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.