East Bay band out to reshape the mold

September 21, 2009 8:07:21 PM PDT
Music genres are often characterized by the ethnicity of the performers and their audiences, and some of the most ethnically-defined music genres can seep into a performer's soul no matter who they are.

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"Roly poly, scrambled eggs for breakfast, bread and jelly twenty times a day," Richard Chon sings.

At first glance, Chon does not look like the typical front man for a western swing band, but give him a few bars and "The Saddle Cats" will take you back.

"Oh me, oh my, Miss Molly won't you say you love me too," the lyrics continue accompanied by a violin. "That red headed woman, she looks so fine, she don't look like that blonde of mine. I got the right key, I got it in the wrong key hole."

"I think you kind of wonder what's he going to sound like, you know?" said Scott Shewbridge. "And then you hear him and it's like he sounds like he should sound. He sounds great."

Chon may be the only Asian western swing band leader in the country. That notoriety gives him the publicity he needs as a professional musician, but as the band leaders says, "I want us to be noteworthy, or famous, or well known, because we're good musicians and we communicate musically to people. Not because I'm Asian."

"You know, a group like The Saddle Cats are really interesting because they're playing a genre that we might consider being a white genre," says UC Berkeley professor Tamara Roberts.

Roberts is an ethnomusicologist who says Chon sticks out in a predominantly white western swing genre, partly because of the music industry.

"A lot of the marketing of music was very much based on racial categories, in the way audiences were targeted and musicians were kind of selected to fit various molds," she explains.

Ironically, she says western swing is an outgrowth of jazz blended with blues, Cajun music, even the Mexican polka and the steel guitar is from Hawaii.

"When you actually look at the material that created it, it was very interracial," Roberts says.

As much as the music is mixed, Roberts says a lot of music genres are segregated and those who transcend the lines of color are usually exceptional artists. Bobby Black is the Saddle Cat's steel guitarist. He is considered a legend in country music and Chon himself is no slouch.

"You'd think that he came from a long line of country players because of the way he plays," says Black.

As a classically-trained violinist, Chon yearned to break into a hot fiddling solo, and he discovered that outlet when he moved to the Central Valley in the 80's.

"There I was in Bakersfield, kind of breathing the air. And, this stuff was around me. The people who made that music were around me," Chon recalled.

He learned to play western swing from the masters, transformed his soul and even became friends with country greats like Buck Owens.

"It seemed like a natural fit that was waiting for me, that fulfilled all my needs as a player," he says.

Chon says getting laid off as a newspaper writer turned into the blessing that made him a full-time musician. As the son of Korean immigrants, Chon says he identifies with those "dustbowl" immigrants who came to the Central Valley with their distinctive sound.

"That's the biggest part of the joy of being a musician, is to transcend those kinds of cultural boundaries," he says.

In the end, Chon says it is the universal passport of his music that will take The Saddle Cats to the top of their game. And, along the way he will reshape the mold.

"We can be very proud of our ethnic heritage and I am very proud of being Korean. But, at the same time I feel like I want to meet the culture in the middle," Chon says. "I think this country becomes very strong if people do that."

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