Nobuko Miyamoto releases new double album, ‘120,000 Stories’

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Nobuko Miyamoto’s new album, ‘120,000 Stories.’ courtesy of Nobuko Miyamoto

Nobuko Miyamoto’s new album, ‘120,000 Stories.’
courtesy of Nobuko Miyamoto

On the first track of Nobuko Miyamoto’s brand new double album, “120,000 Stories,” the long-time musician and community activist sings these words from her Asian American Movement song, “We are the Children”: “Sing a song for ourselves. What have we got to lose?”

After 50 years of using the arts to create social change and forge solidarity, Miyamoto is indeed singing this song and 24 others on this album for ourselves, to chronicle difficult histories, celebrate resilient traditions, and in the end, to connect communities.

An artist, dancer, founder and artistic director of Great Leap in Los Angeles and an actor in notable films such as “Flower Drum Song” and “West Side Story,” Miyamoto is now presenting this powerful collection of new songs, reinterpretations of old ones and recordings from across her career.

Released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the songs speak to past and present struggles — for self determination, Black lives and the environment, according to the album’s liner notes.

“I’m not a touring or recording artist,” said Miyamoto, during a March 12 Facebook Live conversation moderated by ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong and featuring album producers, Derek Nakamoto and Quetzal Flores. “Most of my role of the last 40 to 50 years has been to get other people to do things. This album was a rare moment when I could actually be an artist,” she said.

“I suggested to Nobuko that she should do an album of her old songs, but she wasn’t interested in that,” said Wong, a longtime friend and professor of music at University of California, Riverside.

“I have a list of new songs on my piano that I hadn’t done anything with,” said Miyamoto. “I looked at the old songs, and asked, ‘What songs can tell the stories of the work, the journey of my life and the journey of my community?’ It was really about telling the big story, and my life being enriched by so many communities.”

This process wasn’t an easy one. “Some of these were really hard decisions,” she said. “It’s not all me singing, but it’s my community.”

In fact, 27 artists — including a multiethnic mix of musicians, singers and community folks — are featured on the album. Some sing back-up. Some sing lead on songs written by Miyamoto.

Songs such as “Not Yo’ Butterfly,” “American Made,” “Somos Asiáticos,” “Black Lives Matter,” “To All Relations,” “Mottainai,” and “Bam Butsu– no Tsunagari (10,000 Things, All Connected)” are among the many on the album. The title song, “120,000 Stories,” represents the 120,000 Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated during World War II. And then there are these words from “We are the Children” written by Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin, from the 1973 album, “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America.”

“We are the children of the migrant worker
We are the offspring of the concentration camp
Sons and daughters of the railroad builder
Who leave their stamp on America.”

Movement songs like this have been reinterpreted and sung today with years of life experience behind them, thanks to the help of Derek Nakamoto, who brought more than 30 years of music industry experience to the project. A producer, composer and musician, Nakamoto has worked with music legends such as Herb Alpert, Whitney Houston and The Jacksons, and has produced 23 albums for contemporary jazz pianist Keiko Matsui.

In discussing the album’s older songs, Nakamoto, who has been friends with Miyamoto for 38 years, asked her, “How is the lyric — written 20 to 30 years ago — still relevant today? That’s what we tried to incorporate in these re-imagined versions of the songs.”

Grammy-award winning musician Quetzal Flores has been a friend and frequent collaborator with Miyamoto for the past 10 years. As the album’s co-producer, he talked about the collaboration required when almost 30 artists work together on a project.

“Collaboration requires a lot of conversations,” said Flores, leader of his East Los Angeles-based, Chicano rock band, Quetzal. “It requires a lot of shared values, of how a vision can connect with multiple communities and in multiple spaces. Without the contributions of everyone involved, this album wouldn’t have happened. Every piece was essential in creating this.”

For Nakamoto, working with Miyamoto on this album was like coming full circle because it was Miyamoto who gave Nakamoto his first opportunity to produce an album 38 years ago. “It was an honor to work on this record,” said Nakamoto. “It was a unique opportunity for Nobuko to be reflective of all her work over the decades.”

For Miyamoto, she’s overjoyed to still be in the struggle, and to be singing songs that unite communities with a fire for justice. And after 50 years, it’s about time she sings a song for herself. What does she have to lose?

“I’ve been through a lot. I’m an OG. And I’m grateful that I’m still strong and able to do this.”

For more information about Nobuko Miyamoto’s “120,000 Stories,” or to purchase it, visit: https://folkways.si.edu/nobuko-miyamoto/120000-stories. It is also available at the Japanese American National Museum shop: http://ow.ly/1xzz50EbIri.

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