Battling Discrimination Through Musical Performance

Keiko Tokunaga is a globally performing violin soloist and chamber musician. In 2020, she received a GRAMMY Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance as part of the quartet for Shaw: Orange.  Praised by Strings Magazine for possessing a sound “with probing quality that is supple and airborne”, Keiko plays an 1845 J. B. Vuillaume violin generously loaned by an anonymous donor. She also enjoys playing on a Baroque-style violin made by Antonio Mariani, circa 1669, formerly in the collection of Gabriel Schaff. Her bow was made by Nicolas Maire circa 1850. In 2021, Keiko organized the Jukebox Concerts to provide artistic outlets for musicians who lost their engagements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The online concert series was made available to subscribers and residents of nursing homes, hospitals, and assisted living facilities across the country.

Later in the year, Keiko created INTERWOVEN. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is a multi-cultural ensemble that aims to eliminate discrimination against the AAAPI (Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander) community by inspiring new collaborations between traditional Asian music and Western Classical music.

When she is not touring the globe, Keiko enjoys her career as an educator. She is currently on faculty at Fordham University.


Iroha: What projects are you currently working on? Please also feel free to mention what you have done most recently or plan to do in the near future.

Keiko: When the pandemic continued into 2021, I created the “Jukebox Concerts” by inviting my musician friends to jam with me. I wanted to pay my friends because I knew how much everyone was hurting from the lack of concert engagements – but I could not fund the project myself. So, I created a profile on Fractured Atlas (this site allows individuals and ensembles to collect tax-deductible donations), sent out mass emails to everyone I knew, and raised the money! I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people supported my project and these artists. “Jukebox Concerts” was a small, short-term project, but it gave me the confidence to start my non-profit INTERWOVEN. Right now, I am drowning in the sea of grant applications. I am working hard to gain funding and exposure to create a more inclusive, harmonious environment for performers, composers, and the tonality of Asian heritage in the world we live in.

Iroha: How do you see your role in society or in business?

Keiko: Asians in the Classical music field have historically been told that they are considered “technically adept, but incapable of emoting because of their cultures,” and therefore are inferior to Caucasian players. These phrases are repeated so much that even Asians began to accept and believe them, but they are simply untrue. From Kabuki to K-drama, examples of our colorful emotions can be seen in many forms, and music is certainly a powerful tool of expression in Asian cultures. By performing pieces that interlace the historical sounds of Asia with European music, my non-profit organization, INTERWOVEN, aims to encourage musicians of Asian descent to be proud of their heritage, as well as to invite non-Asian musicians to be familiar with our soundscape, thus inspiring future collaborations, and new creations.

Iroha: Based on your background, do you have any advice or a message for young people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Keiko: I am a violin teacher and mentor to a wonderful 13-year-old violinist, Aiko. She plays the violin as if her life depends on it (in a good way!), a quality only a few people possess. Unfortunately, many teachers and adults tell her she is too wild and that she needs to “follow the rules”. Through our lessons and conversations, I constantly remind her that expressing herself honestly is the greatest gift she can give to the world. My job as a teacher is to figure out the right techniques to illustrate her vision as a musician. I hope that she can always remember to be proud of who she is wherever life takes her, and I hope other young people follow suit.

Iroha: What is your favorite animal and why?

Keiko: I am a proud servant to my beautiful, proud, and independent cat, Maguro (which means “tuna” in Japanese), who reminds me to love and respect myself daily.

written by Jessica Woolsey

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