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My first taste was a street stand just outside of a half empty mall. Inside was a KFC, but they weren’t open yet. So I just decided to jump in. I saw they were serving Naan bread with some other goodies, so I said I’ll have one of whatever that is. He fixed me up a plate, brushed off a swarm of flies, and I sat down for some vittles. The food was actually very good. A small helping of beans, naan bread, raw onions with a pepper, and some brown sauce for dipping. It was very spicy and very tasty. The main issue was keeping the flies off of me and my food. From what I’ve noticed, that is something you just get used to, and eventually stop swatting. But I’m a long way from that point.
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At about 7:30, whether we are ready to wake up or not, China awakes and the construction begins. You can start to hear hammering, yelling, laughing, beating on metal, and whatever other abrasive building sounds that exist. It is quite awesome, despite the need for some extra morning sleep, how quickly and efficiently the Chinese put up marvelous and extravagant buildings. One day, there is a huge hole in the ground, and many workers standing inside it, and the next day looks like nothing ever happened there.
The Wifi in China is spotty at best, and I need to make some travel arrangements, including flights and Airbnb spots. So, Ryan and I head over to a nearby Starbucks where I’m sure they will have some internet and coffee. Coffee they do have, but no internet. We do discover a red bean paste scone that is surprisingly tasty however, so all is not lost. It’s a rainy day in Shanghai, and the umbrellas are out in numbers. Although I enjoy a good rain every now and again, this weather makes it impossible for me to carry the banjo around on my shoulder, in typical Banjo Earth style. So I reluctantly leave it at home, and we head off to the JZ jazz club, located in the embassy district, to meet Lulu.
Lulu is a multi-dimensional entertainment powerhouse. Our friend “Famous” Kirk Kenney hooked us up with Lulu because we were looking for a singer to complete a Chinese folk song we’ve been working on. This seems to be the final piece of the Banjo Earth: China puzzle, and we are hoping we can get with Lulu and have her sing this part for the record. We meet her at the Jazz club where she is rehearsing with her band for an upcoming gig for the Mexican embassy. The band is hot and swinging, the club is swanky and lounge, like a hot Shanghai club straight out of the 1930’s. She runs through a few tunes on vocals and also does a little “Charleston” dance rehearsal. A grooving jazz band and a Chinese gal swing dancing is the last thing we expected to see once we got to Shanghai, but surprises have been around every corner on this journey.
Lulu happens to be a wonderfully talented singer, dancer, pin up model, burlesque performer, and just a really sweet and funny woman. We check her rehearsal for a bit, listen to our folk song, then head over to the Organic Kitchen next door for a snack and some conversation. She promises to give the song a try, though she is really busy, and we’re here for only two days, so we aren’t sure if we can “swing” it. Her friend Michael Jackson comes by, (he literally is Michael Jackson), and they take off. We head back toward our home on this rainy Shanghai day with some new adventures under our belt, and another new and talented Banjo Earth friend.
After a short rest, we set out to find some dinner. This is the last night of the tour, so we seek out a nicer restaurant to enjoy some of the finer cuisine Shanghai has to offer. There is a place nearby the house, and given the rain, we find it a nice choice. We all order a couple of dishes, mainly just by looking at pictures, and wait to see what we have selected. I ordered a soup that had all kinds of crazy things in it that I have never seen before. This is the first thing that comes out, so we dig in. At first it’s not too bad, but the deeper we get into it, the stranger it becomes. The flavor of the soup is not like anything I have ever tasted, and not in the best way possible. The rue is a deep red, which sort of reminds me of blood, and tastes like it too. There are critters with spikes, tendons, livers, and some other unidentifiable matter. I can’t say this dish was a winner, and chalk it up to the win some/lose some philosophy. Maybe this can just be our Halloween present. Luckily, the rest of the dishes are pretty tasty, and I finally get that soup taste out of my mouth. In any case, we have a great time sharing the meal, having a few beers, and talking about our experiences in China. Ben’s ready to rest and get out of the rain. But as usual, I’m ready for some more, so I recruit Ryan to join me to a jazz club that isn’t too far away.
Earlier at the jazz rehearsal, we befriended the bandleader, Alec. He is a guy from Connecticut who has been working in the music scene in Shanghai for about 10 years. He invited us out to his gig tonight at a place called the Wooden Box. We arrive and sit down for a drink. The room is really cool. It is small, round, and filled with glass windows. The have a jazz trio, which includes Alec on saxophone, a drummer, and bassist. They are all really great musicians, and the music is thoroughly enjoyable. I enjoy a whiskey, meet some new folks, and relax to some hot jazz grooves. It’s time to say goodnight, as the rain and jazz bring the night to a close. Shanghai is such a beautiful city. It is filled with music, wonderful people, incredible architecture, and food that will lift (and spook) your spirits. Tomorrow is our last day in China, and we’ve got some more adventures ahead of us. Goodnight.
It seems like just a couple of hours ago that we were partying with the French folks at the pool bar. And in actuality, it was. It’s an early rise this morning to get ourselves together, and to make it to the train station on time. We’ve got a bullet train reserved for our trip to Beijing to Shanghai, and it leaves at 11:20 am. That seems like a pretty reasonable time to make it, but when you factor in packing, cleaning the place a bit, coffee/breakfast, walking to the subway, riding the subway to the train station, figuring out where to get our tickets, going through security, going through security again, then finding the right train car, we make it with just minutes to spare. Everything in China, even getting on the train, is an adventure. And that is just the way I like it.
I’m excited to ride the bullet train. The last time I made this trip 14 years ago in took about 12 hours of pure discomfort. This trip will take 5.5 hours and the seats lean back in wonderfully relaxing position. Plus, on a train, you can look out the window and watch China go by in your window. It is completely fascinating to see the backroads and inroads of this country. From nuclear power plants, to farms full of tiny little gardens, to miles and miles of greenhouses, China’s industriousness and innovation is on display as you pass through at a couple hundred miles per hour. The colors span from lush greens to dark grays, the landscape from rocky mountains to jungle-like vegetation. You won’t see any of this way up in the air flying on a plane, which is why bullet train is my new favorite mode of transport. Come on America, let’s make this happen, eh?
After having a chance to make some videos, blogs, and enjoy the country, we stroll into Shanghai around sundown. We have booked another AirBnB house here that is in a great part of town. After finding the place, locating the keys, and figuring out how to use them, we find our way into our new home and relax for a bit. Not long after that however, the excitement, flavors, smells, and lights of Shanghai begin calling. Since I was last here in 2001, Shanghai has changed tremendously. The buildings are taller, more numerous, and more modern. The amount of skyscrapers that display beautiful and innovative architecture is staggering. And the food…..oh my! The plan is just to snack our way around the city for a little while, trying little bites and samples of whatever we can get our hands on.
The Huangpu River, where the old French Bund, and just across the water, the business district, is located, is our first destination. The night skyline of the business district of Shanghai may be the most beautiful in the world, and it’s a good place to start to get an understanding of the kind of environment you are in. So we set out for the three mile or so walk, taking our time and soaking in the city. We find snacks in the form of delicious noodles, chicken, and the tiny little soup dumplings that Shanghai is so famous for. We happen upon the music district, which is full of instrument stores and live clubs. We pass through what feels like mid-town Manhattan, and even pass by Times Square of Shanghai. The lit up store fronts and LED laden buildings look like a mix of New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Shanghai is bustling and busy, making things happen with a sophisticated style and pace. It is very modern and fashionable, and is in stark contrast to the Beijing we just came from. Given their striking differences however, this is still China, and that Chinese pride and style runs deep, and even here, is unmistakable.
We finally make it down to the river, and the sights of the city just suck us in. The mix of high-rise business buildings and the funky fresh artistic vibe Shanghai has is really cool. The purple space tower jutting from the ground makes you kind of feel like you are on a different planet. Right across the river from these sights is the old French part of town, the Bund. It’s buildings are made up of classical western architecture, and make such an interesting combination. The people are out in force tonight, enjoying themselves and taking hundreds of pictures. The night is beautiful and warm, and a short sleeve shirt is enough to suffice. Weather wise, our trip from Beijing to Shanhai is sort of like having breakfast in New York, then eating dinner in Savannah, GA.
We enjoy the night, have a beer on a riverwalk patio, and take it all in. Banjo Earth is nearly at its end, and it has been an incredible journey. The first few days feel like months ago. All the amazing people we’ve met, things we’ve seen, and music we’ve made and heard is unfathomable. It may take a few months to sort this all out. All I know is that it feels great to Be Here Now, and to be doing the things that I know I was put on this planet to do. I looked deep into my heart, found this idea, and began the work. From there, the Universe took over; the love of my friends and family, the support of fans of my spirit and music, and the wonderful talents of the people around me. I truly believe if there is Love in your dream, than anything is possible.
Last night was a little rough to get through. The beds were really hard, the bathroom was located two alleys away, and the snoring was ferocious. But it’s nights like these that really help you appreciate staying in a nice hotel with a super soft bed and hot shower. At least, that’s how I try to sell it to the guys. In any case, Ben has a cold he more than likely caught from me, Ryan is tired and out of his element, and I’m doing alright. This is our last day in Beijing before we head South, then out of the country. So there is no time to get down. I think if this is the worst that it gets, then we’ve done pretty good.
Despite our lack of sleep and less than optimal health, we have a really full day of recording sessions and a concert. After waking rather early, we go around the corner to our favorite coffee shop, Rager Pies. There, the cute and funny barista/owner, Emilie, treats us to some delicious coffee and interesting conversation. The espresso is really good and they always treat us great at this place. It’s a one-table café, so try to get there when it’s not busy!
After coffee, I get a message from our fiddling friend Xin Xin. He is on the way over to our hutong house for a recording session. Xin Xin is a great person. He is so funny and expressive, and we always have a good time trying to figure out what each other is saying. He is very generous with his time and talents, and is an incredible musician. He came right into the session, quickly learned the song, and performed it wonderfully. Even though I tried to pay him for his work, he refused. These are the kinds of artists that truly carry the torch. His tradition is deep, and his willingness to explore and collaborate across cultural and musical boundaries is brave and earnest. I feel very blessed to have him as a part of the Banjo Earth: China project.
After the session, we are all feeling pretty hungry, so we take off for some food. I really want to take Ryan to Mongolian Hot Pot (Huo Guo), and have him experience this incredible meal. There are many different kinds of Hot Pot, and you never really know which kind you are getting, unless you speak excellent Chinese, that is. This particular restaurant, pretty close to our house, happens to be one of the more spicy ones. I have a little trouble ordering, until after about 5 minutes of frustrating confusion, she shows me the little English written on the back of the menu. Thanks!
We get the food, the pot begins boiling, and the journey begins. Whatever style Hot Pot this is, the soup is the spiciest we’ve had. Halfway through the meal, Ben is crying and sweating from his head, and we’re all periodically choking. Despite the incredible spice, the food is still extremely delicious. Raw lamb meat, beef, mushrooms, potatoes, lettuce, cabbage, and tofu, boiled in the pot for a minute then dipped in your sesame sauce, is one the best dining experiences on this planet. The first time I left China after living there for six months, I would often have dreams of this dish, and upon returning, this would be my first stop. We finish our beer and try to cool off a bit, but the heat lingers after the meal. This level of spice puts you in a sort dreamy trance state. When we hit the street again after the meal, I feel like I just left an opium den.
On the way back to our place we pass by the ancient and beautiful drum tower, just North of the Forbidden City. This is the timekeeping center of China past, where, every hour, they would conduct a drum performance on these massive drums that would ring throughout the city, letting folks know the time was moving. Of course, now, we all have watches and cell phones connected to satellites that keep our time, but the drum performance carries on to this day, bringing the past into the present. It happens to be really close to the time of the performance as we walk by, so we pay our ticket and head up the nearly vertical staircase to the top of the tower. At the top is a large, mostly empty room, save for about 12 massive drums and some people gathered to see them played. Right on time, the drummers come out and begin their ancient ritual. The heavy sound from the wood and skin, and the rick history that you can sense in every way happening right in front of you, is so emotionally powerful that I start to tear up a bit. This just hits me in a special way, and helps to form new connections about music, time, and history. After the short performance, I try to gather myself as we move outside on the balcony and take a look over Beijing. You can see the Forbidden city just in front, all of the hutongs swerving in and around, then the large buildings start to rise on the outside of city center. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, and I feel really blessed for this moment in space and time.
After a short nap and a bit of recuperation, we set up the studio for our second session of the day. We have a Pipa player, whose English name is Melinda, coming to the house to lay some tracks on the album. Our friend from yesterday, YuMiao, connected us with Melinda, and I am excited to hear her play the Pipa, one of my favorite instruments. I first saw and heard the Pipa when I was a student here in 2001. I was so struck with the instrument, that I bought one and began taking lessons. It sounds amazing, much like a Chinese version of the banjo. I’m really interested to see how the banjo and pipa can sound together. Before she arrives, I must get some tracks ready for her, so I record a couple of new songs to see which one she like best. I do a version of Sally Goodin’, and old time fiddle tune, and a song called The Forbidden City, which I have composed while in China. She listens to and likes them both, so we record 2 different songs.
Melinda is really smooth on her instrument, and is also a really beautiful and warm person. She is thrilled with the feeling of playing on the project, and learning this new kind of music. She is also very interested in the banjo, and the sounds that come from it. Our time together, though very short, is really fun. And I truly hope that we get to spend more time in the future. But, we have to get to our show at Caravan really soon. So, after about an hour of intense Banjo Earth collaboration, we walk her to the corner and part ways into the night. We grab a quick taxi, and set off for Caravan. This is our second show of the tour, and last show in Beijing, so I’m pretty excited for tonight. We have heard a lot about his place, and its owner Badr. He is from Morocco and the food he serves at the restaurant, 80% Moroccan and 20%Cajun has garnered a lofty reputation in only 6 months since he’s been open. He is also a champion of old time music, country, jazz, and bluegrass, so this is a perfect fit for the Banjo Earth tour. Almost as soon as we arrive, he has drinks and a wonderful dinner prepared for us. Olives and hummus for appetizers, followed by a delicious chicken salad with a succulent dressing, and finished with a tasty roasted chicken and rice dish. The subtle and mild flavors is a welcome rest from the Chinese cuisine we’ve been living on for the past month.
After that great dinner, we set up the show and get into the set. Although the place is pretty small, there is a great crowd in attendance. There are a lot of people we don’t know here, plus several of our Beijing friends we have made over the short time we have been here. It’s really nice to see these folks show up on our last night here to enjoy the music and see us off. The crowd is raucous and lively, and an impromptu square dance breaks out right in front of us. People are jumping around and dancing and having a really good time.
Earlier, my brother Ryan had bought an experimental Nitro Coffee from Rager Pies that apparently releases caffeine into your bloodstream 5 times faster than normal coffee. This, combined with the extreme level of spiciness in the hot pot meal, left him lying on the floor in the band room for the first 30 minutes of the show. Luckily, our good friend and excellent fiddler, Famous Kirk Kenney was in attendance, and filled in for Ryan. About halfway through the set, Ryan got to feeling better and made it back to the stage. We have a great time playing and the crowd really enjoys and appreciates the music. A few of our friends sit in as guest artists, and the music sounded great. It was a perfect way to spend our last night in this wonderful city.
We catch a taxi home and drop our stuff, but on the way, see a pool hall that is really happening right around the corner. So, as ones not much to give up on the night, we head back out for one more drink and a game of pool. When we arrive, there is a large group of French musician and a bunch of French ladies. They are all drinking, shooting, pool, and having a great time. French people have a reputation for loving to party, and these folks don’t disappoint. They are a band from Paris, traveling and touring in China. The whole band is there, complete with backup singers, and promotional people. They are quite fun to hang with and talk to. We squeeze the most fun we can out of the evening, and decide to head on home for some rest. It’s about 3am now and the 9am wake up to catch the train to Shanghai is approaching faster and faster. We say our goodbyes and goodnights, and hit the bed hard. This has been one full and memorable Banjo Earth day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.