Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 27 – “Caravan” (blog)

Beijing –

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.

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Ryan after a rough night’s sleep in the hutong

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!

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Our friend Emily brewing something good at Rager Pies

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.

Xin Xin making magic happen on the fiddle

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!

Ryan and the spiciest Hot Pot I’ve ever had

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.

Ben doing his best to beat the Hot Pot heat

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.

The drum tower performance

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 adding some Pipa to the Banjo Earth album

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.

Caravan..A Moroccan/Cajun restaurant with live music

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.

Square dance party breaks out at Caravan

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.

Banjo Earth jam at Caravan

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.

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Morning comes fast on a late night

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 23 – “Kung Fu House” (blog)

Beijing –

Today is another recording day! We have 8 hours booked in a Beijing studio, and I’m excited to see what we can create for the Banjo Earth album. The day begins like most other days this trip, with coffee and blogs. Our digs are a little sweeter this time though, as our hosts have a built a wooden deck atop their old style hutong compound. So on this unusually blue, clear, and warm late October day, the roof deck is definitely the place to be. As I’m preparing coffee, I get into a conversation with Nick, one of the hosts, about the history of the place. He has been married to Cindy, the Chinese woman who’s family has owned the property since before Mao. Here is the basic story he related to me.

On the roof deck of Cindy and Nic’s home

A year or two before Mao and the Communist Army took over Beijing and the country, all of the people who owned property began selling it off quite quickly. They saw the impending philosophies and the results that would come, and tried to liquidate whatever holdings they may have before it went down. Mao took over in 1949, so around 1947/48, property could be bought very cheaply. Cindy’s Great Grandmother saw this opportunity and bought the property where we are staying in 1947. Two years later the Communist party came in, turned all of the rooms into apartments, and took out all of the running toilets, and forced people to use public toilets. That is why you find so many public toilets around Beijing today. They are quite useful as you run around town, but it is really interesting to know the history behind them.

So Cindy and her family grew up in one of six little apartments, that were once a large courtyard house. All of the communist workers got a little apartment in the compound. This was an extreme redistribution of wealth that the party was known for. Later came many deaths from starvation, and the cultural revolution, but this post is not about those things. Just merely about the history of the house.

Fast forward to about 10 years ago, and Cindy is a strong Chinese woman in her mid 40’s. Beijing is preparing for the 2008 Olympics by tearing down as many old hutongs as possible and replacing them with modern architecture. Personally, the hutongs are one my favorite parts of Beijing. This is where real Beijing life takes place. The people living here have often lived in the same house all of their lives, along with their Mothers Fathers and Grandparents. So the government came to Cindy in an attempt to “buy” her property for a fraction of the price. But her family has been through this before and she found the strength and help to defy the government and win to keep her house.

Back into the studio

After this fascinating story, we trek out toward the studio to make some music. After getting the guy to turn down his Michael Jackson so we could record, and negotiating new strings for their guitar, which had strings apparently leftover from the Qing Dynasty, the music commenced. We got quite a bit done, then went to take a break with my oldest Chinese friend, DaZhi. I first met DaZhi back in 2001 when I was a student in Beijing. We got along really well, even though at first we had to communicate through translators. We told stories, played music, and ran around town with reckless abandon. 15 years later, we have managed to stay in touch. I recently saw him in Los Angeles, and now back in his hometown of Beijing, we get together again. The way this friendship stretches out over time and land is fascinating to me, and makes me smile deep in my heart. I tell him when that when we are 80 years old, we will go together to eat food, drink beer, and tell stories. I can actually see this taking place in my imagination.

Catching up with my old friend DaZhi

Da Zhi wants to celebrate our presence in China, of course, and he and his wife take us out to Chongqing Hot Pot. Chongqing is a region is Southwest China, who is famously known for their spice. As you walk in the restaurant, the boiling water at all of the tables is actually so spicy that it chokes you a little. After that introduction, I know what we are in for. He shows us how to make the Chonqing sauce, with garlic and sesame oil being the 2 main ingredients, then we sit down for a fun time around the table. Dishes keep coming out raw, ready for the pot, including some strange things we have yet to taste. Our particular menu covers lamb meat, beef, lotus root, bamboo, duck blood, duck intestines, tracheal tendons of the cow, and sprouts. Everything is extremely delicious, even the duck blood!

The duck blood goes into the hot pot

They treat us like we are royalty, and it is such fun to catch up with my good friend and his new wife. They are truly wonderful people. Afterward, we stop by the Temple Bar, where Banjo Earth will play its first concert on Sunday Oct 25. It happens to be Nirvana night and is filled with both Chinese and foreign nationals. The first band sounds pretty rough, but the second band covers Nirvana quite well. The dance floor fills up with moving people, as we have a couple of drinks and watch this interesting scene happen before us. Later we catch a taxi back to our hutong home, and stumble into bed. Another full day in China has worn us out. My brother Jesse Ryan arrives in China tomorrow, for his first time, and I’m super excited to welcome him to China.

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Always a good time at the Temple Bar