The vision, the voice, the gift of Lisa Kori

Courtesy photo Lisa Kori will be in concert on Wednesday, June 26, at Society Hall.

She is performing June 26 at Society Hall

ALAMOSA – In a single image, the photo on the promotional poster “Daughter of the American West” encapsulates the expansive spirit of the music of singer-songwriter Lisa Kori.

Against a rich, deep red background (a significant color in both China and Japan), the striking woman of East Asian ancestry dons the iconic symbols of Western culture and music. Black cowboy hat. Black cowboy boots. A gaze that speaks of independence and strength. But, while wearing a Chinese silk dress, she is also surrounded by Chinese porcelain and pieces of Japanese pottery.

The message is clear. Listen closely. There is more to be discovered here.

On Wednesday, June 26, at Society Hall, Santa Fe-based musician Kori will take the stage with a full band to present "Daughter of the West - Songs of Chinatowns, Japanese plantation workers and the Old West", an original project inspired by the history and musical contributions of Asian-Americans in the American West.

Those listening to Kori’s music will find it captivating. Her songs embody the heartfelt substance and style of country and folk, yet there is something else residing in the music, a different element that is new yet familiar, different yet the same, adding richness and texture to a familiar sound.

For those who know her story, none of this comes as a surprise. Kori has had a unique vision of herself, her life and, ultimately, her ancestral past since she was a little girl.

Born in Hawaii because her parents were wind surfing there at the time, Kori was the only child of free-spirited parents who “were kind of the black sheep” in the family.

“They lived to ski and surf and had a real adventurous, follow-your-heart attitude,” she says. “It wasn’t a very common way to be in the Asian-American culture and I feel very blessed to have been raised to pursue what it is that is my own path and makes me happy. Very blessed.”

When she was young, her tiny family moved to Ashland, Ore., a cultural mecca for galleries and the performing arts. Although her parents’ interests did not include music – in fact, her parents sold their entire music collection when she was young - Kori started taking piano lessons when she was eight and “almost immediately, I started writing my own songs before I could even read music.”

Growing up, she did not have “much access to anything” like movies or, more specifically, music, which led her to largely create her own. It was a solitary pursuit. Somewhere in those early years, she started playing folk guitar, as well.

 As Kori’s skills at the piano grew, her talent became increasingly apparent. By the time she was in high school, she was being mentored by a well-known concert pianist and started competing while also being a regular in pit orchestras around town.

In high school, Kori decided she wanted to go to Oberlin Conservatory of Music, one of the most prestigious music colleges in the nation. Financially, it was out of the question. So, while she was in her last year of high school, she spent six months teaching herself to compose chamber music, missing out on weekend dates with friends, going to prom, basically being a high school kid.

“It was a really big sacrifice when I was in high school…to miss parties and prom and all of that. But when I have an idea of creatively what I want to do, I’m willing to work really hard,” she says.

Kori had originally been studying to be a concert pianist but transitioned to music composition. That suited her better but still left her lacking because she knew what she was composing “wasn’t going to be heard by anyone.”

With what seems to be a seeker’s heart, Kori switched her major to “New Media” – think electronic music, art, film – which ultimately led to receiving a fellowship that called for her to study electronic music and sound art in fifteen countries around the world, documenting the creators she met.  

Listening to Kori’s story, it is easy to think that each step is taking her further and further into some unknown, yet to be discovered place. But once it becomes known how her story turns out – at least, so far – it becomes even more clear that the further away Kori traveled, the closer she came to finding herself.

As had happened in previous times when she literally “worked herself sick”, as they say, Kori became chronically ill and, through a series of circumstances, ended up living off the grid in New Mexico.

At first, there was “so much brown and no green anywhere”, but gradually she began to get a stronger sense of where she was. “There’s still a sense of wildness there, like it’s on the edge of the known world. It’s the frontier of the American imagination with very old ways and old ways of living.”

Being surrounded by a sense of history embedded into all that’s seen turns a person’s thoughts to their own history, so when she received some photos of previous generations in her family who “looked just like cowboys with big hats and boots”, Lisa Kori embarked on a different type of journey, one that traveled into her past and enriched her present.

She writes, “As a musician of Japanese and Chinese descent with a love of folk music, I’ve been wondering what songs my Chinese ancestors brought to the U.S. when they emigrated during the gold rush, and what songs my Japanese ancestors sang while working the sugar plantations of Hawaii. I wonder about the arduous labor of the Chinese who built the railroads and wish I could hear their work songs. Why didn’t their music become part of the landscape?”

Kori may not be able to answer the “why” in that question, but she is answering other questions she has had with her own creations and compositions.

“My music imagines what it would sound like if elements of Japanese and Chinese music had become a natural part of American roots music.”

“Daughter of the West” is not an homage to the past, it is, in many ways, a nod to the present and the future. “It is a collection of songs of Asian-American hopes and dreams.”

And since Kori is not able to take those of us who love her music with her into the world, she is bringing the world to those who are just waiting to discover her music.

On Wednesday, June 26, Kori will be appearing at Society Hall. This concert was made possible by a grant, awarded to Kori, from Howlin' Dog Music Group, an Alamosa-based non-profit made up of people who believe in the power of collective action to find new and sustainable ways of supporting the music we love.

Society Hall is at 4th Street and Ross Avenue in Alamosa. The concert begins at 7:30 pm. Doors open at 6:30. Buy tickets at the door or online at