Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 29 – “Shanghai Jazz” (blog)

Shanghai –

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.

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The old, the new, and the umbrellas

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.

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It’s a rainy Shanghai day

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.

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Rehearsal at the JZ Jazz club

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.

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Lulu – singer, dancer, and queen of Chinese Burlesque

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.

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The red mystery soup

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.

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Lift your Spirit

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Universe is a wonderful place