Singer/Songwriter Jimmy Fong Bridges Cultures, with Help from John Denver

OCT. 17 CONCERT BENEFITS ERIC LARSEN ENDOWMENT AT UNM

Gig Photo 1 Growing up in Penang, Malaysia, in the ’60s, singer/songwriter Jimmy Fong encountered
popular Western music on the radio, thanks to a nearby Australian air base and a steady flow of Americans on R&R from Vietnam. The songs of one artist, in particular, captured Fong’s ear: John Denver.

Fong’s fascination with this native New Mexican (Roswell; December 31, 1943) put him on a
musical path that has made him a popular entertainer in Australia, where he now lives, and the Far East. That path led to a meeting with his idol when Denver toured through Malaysia, and it is bringing him to Albuquerque, where he will share his story in a multimedia concert titled “My Time with John Denver,” backed by the award-winning local band Breaking Blue. Proceeds from the event, sponsored by ListenABQ and the New Mexico Music Awards, will benefit the Eric Larsen Endowment at UNM, which offers scholarships to students who have declared music or the recorded arts as their major.

Seduced by Sound
When Fong first came into contact with Denver’s music, he spoke no English. (He speaks it
fluently now, along with four other languages.) What captured him was “the tone,” he says, “the sound of the guitar,” and he knew he wanted to be able to play like that.

Lucky for Fong, his auntie had a boyfriend who had a guitar, and when the boyfriend
disappeared from the scene, he left the guitar behind. With the trouble times in Malaysia in the late ’60s/early ’70s, a curfew was imposed, which helped Fong improve his technique. “I thought, ‘Well, I have to kill my time,’ ” he says. “I thought a good way to educate myself was to teach
myself how to play guitar.”

As his skills improved on the instrument, he began to mimic the sound of the lyrics. “Like the Beatles would be on the airwaves. What the hell were they singing about? I didn’t know,” he says. That sparked his passion to learn the language.

Fong went on to build a successful career as an entertainer, and in 1994, when Denver passed through Malaysia on tour, Fong got to meet and perform with his idol, capturing footage of their time together with his Hi8-format camera. You need only look at the image below to see what it meant to him.11059642_10204179414993325_8169500192704065621_n

Come Together
Fong marvels that what Denver was saying in his music “somehow, all those years ago, got through to somebody from another part of the world and was well received.” The lesson, he says, is that people are all the same the world over.

“There is no difference in music between whether I’m from a Buddhist background or you’re from a Catholic background,” he says. “Music has no boundaries, and I’m here to prove it.”

In “My Time with John Denver,” through Denver’s music and some of his own, Fong hopes to change attitudes, to help people move pass prejudices and stereotypes. He notes, for example, how politicians use the difference in skin color to segregate races and to win votes for
themselves. “I know what it’s like when you live in a society where every minute you’re told that you are the second class,” he says. “That stunts growth, and Malaysia is a good example of that, and I don’t want any other country to repeat that.”

The New Mexico Connection
Several years ago, as Fong was preparing his first album, Just When You Thought, a friend advised him that he needed to get the tracks mastered. “I didn’t even know what mastering was all about,” he says. Shortly after this exchange, Fong was flipping through Acoustic Guitar magazine and came across an ad for High Fidelity Mastering, an award-winning company here in
Albuquerque, run by Andy Rogulich. (The company is a sponsor of this site.)

Fong contacted Rogulich via the Internet. “Andy said to me, “Why don’t you send your track over. I’ll master half of the track—he’s also a businessman, you see—so that you can tell the mastered from the unmastered,’ ” says Fong. Rogulich got the job. He mastered that album and is now working on another for Fong, A Tribute to John Denver.

So when Fong was invited to perform at the annual John Denver Celebration in Aspen,
Colorado, this year, he thought it would be a good idea to get down to New Mexico, meet Rogulich, and give a little back to Denver’s native state.

“I’ve been meaning to find a way to say thank you to him,” Fong says. “Music is about sharing, and inspiration is about sharing, too.”

MTWJD albumSo Fong contacted Rogulich and proposed
doing his “My Time with John Denver”
concert, which features some of the 1994 footage, in Albuquerque, with the proceeds going to a local charity of Rogulich’s choice. Rogulich immediately contacted José Ponce at New Mexico Music Awards, who has worked with the city’s music office and others to make Fong’s offer a reality. Choosing the Eric Larsen Endowment was a no-brainer, as the late Larsen, a well-respected sound engineer, helped found the organization that came to be called New Mexico Music Awards.

For Fong, the opportunity to give back to New Mexico is also an opportunity to share his
message, and the role of Denver’s music in his personal story. “A lot of us take things for
granted. You know, what you have every day, you don’t really think a lot about it or treasure what you have,” he says. “Sometimes is does take another person from another place, another time, another background to point out some of the simplest things of all.”

Jimmy Fong
My Time with John Denver
Saturday, October 17, 6:30 p.m.
Kimo Theater
421 Central Ave. NW, Albuquerque
Tickets are $20.00 / $18.00 for seniors and students and available here.

© 2015 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

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