George Villanueva wrote a great writeup on KCET Departures about our last performance at the Costello Jr. Recreation Center. A part of the Engaging Spaces series, the article highlights the unusual, but appropriately cosmopolitan encounter between us, an NELA-based experimental music project that draws materials from war-era transpacific histories, and the majority Latino community in Boyle Heights. He writes, “But the space is also 21st century Los Angeles, a city not only known for its proliferating Latino and Asian populations, but also its artists who are willing to engage in spaces that share in L.A.’s multiethnic ecologies. This is where Bitter Party comes in with their offer of “Ghost Pop” to the largely Latino family and youth audience, who listened to the sounds influenced by the Asian Diaspora.”
George also interviewed me about the concept behind the band:
What’s the history and concept/vision behind Bitter Party and “Ghost Pop”?
Wendy: Bitter Party formed early last year after we moved to L.A. from Virginia. The “bitter” part of the band name refers to the melancholy war-era and postwar music that fuels our creativity. The word for bitter in Chinese also means hardships, and are associated with colonial and war-related poverty. As a band, we “party”, i.e. come together, to remember our past and to provoke a communion over of tribulations.
“Ghost Pop” is a driving principle behind Bitter Party. Ghosts are sounds of a distant past or place that are rendered invisible in the canon. Each one of us in the band has identified a set of ghosts, often related to our sense of heritage and community, and located them in old songbooks, field recordings, Youtube archives, and our memories of family. We let these sonic ghosts haunt us, and inspire us. Our violin/viola player, Lam, is interested in songs from postwar Vietnam that he’s heard his mother sing. I draw materials from 1930s-1970s Taiwan, working with a repertoire of popular and folk songs that evoke Taiwan’s history of the Japanese occupation and personally, memories of my grandparents. Then using my computer, usually integrating location recordings that I have collected during my fieldwork in Taiwan, I create a sonic shell for these ghosts to wander in, a place in which their energy is reactivated.
How does Bitter Party and Ghost Pop engage the spaces of an Asian Diaspora?
Wendy: We are a geographically sensitive bunch. A part of our songwriting process is to map the routes by which our songs of interest have sourced and traveled. Most of our scope follows a history of transpacific exchanges and migration between Asia and the Americas, a continued research and musical interest since graduate school and my last band Dzian!
For instance, in rewriting the 1930s pop song from Taiwan that I heard in fragments, I took the song on a detour to Jamaica on its way to its U.S.-based audience. Originally called “Sigh by a Woman,” the song articulates the feelings of romantic longing from a female perspective. I was thinking a lot about my grandparents at the time, lamenting that they were living away from their home in Taiwan, in a place where no one except for their family understood the language that they spoke. I thought to recontextualize the feeling of longing to speak to the collective experience of migration. So I “changed the title to “Sigh by the Sea,” took out the lyrics, wrote a new section, and then added the deepened sense of space that is characteristic of dub music — another diasporic music that is preoccupied by distance and migration — into our version of the song. The song is in part gestured toward the greater Chinese diaspora in the world.
During my research, I found that the Chinese living in Kingston were integral to the emergence of the reggae scene in Jamaica. In particular, I found this sense of homeward nostalgia in the haunting performance “Always Together,” by Stephen Cheng. The melody is a Taiwanese song that was originally featured in a movie about pastoral Taiwan, then became a nursery rhyme by the time I learned it as a child. In my research, I observed that Taiwanese in diaspora feel an intense nostalgia when listening to this song. For that reason, I thought dub — itself being a remix-based genre — would articulate the (geographical) fringes of diasporic sounds.
Of course Asia is a vast continent, and our interest has mostly been with east and Southeast Asia, because of our personal connections to the continent. We map and remap the route of how sounds travel and re-root itself in different places. Our hope is to establish a new home for these itinerant sounds in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.
Last month, we played at the Highland Park Recreation Center. Working with Josef Bray-Ali of Flying Pigeon, I helped organize the performance as a part of the July Spoke N Art ride. I wanted to re-enact aspects of Taiwan’s street music known as Nakashi. Following the traditions of Nakashi, in search for a public space to stage our performance, we worked with the organizers of Summer Night Lights at the Highland Park Recreation Center to coordinate our performance. Josef and I dubbed the ride “For the Wanderers” (Josef got the lettering done in Chinese on his pedicab) to pay tribute to Taipei’s urban underclass including the homeless, musicians, artists, disabled, and street food vendors who have traditionally offered a cultural vibrancy to the city’s publics, and are unfortunately facing gentrification-related threat. Our performance was also an opportunity to present our music to youth and families in our neighborhood, and to connect the northeast LA bike community to the local rec center participants.
After our Highland Park Recreation Center show, our bass Linda’s friend who works as a youth counselor at Lou Costello Jr Recreation Center invited to do a second recreation center show in Boyle Heights on one of the culminating evenings of Summer Night Lights. It gave us tremendous energy to interact with the youth and their family last Friday. The fact that the youth and their family took their time to sit down and really listen to our music really moved me. The sounds that we played, with their Asian roots, are probably pretty different from their everyday sounds. We are humbled that the kids and their parents seemed to have liked it and shown appreciation for it.
Playing these two rec center shows has solidified our interest to evoke the musical connections between Asia and Latin America. Santana toured Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and was hugely popular there. Via Hollywood movies and other popular music from North America, Latin American rhythms became a key sound in east and southeast Asian pop music. Many of these musical crossings make up what was feverishly known as “a-go-go” in 1960s and 1970s Asia. Most Nakashi musicians and pickup style ballroom dancers in Taiwan are still well-versed in (their versions of) cha-cha, tango, rumba, and samba. To boost our rhythm palette, we’re working on a new cha-cha song that will highlight the intersection between Asian a-go-go and modern cumbia.
repost from Being Wendy Hsu
After I moved to Los Angeles, I started playing music with a group of close friends. In Bitter Party, I arrange and compose songs based on source materials from 20th century Taiwan and unlike the authentistic approach to performance in Dzian!, I fully embrace the technological intervention in this repertory. I sample acoustic instruments like sanshin, ghostly riffs from analog recordings that I have discovered from my nakashi research, and borrow from the whimsical MIDI song arranging techniques from nakashi musicians and their cassette/vinyl recordings. My new song “Kitty in the Tree” is exemplary of this emerging approach to songwriting.
This is a sketch of a new song that I’m working on. It currently lacks vocals and some parts of the song will be played live. I took the melody of “Mei Hua,” an old patriotic song from the KMT (the Nationalist Party) in Taiwan, and then wrote tons of new parts based on the 8-bit aesthetics of nakashi cassettes that I’ve found in Taiwan and field recordings of machine sounds that come out of loudspeakers and tiny speakers in Taiwan. I have sampled a field recording of mini pinball machines that I captured in a small township south of Taipei where my grandparents are from. I will post a newer version of the song once my post-Dzian! band Bitter Party records it.
Our first show at Underworld, “a tiny haven for indie/alt music since 1996″ in Taipei, Taiwan