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'Initial Here': Jazz Musician Linda Oh Plays Out Her Heritage

Jul 8, 2012
Originally published on July 8, 2012 5:48 pm

Jazz bassist and bandleader Linda Oh says her new album, Initial Here, is an exploration of her heritage. She was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, but as a toddler, she moved with her family to Australia.

Oh started taking piano lessons there when she was 4. Music was just a hobby back then, but once her uncle strapped a bass guitar around her neck, that's when she fell in love.

Oh cut her teeth playing bass in both jazz and rock bands all over her hometown of Perth in Western Australia.

"It's actually a really great scene over there," she tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "I got to see a lot of great musicians and that inspired me to actually take a step further and actually go to college and take up upright bass and pursue it as a career."

Her parents weren't thrilled with the idea at first.

"I have two older sisters and they're both actually doctors. And also, just the typical, maybe Asian-family mentality was that music was something more of a backup," she says, "something to help us grow as people but not really seen as a profession."

Though they "flipped out a little bit" initially, she says now they're very supportive.

"They've not avid jazz listeners, so a lot of it ... kind of goes a bit over their head," she says, "but I think just the fact that I stuck with it despite skepticism ... I think they are pretty proud."


Interview Highlights

On the track 'Desert Island Dream,' about her family's journey from Malaysia to Australia

"Throughout the generations, from southern China through to Malaysia, a lot of Chinese ended up moving from China to Thailand and Malaysia — in many cases, involuntarily [during the Cultural Revolution era]. Some of my family moved through, from China through to Thailand."

"Hearing the stories of what my family's been through, it's kind of inspiring to know that I'm playing jazz music now as a living."

On the transition to life in a new country

"My very first memory was the day that we moved from Malaysia to Australia [when I was 3]. I just remember waking up in the morning and everything was in boxes and then moving to Perth in Western Australia during wintertime. Perth doesn't get too cold, but in comparison to Malaysia ... it was a huge shift. And it was a tough time for my family, too, like it is for any family who immigrates.

"At the time, there was still a lot of negative sentiment towards immigrants in general in Australia. I see a lot of similarities between Australia and America about immigration, illegal immigration. And for a long time, Australia did have a White Australia Policy, and it made it difficult for people who weren't white or of European descent to immigrate. So, it was a tough time."

On traveling back to China, physically and through language

I went to Shanghai, which is where my grandmother was from. I learned Mandarin when I was a small child, but at the time when we were growing up in Perth ... I guess there weren't that many Asian kids in our school, and we didn't have that many Asian friends so the idea of learning Mandarin was kind of a little bit pointless to us at the time, because we were working so hard to integrate."

"We tried lots of different things to make sure that we felt settled, you know? But now, as an adult looking back on it, it's a real shame that we didn't get more into Mandarin. So it's been awesome to actually go back — I've been taking classes at NYU to actually get back to my roots and study Mandarin and it was great to go to Shanghai to actually put that into practice."

"I wrote one tune called 'Thicker Than Water,' and that was in dedication to my mother and my grandmothers. It's half in Mandarin, half in English, and I had a fabulous singer, Jen Sheu. These lyrics all refer to small things to do with my grandmothers' and my mother's lives."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This is jazz bassist and band leader Linda Oh. Now, like many jazz musicians, she makes her home in New York City, but her journey to get there has been like few before her. Linda Oh was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents. But as a toddler, she moved with her family to Australia, which, back then, wasn't a very welcoming place for Asian immigrants.

Oh started taking piano lessons there when she was 4. Music was just a hobby back then. But once her uncle strapped a bass guitar around her neck, that's when she fell in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Linda Oh's new album is called "Initial Here." She got started playing bass in both jazz and rock bands all over her hometown of Perth in Western Australia.

LINDA OH: It's actually a really great scene over there. I got to see a lot of great musicians. And that inspired me to actually go to college and take up upright bass and pursue it as a career.

RAZ: What did your parents think about that? Would they have preferred that you just stuck with piano?

OH: Well, yeah. It was a difficult time, I guess. Both my sisters - I have two older sisters, and they're both actually doctors. And also, just the typical, maybe Asian family mentality was that music was something more of a backup, I guess. You know, something to help us grow as people but not really seen as a profession.

So when I decided to become a musician, and not only that, become a jazz musician, my parents, they flipped out a little bit. But, you know, they're actually really cool about it now.

RAZ: Your parents are Chinese, Malaysian Chinese...

OH: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

RAZ: ...and you were born there.

OH: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And you have a track on this record called "Desert Island Dream," and it is about the journey that your family took from Malaysia to Australia.

OH: Pretty much. Well, throughout the generations, from southern China through to Malaysia, a lot of Chinese ended up moving from China to Thailand and Malaysia, in many cases, involuntarily. And some of my family moved through from China through to Thailand, kind of in that situation, you know?

RAZ: We're talking about the Cultural Revolution era.

OH: Pretty much, yeah. And hearing the stories of what my family's been through, it's kind of inspiring to know that I'm playing jazz music now as a living knowing what my grandmothers went through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESERT ISLAND DREAM")

RAZ: Is part of that journey that your parents made, and that you made as a child - you were - how old were you?

OH: I was 3. Mm-hmm.

RAZ: You were 3. So you don't even remember it, probably.

OH: Actually, my very first memory was the day that we moved from Malaysia to Australia. I just remember waking up in the morning and everything was in boxes and then moving to Perth in western Australia during wintertime. And Perth doesn't get too cold, but in comparison to Malaysia, it was a huge shift, you know? And it was a tough time for my family, too, like it is for any family that immigrates. At the time, there was still a lot of negative sentiment towards immigrants in general in Australia.

RAZ: In Australia.

OH: And I see a lot of similarities between Australia and America about immigration, illegal immigration. And for a long time, Australia did have a White Australia policy, and it made it very difficult for people who weren't white or of European descent to actually immigrate. So it was a tough time.

RAZ: It must have been tough for your parents. I mean, they probably didn't speak English very well and...

OH: Well, my father was actually relatively easy just because he was educated in Brisbane. But my mother was very difficult.

RAZ: Completely different world.

OH: Completely. And so my mother, she spent her whole time - her whole life, basically, in this one city pretty much, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and she speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, a little bit of Hindi and Malay, and then moving to Australia where her accent was quite thick. She could speak English, but it was broken, you know? And seeing the way she was treated, it kind of made me a little bit angry when I was growing up, you know?

RAZ: I'm speaking with jazz bassist and songwriter Linda Oh. Her new record is called "Initial Here." Linda, before you set out to write this record, I read that you went to Malaysia and you went to China.

OH: Yeah. I went to Shanghai, which is where my grandmother was from. And I learned Mandarin when I was a small child. But at the time, when we were growing up in Perth, I guess there weren't that many Asian kids in our school. And we didn't have that many Asian friends, so the idea of learning Mandarin was kind of a little bit pointless to us at the time, because we were working so hard to integrate. You know, my...

RAZ: You wanted to be Australian.

OH: Pretty much. And my parents took us to church. We tried lots of different things to make sure that we felt settled, you know? But now, as an adult, looking back on it, it's a real shame, you know, that we didn't get more into Mandarin. So it's been awesome to actually go back. I've been taking classes at NYU to actually get back to my roots and study Mandarin. And it was great to go to Shanghai to actually put that into practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THICKER THAN WATER")

JEN SHEU: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: Talk about lyrics. On one track, you have Mandarin.

OH: Yeah. I wrote one tune called "Thicker Than Water," and that was in dedication to my mother and my grandmothers. It's half in Mandarin, half in English. And I had a fabulous singer, Jen Sheu. These lyrics all refer to small things to do with my grandmothers' and my mother's lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THICKER THAN WATER")

SHEU: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: So you've got this record out. And presumably, it shows up in the mail to an address in Perth where your parents live, and they open it up, and they must be so proud of you.

OH: They are. They are. They're not avid jazz listeners, so a lot of it, they, you know, it kind of goes a bit over their head. But I think just the fact that I stuck with it despite skepticism and - yeah, I think they are pretty proud.

RAZ: That's Linda Oh. She's a jazz bassist and a band leader. Her new record is called "Initial Here." And you can check out a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Linda Oh, thank you so much for coming in.

OH: Thank you. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.