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A man sings and plays guitar on a wide blacktop, with a few palm trees in the near distances and mountains afar.

Julian Saporiti of No-No Boy performs at the Pomona fairgrounds, once the site of an assembly center for people of Japanese ancestry before they were relocated to concentration camps.

Photo by Jessie Vallejo

  • From Pomona to Heart Mountain: “La Banda Más Chingón en Wyoming”

    The cultural and geographic lineage of “La Banda Más Chingón en Wyoming” by No-No Boy with Mariachi Los Broncos is culturally layered and deeply American: a mariachi rendition of a folk-country song about a 1940s Japanese American swing band, composed in Wyoming by the son of a Vietnamese refugee from Nashville performed in Southern California. Brimming with ecstatic energy and righteous anger, the song draws connections between recent waves of migration from Central and South America and the long history of Asian American immigration and the discrimination both groups have experienced once they reached American soil.

    When she heard No-No Boy’s 2021 Smithsonian Folkways album 1975, Los Broncos bandleader Jessie Vallejo—a former Folkways fellow and producer—took a chance and wrote to Julian Saporiti, the singer-songwriter behind No-No Boy. She asked if he would like to come work with her class at Cal Poly Pomona. In short order, a trip was planned for April 2022, and Vallejo began to arrange Saporiti’s song “The Best Goddamn Band in Wyoming” for the mariachi. After rehearsals and workshops, this new version of the track came to life and was recorded for posterity.

    After hearing this special collaboration and the overlapping layers of meaning embedded in the song, we at Folkways decided it needed to be highlighted in a special way. Today it is available as a digital single, paired with the additional track “Nitro ’66 Cannonball Blues.” We present it as a statement of solidarity with immigrant communities, especially during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and especially as state-sanctioned violence and injustice continue at the southern border. Saporiti and Vallejo spoke via Zoom in March 2023 about what this collaboration represents to them as mixed-heritage musicians, ethnomusicologists, and lifelong Weezer fans.

    Julian: So, let’s just start with how this record happened—a mariachi, bilingual version of a country song about an Asian American jazz band!?

    Jessie: Well, I heard “The Best Goddamn Band in Wyoming” when it was released. I would listen to it while walking my dog in Pomona’s historical districts. I had been getting into more of a country phase, and the Johnny Cash feel was awesome!

    Julian: You didn’t grow up listening to country music?

    Jessie: No, my family is into rock like Fleetwood Mac and Elton John. Maybe they were the closest to country music that I grew up listening to.

    Julian: That says a lot if Elton was “country,” but continue...

    Jessie: When I realized it was the same Pomona mentioned in the first verse, I thought, “No way!” The song sticks with you. And the video is fantastic! The embroidery of your jacket reminded me of mariachi trajes (suits), and after some months, I decided I had to arrange this for my students! It was perfect for teaching across ethnic studies with my mariachi and Latin American music classes. In 2019, 2020, I was reading a lot about interracial dance halls in Pomona and El Monte that catered to Black, Asian, and Latino youth, and your song ties a lot of these issues together. That’s when I emailed you.

    Julian: I love how the initial spark of this collaboration was the physical place where you first heard it: Pomona, where the George Igawa Orchestra—the subject of this song—formed as prisoners in the fairgrounds. Place is so important to how I write songs for No-No Boy. Through the band members in the song, we move around to Japan, Wyoming, Chicago, and back to California.

    When I visit the spaces my songs touch on, it’s very special. There’s a big difference between exploring these spaces through old photos and archival documents and then using this kind of “land-activation process.” It was amazing that you reached out and we were able to set up a residency at Cal Poly Pomona where we could work with your mariachi class and visit the exact spot where the orchestra was first formed. There are so many historical perspectives and layers of meanings about this place.

    Julian, an Asian man with glasses and goatee, sits at the front of a classroom with an acoustic guitar and a black-and-white photo of an orchestra on screen behind him.
    Julian Saporiti presents at Cal Poly Pomona, with a photo of the George Igawa Orchestra on the projection screen.
    Photo by Jessie Vallejo

    And the cultural and ethnic overlap in Los Angeles and Southern California that you mention was a huge influence on musicians, dancers, and young people who later went to the Japanese American concentration camps. These were recent immigrants’ kids who are like cultural sponges, and their proximity to white jazz musicians on the radio or who toured the West Coast, like Miller and Goodman, was profound. Then more locally Black and Latino cultures in many of the L.A. neighborhoods affected the way the nisei (second-generation Japanese American) dressed, spoke, and danced. And from what I understand, Los Angeles is still like that today.

    I think this track we made together is sort of in that lineage, no? You have Mexican roots; I have Vietnamese roots. You’re from the North; I’m from the South. As scholars, we study very different things. Still, we found easy access to blend our experiences and cultural and artistic backgrounds. That feels very L.A. It should be mentioned that we’re both kids of the ’90s who share Weezer as our favorite band.

    All to say, thank you! Who knew we could one day make a mariachi record about a Japanese American swing band from Wyoming?

    Jessie: Exactly! I love the personal and scholarly connections about having mixed ethnic and racial backgrounds.

    I also felt I could connect with the members of the George Igawa band since we grew up in places where even though you see it as home, others don’t see you as fitting in. Growing up in Syracuse, New York, many people assumed I couldn’t be from there. People poked fun at my last name. I gravitated to groups of friends who were Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Haudenosaunee. I felt a sense of community with them. Once I moved to Los Angeles, I made friends through UCLA’s Chinese ensemble. And some of my friends there became interested in mariachi, too!

    Fourteen people in matching white tops and black skirts or pants, each holding a musical instrument, line up on a plaza, palm trees and a sunset behind them.
    Mariachi Los Broncos at Cal Poly Pomona
    Photo by Jessie Vallejo

    “The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming” felt like a natural way to connect and share. Your singing and guitar playing, it all struck me as this English-language corrido ranchero about Japanese American musicians. To me it felt natural to mariachify it.

    Julian: The mixing of styles is also very much an homage to the George Igawa Orchestra, because while he was held at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, he arranged music for traditional Japanese instruments and swing orchestra. So behind the barbed wire in rural Wyoming, some of the most innovative music of the 1940s was happening. Blending styles and instrumentation is very much what Igawa and his crew did.

    I also love that in an “area music” ensemble like mariachi, you not only dig into the music and culture of Mexico or the border, but also touch on other cultural histories, because ultimately music research is too genre-reliant, which can be limiting for practitioners.

    I think we both appreciate our respective heritages, but it feels like we’re both more defined by being mixed-up people who nerd out about all kinds of music. It’s funny that I’m usually referred to as an “Asian American songwriter” or “Vietnamese Italian scholar,” but again, my teenage years being obsessed with Weezer probably formed a larger part of my cultural and musical identity than almost anything else.

    I think if there’s any success in the song, maybe it’s just that it’s even weirder than it was and it truly doesn’t belong anywhere, which is exactly how I felt growing up in Tennessee. So, maybe this tune reflects me and maybe you—and many other people in America—better than anything that is musicologically more “authentic.”

    Jessie: You’re right. It’s a great representation of what many of us experience in our daily lives. All of the elements make a lot of sense when you dig deeper. The longer I teach in California, the more I realize people don’t typically learn this history of the Fairplex, that it was an assembly center for Japanese detainees during World War II. This motivated me to connect these dots in my classes.

    A darkened bronze plaque set in stone with text: Pomona Assembly Center. The Los Angeles County Fairgrounds was one of 15 temporary assembly centers established during World War II pursuant to Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. The U.S. Army confirmed at this site 5,514 personal of Japanese ancestry, a majority of whom were American citizens from May 7 through August 24, 1942... A majority of the detainees were relocated to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, one of 10 detention camps that collectively confined 120,000 people without due process of law, charges or trial, or establishment of guilt as a result of hysteria and racism. May such injustice and suffering never recur. California Registered Historical Landmark.
    Photo by Jessie Vallejo
    Julian places his hand next to the plaque as he reads it.
    Photo by Jessie Vallejo
    Old stadium seating along a cement track. Three people walk down the track, away from the camera and toward mountains in the distance.
    Photo by Jessie Vallejo

    I know teaching Asian American topics in my mariachi ensemble resonates with the students because, in many ways, the mariachi class has been a space for students who want to learn about their heritage. I have had Taiwanese, Chinese, and Filipino students join mariachi because they’re seeking a model of how a heritage musical style might be taught. For example, I had one student whose senior project focused on adapting the mariachi model to offer Filipino music in California schools. And of course, mariachi education is following paths that jazz and Black musicians and educators helped pave.

    I was struck by the track “Close Your Eyes and Dream of Flowers” on 1975 because you include Spanish and sing about the kids separated from their families at the border. When you released this album, there were so many debates about how best to reunite migrant children with their families. I had the honor of performing for children at the Fairplex, so this song is deeply moving for me.

    Julian: Right, and this is another historical layer of resonance and meanings we can draw from the Fairplex itself. In 1942, this is the site of the formation of the Igawa Orchestra, first known as the Californians and the Pomonans before settling on a name in Wyoming. And on this very spot in California, George Igawa, this talented saxophonist who had toured in Japan and up and down the West Coast—and who was playing professionally as much as he could due to his race at the time—right on these fairgrounds, he picked up all the best musicians who had been detained here. Like something out of a movie, he formed a band to provide entertainment for these unfortunate souls all locked up. For me, the Fairplex is this incredibly powerful place.

    For you, what was your experience performing during the pandemic?

    Jessie: There have been many moments when I’ve thought about my decision to study music instead of science or law, especially since the COVID pandemic started. Could I be helping society more if I chose a different career path? I heard a lot of people tell me over the years that I could never make a difference or a living as a musician. But that isn’t true, at least in my experience.

    Selfie of Jessie, a Latina woman, with a person on a small guitar-like instrument and a person at a desk with laptop behind her.
    Alondra Reyes, Tim Beken, and Jessie Vallejo recording for Mariachi Los Broncos.
    Photo by Jessie Vallejo
    Jessie plays violin in front of a microphone and music stand, wearing headphones, in a black room.
    Jessie Vallejo in the recording studio with Mariachi Los Broncos.
    Photo courtesy of Jessie Vallejo

    When people are anxious, grieving, or when they’ve lost everything and when they need personal connections, they turn to music. And through mariachi music, I was helping thousands of people grieve or connect. That helped put all of this into perspective. Music is an incredibly important thing to share. And that stuck with me after performing at the Fairplex in 2021, when it was turned into a temporary Emergency Intake Site for migrant children.

    Julian: So, while these are two different historic events and populations of people, this was not completely unrelated from what happened during World War II. The Fairplex again became a place of detention and concentration. Thankfully, in 2021, the children were being held there to help reunify them with family as opposed to being shipped off to an internment camp. But when you come in, this was the closest thing to seeing a scene of detention à la 1942. Do you remember the month that you went in?

    Jessie: I was invited to perform a few times by Pomona’s mayor, Tim Sandoval, and the dA Center for the Arts. My first time performing for the children was May 18, 2021, with Mariachi Lindas Mexicanas. Many of the members are mothers, and some of us are aunties, so we felt immensely honored to perform.

    The kids had so much energy. They joked as much as others cried, especially the youngest ones. We sang familiar songs like “De Colores” and “Las Mañanitas” for children who had birthdays. Cumbias by Los Angeles Azules were also popular requests! We performed at lunch in their outdoor dining area, near the soccer fields and across from the bandstand where George Igawa’s band debuted. We witnessed children trying to connect with new friends and make the best of their time while they were processing their difficult experiences.

    Julian: It’s an interesting historical parallel. As I said, WWII was much darker. But still, it’s kids behind fences. Communal eating. Boredom. Uncertainty. That’s why the Igawa band’s function in camp was so important, because recreation and dancing and art combat malaise and depression. Especially for young people, a jazz band gave them something to do and a chance to socialize, and to have some kind of humanity, even though the government had stripped it from them.

    During my visits to migrant camps along the border, I’ve seen a lot of the same things. There are similar themes in both stories that coalesce at this one place, eighty years apart, which is fascinating. And you’ve had this experience that illuminates the importance of music in both these cases: providing a release, or serving as a reminder of home, or being a distraction to let someone dream beyond the fences.

    Through the history of jazz and mariachi performances at the Fairplex, we can understand how music, art, and recreation can be quite life changing. And it’s quite simple. Perhaps it doesn’t change the world like the newest nuclear fission and fusion energy experiments. But as musicians, we can make a day better, and you do that enough times for enough people, or they do it for themselves, and you have a much better society, a society worth sustaining and providing energy for.

    So that’s something I want to highlight out of this collaboration, how you and all the other musicians who played in this specific space during these hard times, you were making a day better for some kids. I’m not sure how much more important we can get.

    A group of people in a music room with tiered floor, most holding musical instruments, and some in face masks.
    Julian Saporiti and Mariachi Los Broncos at Cal Poly Pomona
    Photo by Emilia Halvorsen Saporiti

    Jonathan Williger is the marketing manager for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

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