Saturday, June 16, 2012

“A Song For Ourselves” (Third World Newsreel)

“A Song For Ourselves” is a short (35 minutes) documentary film examining the life and legacy of the sadly-overlooked Asian-American singer-songwriter Chris Iijima (1948-2005). In the eyes of the mainstream music industry, Iijima and the other members of the trio Yellow Pearl hardly registered a blip on the commercial radar. Nevertheless, they played a highly significant role in the raising of Asian-American consciousness during the 1970’s.

As with many other politically-aware music lovers of my generation, I first became aware of Iijima and singing partner Joanne (more recently known as “Nobuko”) Miyamoto thanks to a 1973 album on the left-wing Paredon label, entitled “A Grain of Sand”. Although Iijima and Miyamoto were originally a duo, they doubtless attracted considerably more attention after adding a third member, William “Charlie” Chin, who had already enjoyed a small, but significant touch of musical notoriety. (I confess I was one of those who took an interest for just that reason, Chin having become a sort of mysterious underground figure for his banjo solo on Buffalo Springfield’s song, ”Bluebird”, and an above-ground figure when he had a Top 40 hit in 1969 as a member of Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys.) However, it wasn’t until watching this film that I had any idea as to (a) how influential Yellow Pearl had been among Asian-Americans, and (b) what became of Iijima and Miyamoto. (Charlie Chin is still performing.)

However, we are told at the very outset that Chris Iijima “changed the face and the landscape of Asian-Pacific America”. But alas, we also learn that Mr. Iijima is no longer with us, as the film begins at a memorial service for him. (Thankfully, Ms. Miyamoto is still with us, running an arts organization in LA.) What made Iijima such an important figure at the beginning of what we might call the “Asian Power” movement is that he expressed political and social opinions in song that Asians-Americans simply did not dare to express in previous times. His consciousness had been raised by the African-American Civil Rights movement, particularly the March on Washington. But he never felt at home in either black or white protest movements - there was very little for him and other people like him at such events. But seeing t.v. coverage of the Vietnam War helped politicize him, as he watched “people who looked like us” getting killed before his eyes.

We get to see a clip of Iijima and Miyamoto’s folk-jazz-protest performance on the Mike Douglas Show, where they were introduced by no less than John Lennon. But, as Charlie Chim, says in an interview, this was never a “music-driven” band, but existed to deliver a message - that Asian-Americans had a voice, one that needed to be heard and acknowledged.
Despite what could have been a “big break”, Iijima chose not to become a professional musician, as he had no interest in becoming a “star”. He instead chose to become a grade-school teacher. In his 30’s, however, he came to the realization that he needed to reach far more than the handful of students he saw daily. So he went to law school, and went on to teach law at the University of Hawaii. His two bi-racial sons (Iijima’s wife was Anglo-American) were raised knowing nothing about their father’s influential musical activities. We see him continuing his activism, even after contracting amyloidosis, which led to his death at age 57.

Needless to say, Tadashi Nakamura’s film tells Iijima’s story far more effectively than I can in this brief summary, through interviews with family and friends, rare footage, and discussion. His is a fascinating story of a man who accomplished much and asked for little in the way of recognition for himself, but wanted much for his people. The struggle, of course, continues.