Sasha + Kana
Sasha | 2001 | Belgrade, Serbia | Age: 24
Kana | 2003 | Kobe, Japan | Age: 24
Sasha: I came here first as a tourist on a 6 month visa, but I knew that I would want to stay. I was 24, and I stayed with my sister and her husband. I brought just one suitcase and something like $300. Then I applied to school and switched to a student visa. I came here in April 2001, when it was still possible to do that. Then September 11 happened, and the laws started changing, but because I came earlier, they didn’t affect me.
Over the years I learned that I don’t really connect with objects. It’s part of growing up sort of - leaving things behind. But I had a big record collection, and my music was what was most important to me.
Kana: It’s not a big collection. It’s enormous. Our whole apartment is about his collection. Every single drawer is for his music.
Sasha: This was a catalog of my collection. I wrote down my vinyls by hand, and I had a system - a notation for CDs, for LPs, if it was recorded from an LP. It was probably one of the most important therapies. The first time I visited New York, I went back to Serbia with over 200 vinyl records. Imagine carrying 200 records on the plane. It was super heavy! But this is what’s most important to me because this is how my musical life started. And this has helped me to be neat and organized in other parts in my life. Right?
Kana: It depends. But you can learn quickly. I’m really organized in the home, but with some things, like collectibles, you’re better. I don’t have those skills. You have another notebook in which you had listed all the concerts that you attended. And you take notes for your students with these small letters. So one page can encompass an entire month.
So if I want to take out a record and play it, he always tells me to make sure I put it back in the right order. Records, DVDs, CDs.
Sasha: In Serbia, I was always collecting bootlegs and recordings of the Deep Purple shows because they would play every show differently. Kind of jazzy take on hard rock. So I have a whole drawer that’s Deep Purple related - off bands too. You can imagine how many releases. So after years of going back and forth, I brought my CDs from Serbia and combined them with my collection here.
Kana: He can have a museum or a library. He also has 20 guitars, so when we moved into this apartment, I said that everything has to be hidden because I wanted the apartment to have my style. When I would pick a furniture piece, he would always ask if it would fit all of his CDs. Come on! I was buying furniture not only to store his CDs! I also had things I wanted to store! It’s funny actually, but it is a balance - it’s my style, but it houses his collection.
Sasha: My friends and I illustrated our own album covers. We started at 15 and did it until we were about 20. My parents were permissive, so my apartment was the hangout for everyone. So my rule was that everyone who would come over would have to record a song, even if they were not musically inclined. By the time I was 20 years old, I had about 500 of these songs. And I’ve been recycling many of them - in our children’s classes, even in our albums. I’d rearrange them in a more serious context.
These songs are more like teenage parodies of things. Some of the names of these old albums: On the Waves of Romance. Armed with Songs. Alcoholism: Life on Two Lanes. Hey Brothers, Let’s Sing and Raise Our Glasses. Guilty of Love in the First Degree. I illustrated half of this one and my friend did the other half, and you can see our different styles. The Liver Disease. Why, How, and How Much We Owe. Even when things were out of tune, I’d still hear the song underneath the song. I heard my symphonies in my mind. They were a way for us to cope with what we were living in. We’d socialize with friends through music, and we’d learn from each other. Everything would start with the ridiculing of a system or whatever teenagers complained about. I digitized these, and when I go back and play these properly, I can see that some can actually stand on their own. When I started recording, I’d immediately record an idea that would come to me. If it wasn’t perfect, I’d clean up the recording, make some adjustments, proper mastering, etc. I even released some, and a few got good reviews. There’s something special about spontaneous, unarranged recording.
Sasha: My parents have even more of my records at their home, and even now, they are still in the same order as they were when I left. As is common there, at the age of 24, I was still living in the same place as I did when I was 2.
Kana: He taught himself music.
Sasha: I had just graduated with a degree in anthropology, before coming to NY, and I loved living here and meeting people from all over the world. I was living what I had studied. Statistically, Queens is the most diverse place in the world.
Kana: You can really see that in our Hug Melody classes. There are nannies, parents and kids of different colors, different languages, and they all connect through music.
Sasha: That’s what makes me feel so at home here. This is my real vision of New York. This is what I had wanted. When I was looking for a neighborhood to settle in, I would observe the people getting off the subway. I wanted to be in a diverse neighborhood.
We both come from homogenous cultures. Serbia is very interesting; it was part of former Yugoslavia, which was a collection of all these different nations that functioned together, but they were under the communist/socialist/Soviet label. When it split, all the sides became super nationalist. So it was a mess for like the decade of my formative years. You had to kind of find your way. If you had your own interests, you were ok. Music was mine. This was the time that records were just discarded, so they were cheap, and you could discover great stuff. Every Sunday morning, I would sacrifice my sleep, and get up early to go to the record market and spend 3 or 4 hours browsing. I would skip lunches during the week and save the lunch money my parents would give me with any pocket change I had. I come from a middle class family. The money was never abundant, but I never felt that I was lacking for anything. I’m so thankful for that. So these are my treasures. I’ve listened to every single record at least 3 times to give it a chance, and that’s how I’ve built my musicality.
I don’t come from a musical family. I don’t have more of a musical predisposition than anyone else. In Serbia, we had a basic musical education, like solfege, as part of the school curriculum. I got my first guitar at 13, which is not young. I have good relative pitch mostly due to listening.
I learned how to tune relatively by jamming with friends. We didn’t have a pitch pipe, so we’d tune according to the distance between two notes. When I came to the U.S. it was such a surprise to have access to a good tuner. What a privilege to have a guitar stay tuned! I never get bored with discovering instruments.
Kana: My music background is completely different from Sasha’s. My training is very formal. I started music lessons when I was 3. I studied classical piano at a music college and jazz at the conservatory in Japan, and then I studied music therapy at Berklee College of Music.
When we compose together, we communicate by feeling each other. But when I want to express something subtle I use technical language, and Sasha doesn’t always know what I mean. It’s fine that he doesn’t write down the score, but he would record me playing my piece
while I’d listen to his composition for the first time. I’d ask him to at least tell me what key it was in, and he’d say, “Probably A Major.” What does ‘probably’ mean? I’d have to listen and improvise on the spot. And afterwards he’d tell me it was fantastic. I’d want to listen and do it again, but he’d wave me off. That would frustrate me, because I aimed to be perfect. I know that’s impossible.
Sasha: But the results were great! The record label represents diverse artists from all over the world, and they sent it out to like 30 countries. We get reviews in so many different languages, we couldn’t translate them all. Someone in TimeOut Magazine discovered the album without any PR and gave it a good review too.
Kana: Yes, we got very positive reviews, but if I’d start getting picky about my performance, I’d want to redo some parts. And that frustration stayed with me, and I’ve tried communicating with Sasha about it. His understanding of music is that it has to be more spontaneous, fresher, and I know that and I appreciate that. But I still want to feel like I’m doing my best. We are now releasing another album, and this one we took almost 2 years to finish.
Sasha: We went at our own pace, and this one is mostly live. Sometimes overdubbed live with an additional guitar to add texture. So it’s a different approach. The last one had 9 or 10 different guests that come from 8 different countries. This one is just us, with one guest.
Kana: For this one, I communicated with Sasha that even though I appreciate his approach, I want to challenge myself. In this album there are more compositions that I had originally written, so it’s a little bit more complicated. Every time we recorded I felt like I wasn’t expressing enough, that something was missing, but I couldn’t tell what it was. And sometimes I would cry after the recording session. And Sasha would tell me how amazing it was, but I would still cry. I had to talk to my counselor about it because it frustrated me so much. But at the same time it showed me how much love and passion I had in music. I even started to take professional lessons in classical piano to get advice, more perspective. And I started to feel good about myself again after practicing, and I would cry and think, “Why did I compose such a difficult song?” And when we finished recording for this album and I listened to it, I said, “We did it!” I was happy, after two years!
Kana: I’m not like Sasha. I don’t have many objects. This is my book of jazz standards. I switched from classical to jazz, but by now I don’t even separate the two. It’s just music. I used this to gain tools for what I wanted to express. Now sometimes my music sounds classical; sometimes it sounds like jazz. But I wouldn’t call myself a jazz musician because I don’t do standards anymore. And I wouldn’t call myself a classical pianist. I’m a pianist. I’m Kana. And I like to improvise, so jazz training helped me to improvise. So this is what I was doing here - spontaneously improvising to see what would come out.
I came here in 2003 to study English. I was 24. I was already a professional jazz musician in Japan, and this is something that I always carried. I had memorized all the notes in here, so these would be for the bassist. My philosophy is to play by memory, so I would give this to the musicians I would play with. I would also practice with a metronome, though I don’t use it anymore. I don’t use standards anymore either. I like to play my own compositions.
The notebook was my security blanket when I came to the States. I didn’t speak English at all. I could say, “Hi my name is Kana. Please help me.” The first place I went was San Jose. people on the West Coast were very interested in Japanese culture. I could get help easily, but I was frustrated because I couldn’t express myself well. And when I’d get tired, I’d find a piano at the school, and somebody would come by when I started to play. I was an English language student, but then I was introduced to a professor in the jazz department at San Jose University. He wanted to audition me, and I agreed without really understanding what he wanted to do. When I played for him, he told me I had passed everything. He asked me to come to all the classes, for free. I even had my own driver, a student who would take me to class because they relied on me. I’d be the soloist for concerts without actually being a student there. I was hired to play their graduation ceremony. I started to get students, guys working in SIlicon Valley. Then I started to get gigs. I still didn’t speak English! So this was a good way to communicate with other musicians, which allowed me to be myself. That’s why I always carried this.
Kana: We had mutual friends, and we met at a concert in September 2012. Music connected us. We started to jam. We were good friends.
Sasha: We were really connected as friends, and everything blossomed from there. We played together for a few months before we started a romance. We would compose together, work on projects together. In the first 6 months, we saw over 20 shows together. We would play 2 or 3 times a week.
Kana: That was right when Hurricane Sandy happened, so no one could work. Sasha’s work stopped. I had private students that still came to my place though. He would take the car service from his place in Brooklyn to my place in Queens. Long distance romance! And we would compose together.
Sasha: We composed many songs at that time. Then we began a romance, and we became very passionate about our respective stances in music, so rehearsals would end in tears. Now recently we had a mixing session for a new album. We went through 10 songs without tears.
Kana: Music is our language. We stand behind our own points of view… and get frustrated.
Sasha: It’s really been a part of our personal growth, of really learning how to do it more efficiently together. And I think Kana has grown throughout the album, as she mentioned. She started doing her solo improvisations toward the end of the recording sessions.
Kana: There were a few songs that I had composed that I couldn’t get through. It’s difficult, loud, rock ‘n roll, heavy metal. So I had a really hard time, and Sasha suggested I take a break and just improvise. And it was so light and fun and as I heard the music inside of me, I was ready to play. And then I listened to that recording of my solo, and for the first time in my life, I approved. I thought, “Wow! I AM really good.” It’s very difficult for musicians to approve of themselves because they are their own critics. That kind of opened up something inside of me. Sasha had been telling me that I have the ability to create music on the spot, but finally I understood. Sasha really saw the potential that I didn’t believe enough, and he just threw out that suggestion at the right moment. I remembered how much I love playing piano. I remembered playing and playing when I got my organ when I was 3. I wish my parents had a recording of me, but they are not musicians, so they thought all kids could play like that. But in hindsight, I know I was playing really well because I’d play both hands and I could copy my teacher. My parents never told me to practice. I’d just do it on my own for hours every day.