippines.

Working at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where we celebrate the diversity of cultures in the world and help communities sustain their traditions and assert their cultural identities, I think about this issue a lot—how I don’t really do these things for myself.

But maybe through learning Okinawan music, adopting Indonesian culture through playing gamelan, and immersing myself in Peruvian or Kenyan or Chinese cultures at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I at least carry on my mom’s identity as a cultural wanderer.

This post is a submission for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s #myhapastory project.


Jonathan Richman in My Backyard

17 Sep

Jerry Encoe at the Robot Rocket Residence, photo by Craig Fergus
Once I had a dream that Jonathan Richman, one of my favorite musicians of all time, played a show in my backyard. I had been trying to book him—in real life—for six years, starting with a big benefit concert I organized in high school and then for the KDVS music festival when I was in college. And here he was—in my dreams—at my house.

I posted something about it on Facebook, and my musician buddy Michael Ulrich said something like, “Well I can curl my hair, wear a striped shirt and play some covers.” And the planning for the Robot Rocket Residence’s Open Mic Jonathan Richman Cover Night began.

We held the show a few days before I moved out, five years ago this week. I opened the night, with my roommate Sally Hensel on a drum, with a recitation of “I Eat with Gusto, Damn! You Bet” (also the very first track of my very first radio show). I also sang by myself, for the first and only time, with my cousin Jojo Brandel on guitar (Julia Sweeney from SNL sings this song with Jonathan).



Jojo took the stage alone for a Modern Lovers jam.



Craig Fergus did a jive-talkin’ “Abominable Snowman in the Market.”

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Michael did not curl his hair or wear a striped shirt, but he had pretty dead-on Jonathan mannerisms. (By this time, some punk kids had showed up to party and were making a ruckus. Sorry.)



Ian Cameron rocked “Egyptian Reggae” (in a striped shirt),  Jerry Encoe borrowed Sally’s Fender Stratocaster to play “Fender Stratocaster,” and Joe Finkel led us in a group chorus of “Roadrunner.”

All kinds of magic happened in that home in the four years I lived there, and this night was a wonderfully fitting conclusion to my Robot Rocket reign.

It’s America

10 Jun

Am I dreaming?

Today I got off work at 8 p.m., feeling accomplished and loopy after 10 hours under fluorescent lights, and started biking home. The long way home!

I walked through the near-future site of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the reason we’re all working overtime. I rode past the growing skeleton of the far-future Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I rode up to the Washington Monument for the first time since its recent unsheathing, ran my fingers along its marble surface.

Sitting under the ring of American flags, watching the sunset over the west end of the National Mall, the Lincoln Memorial and strings of Segway tours, I was thinking, I am awfully lucky to be in the place, at this time.

And THEN this terrible country band started playing this terribly patriotic song on a stage behind me, and for a second I thought I was hallucinating.

The Gamelatron Project

5 Nov

I don’t often get starstruck, but I did a little bit with this beautiful contraption, the Gamelatron. I had seen videos of it at Burning Man and other big festivals, read all about it, played recordings of it on the radio. This weekend, this mechanical gamelan was the first sound to greet attendees of the Smithsonian’s Performing Indonesia festival.

Creator Aaron Taylor Kuffner explained to me that he writes original compositions specifically for the Gamelatron, rather than trying to program it to play traditional pieces — a robot simply can’t play it the way humans can.

But instead of programming some kind of crazy superhuman song, he said his focus is on the tones. When you watch a real gamelan, you’re hearing the music but also seeing costumes, dances, facial expressions, sensing egos and transitions. With a robotic gamelan, sure you trip out over it being a robot, but you’re focused more on just the sounds of each kettle, each cymbal, each gong.

Sweet Jane by The Five Pies

27 Oct five pies

Top 5 Velvet Underground-related memories:

  1. Tripping out to “Heroine” with my parents on a road trip.
  2. Finding three seven-inch singles of “I’m Sticking with You” featuring Moe Tucker and Jonathan Richman in the KDVS library and convincing the music director to let me keep one.
  3. The only time I’ve been in the Acoustic Sanctuary, Sacramento’s one-man band in a bright purple wagon on J Street.  I requested “Walk on the Wild Side,” and he told me he would play it, “but only if you sing the colored girl parts!” So I went, “do do do, do do, do do do do, do do.”
  4. My arts writing professor played us several pairs of songs, an original and a cover, for us to critique and compare. He played “Pale Blue Eyes.” Everyone loved it. Then he played a live rendition, sloppy and thoughtless, all the beautiful nuance of the song gone. Could we guess who the “cover” was by? Lou Reed in the ’90s.
  5. Performing “Sweet Jane” with my brother and cousins one Thanksgiving. We named our one-time band after the five pies my mom baked.

Allan is singing, Jono’s on the bongos, Katie’s on drums, and Jojo had just turned 11 and just learned how to play the bass and totally rocked it.

RIP Lou Reed, who inspired us and many more.

The Whale with Legs

25 Oct

whale with legs
When I was a junior in high school, I took AP biology. During a lesson about vestigial organs, our teacher explained that whales have vestigial hip bones, indicating that early whales had legs. I immediately doodled a variation of the image above, and then immediately realized that I had doodled the exact same image two years prior in regular biology with the same teacher.

Since then, the whale with legs has made many appearances: on the wall of KDVS’ Studio A, the ceiling of Studio C, museum guestbooks, and dozens of sugar packets in restaurants all over the country.

Now he’s starring in my new animated short, “Land Whale”!

[vimeo w=500&h=331]


This is the sequel to my first animation, “Sky Whale.” The music is by Lullatone from their album Lullatone Melody Design Library. Thanks to Lou Morton for jerry-rigging up a downshooter!

Folklife Fest: Garifuna Music

26 Jun

garifuna group at folklife fest
Without planning for it, my first full day as a Washington, D.C., summer resident coincided with opening day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. For two weeks, the institution takes over a chunk of the National Mall with dozens of tents celebrating musical and cultural heritage from around the world.

This year’s themes are Hungarian heritage, endangered languages and African American diversity. Festivities include live music, storytellers, fashion shows, dance and language lessons, lectures, children’s games and ethnic food.

The first thing to really catch my ear was a drum circle at the Garifuna tent, representing West African descendants in Central America via New York City and Los Angeles. With turtle-shell percussion and joyous call-and-response vocals, they looked and sounded like they were having more fun than anyone!

Here’s a clip from their later performance on the Voices of the World Stage with singers and dancers:

And here’s a clip of this funny spandex guy tearing it up:

The festival runs June 26 to 30 and July 3 to 7. If you’re in or around D.C., come see them for yourselves! It’s a party.

More photos from Day 1: Continue reading