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'Initial Here': Jazz Musician Linda Oh Plays Out Her Heritage

Linda Oh's latest album, <em>Initial Here</em>, was released May 22.
Vincent Soyez
Courtesy of the artist
Linda Oh's latest album, Initial Here, was released May 22.

Jazz bassist and bandleader Linda Oh says her new album, Initial Here, is an exploration of her heritage. She was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, but as a toddler, she moved with her family to Australia.

Oh started taking piano lessons there when she was 4. Music was just a hobby back then, but once her uncle strapped a bass guitar around her neck, that's when she fell in love.

Oh cut her teeth playing bass in both jazz and rock bands all over her hometown of Perth in Western Australia.

"It's actually a really great scene over there," she tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "I got to see a lot of great musicians and that inspired me to actually take a step further and actually go to college and take up upright bass and pursue it as a career."

Her parents weren't thrilled with the idea at first.

"I have two older sisters and they're both actually doctors. And also, just the typical, maybe Asian-family mentality was that music was something more of a backup," she says, "something to help us grow as people but not really seen as a profession."

Though they "flipped out a little bit" initially, she says now they're very supportive.

"They've not avid jazz listeners, so a lot of it ... kind of goes a bit over their head," she says, "but I think just the fact that I stuck with it despite skepticism ... I think they are pretty proud."

Interview Highlights

On the track 'Desert Island Dream,' about her family's journey from Malaysia to Australia

"Throughout the generations, from southern China through to Malaysia, a lot of Chinese ended up moving from China to Thailand and Malaysia — in many cases, involuntarily [during the Cultural Revolution era]. Some of my family moved through, from China through to Thailand."

"Hearing the stories of what my family's been through, it's kind of inspiring to know that I'm playing jazz music now as a living."

On the transition to life in a new country

"My very first memory was the day that we moved from Malaysia to Australia [when I was 3]. I just remember waking up in the morning and everything was in boxes and then moving to Perth in Western Australia during wintertime. Perth doesn't get too cold, but in comparison to Malaysia ... it was a huge shift. And it was a tough time for my family, too, like it is for any family who immigrates.

"At the time, there was still a lot of negative sentiment towards immigrants in general in Australia. I see a lot of similarities between Australia and America about immigration, illegal immigration. And for a long time, Australia did have a White Australia Policy, and it made it difficult for people who weren't white or of European descent to immigrate. So, it was a tough time."

On traveling back to China, physically and through language

I went to Shanghai, which is where my grandmother was from. I learned Mandarin when I was a small child, but at the time when we were growing up in Perth ... I guess there weren't that many Asian kids in our school, and we didn't have that many Asian friends so the idea of learning Mandarin was kind of a little bit pointless to us at the time, because we were working so hard to integrate."

"We tried lots of different things to make sure that we felt settled, you know? But now, as an adult looking back on it, it's a real shame that we didn't get more into Mandarin. So it's been awesome to actually go back — I've been taking classes at NYU to actually get back to my roots and study Mandarin and it was great to go to Shanghai to actually put that into practice."

"I wrote one tune called 'Thicker Than Water,' and that was in dedication to my mother and my grandmothers. It's half in Mandarin, half in English, and I had a fabulous singer, Jen Sheu. These lyrics all refer to small things to do with my grandmothers' and my mother's lives."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff