From West Side Story to A Grain of Sand
Friday, July 8, was nostalgia-filled day. I shared my music at a luncheon of the JACL National Convention in Hollywood, which reminded me that Chris Iijima and I sang our first song at their convention forty-one summers ago in Chicago. And in the evening I went to the 50th year celebration of West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl.
Let me start first with the oldest flashback, West Side Story. Seeing it in ‘high definition’ along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing live, was quite spectacular. I was sitting among the Sharks and Jets, that once competed, not as gangs, but as artists, wondering during the shoot, if “America” was going to be cooler than “Cool.” Now, watching it together, we clapped for each other’s work, that happened at the beginning of our careers. It was interesting watching our once-young, highly trained bodies…how easy that physicality seemed. But I remember the blisters and visits to the chiropractor, mononucleosis and swollen ankles, tears and near breakdowns. Working for a perfectionist like Jerome Robbins was no picnic. But it was an experience to part of a masterpiece like “West Side Story.”
So, how do you follow a “West Side Story?” I remember asking myself that very question in 1961. Finally liberated from the limits of typecasting by ‘passing for Puerto Rican’, it sent me on a journey. Singing on the soundtrack made me realize I had a voice. I started taking singing lessons. I embarked on an acting career that made me realize I didn’t want to just act. I wanted to live my own story.
Fast forward ten years. I was at the JACL National Convention in Chicago where young Asian American activists from East and West Coasts came together for the first time. It was forty-one summers ago that we learned that we were all doing serve the people programs, health and youth programs, and we were all engaged in stopping the Vietnam War. That hot and sticky Chicago summer, we visited the office of the Black Panther Party and they greeted us like brothers and sisters. We joined Native Americans who pitched a teepee in front of Wrigley’s Field to protest for better housing and they told us the story of Warriors of the Rainbow. There would be 5000 years of evil, followed by 5000 years of good and that change would come when Warriors all the colors of the rainbow would come together. Forty-one summers ago, we realized we were a Movement.
Late in the night, after the conversations and partying were over, Chris brought out his guitar. Somehow we spontaneously wrote our first song. The next day we sang, in our jeans, army jackets with bountiful hair, standing before the community and elders of the JACL, wanting them to take a stand against the Vietnam War. When we sang, it was one of those aha! moments. Wow….this is our song…we never had our own song. That moment forty-one summers ago started Chris and me on a journey, which I’m still on today…using music and culture to create social change.
End of nostalgia….