Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 25 – “Chinese Rap” (blog)

We arise early and scoot off to meet with our new friend Nici, (everyone here has a Chinese and English name), who will accompany us to the old time jam, which they call “Chinese Rap”. We’re not real sure what to expect, but we are hoping to find some players of Pipa, Erhu, Guzheng, or singers who are willing to collaborate on the Banjo Earth project.

Waking up and going with the flow

Our friend Nici greets us at the subway station, and we got together to meet her Father who is a frequent visitor to the old time jam. We walk around for a bit, waiting for him to arrive, and in the meantime stop in for a little breakfast. There is a tofu soup here that many people eat in the morning called “Doufu Nao”. It has become a favorite breakfast of mine, and we all enjoy a bowl of it and a plate of steamed dumplings. We finish quickly to meet her Father, a smiling and friendly man they call Lao Zhao (“Old Zhao), which goes great with our friend’s nickname, Xiao Zhao (“Little Zhao”). We exchange greetings and head into the theater for what they call in English, the Chinese Rap performance.

Rappin’ with Old Zhao and Little Zhao

“Chinese Rap” is actually a pretty bad name for what they do, because it has nothing to do with what most people know as Rap. This is a room full of older folks, along with a few younger musicians, all singing and telling stories. These stories are very rhythmic and musical, and can sometimes last 20 plus minutes each. The singer/storyteller is accompanied by some excellent music, which, is at the same time both melodic and dynamic. It changes rhythms and keys often, much like Western Classical music, but is distinctly Chinese in it’s styles and flavors.

A taste of something exotically different, yet strangely familiar

As the performances gather steam, I start really getting into what is happening. This is one of the most human things I have ever seen. Telling stories in musical language, with the accompaniment of great music, feels like we are looking back into the beginnings of human history. I can’t at all understand the meanings or lyrics of the story songs, but I can feel the depth and emotion in it, and even a tear or two finds its way to my eyes. Nici and her Father relate the meanings as best as they can, and it is really nice to sit and enjoy such an amazing thing with these two awesome Beijingers.

A Chinese “rapper”

Afterward we meet with a couple of performers and make plans to meet for musical collaboration in the next couple of days. Our time in Beijing is short, as we leave in 2 days, so we must work fast. One of the musicians plays a banjo like instrument, which sounds incredible. He shows amazing proficiency of his craft and sound, and I’m super excited to have a “banjo” jam with him.

Setting up some future Banjo Earth collaborations

Changed for the better, we leave the theater and head back toward our side of town. I stop by my Brother’s hotel to check him out, and bring him over to our hutong house. I assure him that the lap of luxury is over, and he will from here on be enjoying the hutong/hostel life Banjo Earth style! We get him settled in to the new place, and get some music practice in. We have our first performance of the Banjo Earth tour tonight at Temple Bar in Beijing, and there are a lot of new tunes that I’ve written since I’ve been here that he hasn’t even heard yet. After getting our bluegrass feet under us again, we head out, excited for the show tonight. A lot of our new friends are in attendance, and are really anxious to see what this Banjo Earth music is all about. There isn’t much traditional American music happening in China, as you would expect (although there is some, which I have written about in previous posts). We have a guest fiddler, Xin Xin, an old time Beijinger whose family goes back 7 generations in the city. It’s really fun to watch him and Ryan share fiddle lick and ideas, even though neither one can really understand the other’s language.  This is when it becomes obvious how music crosses all boundaries. It is a universal language, and songs and sounds float through the air, unencumbered by nationalities or sentence structure. The crowd thoroughly enjoys the music, at times unsure what to think or do, and at other times yelling and shouting. We run through some Chinese music, some Amercian music, some original music, jazz and blues, and have a really fun time. This is the kickoff show for the tour, and my first performance in China in over 8 years, We have a wonderful time, and it is a great start to this last portion of the project.


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Banjo Earth concert with Xin Xin at the Temple Bar

Afterwards we meet some new fans and friends, and enjoy a couple of beers with my long time oldest Chinese friend, Da Zhi, and his family. It’s a beautiful night, and the Love is ever-present.   We say our goodbyes and grab a taxi for the ride home. Tired, excited, and feeling good, we enjoy our journey home and talk about the fun things that just happened. I smile, thankful for all that has transpired over the past few months. From the conception of the Banjo Earth idea, through the Kickstarter campaign, through the travels across the U.S. beforehand, to all of the wonderful things that have happened here in China. The Universe is an amazing place, and I am really blessed and thankful to be doing this amazing work. I live for sharing Love, Laughter, and Banjo with the world. And from the smiles and hugs I’ve been getting, the world seems to enjoy it as well.

The Universe is a wonderful place

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 21 – “Follow Your Dream” (blog)

Dali/Beijing –

I stayed up late last night, and felt like sleeping in this morning. But, when it’s time to get the day doing in China, there is no holding it back. The jackhammers get going, the horns start blaring, and the people start talking in their usual loud and lively manner. Thus the day begins, willingly or not. We have a flight back to Beijing at 6pm today, so luckily we have some hours to lounge around, get some work done, and enjoy our last few moments in Yunnan. The breakfast food at the Jade Emu, the hostel we are staying at, is very comfortable. They have coffee and western style dishes, along with all kinds of delicious Chinese dishes. I order pancakes, bacon, and coffee. It does the trick and I get a full breakfast belly and my morning computer work done. My non-twerking British friend sits with me for breakfast and we have a few laughs over coffee. By noon the work is done, Ben is gone out for a walk, we’re packed out of the room, and I have time to go for one last stroll through the old town of Dali.

Met this amazing street musician with no legs

I am hungry again by this point, and stop by a little gyoza restaurant. Now, when I say restaurant, what I usually mean is a room, with 4-5 small tables, and chairs that look like they are meant for a 5 year old kid. You sit down on one of these chairs, order the jiaozi (steamed dumplings with filling), eat your food, and leave. For this particular visit, the jiaozi was so simple and good that it gave me chill bumps. The lady sits in the front of the room by the street, where she rolls the dumplings, sets them in a bamboo steamer, and serves them to you fresh and hot. The simplicity of this process, combined with the absolute delicious taste of the food, made me shake my head in wonderment. You mix yourself a little sauce with the red chilis and soy/vinegar, then dip your dumplings and enjoy. Add a small bottle of water into the mix and I was in food heaven. The total cost of this ancient and beautiful custom was 10 yuan ($1.50). These are the kind of experiences that make it hard to leave China, and keep you coming back.

Some of the best jiaozi I’ve had anywhere

I am getting use to using the selfie stick to make videos now, and it’s actually pretty fun to walk around with one here because people get super excited and try their best to find their way into our video. So I set the “stick” out, and start strolling through the town. I’m also working on a song that I’m writing, so to remember I sing it into the camera. It’s really very liberating to walk around the city, with a selfie stick, singing a song you made up rather loudly to the camera and passerbys. I suggest you try it immediately.

Having fun with the selfie stick

After the town singing excursion, we meet back at the hostel to catch our ride to the airport. I really enjoy the taxi and bus rides in and out of town, just watching life in China go by. There is such a mixture between construction and beauty that it is a joy and curiosity to see. We get to the airport, check in, and wait to see if the plane will leave on time. But, this is China, and regional airports are notorious for delays. Our plane leaves 90 minutes late, which pushes our Beijing arrival time to midnight.

Passing the time in a Chinese airport

Luckily, our hosts are very cool and are able to stay up this late. Also luckily, we pass a group of foreigners in the alley that are on the way to stay at the same place. As it is a little difficult to find, this seems to be a serendipitous event, and they lead us right into the house. It is a cool old courtyard style hutong house, the way most residences were in Beijing before the Communist party took over. Our hosts greet us with friendliness and hospitality. After a beer and some tea, and some time trying to guess where our host Nick is from (he’s from Greece), we head to bed. It’s been a long day of traveling, and this week marks the last leg of the Banjo Earth: China project. It kicks into overdrive now with recording and touring, and we will need all of our energy to make it happen.

Finally getting back into Beijing

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 20 – “Keeping the Flame” (blog)

Dali –

I awaken early, excited to get back into the studio. The village is quiet and peaceful, that is until I start picking the banjo. I am working on a Chinese folk song called Dark Sky, which I couldn’t quite perfect last night. But with a fresh morning and new strings on the banjo, I get it on the second cut and put it in the bag. Recording music first thing in the morning, before tea, coffee, or breakfast, brings a certain immediacy and freedom to the music that I have rarely experienced. That fresh mind that you have upon awakening translates really well to the music and provides some excellent sounds for the album. We get some other really lovely stuff done for the album, including another gorgeous Chinese folk song called “The Night of Grassland”, which features a really cool ukulele backing finger roll by Ben, and some banjo of course. In Beijing, we have a singer arranged to fill out the song.

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Early morning studio session in Dali

The studio time is very productive. We get several new tracks down, have a Chinese clarinet player come in to record some, and have some delicious lunch. I get yelled at by the local old lady in Chinese for using the wrong bed sheets, and this makes my Dali mountain village retreat experience complete. Our friends and the people here have treated us with such generosity and kindness, and it is kind of bittersweet to leave. We have made some great friends and have really enjoyed our time here, but it’s time to travel on. We pack up our stuff, and begin the trek off the mountain down to the road to flag a bus. The walk down to the road is easier than it has been, since I am used to lugging my heavy banjo around. It goes by much faster now that I am stronger in my shoulders, and we eventually find a bus that pulls over and lets us climb aboard. We get into town, book our hostel room, and relax for a bit.

Grilled Chinese street food never gets old

I sit down for a beer and start catching up on some work. But as usual, there is always somebody really cool sitting by, and I start up a conversation. This time it happens to be an awesome British girl who is traveling around Asia for months. We have a lot of fun talking and she says she wants to come out with us to see our friends play music at a nearby bar.

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Our new British friend

Our old time friends from town are playing at a really hip bar called September. We stroll in together: Ben with camera, me and my usual banjo over shoulder, and our new British friend. They quickly swing a microphone over my way and the jam commences. These guys do an awesome blend of old-time, bluegrass, and Americana, and they are a pleasure to play with. They are almost single-handedly keeping traditional American music alive in China with their performances all over the country.

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Old Time Americana music jam at September Bar in Dali

My British friend turns down several of my invitations to dance (she doesn’t even know what twerking is!), but the crowd is really into the music and it is a super fun night. We rock out until the police show up at the front door, at which time they turn off the p.a. system and we continue on with an acoustic set. This eases the tension and the night relaxes into midnight. We say goodbye and hug our people’s necks and make our way back to the hostel. We must get some rest for our trip back to Beijing tomorrow, and the last leg of our Banjo Earth: China project. Peace through Music. Community Through Creation.

“Famous” Kirk Kenney doing what he does


Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 19 – “Monday Morning Dance Party” (blog)

LiJiang/Dali –

We wake up early after 2 days of full exhaustion, rested and ready to get back on our proverbial horse. Today we will head back to Dali, with our Lijiang excursion over, and get back in to the recording studio. But first we have time to get a little breakfast and explore the neighborhood a bit. We pass by a Naxi restaurant who seems to be getting breakfast going and come in for a bite. The people are really cool and we joke with them and share some laughs. We get a cup of coffee, some fried bread, boazi, and sugary soybean milk. I really like the people so I help them bring in customers. I teach them to say “coffee”, whenever a group of foreigners walk by. It doesn’t work on the first group, but the next group of folks walk by, we all shout “coffee” to them, and they walk in and get a seat. The old Naxi woman who runs the restaurant is so impressed and happy that she brings Ben and I some boiled eggs, free of charge. Haha! That’s what I call a win-win.

Our egg reward from Mama Naxi

After breakfast we walk to the center of town and find a Monday morning dance party with all of the Naxi women of the village. They have a boom box in the middle of their circle pumping out jams, and they are all dressed in their colorful traditional garb. They are all so cute, old, and breaking it down with their dance moves. I couldn’t think of a better way to start the week than a dance party. The music and moves they make remind me of a reggae show back home. I jump in to the circle for a dance and begin to feel the rhythm. This really gets my day going, and we leave the square to carry on, but my body keeps grooving as we round the corner. I think I may have discovered a new Monday morning tradition!

Monday Morning dance party with the Naxi women

We have time to look around a few stores and hike to the top of the town for a view of LiJiang. There is a Buddhist Temple atop the hill that looks over the old town and the distant mountains surrounding it. The old town has been preserved of its ancient history and from above looks like a maze of Chinese architectural beauty with it’s rolling roofs and dragon-like curves. You can also see where the edge of the old town ends, and the new city of LiJiang begins, high rises and industry grow into the sky. Off in the distance are the beautiful mountains that protect the city, some of which are covered in wind power turbines.

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Overlooking LiJiang

After climbing down from the top we browse a few stores, and one in particular peeks my interest. I see what looks like a chandelier made of out animal skins and faces. It turns out to be a bunch of purses packed together. There are really warm hats, jackets, and everything you can imagine made out of these furry animals. I can’t place the animal, and when she asked me how to say it in English, and I tell her I don’t know what it is, she says that I don’t know how to speak English. But honestly, I just don’t know what the animal is.

The “animal chandalier”/purse rack

After our excursion we head back to the hostel to pack for our travels. There is a few minutes to spare, so I grab the banjo and walk down to the riverside for some composing time. There is a tune I’ve been constructing, which I’m calling The Forbidden City for now, which could use some more parts. I settle in and start playing. It’s always fun to play on the streets in China, because the people here have often never seen or heard a banjo. Their reactions are so amusing and motivating. Some seem confused, and others just seem really happy and excited to hear the music. I get so many smiles, thumbs up, and some guy even drops 10 yuan on my case, even though it’s not even open. I come up with some new parts for my tune, practice the other Chinese folk tunes I’ve been working on, and sing Little Maggie. The Chinese people love to sing, and love others who sing, so when I get Little Maggie going they really seem to enjoy it. I pack the banjo back up, get back to the room, and we journey off to the bus stop for some more adventures.

Making moves in LiJiang

We get our ticket and have an hour or so before the bus leaves, so we dip into the nearest restaurant for a little lunch. We struck a up a conversation with another group of Chinese travelers at the bus stop, so when they pass by the restaurant we beckon them to come join us for lunch. They are a lively a friendly bunch, including 2 girls and 1 guy. One girl is carrying a Ukelele, one girl is carrying a yoga mat and is a yoga teacher, and the guy we’re not sure about because he can’t speak any English. The lunch turns into an impromptu music jam as they ask me to get the banjo out and play some. They ask me to sing in Chinese, so I play the only one I know, my original song “Mei You”, and it gets a few laughs as usual. The girl who has a ukulele also plays and sings a famous Chinese song with me, and the spirit carries on. She is so happy to jam, and so am I. We pack up the stuff, pay for lunch, and go to catch the bus.

Our new bus station friends

The ride from LiJiang to Dali is about 3 hours. I love these bus rides through the Chinese countryside. They give me a chance to catch up on blogs, videos, pictures, and to gaze out among the fields and mountains of this beautiful country. We get into Dali right around sunset, eat a little food, and get a taxi to our friend’s house in the mountain village. He allows us to rent a room at the house, and set up our studio in the 100+ year-old wooden house on the property. We recorded here a few days ago, and the sound in the room is just amazing. We spend the evening tracking songs for the Banjo Earth album, drinking some tea and wine, and enjoying the evening. Another full day comes to a close, and the pillow whispers my name.

Listening to the progress

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 18 – “Life, Death, and Nature” (blog)

Shangri-La/Tiger Leaping Gorge –

The rumble of a large group of over-prepared Chinese hikers awakes us from sleep this morning. They are all wearing super big boots, layers of hiking clothing, high-tech walking sticks, and seem to be yelling to each other instead of talking. But, no problem, it’s early and time to hit the trail once again. We arise out of bed with no breakfast and no tea, and hit the trail. It’s only a short 2 mile walk down the mountain to get to Tina’s, the final guest house where we will catch the bus back to LiJiang.


Sunrise over the turquoise mountains

After being so sore last night, it feels good to get the legs moving again. This last part of the trail down is so vivid, beautiful, and dangerous. The hike moves right along the side of the mountain, and the views of the river and gorge are incredible. There are several waterfalls that will take your breath, and your life if you do not cross them with care. The rocks are slippery and the penalty for tripping is about a 300-yard drop straight down the canyon. Selfies through these treacherous parts of the trail are discouraged! However, with safety aside, the power and beauty of this place touches the deepest parts of the soul, and is a reminder of the gift that it is to be alive and healthy enough to enjoy this experience. The only thing missing is being able to share it with everyone you love. Pictures taken back and shown at Thanksgiving just can’t do it justice.

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The trial runs through several waterfalls

We finish the trail and make it into Tina’s for our first meal of the day. An egg and bacon sandwich combined with a hot cup of coffee make a great reward for pushing ourselves to complete the hike. The views from the dining hall are spectacular and it is a great place to relax and sort through fond memories. But, it’s only 1130am and the bus doesn’t leave until 330pm, so there is enough time to complete one more adventure. There is a trail running from the guesthouse straight down the cliff, all the way down to river. We are fairly high up, so we know that it won’t be easy to get down, and even harder to make it back up. I didn’t do this trail on my previous visit, so I am excited to keep going. Ben, on the other hand, has had enough and smartly decides to wait it out in the dining hall, relaxing and recuperating.

Making some new friends at Tina’s Place

I say adios and head down the hill. I’m not sure how far down it is to the river, but I can feel every step down in every part of my leg. My momentum carries me down without much difficulty, but it does not go unnoticed how steep and long this climb will be getting back up. I make it down to the river aboard a large rock where a group of hikers have coalesced together. The river flowing by is violent and powerful, rushing by in large explosions of water. If you were to jump in at this juncture, life would not last long, as the water rushes about, lashing into the rocks. I sit by for several minutes, enjoying the power of nature, and my place in it. After taking a few pictures and talking with some of the other travelers, I begin my ascent back up. I am already worn out from the hiking, and I know this is not going to be easy, but I breathe and get to trekking.

The awesome power of nature

About halfway up I notice a ladder that supposedly shaves off a few minutes. But this is no ordinary ladder. It arises out the jungle, and goes vertically up about 100 yards. There are warning signs beside it, just in case you weren’t sure of it’s safety. I decide that any shortcut through this mountain ascent is worth the risk. I start climbing rather quickly, as if this is just any ordinary ladder. As I get higher, I notice that my life is now hanging in the balance. My legs and arms feel like rubber, and one slip off this ladder means lights out. No more Banjo Earth! Haha. My climbing slows to the rate of 2 feet per rung, and my care in the grip of my hands becomes quite meticulous. I have never been in a situation like this, and I find it to be simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. I stop long enough to take an epic ladder selfie, (it does cross my mind at this point that selfie deaths are at an all time high), and finish out the climb.

Epic ladder selfie

After I get off of the ladder, I rejoice for a short moment, then look up at the cliff that I still must climb. I love pushing myself, both mentally and physically, and this provides a great opportunity to do both. Getting back up takes everything I’ve got. Several times I had to stop, put my hands on my knees, and catch my breath. I finally make it, and get back over to the dining hall. It’s not long before the bus arrives and takes us back to town. The trail has been amazing; beautiful, challenging, and rewarding. We met many great fellow travelers from all over the world; Israel, Spain, Australia, Chicago, and China.

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Ahhhh! Time for a beer

Just when I thought the near-death experiences where over for one day, we start the bus ride back. It is an old creaky bus, that doesn’t seem all together. The road along the gorge, although one of the most amazing roads you could ever see, is bumpy, sometimes under construction, and very narrow. The curb on the road is about 2 feet, after which is a drop directly down the cliff to the rushing waters below. Add to this a driver who seems a bit reckless and has a need for speed, and it was very hard to sit back relax and enjoy the view. At times like these you just have to sit back, put your life in the hands of God, and a bus driver who loves to talk on a cell phone. After we make it out of the mountains, I wipe the sweat off my brow, and begin to relax a bit. Looks like I’ve lived to fight/love/play banjo another day!

We somehow survived the bus ride back

We finally make it back to LiJiang, and even though exhausted, we find a second wind and hit the town for a bit. Our hostel is in the heart of the old town, and we are surrounded by music clubs, cool restaurants, and interesting little shops. Right around the corner from our place, we hear a group of Chinese musicians playing Hank Williams’ “Jumbalaya”. It is good and interesting enough to entice us in to the club, which is called La Luna. Inside we meet some lovely people, and I ask the band if I can collaborate with them on a few tunes. They agree and I get up to perform for the club. I draft the percussionist and lead guitarist into the happenings and we play Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues”, and my very own “Mei Yo”, a song I’ve written with Chinese lyrics, which never seems to disappoint. The crowd seems to really enjoy it, and the band as well.

The houre band at La Luna

They have a musical tradition in the Chinese tourist towns that is very interesting. The bands print out a request list of songs they will do with price of each song. Ben gives the band 70 yuan (approx. $10) for the oddity and privilege of hearing a Chinese band play Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”. They actually do a really good job of the song, and this practice gives me ideas to take home. Perhaps, for some gigs in the U.S. I can print out a request list that says something like “Wagon Wheel” – $150, or “Rocky Top” – $75. The possibilities are endless!

These folks put in a request for “China Cat Sunflower”

After exploring around town a bit, eating some lamb meat on a stick, and having some fun with the locals, this long day has come to an end. Adventures around every corner, near-death experiences, and soul-enlivening beauty; this is the Banjo Earth life. And this is your life when you put Love in your dreams.

A long and adventure-filled day comes to an end

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 16 – “Journey to LiJiang” (blog)

Dali/LiJiang –

The day starts out at the Josh’s home in the Dali mountains.  We stayed up late jamming and drinking wine, so we muster ourselves out of bed to meet a driver who we’ve scheduled to meet at 930am.  We make it to the meeting spot on time, but he is nowhere to be found.  We wait about 20 minutes, then decide that he is not coming.  We would later get a text saying that he had overslept.ha!  So we say our goodbyes to our friend and begin our walk down the mountain to catch a bus.

Saying by to Josh and to Dali

These extended walks with about 50lbs of banjo are not easy.  I have to switch hands about every couple hundred yards.  But, I just look at it as a chance to get a workout in, and I can already feel the power in my shoulders and arms strengthening.  Sometimes all it takes is a little mental reframing to turn a negative situation into a positive one.

Sometimes it just takes a little mental reframing..

Today we are headed to LiJiang, a beautiful old city tucked away in the western mountains of western China.  It is about a 3.5 hour bus ride from Dali, so we must catch a ride to the bus station, where we will then catch the big bus to LiJiang.  So we make it the Jade Emu, a hostel we have been frequenting while in Dali, and they have arranged a ride to the station and a bus ticket.  The staff at the Jade Emu is extremely helpful and they can arrange almost anything for you.  They also have coffee and a bacon and egg sandwich, so I can with confidence recommend staying there if you are ever that way.

Plains, Trains, and especially buses

Our driver is a bit late, but at least he shows up.  So we make it to the bus station almost on time.  Luckily our bus is late too, so we make it on with no problems.  It even gave us a few moments for an impromptu banjo performance and a chance to make some new friends.  Which, the latter, while in China with a banjo, has been really easy to do.  The bus ride up to LiJiang is extremely beautiful.  It is filled with mountains and field of crops.  The environment is extremely relaxing and calm, except for the violent movie starring the Roc and Billy Bob Thornton.  But alas, I have a chance to make another installment in my video log series, which seems to be getting better and better with each one.

Journey to Shangri-La and LiJiang

We make it into town, and per our recent tradition, find the nearest hole in the wall restaurant to eat some delicious food and make a plan.  The pamphlet that fellow traveler handed me at the Jade Emu is now coming in very handy.  It has the address for a hostel we can stay in, called the Mama Naxi, and the public bus numbers to ride that will take us there.
So we decide to venture into the fray which is the public bus, when we get on, it is packed.  The bus is much more crowded than any subway I’ve been on in Beijing.  It is quite crazy and exciting.  I do my best to keep my bag and banjo out of everyone’s way, but it doesn’t always work.  I am also unclear about our stop, but after asking around the bus a bit, several helpful Chinese folks assist us on our way.

We finally make it to the old of LiJiang

Once off the bus, we head into Old town to begin the search for our hostel.  Ben breaks out his gps tech, and actually makes finding it pretty easy.  But, it is a nice long walk again, and I unwillingly get in another shoulder workout.  We quickly and easily settle into our quaint room, and venture out onto the town.  LiJiang is a tourist destination for many Chinese around the country.  The old town, where we are staying, is pedestrian only, and most of the cobblestone streets are filled with people.  The city is extremely beautiful with brooks running throughout and the ancient architecture being very well preserved.  We meet and talk with some wonderful people, eat some interesting food, and let a lot of Chinese tourists take pictures with us.  It was another wonderful full day, and sleep is easy to find.

Pull up a chair and relax in LiJiang

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 15 – “Sweet and Spicy” (blog)

Dali –

It feels really good to wake up in the Dali mountains. The sun is shining, there are no horns blaring, the smoky clouds drift down the mountain, and the cat is purring in my arms. Life is good. I’m really excited about our recording session from last night and the music that came from it. What could today bring?

The cat and I hang in the early morning

Everything is really quiet and the rest of the crew are still asleep, so I find it a great time to do some more recording. Having a room that sounds this good and an excellent guitar to record with is a blessing on the road, and should be made the most of. I lay down a couple more guitar tracks, some banjo tracks, and sing some.

Early recording session in the Dali hills

As Josh awakes he gets the tea going and begins making some oatmeal. The oatmeal here is not like the instant packets you find in the states. It’s actually some grain that needs to be boiled for a while.   It’s really delicious and he has a lot of things to put in it: bananas, walnuts, raisins, honey. Josh is such a gracious host, and his hospitality is amazing. We sit around breakfast, having a really fun time and our friend Kirk breaks out his recording to do a podcast. We have an amazing conversation talking about music, culture, and the arts in China and the USA. We tell stories, laugh, and understand things in a broader perspective.

Not your everyday bowl of oatmeal

Toward the end of our conversation, Josh presents with gifts from his new venture. He has begun manufacturing guitar straps that are made by local craftsmen and women. The straps are made from leather and hand woven stitching that is wonderful in so many ways. They are colorful, artistic, and functional. The name of his straps are Tea Horse Straps, and through the creation and sell of these, he has found a way to support the local artisans of the area, as well as creating a great product that musicians will love. He gives both Ben and I a strap as a gift, and we are thrilled to have such a beautiful addition to our musical adventures. You can check out his work at Thanks Josh!

Beautiful Tea Horse Guitar straps

After breakfast, another recording session begins, and my friend Kirk lays some down some vocal harmonies and fiddle tracks. The songs for the Banjo Earth album have been graced with excellent music during our stay here in Dali, and I am extremely grateful for the talents of these generous musicians. We play a few more tunes, and decide to head into town for dinner and some exploration.

“Famous” Kirk Kenney laying some fiddle tracks

The walk down the mountain village to the road where we can catch a ride is amazing. There are fields full of all sorts of crops, and the people working them. Behind us is a mountain range that will take your breath away, and before us is a gigantic lake, also graced with a mountain range. The sky is clear, the sun is setting, and it feels like a magical moment in a magical place. We catch a ride into town, and find an excellent restaurant and have some amazing noodles and vegetables. After a couple of beers and walking around the old town for a bit, we get antsy to get back to the mountain house and have a midnight jam. After a few tunes and some more musical collaboration, the time for bed draws near, and we all say goodnight. Another peaceful mountain rest begins.

Night sets on Dali

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 14 – “Stoke the Fire” (blog)

Dali –

I begin the morning once again by blogging, coffee, and hanging out in the courtyards of the hostel. It’s energizing to see all of the activity of these travelers making plans and having breakfast before their journeys. We’ve got some really cool things planned for today, and I’m excited to get it started. After breakfast I head into town to make a couple of purchases. I need to find some sunglasses and a hat, or hoodie. The hat is to keep my head from the impending cold, and will also operate as afro control, keeping my curly mop in check. The sunglasses I could not find, but I did find a beautiful, hand-made, hoodie from a local craftsman.

Out and about in the Old Town, Dali

There is a lot of really gifted artisans and craftsmen living in the Dali area. Leather-work is big here and you will find the most beautiful belts, bags, and clothing that you have ever seen. It is all extremely well made and expensive, but well worth the price. Even though haggling is expected in this part of the world, I gladly pay the man full price for the hoodie, because it is his art and craft. As an artist myself, I respect the time and skill it takes to create something of value. Thus, with no haggling of price, I hand the man his money and walk off with my new blue hoodie.

The blue hoodie

We have a recording session set up today for the afternoon and evening with my friends Josh Dyer and Kirk Kenney, whom I played with at Sun Island on my first night in town. They have become quick friends as we share a love of music and many other basic philosophies. Josh has offered us to come stay at his place in a small mountain village to record. He has also arranged for a Mongolian musician/singer to join us, and for a traditional ethnic dinner to be made.

Enjoying our time with Kirk and Josh

We meet Josh at the hostel and have a beer to discuss life and our plans for the rest of the day. We secure a car to take us there, then follow him on his motorcycle to the village. It’s nice to be getting out of the old city and exploring some other parts of the town. The village is quite primitive, and the street is extremely narrow, so our driver drops us off at the gate to the village and we walk the rest of the way.

Get some fresh country air

The place is amazing! It is an old style courtyard compound with branches of the house surrounding the center. One side of the house is over 100 years old and is still happening with the same wood with which it was constructed. This will be the studio. There is lots of space and the room sounds incredible. As we get set up, the musicians start arriving. I redo the rhythm guitar tracks I did the other day because Josh’s guitar and the room sound so much better than my previous attempts.

Laying down some rhythm tracks in the makeshift studio

I track down Reuben and Desert Waltz, as I feel those two would be best suited for the Mongolian player. His name is Gawa, and he is a consummate musician. He is well grounded in the traditions and skills of his native past. Yet he is fearless and adventurous in his willingness to embrace and try other music. I play Reuben with him for a while, then let him listen to the recording we’ve made, and we begin tracking. He is quite nervous as we all stare at him and Ben puts a video camera in close proximity, but he performs quite well and the sounds he made are perfect for the track.

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Gawa doing his thing in the studio

We then come down for dinner made by a local Bai woman, the main native ethnic group of this area. The food is so delicious, and the company is a lot of fun. Meat dishes, cucumber, lotus root, potatoes, and rice, accompanied by red wine and whiskey combine with great and fun conversation. We converse about the state of music in China and America, and Gawa gives us a little throat singing lesson. After this fabulous meal, we head back into the studio to put some Mongolian singing on the track. It is exactly what I envisioned, and even better, and gives this song the Banjo Earth magic that it needed. I’m really excited about how it turned out.

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Deliciously cooked meal made by a local Bai chef
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The chef…she’s yelling at me to get out of the kitchen!

Post recording, everyone gets their instruments out and the jam commences. We play so many different tunes and styles, and play well into the night. Sad songs, happy songs, Mongolian songs, American songs, and new songs we make up on the spot allow us to foray into all kinds of musical worlds. We play well into the night, laughing and jamming along the way. It all eventually winds down, and we brush our teeth with my hippie toothpaste that I got in Arizona, and fall into bed. What a great day this was! The food, the music, the mountains, was all just right. Huge thanks to Josh for having us to his place and arranging all of the magical things to happen. Peace through Music. Community through Creation.

Peace through Music. Community through Creation.

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 13 – “A Day in Dali” (blog)

Dali –

Upon waking from a dream where I was hanging out with Jay-Z, I feel extremely refreshed and head down to the hostel café for breakfast and internet. This place, called the Jade Emu, is really cool. They have coffee, western breakfast, a fast internet connection, and the place is hopping with travelers ranging from Aussie to Israeli to Chinese, and of course, American. There is also a ping pong table, pool table, and the staff is very helpful with getting around the area. If you ever find yourself in Dali on a traveler’s budget, stay here.

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Breakfast and a blog

After breakfast, we head out into Dali to explore the town. This place is very vibrant and alive. The local ethnic group, the Bai, are an extremely colorful people. They dress in bright colors, and can often be found wearing bright smiles. We are in the ancient town, which is the old capital city and is surrounded by walls and large gates at the North, South, East, and West. I find and buy a selfie stick, something I thought I would never purchase. But, given the nature of this project, it is a very helpful addition to the arsenal.

Uh oh… I got a selfie stick!

The ancient town of Dali is remarkable. There is so much activity here. The city is filled with music and food vendors. Backpackers visit here so often that there is an industry set up to accommodate them. It is filled with people from all sorts of different ethnic groups and backgrounds. The food here is very spicy and amazing, and is a very wide variety. We explore around the city, seeing things are new and different around every corner. We happen into the meat market, and it’s a sight not for the faint of heart. There are at least 50 meat vendors, all with slabs of raw meat right out on the table, and hanging from the rafters. There is lamb, chicken, beef, and all sorts of other creature flesh that I can’t identify.

Hanging meats

Ben and I split for a little while to pursue our own adventures. I go for a walk and end up getting little bit lost, I find myself outside of the old town walls, and have trouble finding my way back. Luckily I have enough Chinese to ask where all the foreigners, music, and bars are, and they direct my back to our hood. I meet back up with Ben at the music bar we have been frequenting, and share out stories. A couple of local gals who we met the night before come talk to us, share a sip of whiskey, and teach us a few pick up lines in Chinese. It’s the practical language learning that fits me best!

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Sharing language and whiskey with Zhou Zhou

I then head back to the hostel room to do a little recording. But as I settle in, I find that the screaming and yelling kids right outside the door in the courtyard aren’t really suitable to a great recording. It thus turns into a nice time for a rest, and I catch a little nap. There are a few bands we’ve met, that are playing in town tonight, so we head into the fray around sundown and see what we can find. There is a rock band playing at a place called the Bad Monkey. They set up a microphone for me and I play a long, extended space jam with them. It is quite fun, despite not being able to hear the banjo very well. I thank them for allowing me to jam, and we head on down the street.

Getting my Yunnan fashion styles together

One of the most fun things I’ve found to do on this trip is walk down the street, playing banjo and dancing a bit. I stop and play for anyone who seems to really enjoy and have really cool interactions with people. Sometimes they dance, sometimes they sing, sometimes they ask questions, and sometimes they just look at me funny. And if you are a musician on the street, look out! The banjo is coming for you. I find a drummer and play a song with him, and continue on.

Musical collaborations in the Dali streets

At Sun Island, one of the music rooms we’ve befriended, there is another musician playing whom I was recommended to jam with. He is playing a solo electric guitar gig, and sets a microphone up for me to play with him as well. I really like the vibe and owners of this place, and I can hear much better here. So I play until closing time (11pm) with Dan and we hang out and have a lot of fun. He is a fellow from Ohio who has been living and playing in China for around 5 years. His music ranges from old-time banjo to rock to electronic trance, and is just a really cool guy.

Jams with Dan

After leaving Sun Island, we begin our trek back home. But along the way, I remember this is indeed Dali, and we find even more music happening. There is a guitarist named Xiao Xi, who was playing with the rock band earlier, and he has an acoustic out. We get together in the street for a few tunes. He is a really good guitar player and can play in the style of Django Reinhardt, one of my favorite artists. We cut through Minor Swing, a blues song, and something else I don’t know. On down the street, I find a guitar and a group of people sitting on the stoop. Of course, they get the banjo treatment as well. We sit around, going through tunes like Chinese folk songs, American folk songs, and even a song from Green Day.

Xiao Xi experimenting with the Banjo

Inspired by the vibe and the music of Yunnan, and Dali in particular, the Banjo Earth seems to be in full swing here. The cross collaboration and exploration of cultures is the heart of the project, and is really finding a home among the different cultures of the region. Tomorrow we have a recording session in a remote mountain village with some local musicians, and I am really excited to see what we can create. But for now, sleep is near.

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The colors and flavors of Yunnan province

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 12 – “Down the Road” (blog)

Kunming/Dali –

It’s amazing what a night of peaceful sleep on a good bed, and a couple of long, hot showers can do for the soul. Feeling energized and refreshed, I go to check out the complimentary breakfast. It is literally the most amazing breakfast I have ever seen! It is separated by regions of the world: including European, Western, Chinese, Japanese, and a fruit/bread section. There are too many to dishes to choose from, so I settle in on a fried egg, coffee, toast, chinese greens, and nuts. Trying my best to take advantage of the buffet style, I go in for seconds and find another egg and a bowl of noodles, plus a small doughnut. If I could fit anything in my belly I would have, but I’m stuffed as I get back up to the room to work on the blog. I’ve done a few blog posts in my days previous to Banjo Earth, but along this trip I’ve been able to create work everyday. It feels really good to create a solid discipline for writing that is a consistent, creative outlet.

Waking up in a Yunnan Jungle

We pack up and begin our trek up into the mountains of southwestern China. We are headed to Dali, and ancient capital of a whole region of the western part of the country. The city is now full of artists, musicians, and creatives who have gotten away from the lights, pace, and pressures of Beijing. The town is situated between a giant lake and a chain of very high mountains. It is a popular destination for Chinese and foreign tourists alike. I visited here 8 years ago, and am really excited to get back to this magical land.

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Our transportation into the Chinese mountains

The hotel calls us a taxi that is waiting for us after checkout, and takes us to the bus station. We catch a bus 10 minutes after arrival to the station, and in no time we are on the way. It’s about a 4-5 hour bus ride up into the Chinese hills. It is a beautiful ride and is very interesting to get a perspective of the Chinese countryside. You will often see people out in the fields working with their rakes and hoes, toiling on their own little strip of Earth. This is a sight that is almost unseen now in the U.S.

Working the fields

The ride is a chance to do some filming, catch up on writing, and learn how to make video blogs. I finish the first video blog just before we reach town. We haven’t made any arrangements for sleep yet, so after we get dropped off at the bust station, we find a little restaurant to devise a plan. The first place we come across is a tiny little street restaurant that is serving chicken noodle soup. I can taste Grandma’s flavors in there along with a few exotic spices. It is delicious. Almost everything I have eaten on this trip has been uniquely amazing and satisfying. The food is worth the trip to China alone.

Grandma’s Chinese Chicken and Noodle soup

As I eat I make a little conversation with the cook/owner. English is few and far between outside of the large cities, so my Chinese has to do for now. I tell her where we are headed, and she arranges for us a friend’s taxi to drive us to the old city of Dali. I am usually wary of these sort of back street arrangements, but they seem like pretty straight people, and we are not real sure how to get around town yet, so we agree. I find out later that the price they gave me was a little expensive, but it was easy and convenient, so I was happy to let this one ride. I have a couple of contacts here in Dali that I was put in touch with by a mutual friend in the States. I contact them on the taxi ride, and my friend hops on the phone with the taxi driver to direct him to our destination. It’s amazing how, when you just get going on your way, things seem to work out, and you can always find a way to make it to your destination. Loose traveling, I call it. My new friend is a 6’3 tall American with a head full of curly hair on the street that we are looking for. I am a crazy American, also with a curly afro, hanging out the side window of a car. So we easily spot each other on the street.

Joshua Dyer
“Famous” Kirk Kenney

I’m really happy to meet a friendly face in an unfamiliar city, and he walks us to the restaurant to meet his other friends. Our new friend’s name is Josh, and he is a dobro/guitar player from Oregon who lives here in Dali. Our other new friend is Kirk, a great fiddle/guitar/singer who lives in Beijing and is visiting Dali. They are super friendly, funny, and knowledgeable about China and the area we are in. They also play my kind of old-time and bluegrass music, and have a show booked at a nearby bar. We join them for a beer and some conversation, then head over to the venue. It is a really neat, small, open-air style bar run by a Frenchman and his Chinese wife. The duo sounds great and I’m really excited to jam with them. They have me up for the second set and we have a blast blending bluegrass, old-time, and whatever else kind of music we feel. The crowd is very receptive and seems to be having a great time. Even the Frenchman is slapping his knees in a very rhythmic and percussive style. I meet some really interesting people, some great musicians, and make some plans for our short stay in Dali. There is a lot of minority music happening down here that I am really interested in exploring for Banjo Earth. We finish our whiskey drink, say our goodbyes, and head to our hostel that we secured just before closing time. It’s been another great day in China, and I’m once again excited to see what adventures tomorrow will bring.

What adventures will tomorrow bring?