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 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