Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 6 – “Chicken Hair Flower” (blog)

Beijing

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Let’s get to work

This day begins bright and early. Time to get to work and start creating this project, Banjo Earth: China! The neighborhood we are staying in is pretty far North in Beijing, and up that way there are very few foreigners. There is a vibrant and happening famer’s market nearby, so we decide to go there in the morning to shoot some film and take some pictures.   It’s the same market I write about in Day 3 Beijing, but even on a second take, it doesn’t disappoint.

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China’s earthly bounty

The variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, mushrooms, meats, and trinkets are astounding. The smells and flavors of this place just engulf the senses, and you are left in a state of funky bliss. Not knowing how to order specific amounts of certain things, I end up with a little more than we can handle. I get weighed down with a huge bag of roasted sunflower seeds, a large bag of apples, some oranges, and weird beautiful purple fruit of which I’ve never encountered. We sit down for some morning dumplings (jiaozi), lentil soup, and soak it all in.

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Farmer’s market dumpling (jiaozi) steamers

After breakfast, we head back to the apartment with our market acquisitions and settle down for a few. There is a bit of time to work on one of my favorite Chinese folk songs, entitled “Night of Grassland” or “Cao Yuan Zhi Ye”. It is a gorgeous melody with several parts, and has taken me a few tries to learn it from a recording I have. After getting a better grasp on it, we heat up some leftover noodles for lunch, and head out into the city.

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Banjo Earth practice session

This time, I leave my tremendously heavy banjo case at home, strap the 5 string around my neck, and head down the street. Done for a matter of practicality, this ends up being an accidental stroke of genius. Instead of walking around with a boring instrument case, I am transformed into a walking hillbilly mariachi, strolling the streets and subways of Beijing, and serenading anyone and everyone who comes within earshot of my banjo. The responses I get from this are priceless! On the subway people show a mixture of fright, pleasure, amusement, and confusion.

 

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Chinese banjo mariachi style

The Chinese are a people who respect the arts and music. You can sense this in the way they encounter the banjo. Most of them have never seen one. There are similar instruments in Chinese classical music, but none really like the 5-string banjo. The glitter of the gold rim and the cascade of notes get thumbs up and smiles that energize my soul. They genuinely seem to enjoy the music that comes from me, and my instrument. Many people ask if they can take a picture with me, and some shy girls even try to surreptitiously record us with their selfie-stick!

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New Beijing banjo fans

We stroll the Beihai Park, one of the more beautiful places in all of Beijing. It is a nearly 1,000 year old park, with monuments and statues that date from the past dynasties of China. Boats scurry about on the lake, people dance by the water, and everyone is enjoying their day. There is an ornate Buddhist Temple in the park with immaculate sculptures and architecture. At the top is a golden Buddha, protected by his angels and musicians. I kneel at the alter and ask for blessings in my endeavors here. I feel his touch on my spirit and a golden flash of energy courses through my body. It feels wonderful. Thanks Buddha.

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Enjoying the dancing at Bei Hai Park

After leaving the park, we purchase a couple of hairpieces, the hot thing in Beijing right now, and began our search for food. In the Beijing hutongs (alleys), you are never sure what you may find. There are residential spaces, small stores, and lots of tiny restaurants. Almost every one of these food places is delicious. Many of them serve just one or two items, specializing in a particular dish.

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Essential Beijing fashion – plastic plant hairpieces

One of my very favorite things to eat, not only in China, but in the universe, is Huo Guo, or Hot Pot. It is a boiling pot of spiced stock or stew, to which you add any number of raw foods. On this particular visit we ordered beef, potato, spinach, and tofu. As the food arrives, you drop it, piece by piece, into the boiling spiced pot. After letting it cook for a few moments, you search through the pot with your chopsticks and pull out a deliciously cooked bite. You then drop it in your bowl of sesame sauce, place it in your mouth, and watch the heavens descend upon you. This food is so delicious that it becomes a spiritual experience. It is a very communal and active dinner, as you are a part of the making of the dish. Having had dreams of Hot Pot after leaving China the last time, I thoroughly enjoyed watching my friend experience this for the first time. It’s the type of dinner that you wish could last forever.

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Mongolian Hot Pot with Sesame dipping sauce

But alas, dinner must end sometime. So we pay the tab, and begin finding our way to the Old What Bar. This is a place with an interesting history, as it’s located right beside of the Forbidden City. It is an old rock club, and the Chinese folk hero Cui Jin used to play here in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We are meeting some new friends of mine, a few expats who play live and play music in China. It is an old time jam of blues, Americana, and songwriters. I sit in for a few songs and have a great time. You can feel and hear the history all around you just whispering from the walls of graffiti. Another fine China day in the books, I strap my banjo around my neck, and we head for home.

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The historic walls of the Old What Bar

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 5 – “Keep Calm and Time Travel” (blog)

Beijing

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A beautiful and hazy Beijing morning

Ben arrives! Ben Singer; videographer, sound engineer, musician, and all around Renaissance Man, gets into Beijing today. He is filming and recording the Banjo Earth: China project. I’ve been on the road now for over 2 months, and I’m pretty excited to have a traveling partner for the next few weeks. I take it easy in the morning, doing some laundry, cleaning up the room, and giving the blisters on my heels some time to recuperate. Walking around Beijing has been exciting and interesting, but has been hard on my feet. I’m really thankful for my health, especially in the feet, because walking is the best way to traverse this beautiful city. I practice some Chinese songs on the banjo, go out to find some lunch, and eagerly await my companion’s arrival.

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Street sign with a nice reminder

He gets in around 3pm, carrying a large sack full of clothes and equipment and his ukulele. This is his first time visiting China, and I can already see the wonderment and confusion of being here setting in. It’s a fairly long flight from the United States to China, but his energy level is surprisingly high, so we head onto the Beijing streets to gather a little experience.

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Ben arrives!

I introduce him to Yang Rou Chan (lamb meat on a stick), one of my favorites, and we head onto the subway. I take him to explore the Drum Tower district, along with some other popular streets, as the city is bustling with people. China’s National holiday is just about over, and all of the tourists are getting in their last bits of Beijing fun. After getting a vibe of the city, jet-lag starts setting in for my friend and it’s time for bed. Peaceful Chinese dreams……until the fireworks begin at 630 am the next morning!

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Yang Rou Chuar (grilled lamb meat)

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 4 – “Divine Guidance” (blog)

Beijing

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This day started out pretty slow. The previous night was the first time I was able to stay out past ten without falling asleep. I slept in a bit, enjoying the dreams and the experiences of recent past. I was a little confused on the arrival of Ben, the videographer and sound engineer for the Banjo Earth project. He was a bit disoriented on the dates and some miscommunication occured. So, I expected him today, but his arrival was not until tomorrow. Thus I got to hang around the house a bit, clean up, and catch up on some writing and music. I heated up leftover noodle soup from last night, and enjoyed lunch with my housemate Lusha, who was dining on some crabs she had bought from the farmer’s market. The night before, we noticed one of the crabs she was keeping in the sink had gone renegade and escaped. Unfortunately for the crab, they make this little sound when they are short on water, and listening intently, I heard the tell tell sign over in the corner of the kitchen. A few brisk moves with some kitchen utensils and the crab was back in jail. Haha!

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My housemate Lusha (her life story is amazing!)

After lunch I loaded up the banjo and headed down to the Drum Tower, close to Tiananmen Square, to meet some fellow musicians for a practice. My travel banjo case is a Price flight case, solid and strong, taking great care of the instrument inside. However, it must weight about 50 pounds, and lugging this thing around the city and subways feels like carrying a coffin. After making it down to the tower, I was quite worn out. I didn’t see my friends on the street, so instead of continuing on I just sat there on the street corner, by the Drum tower, and started playing some banjo. This turned out to be great fun! It’s not often, I imagine, that Beijingers find a bluegrass banjoist on the street in their great city picking through American and Chinese folk songs. Every so often, a large group of onlookers would amass on the street, armed with their phones and cameras, and enjoy this real live hillbilly in their midst. The smiles and thumbs up were worth their weight in gold! Everyone had to have their picture taken with me, and even a few folks tossed some Mao-graced paper notes into the banjo case. The history of my ancient surroundings, the Drum Tower, which was originally built in 1272, made this experience very unique. I could feel the spirits of Chinese past all around me, and could even see the smiles of ghosts while I played.

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Meeting some new friends at the Drum Tower

I talked with some new friends who had stopped to listen for a bit, and began the trek back home to drop off my heavy cargo. Once I got home, I was a bit worn out from the weight. But, it was still kind of early, and I really wanted to see this Mongolian band that was playing at the Temple Bar, a future venue for the Banjo Earth concerts. Thus, I put on my sneakers, and headed back out into the city. After getting lost a few times, I began to find my bearings. On the way, I encountered a guitar player/singer who had a huge crowd listening to him on the street. I happened to be walking by as his set ended and got his name. We exchanged info, and hopefully can have him play on the album. He sounded great!

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Beijing street musician

Eventually I made it to the Temple Bar, and am very glad I did. The manager, Pink, is a power woman in Beijing. She has a really cool, easy vibe, speaks great English, is very cute, and makes you feel right at home. She booked our band at the bar, so we chatted a bit about the show and the place until the band came on. They are called Tulegur, and play a raucous mix of Mongolian ethnic, psychadelia, and funk. The singer does quite a bit of Mongolian throat singing, and their sound takes you right out into the plains of Northern China. It is a very rich and deep sound. I was really impressed and talked to them at set break. We chatted about them also collaborating on the Banjo Earth album, and it seems to be a great possibility to make that happen.

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Beijing Nights

As I sat listening to the band, an American from Arkansas who is living in Beijing sat next to me. We chatted a bit, and by either coincidence or divine intervention, he happened to be a filmmaker and musician. He expressed great interest in helping with the project. These kinds of serendipitous things have been happening really fast ever since I stepped foot on Chinese soil, and even before in the creation of the project. I’m not sure what the mechanism behind it all is. All I know is that it is happening, it is beautiful, and I am thankful. To me, it sounds like the Universe giving it’s blessings for this project, and the energy behind it. There is love in what I do, and I feel that is where my “luck” comes from.

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Luck, or divine guidance?

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 3 – “Beijing Square Dance” (blog)

Beijing

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A banjo player in Beijing

Again, the morning starts unnaturally early, with a 430am wake up time. I’m trying to amend this issue today by taking several naps. We shall see how that works. I began by heading out around 530 to find some breakfast. Beijing is beautiful in the early morning hours. It was pretty empty around the streets, and felt eerily cool to be out and about in the city before most Chinese had gotten out of bed. After bouza (wrapped dumpling balls) and some doufu soup, I crossed the street to see what I could find.

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Baozi (round filled dumplings)

There, in all it’s glory, was a Beijing street farmer’s market. All of the colors, smells, flavors, and sounds, from all around China, can be found in this strip of concrete. The farmers roll into town in their vans full of produce and set up their wares. Mushrooms, fish, nuts, apples, greens, meats; anything and everything you can imagine can be found here. Walking through and observing was a truly magical experience. Even the old ladies rocking their motorbike/cart, has a special flavor to it. After wiping the smile off of my face, I decided to head home for a nap. Last night I missed an important meeting and music concert by falling asleep of sheer tiredness. I aim to not let that happen again.

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Colors of the Farmer’s Market

Waking up around noon, I packed my map, brushed my teeth, and headed out to find a couple of venues for Banjo Earth shows. After navigating the city with a map and some pictures of my GPS, (my data roaming isn’t working here), I sloppily found my way to the two venues I was looking to book for the concerts; Temple Bar, which was closed, and Caravan, a trendy new bar/restaurant. After making some connections and talking to the workers, I was able to get the contacts of the booking agents for these clubs. Both worked out and I was able to book Banjo Earth shows at each, October 25 for Temple Bar, and October 27 for Caravan. Now it’s official, we’re bringing that banjo funk to Beijing!

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Beijing explorer’s kit

Now that I had caught up on some sleep, I was able to visit another venue where some of my American contacts were playing an old time barn dance. Xin Xin on the fiddle, my new friend Chris Hawke playing some old time banjo, and an all American fella named Nathan calling the dances, me, and about 30 Chinese folks learning how to do the Doce Do and Seesaw. Now, I am a banjo player from Kentucky and North Carolina, but for some inexcusable reason, had never been to an old time barn dance. Who would’ve have thought that I would travel all the way to Beijing to learn how to “swing your partner.” I could more often be found dancing with the hippies at a Phish concert. But, I have to say, it was an absolute blast! I met some great people, the dancing was really fun, and I made contact with XinXin, a Chinese fiddler who is a master in Irish fiddling and foraying in the old time American fiddle songbook. If I ever get a chance to attend a barn dance again, and that’s highly likely, I will be sure to be there. I finished my beer, headed out into the night, and found my way back to my temporary home. Another great day in China!

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Erhu player on a Beijing street

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 2 – “Tiananmen Square” (blog)

Beijing

Day 2 started early, as I’m still on weird time from flying across the world. I woke up at 5:00am, got on some clothes, and excitedly headed out into the neighborhood. I found some breakfast; gyoza and some fried noodles that I didn’t know what to do with, spoke some Chinese with the local patrons, and headed out into the city.

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Beijing breakfast at a street stall

I looked around the neighborhood for a bit, then sort of stumbled upon a subway stop.   From there I decided to jump into the fire and start swimming. The subway is so different now than it was 14 years ago that I barely recognized it. Full of security and military(ish) guards searching bags and people, I was a bit anxious trying to figure out the basics of buying a ticket.

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Lishuiqiao subway stop

Finally I just told them where I wanted to go and they gave me a 5yuan (around $1) ticket to that destination. After asking a few people where I was going, I finally started to get the hang of it and headed down towards the Tianenmen square district. Here is where it started getting a little crazy.

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Chinese National Holiday in Tiananmen Square

I wasn’t aware that this weekend was the celebration of the Chinese national Holiday, Oct 1 where the Communist party took power in 1949. Masses of Chinese from all over the country had descended upon Tianenmen square to take pictures, videos, and buy Chinese flags.

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Fellow traveler along the path

After navigating this sea of people for a bit, I strolled out of the square and started exploring some small hutongs (neighborhoods) around the area. I found myself having a cold beer and a bowl of noodles with a fine family who was in town for the celebration. After making new friends and taking a picture with their cute little daughter, I headed out to find my way back to the apartment for a little rest and relaxation. That’s not exactly what I got…..

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Making new friends in the hutongs

My roommate was there when I arrived and we began talking. She is a Chinese woman in her mid 60s who had left China in 1986 to immigrate to America. As we chatted, her life story began coming forth, and it was incredible! Her story can be read in another blog post, “Lusha’s Story”. After some food, it was lights out for this Beijing Banjo Boy.

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The sun sets on Day 2 of Banjo Earth: China

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 1 – “Back in Beijing” (blog)

Banjo Earth: China – Ch. 1 – “Back in Beijing”

– Beijing, China

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The writing is on the wall

Day 1 in Beijing for the Banjo Earth: China experience was amazing! So many beautiful things happened in such a short amount of time. I was welcomed into my host’s home with the usual Chinese hospitality. Upon arriving I was zombie-liked tired after a 20+hour travel day. Needless to say my first matters of business included a shower and a short nap. Although I could’ve slept for days, I had my host wake me up after a couple of hours to confront her homemade Beijing noodle dish.  Cai and her husband Wei, were wonderful to visit with and the noodles hit the spot. I introduced the banjo to them to high praise, said my good nights, then crashed out hard in my room.

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Gliding in my new Chinese slippers

Waking up at 6:00 am, I began to hear Beijing come alive outside the window. It immediately brought me back to the wonderment of existing in this exotic land. Chinese music drifting through the air, children making noise, horns blaring, and squeaky bikes riding by; the sounds of life in the capital of China. Hopping out of bed and breaking open the banjo case, I began the day with my recent ritual of learning Chinese folk songs, a tune called Night of Grassland being the song of choice for this day.   My host Cai brings me a warm morning concoction of unknown origin, which she explains “helps the stomach move”. After that cursory description, it is surprisingly tasty. She informs me of the plans for the day; including breakfast and attending an opening party for a school she is involved with. So far so good.

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With my host Cai in a Beijing taxi

Breakfast is delicious; tofu soup and a fried wonton filled with spinach and noodles. Afterward we catch a cab to the party, which takes nearly two hours weaving and stopping in the Beijing traffic. This city is huge, and it’s roads are filled to the brim with vehicles. I’m thankful for the good company. We get to the school and enjoy a look around. There are around 30 kids and their parents. All of the school personnel are weirdly dressed in military garb, which their smiles and easy demeanors beguile. Cai informs the headmaster that I have my banjo with me, and a impromptu performance is arranged right before lunch.

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Incredible tofu breakfast soup – “doufu nao”

I jam a couple of Chinese folk songs I’ve been working on, plus a bluegrass tune or two, and fun is had by all. They really enjoyed the banjo, and probably more so a real live American hip-billy, who speaks Chinese, making music for them. At one point a girl got on the stage with me and began dancing in a way I could only describe as “Chinese Banjo Break Dance”!  It was a really fun and deeply rewarding experience, and was just what the Banjo Earth project was designed to create.

Chinese Banjo Break Dancing!

Being in China for the third time feels like I’m getting to go a bit deeper. It is no longer a far off vacation destination, but an investment in life and culture. The people always make me smile with their ways of life, which are in many ways so different, yet very similar. My Chinese is coming back slowly from the deep recesses of my subconscious mind, though I am reminded all too often of my lack of language in my short and abbreviated conversations. We are all just people, living this human experience, and trying to make the best of it. It’s the style and grace with which we go about this endeavor that makes visiting far off places so fun and interesting. It’s good to be back in Beijing, China.

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Back in Beijing