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Special Episode: The George Igawa Orchestra: Wyoming’s best unknown swing band

No-No Boy Project

The World War II Heart Mountain Concentration Camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry was flanked by northern Wyoming towns. The tar-paper barracks of the camp sat near the base of Heart Mountain, and they seemed hidden from our history though they were in the prairie where they could be seen for miles.

These camps were established all across the west after President Franklin Roosevelt issued an Executive Order in February of 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which led to the forced internment of Americans of Japanese Ancestry.

So when the camp was created in Wyoming, neither of the surrounding towns, Cody nor Powell, were initially welcoming. Wyomingites were afraid of an attack from the Japanese…though the majority of the people in the camps were American citizens who just happened to have Japanese ancestry. And when tensions eased a little and passes to go to town became available, the interned were still restricted with where they could go with their passes- neighborhoods were off limits. Some stores opened their doors in the name of capitalism. Many stores hung signs that made their racism clear.

But music has a way of breaking down boundaries. The George Igawa Orchestra, a swing band made up of interned Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain, broke several boundaries. Their ability to play big band music made them not only welcomed outside of the camp, but desired in many locations that they may have not been able to go otherwise.

Julian Saporiti, a songwriter, historian, and son of a Vietnam refuge had never heard of the George Igawa Orchestra. But his introduction to the band and his access point to the history of Heart Mountain and Japanese American internment was through a photo he saw at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center's museum - a space dedicated to preserving what remains of the site where Japanese Americans were unjustly incarcerated during WWII and to telling the stories of those interned.

Julian Saporiti: I was walking through the museum and you see luggage, suitcases to represent how the Japanese Americans could only bring what they could carry. Then it goes on to talk about just how they're great farmers, mentions a lot of activities especially military and Boy Scout stuff, and tucked away is a small little picture that literally changed my life when I saw it.

And it was a picture of a jazz band in rehearsal. But the jazz band was all Japanese Americans, of course. The George Igawa Orchestra, and for some reason, seeing these faces playing clarinet and saxophone, trumpet, trombone meant so much to me. It's like you uncover a lineage even though I wasn't blood related to these people. I'm Vietnamese American, but I hadn't seen people like me playing the music that I loved: American Music, folk music, whatever. This kind of felt like uncovering a history that was both miraculous and personal.

From the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) Collection

Part 1: The Suits

History is a reused mixtape. Like a modern version of the ancient palimpsests, a tape can be layered and recorded over again and again, but anyone who's taped over an old mix knows that newer recordings do not always cover up what came before them, and those new recordings can either ignore past recordings or be a reaction to past recordings.

So, if we could take the layers of a mixtape and excavate them chronologically like an archaeologist or historian, we would be able to see the lives lived and forgotten on the space of the tape.

For example, think about what could be said about the time when I recorded an Enya song, Caribbean Blue, over a basement recording from a local band, or that when I felt ashamed for selling out the local band for an Enya song, I covered her up with "Special Brew" by Skankin' Pickle for some kind of retribution.

This might show that there was a moment when the mass-opinion about Enya became more important to me than the single recording from a friend's band, and my reactionary shame resulted in turning away from mass-opinion and towards a less main-stream band in Skankin' Pickle.

We could go further and look at what the mixes were named. A tape's name imposes an expected experience. The mixtape labeled "Peanut Butter and Oranges" is not going to give the same feeling as "Summer Love Jams."

And using white-out to rename a tape isn't going to change the atrocities that occurred on side A and side B when you were in junior high.

So, since history is a re-used mixtape, we should recognize that white-out does not change the reality of what happened in our past and that our histories are also layered with happy, shameful, and awesome moments. Like a mixtape, hauntings of past recordings or histories can seep into our present, and regardless of what that past holds, it's worth looking at all of the layers and all of that history - however brief on that tape or in our history - and reflect on the spectrum of experience.

Today's show is broken into 3 parts. We start with Julian Saporiti's own musical experiences in Wyoming to understand how the photo of the George Igawa orchestra inspired him to write the song "The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming." We then explore Julian's research into the orchestra and a few of its members. And finally, Julian's experiences and the history of the George Igawa Orchestra intersect in the production of the song that tells a Wyoming story. A story that doesn't fit the Wyoming myth, but is a part of Wyoming's history nonetheless.

In part 1, in order to better understand the George Igawa Orchestra, we are starting with the present, the top layer of that mixtape,

We learn about the creation and goals of Julian's band Angel Adams the Suits. They played in and around the college town of Laramie, Wyoming starting in 2014. They show us what it means to be a band in Wyoming, and the experience of Angel Adams and the Suits eerily echoes aspects of the George Igawa Orchestra from Heart Mountain. Though there are others, the main differences between these bands are about 70 years and a stretch of barbed wire fence.

I'm Charles Fournier and this series was made in collaboration with the No-No Boy Project about the Best God Damn Band in Wyoming

Part 1: The Suits

JS: I felt a connection to the Igawa Band through my work with Angel and The Suits because the fact that he, like a dozen other folks in these concentration camps, decided there's a lack of music here or there's a lack of music in me, and I want to get people together and change this. He provided such a service for all the people I have talked to who lived through this and went to these dances or sang in these bands or were members of these bands. And for Igawa to do this in the situation that he did is phenomenal.

Angel Adams and the Suits started shortly after Julian moved to Laramie to pursue a Master's Degree in American studies.

JS: I was just looking for people to play music with around the university, and Angel was one of those people.

Angelina Adams: Julian asked me. We kind of met up a couple times in the field next to Fine Arts, and just started jamming and figuring some stuff out. He had a couple songs where he'd had harmony singers. The first thing I ever sang with him was at Coal Creek, and I remember completely messing the harmony up because I was so nervous. After that, him and I started busking at the farmer's markets.

JS: Angel and I were just street performing, and then, of course, if you're out at that era of Laramie, you meet Dave Ginger.

Dave Ginger: I think it was at the Buckhorn that I met him. And then Julian was like, "You're a trombone player? Would you be interested in playing this jazz and stuff?" I was like, "YEAH!"

JS: And he brought his plastic blue trombone and started busking with us. From there we found Jeff Worrall, awesome trumpet grad student,

AA: Tom Oakley on tuba,

DG: The year of the tuba was when Jake Borchardt started playing banjo,

JS: Jess Winecoff played percussion,

DG: Marten Baur who'd be willing to play drum set,

JS: Caleb Bristol, great cellist,

AA: Miles McKee played saxophone and clarinet

JS: And then we started playing these swing dances, Chuck, that you put on with your pals.

This is how I met Julian. While he was busking at the Farmer's Market, I asked him if he would want to play music for some free community swing dances my wife and I and another couple were putting on called Swingin Around Town. This is when I learned that Julian had been on tour as a professional musician before getting to Laramie, so we felt pretty lucky that he was willing to provide music for our events.

AA: Laramie is dying for live music. At the same time, there weren't quite enough venues, maybe, to always be playing. That's kind of always the case in Wyoming.

DG: We played Hearts Alley.

JS: Roxies.

DG: Blossom Yoga, I remember that.

JS: Played the Buckhorn, of course.

AA: Julian was the MC, the lead singer, and took hold on a lot of the gigs.

DG: I definitely think, in Laramie, that music and that caliber of music was incredibly appreciated. The Suits was the horn/traditional jazz band. I remember many people coming up to me over the years and saying, "Wow, yeah, thank you for doing this. We don't get to hear this kind of music played here. You typically have to travel to Denver to hear something like what we were doing.

AA: We might have performed a song or two that Julian had written, or I think Dave had a couple songs I think he had written. But a lot of Sam Cooke tunes. We tried to vary the speed of things in between because you don't want a bunch of people, especially at like Swingin Around Town, and where people were dancing, which was mainly our goal, to get people dancing.

DG: It was a really cool experience. It made me go, well we obviously can't play too fast because otherwise, they can't dance to it. Like a couple of notches up from background noise and a few notches below like, "This is my favorite movement. Mustn't clap until the end."

AA: We'd always end on a Sam Cooke tune.

DG: Our famous closer of leading the crowd outside to "Soothe Me."

JS: Yeah, some wild nights around midnight leading a band of idiots out into 20 degree weather, marching through the streets in our sort of only us Mardi Gras parade.

AA: When you step outside and your nose is frozen, and your eyelashes are sticking together because of the icicles. Not that we were outside for so long but then you've got to think of the boots that you're wearing, are you going to slip? I think you're so in the adrenaline of it though, and you find the places again where you just get to relish in being a bad***. You're out there with your instruments and your buds and everyone's just having a good time. It's just a part of it. You don't even let it phase you.

DG: The literal physical contrast of warm and cold. It's like, oh yeah, now we're doing the thing, "Soothe me, soothe me." Oh, it's really cold and it's windy and it's probably snowing. There were a handful of times, man, when my slide would literally freeze. Then I would just switch to singing by that point. Like, "Ah, I can't play. Angel you go and take a solo."

AA: It didn't matter where we were at. We would get so creative. I think there was a time when we left the yoga studio. We walked all of the way around and then we were on the brick wall outside.

DG: Philosophically, I know Julian was really interested in breaking down those barriers. He really hated playing in places that had a proper stage. It always made him feel weird to have that separation between the band and the audience. And I forget if he ever said this explicitly, but kind of looking back at who he is/was at that time, it makes perfect sense to me that leaving the venue during "Soothe Me" was a way to break down those barriers and to get the audience involved in the last tune of the night, which is typically you big finish anyway. Then bringing the audience in, it's really special and unique to break down that separation between the musician and audience member, listener, whatever you want to call it. And highlights how we're more similar than not. At the end of the day, we're all leaving the same venue. Some of us are just leaving with instruments.

Angel Adams and the Suits played in and around Laramie for a little over 2 years. As people graduated and moved away, the band naturally dispersed, but the band served its purpose. Like many joyous things in Wyoming - the summer, days without wind - the band was temporary, and it was never meant to be more than temporary. The band created joy during the moment with no expectations beyond that moment.

AA: I don't remember feeling like we want to be a band that makes it or makes CDs or records things. We just wanted to play music, and get experience playing. Live music is different because people don't really remember tiny little mess-ups. You get to learn about forgiving yourself for that and surrendering to the moment and just enjoying being with your friends. And everybody was in grad school or undergrad, so you kind of knew everyone was going to branch out eventually. And I think that helped maintain a lot of the light heartedness.

DG: Whenever I go into a new project, I have next to no expectations. I just kind of want to be there for fun. Once we started playing Swingin' Around Town, I just kind of thought, "Oh, this is going to be my swing dance band. I really do think that those bands really kind of set me up. I gave it my all for that moment, even if it's not "perfect." Then the more that I got to know Julian…that guy really grew to be my mentor as well as I literally took a class from him.

So, this Silly Little Band, as Julian would endearingly christen it, was not the Best God Damn Band in Wyoming. But the story of Angel Adams and the Suits will help us better understand the story of The George Igawa Orchestra, the actual Best God Damn Band in Wyoming.

As we dig into Wyoming's history and excavate the layers, you will notice odd similarities between the two bands that played in Wyoming 70 years apart. We explore these similarities more in part 2, but here are a few of them:

Like the George Igawa Orchestra, Angel Adams and the Suits was led by a professional musician. George Igawa and Julian Saporiti both toured with bands out of the country prior to their times in Wyoming.

Both bands recruited a teenage girl to sing. Angel Adams was 18 and Joy Tekeshta Teraoka was 16.

Both helped spark the careers of musicians who learned under their respective band leaders. Dave Ginger is currently playing in bands in New Orleans and Tets Bessho had success after leaving Heart Mountain.

Both bands were meant to be temporary and both were likely the only swing bands in Wyoming while they were active.

Part 2: The GI Orchestra

Mixtapes are not usually monoliths. If they were, one song would be recorded again and again on both sides of the tape. And that song would provide the only narrative for the mix.

Imagine a tape labeled, "Summer Jams," and "Summertime," sung by Ella Fitzgerald, was the only song repeated throughout the tape. That song would present the lone perspective of summer, and its repetition would reiterate the song's status as the summer experience.

And though Ms. Fitzgerald's singing of "Summertime" is spectacular, this one song does not give as nuanced of a summertime experience as could be reached with a whole variety of songs about summer.

This is why good mixtapes have diversity and why good representations of history should also have diversity. Since history is a mixtape, and mixtapes are not monoliths, recorded history should not be monolithic either. One story, no matter how many times it gets repeated, does not represent all stories from a singular place or a singular moment.

It's worth acknowledging the spectrum of experience, the good and bad and shameful and awesome. And if we listen to enough stories, we might start gathering a more authentic representation of ourselves and of moments in time that we may have forgotten, recorded over, or mythologized.

In Part 2, we focus on hauntings from Wyoming's past. These are stories, like those about the George Igawa Orchestra, that have been overlooked because they don't fit the stereotype or mythology of so many tales that represent the state's history. We use music to access these stories.

Music creates a common experience with which stories can be told. So, after Julian Saporiti saw the photo of the George Igawa orchestra at Heart Mountain, he digs into the history of the band to see how a professional band leader, a kid with only a mouthpiece, a clarinet prodigy, and a teenage class president became the Best God Damn Band in Wyoming.

And Julian's own experience as a band leader in Wyoming helps contextualize what members of the George Igawa Orchestra may have gone through while playing music in Wyoming. But Julian's experience with Angel Adams and the Suits falls short when trying to imagine what it must have felt like to return after a gig to a barrack, faced with machine guns, behind barbed wire fence.

Part 2: The GI Orchestra

Julian started to track down stories about the George Igawa orchestra and its members after seeing the photograph of them while visiting Heart Mountain.

JS: Joy Takeshta, who became Joy Teraoka when she married her husband. When the family had to be evacuated, she was only 15 years old, and she loved jazz. And she's told me that the camp was actually a horrible experience in a lot of ways but the only way she would have ever probably become a professional jazz singer, which she was for a year in camp. And she pursues that and still sings in her nursing home today. So Joy was this really lovable, type-A class president.

George Igawa was in his 30s. He had already been a band leader. He took a band called the Sho Tokyans from LA over to Japan where they had a run at the Florida Ballroom. When he gets to the assembly centers, these makeshift state fairgrounds and race tracks that they put all the Japanese Americans in before moving them out into the interior like Heart Mountain, he forms the Pomonans after talent show.

A seasoned vet at this point, saxophone player, and Joy recalls that they were never close because of that age difference. She's much more in a social group with people like Tets Bessho who was the standout young musician in the camps was - incredible clarinet player. He first comes to the attention of the folks in this community at Pomona at that makeshift assembly center at the talent show that's put on. It's there that he probably captures George Igawa's attention because he's also playing in that talent show. And a week later, the Pomonans form with Tets Bessho in the band with Igawa leading it.

Also, a kid named Yoneo Fukui who saw a flyer that George posted, that's what he told me anyways, and he didn't have a trumpet, but he had a mouthpiece for some reason. So he borrows a trumpet from another kid, goes to try out, and George loves him, and he's in the band. So it's this mix of a few pros - Georgia Igawa, the leader, his old buddy from the Sho Tokyans, Sus Chikami, a few other adults - and then a lot of high school kids or college-aged kids to fill out the roster. So it's a pretty amateur band overall, but it's one of the best of the camp bands

Because of Igawa's leadership, and one of the other reasons he's such a fascinating character and honestly someone who should be remembered in jazz history and musical history is because he was a really skilled arranger. He wasn't just someone who found a spotlight because of the incarceration situation. He was someone who had a band beforehand, had the gumption to go ahead and form a band day one in the assembly center, keep it together, keep that nucleus together, bring it to Heart Mountain, and put on shows like every week, and even travel outside of camp. The whole time he's taking this mixed group of semi-pro and ragtag amateur musicians and shaping them into something pretty good. And really, as an instructor, helping his bandmates reach a musical potential that they probably would never have reached outside of camp. You see that with someone like Tets Bessho who goes on to be a pretty well renowned musician in his post-camp life as an adult.

The other really notable thing about Igawa is that he creates one of the first instances of fusion between Japanese music and western swing music. As an older Nisei, he relates more to that first generation, the Issei generation, of which there was a huge divide between the Nisei and the Issei. This sort of parents/kids divide, but because he's kind of in the middle age-wise, he sort of has more of an empathy for what they are going through than a lot of the teenagers might. And he, at one point, according to Yoneo, the trumpet player, invites three traditional Japanese musicians, koto shamisen shakuhachi, and he is a skilled enough arranger to take both Japanese songs and swing music and write arrangements that incorporates those eastern and western sounds, so to speak. So it's a really remarkable thing that happens in Wyoming, and as a musician, just one of the reasons I like to tell that story.

It's a thing to live in Wyoming. The weather, the amount of space, the landscape. You get to drive those same roads and stop by those same small towns, except for we didn't get kicked out back to a prison camp after we were done with our gig. But you know what it's like to play a Moose Lodge - just play wherever you can 'cause there's not a lot of just music venues in Wyoming. And that's what Igawa and his orchestra did.

It's a little relatable, and it's those relatable moments, as a kid who grew up playing in bands, of going to rehearsals and learning new music and what following along with the sheet music feels like, especially if you didn't practice in between rehearsals, or having to trudge through the snow to get to a gig, you know, carrying your guitar like an umbrella over your head, or a shield rather, and then just getting into someplace that's reasonably warmer to rehearse, and then that feeling of camaraderie, you know.

I remember it from the Angel Adams and the Suits days of horrible, Laramie, negative degree winters with snow piled up and bringing my guitar, and then we'd be wherever we're rehearsing, whatever apartment or classroom we'd find, and there would be Dave Ginger and Jeff Worrell and Angel and we'd just be bull********. And there's the warmth of the actual indoor space, like the warmth of Yoneo coming into the rec hall where they would rehearse and seeing Igawa, Tets, and all his bandmates. There's two kinds of warmths going on: the physical warmth of the built structure within that warmth that bandmates get.

Knowing what it's like to be in a band but not knowing what it's like to be inside of a barrack practicing your instrument with all the oppression and the racism of this historical situation weighing down upon your psyche in some way at least, and then go into rehearsal, what a relief that might be. Because if it was heaven for me to just meet up with a garage band when I was in high school, God knows what kind of salvation this was for these kids and these people.

When filling in blank maps of Wyoming, my 4th grade teacher had us draw a star next to Rock Springs to represent the Rock Springs Massacre where at least 28 Chinese Railroad workers were murdered and to draw a heart by Cody to represent Heart Mountain and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

This was the only time during my Wyoming public education that I heard about two major Asian American experiences in our state's history. They were acknowledged in the same breath and punctuated by a heart.

The Wyoming history I learned mainly dealt with outlaws and dinosaurs. I know that Tom Horn was the last hanged man in Wyoming. I know that Big Nose George's skin, after his demise, was used to make a pair of shoes and part of his skull was used as an ashtray. I know that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out in the Hole-In-The-Wall. I also know that Wyoming is where triceratops and ankylosauruses used to roam. These are Wyoming stories, but they are the stuff of folklore or the fodder for myth making, and they aren't the only stories.

Wyoming's history contains more than dinosaur bones and macabre dress shoes. When the outlaws that I just mentioned were still innocent, President Ulysses S Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act in 1872, which created the first national park but needlessly banned native Americans from Yellowstone, a place they'd called home for thousands of years. The year of Butch Cassidy's death in 1908 correlates with the founding of Empire, Wyoming by African-American homesteaders, a town that's decline started with the police lynching of a town leader in 1913. And in 1942, The George Igawa Orchestra formed in Heart Mountain despite being displaced from their homes and placed behind barbed wire. Too often our history doesn't explore or acknowledge these particular layers of history.

Much of the other Wyoming history I gleaned from my time in school came from an opinion-maker, or a person who had access to mass distribution of their ideas: The Walter Winchells, "AUDIO," or Franklin Delano Roosevelts, "AUDIO."

JS: I never had much time for presidents or generals. You have to have some kind of access point, and for me, as a musician who studies history, who has an affection for history, who thinks it's important, I gotta know who the band was. And then from there, I can learn about the politics and the economics and stuff like that.

Being able to learn what songs Igawa and his orchestra played, and then play them myself, then go to that place and talk to people who are in that band, that's how I get deep.

It's important to learn the big numbers of history and the dates. So it's important to learn executive order 9066 was the thing that Roosevelt signed in February of 1942 that condemned 120,000 Japanese Americans to 10 concentration camps. Those are all important numbers because you do have to flatten the initial learning of history for people who've never heard about it before.

But once you learn those big numbers, then you gotta say, "OK, who are the actual people behind the big numbers." Because as my friend Nobuko Miyamoto, great singer and activist, says, there's 120,000 stories. And so my work is just sort of getting at a few of those in each song, and if there's enough songs, you get at some kind of feeling that might be authentic to how my friend Joy felt in camp or how my friend Yoneo felt in camp.

That's the thing about songs. They can capture little moments, and I'm not trying to write a book that captures every feeling that all 120,000 people in this experience felt. And that's all you can do. Just try to support and accompany those voices as a musician or as a historian. Otherwise, you just memorize a sad abstract thing happened rather than this is how people actually survived it or didn't survive it.

The George Igawa Orchestra gained access to Wyoming communities because of their ability to play music - their talent became a pass. Though they were interned for racist fears, their music helped deconstruct a barrier, at least for a little while.

Julian's use of music to share the stories about people interned at Heart Mountain has allowed these narratives to find new audiences and to start finding their rightful place in Wyoming's layered and diverse history.

Part 3: The Song

Creating a mixtape forces us to reckon with our priorities. With hours of music to choose from and new releases constantly being added to the list of songs jostling for a space on our mixes, we have to make choices because mixtapes only have a finite amount of space. We then privilege certain songs and a certain order for those songs to make up the mix.

The songs we typically choose to include expose our personal values, biases, memories, blind spots, and often how we want to see ourselves. But a quality mix, like a quality record of history, takes more effort and honest self-reflection.

Only recording songs from our past doesn't acknowledge progress and might create a sense of nostalgia that is mythologized or unrealistic. Only including songs from our present disregards our lineage to the past. It also risks erasing an inheritance of histories and stories, whether they're great or shameful, that could give us insight into why we are the way we are.

So though my recent mixtape does not include my childhood favorite, "Baby Beluga" by Raffi, my inclusion of "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues" by the Eels draws attention to a tradition of music that sounds light-hearted but is also focused on environmentalism.

Mixtapes, like histories, are meant to evolve because our realities aren't stagnant. The challenge is to evolve ethically, in a way that avoids erasure by acknowledging mistakes made while giving space to celebrate and allow for creating while including our own histories untethered by a mythology.

In Parts 1 and 2, we heard about Band Leaders putting together bands and filling a need for swing music in Wyoming. We heard stories of music breaking down barriers between musicians and audiences, and how creating an access point to history allows us to have empathy and look beyond abstract numbers that make up many historical records.

In our conclusion, we look at the layers of a song created at the intersection of Wyoming history and personal history.

We will hear about Julian Saporiti's desire to tell the narrative of the George Igawa Orchestra using musicians from his previous bands and sounds from Heart Mountain. We will think about lineage tied to place and our obligation to acknowledge the diverse layers of the past when recording our own complicated personal histories.

Part 3: The Song

My wife, Jennie, our Montenegrin exchange student, Andrija, and I scooted our folding chairs together to share a blanket. The wind shushed through the barrack making a box of white noise, so the musicians had to bellow when they spoke or sang. Music that is brilliant and impactful, was so subtle that we had to strain to hear, but it was important to strain, to hear a voice that was trying to cut through the prattle.

Julian had an internment identification tag tucked in the band of his full-brimmed hat, and Erin wore a sweater made by her grandmother, who had been interned at Heart Mountain.

They'd nod a thank you to the mitten-muffled applause between each song and story told.

And when the concert ended, it was in typical Angel Adams and the Suits fashion. Everyone got on their feet and surrounded the musicians, and joined in the chorus of "The Best, God Damn Band in Wyoming."

This was the first time I had attended a No-No Boy show, and it was the first time I heard this song.

The project, the song, the music, and Julian himself would evolve over the next several years. Relationships from that moment would wax and wane. But this moment is an example of the complicated and layered history of Wyoming. Let's think about the layers in the barrack concert:

Here we were, mostly Wyomingites, mostly white, with at least 1 Montenegrin, sitting in a barrack built for the internment of Japanese Americans on land that was taken from Native Americans at the base of Heart Mountain, which some Crow still call Foretops Father, near two towns named after former Union Soldiers. And we're listening to a son of an Italian American and Vietnamese refuge from Tennessee, accompanied by both the granddaughter of a woman who was interned at Heart Mountain and a guy who happens to be a world renown musician, perform a song about a group of Japanese Americans who played swing music at Heart Mountain and all across Wyoming while living behind barbed wire.

More could be added, but this is enough to show that Wyoming isn't a monolith. This moment represents the amalgamation of diverse life experiences that are present in this state. It also demonstrates an effort to acknowledge the past while adding to the history of Wyoming.

This was Julian's goal for the song, to tell the story of the Best God Damn Band in Wyoming while including his own history.

JS: You want your own history on the record as well as a history you're trying to tell. And in the case of The Best God Damn Band, those histories intersect through Wyoming.

It's kind of a country tune with the swing orchestration on top of it. The orchestration is where the swing music homage comes in because that's layered with clarinets and saxes and trumpets and trombones. All the music that you would have heard in the camps.

Country music was pretty big in the concentration camps. One of the ironic theme songs for those folks was "Don't Fence Me In," which no one ever sang with more complexity or meaning in the American project than those folks trapped behind barbed wire in Wyoming.

The story of the band is the central narrative to the song where you start with Yoneo seeing this flyer to sign up for a band, so he borrows a trumpet to audition. And then Joy meets up with this band at Heart Mountain. George Igawa enters the story. It highlights Tets Bessho. So you have this band and once he joins up, which is actually earlier than you would think from the song, the band's just really popping because by all accounts, he's the All Star.

It travels with them around the state to all these dances: the prom and Thermopolis, the war bond drive in Powell, Mormon dances in Lovell, maybe a gig in Laramie, which Joy remembers that I haven't seen documentation on. And then eventually after the instrumental break, George leaves for Chicago like thousands of Japanese Americans from the camps did. And the band's over, and it's just an inheritance of our state that you can choose to accept or not.

The sound is where it gets interesting. So the sound for all of the album that this appears on, 1975, is made up from percussion samples that are actually pieces of the built environments of the different places I sing about, whether that's Japanese American concentration camps or Vietnamese refugee sites or current detention centers down in Texas or the Angel Island immigration site out in California or just a Chinese graveyard in Oregon or museum piece.

These are all just sounds I've collected, and then through a lot of audio processing and effects turn them into drum kits. So the drum kit you actually hear is just a very compressed and squeezed and edited set of samples taken from the heart mountain barrack and nails that I found in the barrack and windowpanes and just blending sounds until you get something that sounds like a drum kit and then layering it in tons of reverb doesn't hurt since it's not an actual drum kit, so it doesn't sound the best anyways.

It's me and my buddy Wes, one of my oldest musical friends back in Nashville, playing the acoustic guitars and the mandolins and the electric guitars. And then my buddy Danny in New York laying down clarinet and saxes. And then the Wyoming Angel Adams and The Suits horn section putting the horns on top of it.

Place means a lot, so to have these musicians who I played with, maybe not the Best God Damn Band in Wyoming but maybe the 20th best God damn band in Laramie, to have their horns on the record means a lot.

I wanted Wyoming on the record because as much as this is a Japanese American or Asian American history, it's a Wyoming history. It's really important that this story serves people who live in Wyoming both as something to learn from, you know something that we were a part of and guilty in perpetrating the concentration camp, but also a legacy to be proud of. To hold on to this band as a Wyoming band because it didn't play anywhere else but Wyoming. And for three years, they were just really good and brought a lot of joy, not only to their own community stuck behind the barbed wire, but all over the state.

In order to continue to create art and record history that is honest to the space of Wyoming, we have to engage with our past, but a version of our past that hasn't been doctored up to resemble something from a spaghetti western. By listening to unheard and overlooked stories from our past, like those about the George Igawa Orchestra, we can create a future that isn't founded on mythology, so a future that recognizes our flaws and works to address them. It might be a podcast that forces a reckoning with our past, or it may be a play, a painting, or even a folk song like this one.

Thank you for listening. This piece was produced by me, Charles Fournier. Music was provided by Julian Saporiti, The No-No Boy Project, and Angel Adams and the Suits. Special thanks to Dave Ginger and Angelina Adams for interviews. Editing help came from Jennica and Cody Fournier, Emilia Halvorson, Ian Coss, Melodie Edwards, and Julian Saporiti. Historical background and research is from George Yoshida's book, "Reminiscing in Swingtime," Alexandra Villarreal's book, "The Life and Times of Sam Mihara," Robert Galbreath's article, "Making a Home in Empire, Wyo," and David Treuer's article, "Return the National Parks to the Tribes." This was made in collaboration with the No-No Boy Project.

Charles' affection for public radio began in the back seat of cars. He remembers listening to Car Talk and This American Life during drives across Wyoming. Little has changed. Charles fell into volunteering as an Assistant Producer for HumaNature while creating a podcast unit for his high school students. The reporters of WPR graciously taught Charles about the production process, which led to his own contributions to WPR programming and a class project that students still enjoy. Charles has an MA in Literature from the University of Wyoming, and he teaches English and coaches wrestling at East High School in Cheyenne, Wyoming.