Article by Alex Friedfeld; photographs by Cindy Lin.
Swarthmore students crammed into Olde Club to listen to artist Zee Avi this past Saturday. Her performance was the final SAO event of Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Month. Self-described as “pocket-sized,” Avi captivated the audience with her jazzy sound and incredible stage presence. Three main acts, composed of Swarthmore students, opened the show.
APIA Month sought to celebrate the culture and history of Asians and Pacific Islanders in America. Cathy Ng ’10, one of the even’s organizers, discovered the Malaysian singer through a friend’s recommendation. When Ng heard an NPR story about Avi and noticed her popularity on YouTube, she said that she became “really excited at the possibility of bringing her to Swartmore [for APIA Month].”
Avi first started posting recordings of her songs on YouTube for a friend to hear; however, her popularity on the site snowballed into her eventual record deal with Brushfire Records, which is owned by Jack Johnson.
Avi was perfect for an event for APIA Month, said SAO co-president James Mao ’12, both because of her talent and because “as a rising Malaysian musician who is incredibly conscious of her immigrant background, there are elements of Zee’s story that most APIAs here and elsewhere can relate to.”
SAO also advertised for performers who identified as APIA to open the show. Two of the acts – Dan Chung ‘10 and Jenn Yi ’12 and Silbia Han ‘12 and the Sunshine Boys – had performed during last year’s APIA show. This year, they were joined by freshmen Sean Conroe and Chang & Chang (Eric Chang and Claris Chang).
Alternating between playing guitar and ukulele, Avi’s strong voice dazzled on both slow and fast-paced songs. Between pieces, she engaged the audience with her playful demeanor and endless energy. Whenever Avi stopped singing during a chorus, the crowd gladly sang it back to her.
Her set included both original songs — one innocuously called “Honey Bee” — and covers of popular tunes, such as one by Interpol. Many of her songs on her album reflect her personal beliefs in the bittersweet qualities of romance. While many of her songs contain an optimistic hope for love, her lyrics emit her wariness of potential regrets and losses.
Ng, however, felt that Avi’s reception was disconnected from APIA Month as a whole. “Despite our group’s hard efforts, I still find it disheartening that some people don’t even recognize what APIA Month is, or are surprised that an event is actually a part of the program.” Ng and Mao both attributed this lack of knowledge to sparse coverage in campus media and institutional underrepresentation of APIAs.
APIA month events included lectures, workshops, and screenings of films by Chinese film producer Kevin B. Lee and Wong Fu Productions.
Despite their concerns, though, Mao and Ng both agreed that this APIA Month was an overall success. “I’m very proud of everyone’s efforts and that some of our events have been well-attended,” said Ng.
“It was very satisfying to see APIA Heritage Month go out on such a lighthearted note, with our student performers completely dominating Olde Club,” said Mao, “and of course Zee was incredible… I couldn’t have scripted a better show.”