Guitarist Karl Evangelista on Exploring the Filipino Avant-Garde

Categories: Interview


For guitarist and composer Karl Evangelista, getting involved with Asian Improv aRts, which support artists making work representing the Asian American experience, profoundly influenced him. While in college at University of California, Berkeley, he met saxophonist Francis Wong, the organization's co-founder. Evangelista wanted to explore dialogues between different types of music such as contemporary, jazz, and Filipino folk melody, and Wong and others at Asian Improv aRts encouraged him to do just that.

Evangelista performs his piece Taglish, exploring Filipino-American culture, at the Red Poppy Art House on Friday, along with Wong and some other jazz stalwarts. He spoke with us about the improvisational element in Filipino music, how his political family supported him in an artistic career, listening to Ornette Coleman when he was young, and his ethical responsibility to be a musician.

How does Taglish explore Filipino culture?

Part of the reason that I wanted to frame this music within the context of Filipino culture is that it's Filipino experimentalism, and the avant-garde in Filipino arts and culture is not a story that is often told. By framing my music in this way, I felt I was being sort of an advocate for Filipino cultural history. The composition of this piece was centered around the exploration of traditional Filipino musical idioms and themes, and even though that music is kind of far flung at this point, those themes are still at the core of the way a lot of this music was produced. So it has very specific technical ties to Filipino musical history.

What distinguishes Filipino music?

It's part of this ethos of Pacific Islander/Southeast Asian percussion and string instrument composition. What's unique about it and distinguishes it from Java or Bali or places like Japan or China is our music is for the most part, percussion centered. Most of it is tied to kulintang -- a counterpart to gamelan. What distinguishes that is that it's mostly improvised. You're working with a specific set of pitches, but there's an improvisatory element that I connected with a lot as a jazz musician.

What were you listening to growing up? Jazz? Filipino music?

I don't think it was a particularly linear set of listening habits. At a young age I was exposed to a lot of what the Filipino diaspora would listen to here. My parents would listen to the Beatles or Michael Jackson or whatever disco they listened to in the Philippines in the '70s. For my part, I discovered the music of Ornette Coleman really young on my own. It was sort of random. From there I found my way into mainstream jazz. So I went from avant-garde back in.

What appealed to you about him?

I came in as a blues guitarist. Basically I just wanted to play guitar for the social element. It was the first thing I was actually good at. I listened to the British or American blues guitarists from the '60s. I noticed that Eric Clapton was mentioning that other members of the band Cream would say he was the Ornette Coleman of the band. I noticed a lot of '60s blues experimentalists mentioning they listened to John Coltrane and I found a lot of the things that appealed to me within that '60s blues guitar lineage were also present in this more experimental jazz music, and that's what got me on that road

What was your inspiration to write Taglish?

I always thought within the context of these social struggles and political struggles that my progenitors within the frame of experimental music or jazz fought through, these personal stories were really poignant -- they really hooked you. I would always hear stores about Coltrane's journey out of the darkness of addiction and then finding a spiritual life and finding a deeper meaning in the context of music. Or the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] and how they took their roots in the Chicago black community and translated that into a new musical ethos that wasn't specifically jazz, but was broader in context. As a young Filipino growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't have a lot of people I could connect with on a personal level in terms of my musical interests, and I was really moved by these black jazz musicians from the '60s. I always thought it would be really nice for someone like me, coming up today, it would be nice to have some kind of example set. People like Francis Wong and Hafez Modirzadeh, those guys are sort of my progenitors, working in Asian Improv. I always thought if I'd seen an Asian guitar player playing music that I wanted to do as a little kid it would really motivate me to get involved in this sort of marginal music.

Also, Taglish is a really personal story. My family has been huge supporters of this very specious financial decision to become a musician, and I wanted to make music for them. It's sort of my ode to this Filipino culture that they brought me up in grew up in and to them as individuals. They made the choice that all musicians' families have to make to support or not support me, and they did support me. So this is for them.

That must have been scary. Why do you think they supported you? Were they musical themselves?

Oh, it was terrifying. There's no musical background. My family has really profound political roots in the Philippines. My aunt, Miriam Defensor, she ran for president twice. In the 1992 election, she actually won the popular vote, but there was intense voter fraud. My family has a background in law -- my uncle was head of counterterrorism in Asia. There's no creative precedent for what I'm doing. I guess their first reaction was bewilderment. No one really knew why I was doing what I did. The thought I always had when I was making the decision -- I remember there was a moment I had to make a clear decision, was all that these other musicians have been through, I kind of thought I have an ethical responsibility to do this.

Karl Evangelista performs Taglish this Friday, April 26, at Red Poppy Art House.

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