Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 26 – “China Cat” (blog)

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We muster ourselves together for yet another day of Banjo Earth amazingness. The work doesn’t stop, nor does the fun. We are leaving the Kung Fu house today and heading back into the hutongs where we lived during our first Beijing stay. So, we make some coffee, eat some toast, pack, and say goodbye to our hosts who are now our friends. We have a lot of stuff to carry now, as our load has increased over our time here. New instruments, microphone stands, and gifts for our friends back home have been added. Fortunately, as soon as we walk out of the alley, I “ni hao” us a taxi, who quickly stops, and is willing to take us to our destination. We load down the car and set out for new dwellings. I have lined up for us a small room with 6 bunk beds for the night. There is no bathroom, except for the public restroom nearby, and no kitchen. This room is for sleeping only. It is located back in a very narrow alley, whose neighbors include really old Chinese folks and families living in very tight quarters. The lady who runs the little grocery store nearby has her sights on creating this room as an AirBnb destination. However, she has a bit of a learning curve given her hosting skills and lack of bedding. But we are giving her a head start.

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Our hutong penthouse suite

We get the key, drop off our stuff, and head out into the town. Ben and I have a recording session set up with YuMiao, a professional Guzheng player who lives in North Beijing. We set out for her apartment where we will set up our portable movie and music studio, and hopefully create some magic. She greets us at the subway stop by her house, where I am sitting playing banjo and waiting for her arrival. She is a petite, unassuming young woman with a warm and beautiful smile. We greet her, chat for a minute, and walk back to her apartment.

Meeting YuMiao and her warm smile

I’ve got my usual banjo set up going where I just carry it over my shoulder like a bluegrass mariachi rather than carrying it in its case. This arrangement never fails to create situations where people are curious to hear this strange and shiny instrument. On the way into her apartment, an old man asks for a song, so of course I oblige, and we have an impromptu performance for him and his friends on the front porch. After getting the thumbs up approval, we continue on to her place, about 20 floors up in one of the thousands of high rise Beijing apartment buildings.

Another impromptu banjo performance

YuMiao has very modern and nice apartment. She seems to be doing well with her work as a professional musician. It is just two rooms, one bedroom, one living room, a small kitchen, and a bathroom, but she is very neat and clean, and creates a lot of space with her Spartan existence. She just got a new espresso machine, a rare luxury in China, and offers us a latte on our arrival.

YuMiao’s simple living style

She is really sweet, kind, smart, funny, and speaks English very well. But once she gets the Guzheng out and starts playing, we become speechless. The way she plays is so fluid and graceful, and she combines a very traditional Chinese sound with a willingness and ability to stretch out and improvise freely. After we tune up, she begins playing some tracks for a Grateful Dead song that will be on the album called “China Cat Sunflower”. She does a few tasteful tracks, then I ask her to do one super weird one, perfect for the Grateful Dead vibe. Of course she obliges, and performs some rather strange sounds. Perfect!

YuMiao and her Guzheng

After tracking, we jam a little with the guzheng and banjo. Freestyling a bit, doing some Chinese music I’ve composed, and playing a little bluegrass. The two instruments sound really wonderful together, and I can envision one day doing a whole duet cd with her; just the banjo and guzheng. This session is the epitome of Banjo Earth. Through this project we are meeting wonderful people, amazing musicians, and creating sounds across cultures and boundaries that are new, old, and deep. We get to share our traditions, respect them in their history and beauty, then break from them in fun ways; laughing the whole time. YuMiao is a consummate musician, a very sweet girl, and I’m really proud to have her as part of the project.

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YuMiao adding her phenomenal playing to “China Cat Sunflower”

We say our goodbyes to her, then set out on our journey back to inner Beijing. It’s been another full day on the Banjo Earth, so we are pretty happy and worn out. I want to share this Sichuan restaurant that we discovered earlier in the trip with my Brother, so we stop in for a bite. The food is delicious as always, and the company is nice as well.

One of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted

I find a little coffee shop after dinner to catch up on the blog. If two days go by, and I haven’t written, things start slipping from my memory rather quickly. So, I’ve made it a point not to get too far behind. After catching up, I feel much better, and am ready for a good night’s sleep in our tight hutong quarters. But, alas, with the combination of snoring, and having to crawl out of bed and running to the next alleyway for restroom access, sleep is shoddy. I do catch a few winks however, and go to sleep excited about our last day in Beijing tomorrow.

Beijing hutong wall art

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