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 24 – “The Dragon’s Tail” (blog)

Beijing –

My brother Ryan gets here today! I’m really excited to welcome him to China and share his experience of this amazing place. We spend the beginnings of the day getting caught up with work and laundry. It’s another beautiful, warm Beijing day, which is a surprise this late in October, but we nonetheless enjoy what the Universe has given us. The view from the rooftop deck of our hutong home is really fun. You can see over the whole neighborhood, as the rolling roofs flow all around like a dragon’s tail. It’s the best place for cats to be as well, and it’s nice to have some furry friends rummaging around. Ryan’s plane doesn’t get into until 3, so we finish work, go out for a walk and find some lunch. Around 330 we head out toward where he will meet us at the subway station. I’ve given him instructions and an address in Chinese that will allow the taxi driver to drop him off at a specific location. Ben and I go out to the location a little early to make sure we can find it, and set up on the stoop of the subway.

Beijing Banjo

Ryan sends me a text that he just landed, so about an hour later, we start looking for him. The communication from him stops coming, so I assume that his network isn’t operating correctly, or that he has run out of power. In either case, I get a bit worried because he hasn’t shown up, hasn’t called, and his Chinese language is basically non-existent. Although I’m not sure of his whereabouts, and it is getting cold fast, sitting on the corner of the subway and watching Beijing life go by is fascinating. Old people, young people, fashionable people, people in their dirty construction work clothes. Life in Beijing, in all of it’s color, sound, and taste, goes by on the street, as we sit there stationary and soak it all in. The Chinese are a proud and determined people, and you can see and feel the zest that they have for life in every smile, in every excited and animated phone conversation. The horns blare, the bikes and scooters roll by, and Beijing exists just as it should; the busy, beautiful, exciting capitol city that it is.

Watching Beijing go by

Ryan finally shows up in the cab, as the driver drops him off right where instructed, and I give him a big hug, happy to see him. He’s a bit loopy after traveling for about 20 hours straight, as expected. He has booked a hotel room at the nearby Eclat, a futuristic and funky looking building right around the block. I grab his fiddle and bag and we head off down the block. He booked this room to have a nice easy transition into Chinese life, with a bit of luxury and ease to smooth the path, which was a good idea. The hotel is gorgeous, filled with art from Dali, Warhol, and many others.

The art filled hallways of the Eclat hotel

The owner is an art collector and has filled this space with some amazing pieces of work. Each floor has it’s own unique theme, and they have booked his room on the white floor. As we get up to the floor and the elevator doors open, a white statue of Chairman Mao greets us. The room is posh and modern, coming equipped with a massage chair, giant soft bed, a stocked refrigerator, and even a lamp that turns on and off with a laser gun. This is a side of Beijing that we have yet to experience on our Banjo Earth budget. From hutongs to hostels, the Eclat displays a level of Chinese innovation and elegance that we are unfamiliar with. It’s nice to see this side of things, even though I prefer to see the real life of family living in the old and back-alley neighborhoods.

Chairman Mao greets us on the white floor

They have a complimentary happy hour for guests, a fantastic idea whose time has come, I might add, so we get him settled into his room and head down to the lounge to partake. I have a delicious margarita, Ben gets a gin and tonic, and Ryan opts for the Martini. It’s really nice to catch up, as I haven’t seen him in over 3 months. We enjoy our drinks, the company, and the people passing by. It’s cool to see him in this foreign and exotic land, and watch the effect on his soul taking place. Afterward, it’s time to hit the streets. He’s a combination of tired and excited, so I want to take him to see just a couple of interesting destinations. We start with Wangfuging, a touristy but hip section of town close to Tianenman. There we find some scorpions on a stick, lamb meat skewers, and all kinds of interesting things to ingest. It’s a nice way to start his China adventures.

Ryan trying to make sense of it all

Then we take a walk over to the Forbidden City and Tainenman Square. The palace is beautiful at night as it is lit up like a beacon to lost ships. Mao’s gigantic painting over the front is entrance is always there to remind of China’s interesting history. Given the past, it’s one of the coolest things for visitors to check out, and really easy to get to. So we take a few pictures, enjoy the view and the scene, then venture back to the Hotel Eclat. I get Ryan to bed, then catch a taxi back home. It’s getting late, and we have a very early date with a Chinese Rap performance (which is actually old people singing stories and playing classical Chinese instruments), so it’s off to bed, Banjo Earth style.

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The Forbidden City at night