Dim Sum Diva

Why is R&B veteran Patti Austin making her comeback singing in Mandarin?

After Austin sang just one line in perfect Mandarin, the gathering of mostly well-coiffed, well-heeled, middle-aged Asian women roared. The cheers and applause -- as if the audience were made up of young girls hearing the Beatles for the first time -- stopped Austin cold. When she delivered a second flawless line, the roar was deafening.

"It was like 10,000 volts of electricity zapping through the audience," Bagaman, who was backstage, says. "Patti sang with such passion and power."

Austin was so taken aback, in fact, that she broke down laughing in the middle of the song.

Close-up: Patti Austin tapes a commercial in Mandarin 
at Chinese-language TV station KTSF.
Paolo Vescia
Close-up: Patti Austin tapes a commercial in Mandarin at Chinese-language TV station KTSF.
The Producer: Lulu Bagaman calls her East-West 
concerts "Papillon."
Paolo Vescia
The Producer: Lulu Bagaman calls her East-West concerts "Papillon."

"They love me, Carlton!" she shouted off-microphone to Liu, sitting behind her at the piano. Turning back to the crowd with a huge smile, she said, "You guys are going to spoil me forever. Be still my heart."

After the song, Austin spoke to the audience about the obvious cultural and racial juxtaposition. "You're probably wondering why we asked you here tonight," she announced. "The reason is that we need to learn everything we possibly can from each other. And the best way I know how is through music and food -- and you can tell which one I've done more than the other! These are the things that speak to all of us."

When the house lights came up, Austin scanned the crowd for Mayor Brown.

"Where are you, my darling?" she called out from the stage. It didn't take long for her to find him in the crowd. "There you are -- oh my God, look at you! So much for being incognegro, as we say at home."

The audience offered a polite, nervous laugh.

"Willie got that joke," Austin replied, before launching into one of her hit songs.

Austin isn't shy in offering her opinion on the historically tense race relations between Asian-Americans and African-Americans.

"What you have is the white establishment telling the Asians how much smarter and brighter and more wonderful they are than these black folks," she says. "So they believe the lie they get told, and go on thinking, 'We're doing blacks a favor by having our store in their community. Because, you know, all blacks do is rape, rob, and pillage.'

"And now," she continues, "the black folks are thinking, 'Your ass just got here, how dare you give me attitude? You just got off a boat. My ass was dragged here on a boat 400 years ago, and you're looking at me sideways? Well, I got news for you buddy -- if you get in trouble, the white folks are going to treat you just like they've treated me.'

"So that's what the vibe is," she says, "and it's all ignorant."

The other racially controversial issue that will be apparent at the Austin/Yip concert has to do with musical style and rhythm. While Austin scats in the way of Ella Fitzgerald, Yip says she's unsure she'll have the courage to attempt the technique -- even as Austin sings in Yip's native language.

"I really like it, but I've never sung in the R&B style. Who knows, I may try it, but I don't know if I could ever scat like Patti does," Yip says. "It's something you're either born with or not. You've got to have it in you."

Bagaman echoes that sentiment. "Scatting is definitely not in the Asian blood. And I can speak to that -- I'm Asian, I know music, and I'm sorry, but I can't scat," she says. "Maybe one Chinese child in a million is born with that soulful rap in him. I say this diplomatically, but only black artists can truly scat."

Austin agrees, to an extent. "I don't think it's racist for Lulu to say Asians can't scat. They don't scat, and why should they?" she asks. "That comes out of our life experience. You cannot endure slavery and all the things black people have endured and not have certain characteristics come out of it.

"But I think there's a hidden soulfulness in everyone, and that all music has a soulfulness to it," she adds. "The same funk I hear in black music may not be going on innately in Asian music, but that's because it's got its own kind of groove. My God, the Chinese people have an incredible soulfulness. Go to China and see all the bright red everywhere, the powerful dragons on the walls, and listen to the drums. There is a tremendous energy. The Chinese know how to boogie like the people of New Orleans know how to party."

For Ella debuted May 21, a prelude to Austin's shows with Yip next week. On her newest album, Austin perfectly re-creates Ella Fitzgerald's greatest songs and performances, paying homage to every nuance. Beyond promoting the CD, Austin will spend the rest of the year honing a one-woman show to be staged at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre; later, she hopes to bring it to Broadway. "It will be very revealing," she says. Austin intends to address all the issues she's dealt with: becoming famous while young, forging a career after the spotlight dims, and living today as an aging diva. In talking about the show, she's candid about how it feels not to have become an industry legend.

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