As its demographics shift, the Eastside begins to sing a different tune.

What makes a musical sound distinctive? Its pitch, volume, attack, duration – and, perhaps most crucially, something called “timbre” or “color.” That said, you wouldn’t think the color of the performers would particularly characterize a music scene, but in some ways it does, says Ruth Brewster, director of the Bellevue Youth Symphony Orchestra. “Ten years ago, the orchestra was 25 percent Asian. Now it’s 55 percent Asian, and probably only 35 percent white, the remainder being everything else. Indians and Pakistanis are included in that 35 percent Caucasian total, and they’re a growing population. So, just as the downtown area is changing in color and culture, so is the music scene.”

BYSO kids make world music in a school district where eighty-four languages are spoken and white students are now the minority. Photograph by Donna Fisher.

“This is not the Bellevue of ten years ago, or even five,” says Stephen Elliott, who puts musical and other acts onstage at the Meydenbauer Center. “There’s been a tremendous influx, especially of Indian software engineers. We see Indian dance and music, Chinese opera, the Via Romen gypsy band from the East Coast.” “There was a Chinese youth orchestra that plays a combination of Chinese and Western instruments at Meydenbauer,” recalls Brewster. “The place was absolutely packed.” 

“People move in and bring their customs with them,” says Elliott. This can involve novel challenges compared to the old days. “When we were more monochromatic, I could book a church school for a retreat,” says Brewster. “On a weekend, when there are no janitors at work, it would cost three times more to rent a public school. But now I feel they want to know why we have to use something that’s Christian. I say because it’s available. But they’re uncomfortable.” Not that anybody’s anti-Christian, but if you’re Buddhist, a big cross may not strike you as a beautiful symbol of sacrifice so much as an ancient Roman torture and execution instrument.

Running a multicultural music group has all kinds of new wrinkles. “It even affects what we buy for the kids to eat,” says Brewster. “A growing number of kids are vegetarians – it’s not some fad teenagers are going through, it’s a tradition. We don’t want to lose a kid because he won’t eat pepperoni pizza.” •