Pioneers given honors for speaking the universal language: music

Ten musicians were awarded the distinction of being Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s 2009 Asian American Pioneers in Music. Many of the pioneers came together on Oct. 16 to perform together across ethnic lines. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

Ten musicians were awarded the distinction of being Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s 2009 Asian American Pioneers in Music. Many of the pioneers came together on Oct. 16 to perform together across ethnic lines. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

For some in the performing arts, rhythm, melody, and lyrics combine to create an art form unmatched by its power to entertain and stir intense emotions. These individuals have managed to merge their passions with their rich cultural heritage.

Ten Asian Americans were honored for their lifelong achievements at the 12th annual Asian American Pioneer Awards on Oct. 16.

The dinner and awards gala, with the theme being “Pioneers in Music,” raised  $18,500 for the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s Summer Youth Program and other program scholarships.

More than 300 people attended the dinner at the China Harbor Restaurant and were treated to what emcee and Nordstrom Corporate Diversity Affairs Specialist Colleen Fukui-Sketchley described as a “jam-packed” evening of non-stop, live performances.

Founder of the foundation and publisher of the Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post, Assunta Ng, said, “Wait until you hear their performances. You will be thrilled!”

This year’s Asian American honorees were chosen based on several criteria. “Just like pioneers who came to the West, [the Pioneers in Music] had to pave the way for everybody else. So, it’s leadership,” said planning committee member Yoshi Minegishi.

He says they all faced difficulties in establishing themselves in their own field, but “they struggled, and they achieved.”

“Each one had a lot to do with today’s popularity of their music among their own community as well as in Seattle,” he added.

Angelo Pizarro — a Filipino American guitarist who plays an improvisational blend of traditional Filipino–Spanish music with jazz and pop — performed “Pearl of the Orient.”

He wrote the song in 1995 as the prelude to “Heart of the Son,” a play written by Seattle playwright Timoteo Cordova about the Philippine–Spanish revolution.

When Pizarro finished, the crowd responded with several chants of “Bravo!”

The second honoree, Sharad Gadre, performed Indian classical music. Having worked as a computer scientist at Boeing for 25 years and having earned a doctorate in structural engineering, he has brought his music to computer-users. He developed a software program called RagaParichaya, one with 70 ragas, or scales, of Indian music.

Songwriter Ngo Thuy Mien says he was very lucky to have studied the violin in the 1960s, a period when many other families living in Vietnam could not afford such luxuries. His greatest struggle occurred during the reunification of Vietnam. Under North Vietnam’s communist rule, all music written by South Vietnamese composers was banned.

The audience cheered as he also received an award certificate from the California State Assembly. Vietnamese Friendship Association Executive Director Vu Le waited to have his picture taken with Ngo. Le said that Ngo is very famous, and Le wanted to prove to his family in Vietnam that he met him.

Sopranos Young Hee Kim and Kyung-Ah Oh founded the Korean American Musicians Association of Washington in 1979 to promote their cultural traditions among Korean Americans.

Kim, who majored in vocal music at Yonsei University in Seoul, performed the Korean classical song, “Birds.”

The sixth honoree, Dieter Cui — whose Chinese first name is Zong Shun — studied music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and in Europe. He is an accomplished performer in Chinese and Western opera and a teacher of opera music.

Cui founded and is the artistic director of the Seattle PhiloVoce Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading Chinese music and creating opportunities for professional and amateur singers.

Wearing an ivory-colored double-breasted jacket and black bow tie, he sang the Mongolian folk song, “Gada Meilin,” without a microphone. His deep voice filled the large room.

After his performance, many of his students, who were seated at a table to the left of the stage, joined the audience in cheering “Bravo!”

Fukui-Sketchley then said, “We will now have the Korean and Chinese communities coming together.” Kim joined Cui on stage to perform the classical song, “O Solo Mio.”

Marcus Tsutakawa is known as a super-conductor to many. The Seattle-born Japanese American started teaching at Garfield High School in 1985 with a group of 10 students. Directing the school’s three orchestras — the Freshman String Orchestra, the Concert Orchestra, and the Symphony Orchestra for advanced students — he now teaches almost 200 students.

Tsutakawa played the electric bass guitar and joined his brother and fellow honoree Deems Tsutakawa — who played a Korg synthesizer — in a jazz improvisation called “Tough Tofu.”

The final two honorees were the husband-and-wife duo, Warren Chang and Buyun Zhao. Chang played a Chinese musical instrument called the er-hu, and Zhao played an instrument called the yangqin. Performing Celine Dion’s 1997 hit song, “My Heart Will Go On,” they were joined by John Wu (er-hu), Tony Zhao (er-hu), Emily Wing (pipa), Minghwa Doo (yangqin), Janelle Yeung (guzheng), Angel Yan (guzheng), and Wayne Yee (dizi).

“Highlighting Pioneers in Music should now remind us all that music transcends any language or cultural differences,” said Fukui-Sketchley. “And, it brings us all together to appreciate something really beautiful.”

The program ended promptly at 8:42 p.m. ♦

For more information on the event, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.

James Tabafunda can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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