If you’re new to my corner of the internet, you might be wondering what “Pualani” means and how it’s related to music history. The short answer is – it’s not. Back in 2021 when I set up my blog and Instagram account, I hadn’t settled on a specific niche. Choosing a handle & URL based on my name felt like a better option, since it would allow me more flexibility to evolve my content. But here’s the catch – both my first and last name are super common names, with multiple variations of spelling in common use.
If I chose a handle based on either of those, it would be difficult for you to find me. To get around that, I use my middle name in online spaces – which is a Hawaiian name that translates to “heavenly flower.”
My AAPI Heritage
Most of my mom’s family lives in Hawaii. Although I grew up on the mainland, I’ve spent a few years living in the South Pacific and speak Fijian. However, we’re not native to the Pacific Islands – my grandparents immigrated from the Philippines, after my grandpa came over as a plantation worker. Although I’m ethnically Asian, I’ve never fully identified with that term – I had Asian friends from many different backgrounds in college, but I never totally felt like I fit in with any of them. Every time I met their families, it felt like stepping into a whole other world of mannerisms, ideals, and points of view that I had trouble relating to.
While talking about AAPI Heritage month is great for building visibility, flattening this vast diaspora of cultural groups into a singular umbrella term also minimizes the nuances of individual identities. And the more that I embrace this side of my heritage, the more I feel limited by the worldview outlined by the dominant culture and language of the continental US.
Growing up, I never heard many stories about my grandparents moving from the Philippines or my mom growing up in Hawaii. Living on the mainland, I’ve always felt disconnected from both Filipino and Hawaiian cultures. In addition to being an ocean away, the language barrier of not speaking Ilocano meant that I couldn’t communicate easily with relatives who never became fully comfortable communicating in English. I was never able to relate to some of their experiences until a few years ago, when I lived in an outer-island village in Fiji.
A Classical Musician in Fiji
I’ve spent most of the past ten years working outside of the classical music world, and moved to Fiji for a non-musical job. But whether I’m playing professionally or not, I always love playing in ensembles as a way to get to know the people in my community. However, instrumental music as we know it (in Westernized nations) isn’t super common in rural areas of Fiji – so finding a way to fit in as a classically-trained flutist proved to be an interesting challenge.
Fiji does not have a national orchestra, though there is a marching band in the capitol that performs in parades and a few Western-style music programs for secondary school students. But outside of touristy areas, the most similar type of ensemble experience is singing in a church choir. That’s not to say musical entertainment doesn’t exist – local singers and their bands perform at venues like resorts and parks, and people sing and play guitar or blast reggae music from loudspeakers at gatherings and parties. But formal performances are usually reserved for occasions of ceremonial importance, and usually feature traditional songs and dances that tell stories about the history and heritage of the communities that they represent.
There was no genre of traditional music that fit into the same niche as classical music. Zooming out a bit, this is probably also one of the reasons why Pacific Islanders make up such a small percentage of classical musicians and their audience. If there isn’t a direct equivalent that performers or audience members can relate to, it’s much harder for people who aren’t already familiar with Western culture to understand classical music, let alone identify with it.
And without that connection, those people are less likely to pursue those activities themselves. We can’t take this for granted – music really isn’t any more universal than any other aspect of language, including body language and ways we communicate our emotions. So how can we make more room at the table to acknowledge these differences so they aren’t minimized or ignored?
Classical Music and Globalization
We also can’t uplift only Asian musicians who perform Western-style music, when their cultures have their own classical traditions. This gets complicated for folks like me, who only learned Western-style music in school and know next to nothing about our ancestors’ traditional art forms. So the bigger question is, how can we be more inclusive of these other longstanding musical traditions in music education? And how can we bring Western music out of the concert hall and into performance environments that are more supportive and diverse?
For better or worse, classical music has become part of our global culture. And as a result, we need to be more mindful of the nuances in the ways we interact with it. Modern America is full of diversity, and we need to reflect that with more representation all across the musical community. I know this is a complex and difficult topic – I’m only scratching the surface here, and I don’t have any answers. But if we never even begin these important conversations, we’ll never be able to move forward, both as people and as an industry.
While I never want to give the impression that Western classical music is “better” than other musical traditions, if you’re classically trained like me but want to branch out into music that incorporates other influences, you’ve got to start somewhere. And to avoid cultural appropriation, it’s always a good practice to choose pieces written by people who identify with the culture they’re representing. So with that in mind, here are a few resources featuring music written by Asian and Asian American composers.
Use the tab at the bottom of the spreadsheet to search for flute music by Asian composers.
A database searchable by instrumentation and the composer’s demographics
Programs and educational resources exploring music from the Asian American diaspora.