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Connection, culture inspire VeryAsian VA Celebration co-founder

Jay Pun at one of his restaurants.
Terri Allard
Jay Pun stands in his restaurant, Chimm, in front of artwork created by artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya.

Jay Pun is a busy guy. A Berklee College of Music graduate, Pun performs in two bands, co-owns three family-run Thai restaurants and teaches music at Renaissance School in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Married to his musical partner, violinist Morwenna Lasko, Pun is also the proud father of two young daughters — who already show an affinity for music — and the author of the children’s book, “Som Tum and Sticky Rice.” Illustrated by Emily Ramai Kim, the story celebrates a young girl’s Thai culture as she describes making her favorite dish with her mother.

For Pun, writing the book was an extension of his journey to better connect to his Thai heritage and culture after he partnered with his father, a retired orthopedic surgeon, to open a restaurant.

Pun — whose parents moved from Thailand to the United States in the ‘70’s to pursue medical residencies — was born and raised in Charlottesville. As he puts it, he "grew up very Western.”

“I realized when we opened Thai Cuisine [and Noodle House] I had a lot of learning to do about my culture. Before opening the restaurant, I didn't have any Asian friends ... not a real one. So, I started really relearning things.”

After Pun and his father opened a second restaurant — Chimm — in 2018, his drive to educate himself and others about Thai culture grew even greater.

“I just became more proud of my people, if you will,” said Pun. “I wanted to teach Charlottesville, because I think it is a progressive city, to some degree, in learning about food. It's still not there yet ... but both restaurants have brought new things [dishes] to the area. I was proud of that.”

A deadly attack during the pandemic on Asian women at three Atlanta spas spurred him to reach out beyond his restaurants to raise “awareness of Asian people being ‘okay,’ — that we're community members also,” he said.

“And just to be the best father I can be because you want to continuously inspire your kids. Teach them that they can do anything, that they are equal.”

It was then that he co-founded the VeryAsian VA group and VeryAsian VA Celebration, an annual event held in May in honor of Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month.

The goal of the gathering is “to better highlight the breadth of ways Asian Americans exist and thrive here in Charlottesville/Central Virginia, and to celebrate the many different facets of Asian American cultural expression and heritage,” event co-founder and University of Virginia Assistant Professor, Sylvia Chong, wrote on the webpage.

“I'm hoping for it to grow and to be a place just to celebrate specifically Asian American representation,” said Pun. “We don't want to be tokens of ... things that are tying us back to an image that just pigeonholes us into one thing. We want to be known as everyone else but celebrated for our differences. And I think that's the beauty of these types of gatherings and events.”

Now in its third year, the multi-event celebration includes a May 10 concert at Ting Pavilion as part of Charlottesville’s free Fridays After Five series. The show features a variety of musical styles and cultural performances, including AfroAsia — a band Pun founded last year and describes as “a mix of Southeast Asian funk and Black American soul.” The group features Houston Ross on bass, Ivan Orr on keyboards, Kofi Shepsu on drums, Mike Chang on guitar and Pun playing the Phin — a type of lute, originating in the Isarn region of Thailand.

Other performers include Tina Hashemi, Freddy Lau, Sylvia Chong and Dhara Goradia’s trio, DG3, with David Sun and Kelli Strawbridge. Pun and Lasko will kick off the concert backed by Pete Spaar on bass and Strawbridge on drums.

Pun met Lasko — whom he refers to as, “... unknowingly, the best teacher I've ever had” — when they were students at Berklee, where he was studying guitar and songwriting. This year marks the couple’s 20th anniversary performing together.

In that time, they’ve released two albums — “Chiogga Beat” and “The Hollow,” — toured Europe twice and played venues and festivals such as The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, FloydFest and Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.

“I'm very happiest when I play music with her,” said Pun of performing with Lasko, a classically trained violinist and gifted improvisor. “There's nothing better.”

Their sound alternates between acoustic and electric, depending on the show, and stems from many influences, including jazz, funk, Worldbeat and classical music.

“There's...something magical when we play music — it's stronger than anything,” said Pun. “It's like walking down a sandy beach with your lover. You know, it's just ... the most beautiful sunset.”

Pun was first drawn to music as a young child, watching Michael Jackson sing. He, too, wanted to be the singer on the stage. For a while, he studied classical piano. At twelve, he became interested in drums and took lessons from respected Charlottesville-based drummer and percussionist, Robert “Jos” Jospé.

Pun went on to play electric guitar in high school and then switched his focus to acoustic guitar. Inspired by guitarists Pierre Bensusan and Michael Hedges, he began playing primarily in the open tuning of DADGAD. By his senior year, he became such a proficient player, he was invited to travel to France to study for a week with Bensusan.

Pun has been fortunate to learn from many of his musical heroes throughout his career, including Dr. Roland Wiggins and LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band.

“It is the most beautiful language,” said Pun. “Listening to music, melodies, rhythm, intertwined together and people playing it. But I think it — not to sound too corny — it is beyond that because of the exact point that it is a vibration. And you feel that. And when we talk to one another, it's making music ... too.”

While Pun knows and appreciates music theory, referring to himself as a “theory nerd,” he also encourages his Renaissance School ensemble class to connect with one another through improvisation: to communicate by feeling the music.

“I tell them, ‘Mess up,’” he said. “It’s OK. Do it!’”

“I think of music as more of a metaphor for improvising in real life,” said Pun. “... I often say when we're playing songs in our [Renaissance School] student ensemble, if you walk down the sidewalk, and you trip, you don't say, ‘Oh, no, I’ve got to start that over again.’ You keep going because no one's going to tell.”

It appears to be advice Pun has taken to heart as he juggles his many roles. Much like improvising, with support from family and friends, he always looks for ways to weave the pieces together to create better communication and understanding.

“The thread is connection,” said Pun, “and just trying to be the best that I can be, to as many people, especially my family and my community — my multiple communities — as I can be.”

The VeryAsianVA website includes additional information about this year’s celebration.

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