When saying the name of the band Dzian!, smile and click your thumbs in the air. Dzian! Go ahead, do it—it feels good. Dzian!! Now savor it. It may be your last chance to do so while the band has a show on the local music calendar (at The Bridge, May 21), creating a void on the local scene that no one is likely to fill.
When you say Dzian!, give a thumbs up. The Asian-inspired surf-rock group plays a nautical farewell show at The Bridge/PAI on May 21, with performances from the Nakashi Dancers, Fire in the Belly Dance and Catherine Monnes.
Aside from the whole thumbs up thing, no rock band in town is likely to be as educated—or as fun—as the world-surf rock group. Over the last two years Dzian! has played a variety of normal venues (The Box, the Tea Bazaar) around town, and not-so-normal ones like Fashion Square Mall and St. Anne’s-Belfield School, where a confused student is said to have wondered whether Dzian!’s members, who cut a faux-glamorous figure in concert, were middle schoolers allowed to dress themselves for the first time that day.
Frontman Wendy Hsu says that Dzian! in its inception aspired to “a fashionable coolness from the ’30s through the ’80s in Taiwan.” She originally envisioned the group as a Nakashi band, referring to a genre that started on the streets of Taiwan in the 1930s, when a Japanese occupation tossed traditional Taiwanese music in a blender with a world of pop influences. By the time Hsu, who this month finished a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, caught her first Nakashi show, it was the late 1980s, and she was 8 years old. She says her parents covered her eyes so that she couldn’t see the bawdy theatrics that Nakashi picked up in its transition from the traditional tea rooms to the stage.
But censoring Nakashi only increased its allure, and two decades later Dzian! was born. Hsu refers to the band on her blog as a form of “a post-fieldwork, post-academic project of public scholarship,” intended to inject Asia and Asian-America into the world of rock music. “The band has really grown to be more than just Nakashi,” she says, filtering a variety of other musics through the garage rock lens.
A new EP, to be released at the going-away show, is called Ali Shan A’ Go-Go. It begins with the sound of a vintage tube radio tuning in to a Chinese broadcast. Like how Brian Wilson wished they could be California girls, on Ali Shan A’ Go-Go Dzian! wishes that all music could be American music. The first track, “Moon Over Ruined Castle,” is a Japanese song that Hsu grew up hearing. Dzian! performs it in the style of Eleki, a Japanese mode named for the electric guitar that brought traditional playing styles to bear on surf rock, by bands like The Ventures and The Shadows.
Two other songs on Ali Shan A’ Go-Go are popular Taiwanese nursery rhymes that Hsu reworked over a boring winter break. “Ali Shan,” the title track, celebrates the beauty of a famous mountain. Hsu’s version riffs on the Shadow Music tradition, surf rock that was Thailand’s answer to Japanese Eleki. A fourth track, “Œvilteen,” is an original song by Jonathan Zorn, the guitarist and computer music composer, who also mixed and mastered the EP.
Hsu says that the Nakashi tradition was mostly “functional music,” an accessory to whatever else is happening in the room. Which sort of explains why they would play at the mall or at a high school, and why they might get a kick out of hosting a “The Love Boat”-themed going-away concert. (Recommended attire is “cruise casual.”)
But the cruise ship show will also usher Dzian! out of town. Hsu moves to Los Angeles for a post-doctoral fellowship at Occidental College this summer, and most the band’s other members will also move West. Which brings Hsu to one of the best things about being in a band that plays functional music. “You can play it anywhere,” she says.