Tradition and modernity at the A.A.P.I. Music Festival

On a regular day, the high ceiling, elegant arches, and Gothic windows of Upper Tarble evoke images of western history and civilization. On Saturday however, Upper Tarble became a space for the Asian and Pacific Islander Music Festival. The music and dance performances took the audience on a journey through the traditional and modern aspects of Asian culture, drawing a A.A.P.I. Heritage Month to a satisfying close.
In the U.S., May is designated as A.A.P.I. Heritage Month. According to the Library of Congress, “The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7,1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.”
At Swarthmore, A.A.P.I. Heritage Month is held in April because May is finals season. The extensive month-long program includes cultural celebrations, such as the Thingyan Water Festival, as well as activities exploring salient issues in the A.A.P.I. community, such as panel discussions, poetry recitals, and documentary screenings. The Music Festival in Upper Tarble was the last event of the month.
The Swarthmore College Chinese Music Ensemble began the festival with a melodious piece titled “Osmanthus Flowers Bloom Everywhere in August.” Members in the Ensemble play a variety of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the dizi (flute), xiao (vertical end-blown flute), erhu (two-stringed fiddle), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), and guzheng (zither).
After the Ensemble’s opening piece, Jinjie Dong ̕18 performed a mellow dizi and xiao solo, followed by Lesia Liao ̕18 who performed a lively yangqin solo, accompanied by the Ensemble. The Ensemble finished with the upbeat “Flower Drum Song,” a Chinese folk song that describes a playful dancer performing with a small drum.
Personally, the “Flower Drum Song” is a nostalgic token from my childhood. Hearing the song brought back happy memories of my grandmother singing “Flower Drum Song” and teaching me to play with a little toy drum. I felt a unique fondness for the ensemble’s harmonious rendition as I seemed to relive my childhood again.
Lei Ouyang Bryant, associate professor of music at Swarthmore, described her involvement with the Ensemble’s activities. Bryant co-directs the Chinese Music Ensemble with Guowei Wang, artist in residence in Chinese music performance and director of the Chinese Ensemble at Williams College.
“I enjoy being in the ensemble because I can play music with my students. A lot of students join the ensemble out of their interest in the Chinese language and culture, either because they themselves are connected to the culture or because of what they study,” she said.
Bryant highlighted the students’ positive experiences in the Ensemble.
“Most people who join have a general interest in music, or maybe some musical background. I see people enjoying the opportunity to come together and play music. Many of the students who join are learning something new, and we are happy to join the A.A.P.I. Music Festival to be part of the different programs featured,” she added.
Besides the ensemble, Penn Enchord also brought some delightful music to the Music Festival. They are an a capella group at the University of Pennsylvania founded in 2013 by mainland Chinese students. They perform an eclectic mix of traditional and modern Chinese pieces that feature Western and Chinese singing techniques.
At the music festival, Penn Enchord performed three contemporary Chinese pop and rock songs—  “Highway”, “Purple,” and “Don’t Break My Heart.” I enjoyed all three songs, especially “Purple”, a soft and melancholic ballad about the memories that persist even after the end of a relationship. The singers’ voices blended harmoniously to create an emotional and magical experience for the audience.
Of course, the Music Festival would be incomplete without dance performances, since dance is such an integral part of Asian culture. Jie Gao ̕19 from Bryn Mawr College performed a beautiful dance solo in a long white dress that seemed like a sleek adaptation of the qipao. She incorporated the flowing movements of traditional Chinese dance into her piece, which was set to a more contemporary and up-tempo Chinese song.
Choom Boom, a dance troupe mainly focused on K-pop music and moves, also lit up the stage with an impressive nine dance pieces. Founded in 2008 by a few students at Bryn Mawr College, Choom Boom has grown to include several members from Haverford College as well as two members from Swarthmore.
Featuring high-energy K-Pop music, Choom Boom captivated the audience’s attention with their skilled dance moves and ever-changing group formations. The dancers expertly moved in sync with one another, often crossing the stage seamlessly to take their individual positions, and then moving out of their formation again.
Victoria Tamura ̕18 from Bryn Mawr College, current president of Choom Boom, described the amount of hard work that her fellow dancers put in.
“Most members of the executive board practice at least seven hours a week. Some people even do 12 hours,” she said.
Tamura expressed her passion for dancing in Choom Boom.
“I really love Choom Boom because once we perform on stage, and our dancers become confident in what they do, participating in Choom Boom is very fulfilling, even if it can be a little tiring,” she said.
Hana Yaacob ’20, a member of Choom Boom from Haverford College, also remembered devoting a lot of time to practice dance.
“I have been in three dance pieces this year and last year. I practice nine hours a week but still sleep at 10:30pm every night. It’s all thanks to time management!” Yaacob said.
Last but definitely not least, Swarthmore Taiko ended the festival with a literal bang. The drummers coordinated with one another, varying the rhythm of their drumming and their vocalization to create powerful and dynamic cadences. Although there were only three drummers, their rousing presence pervaded the entire room. Even as the drumming ended, I could still feel its resonance.  
The efforts of performers and organizers alike came to fruition at the Music Festival. Jessica Xu ̕19, co-organizer of A.A.P.I. Heritage Month with Jacob Clark ̕21, recalled how she invited the different groups to perform at the Music Festival.
“There are different programs for A.A.P.I. Heritage Month every year. This year we contacted groups at other colleges because I knew some people at Bryn Mawr and UPenn. I went to a concert by Penn Enchord before, and I know they’re pretty good. I’ve never seen Choom Boom perform so that was kind of a surprise for me,” Xu said.
Although the official A.A.P.I. Heritage Month program has ended at Swarthmore, an appreciation for A.A.P.I. culture, traditional and modern alike, lives on. For A.A.P.I. students, faculty, and staff, their identity persists throughout their daily routines, and this identity is given a chance to shine during special events, like the music festival.
“My mother is from China, and my father is from Australia. I grew up in Minnesota, was raised bilingual, and spoke Chinese and English. I participated in many Chinese community events, so my heritage has been a part of who I am, and it has always been around me. I’m happy to join the community here and create a space for it on campus,” Bryant said.

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