The wooden birds on the cover of violinist K. Ishibashi’s new album, Omoiyari, hold a tiny sliver of Colorado history — tiny, but powerful.
You see, the birds were hand-carved and painted, fashioned from scrap wood and metal by prisoners at several of the 10 internment camps the United States erected during World War II to detain Japanese Americans — more than 120,000 people — between 1942 and 1945. Himeko Fukuhara, a prisoner of Granada War Relocation Center south of Colorado Springs, was one of the artists.
Granada, also called Camp Amache, housed more than 7,500 prisoners in a square-mile radius. Surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, eight machine-gun towers watched over the windswept camp.
Last year, Ishibashi, who performs under the name Kishi Bashi, traveled with a group of doctoral students from Brown University to visit a handful of these historic internment camp sites (Amache not included) as part of the research he conducted to produce Omoiyari, an album and “songfilm,” as he calls the documentary he’s currently wrapping up about visiting these camps.
The Japanese word omoiyari is more a concept, the notion that thinking of others begets compassion for them. On the album, Ishibashi sticks to the topical matters he knows best — love, loss, the human condition — but he filters these experiences through the lens of this dark piece of American history. The message is unspoken but clear: history may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.
The concept for the album started to gel in Ishibashi’s mind several years ago as he watched with alarm as xenophobia became law with Executive Order 13769, the travel ban that targeted countries with Muslim majorities. Then the detention centers began to fill, and children were placed in cages.
While his own family came to the United States after the end of WWII, Ishibashi wanted to dig into the history of the internment camps as both a creative endeavor and a form of identity exploration.
If you’re familiar with Ishibashi, you know the result could only be a joyous collection of songs driven by Ishibashi’s masterful brand of baroque pop. Drenched in warm Laurel Canyon vibes, Omoiyari draws attention to the tragic parallels between now and then, but focuses on the human stories that — if omoiyari is really the law of the land — give us the compassion we need to avoid mistakes of the past.
The album kicks off with a fantastical fairy tale (about stopping at nothing to be with the one you love) before taking a point blank shot at white-washed hero worship in the track “F Delano”:
“Oh, in the desert where no one should live, it wasn’t our home / And in the winter our sentence was stiff, we froze to the bone / Summer was sunny, but history, funny to settle with / Was he right? / Innocence without a proper fight? / F Delano.”
Ishibashi visited “the desert where no one should live,” Manzanar Relocation Center in Southern California. He was struck by how beautiful it was. Nestled in a valley along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, it’s easy to forget that this panorama was a prison for more than 10,000 people just 70 years ago.
For detainees at the camps, no purple mountain’s majesty could erase the fact that they had been forced to abandon their homes, businesses, even their pets.
“I remember talking to somebody who [was sent to] Manzanar and they were like, ‘You know what? I don’t remember the mountains,’” Ishibashi says over the phone. “And you’re like, ‘OK, you can’t remember these mountains because you were obviously oppressed.’”
Ansel Adams took smiling portraits of detainees at Manzanar that earned him some reproval down the line as folks thought his photos ignored the tragic reality of the situation.
“But I think what I took from that is the resilience of the human experience,” Ishibashi says. “They can make the best out of a really difficult, almost impossible situation.”
That’s what creating the wooden birds was all about — gaman, the Japanese concept of bearing the impossible with patience and dignity, making the best out of a bad situation.
ON THE BILL: Kishi Bashi. 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 2, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, axs.com. Tickets are $23-$25.