Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 30 – “Until Next Time” (blog)

The last day of Banjo Earth has arrived! It has been a long and extremely exciting month. We have worked very hard, and created some spirit-filled art. Many places, friends, and smiles have graced our path along this journey. Things went mostly right, and when they didn’t, were fixed quickly. We learned many lessons along the way: things to do and not to do in China, foods to order and foods not order, things to say and things not to say. Every day was full of new and surprising adventures, incredible music, and life altering experiences. This trip and project have been way more than expected. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as the idea was pretty far out. Combining bluegrass and old time American music on the banjo with such a rich and deep Chinese musical culture could be wonderful, or it could be a disaster. Even I, the project’s creator, had my doubts. But as soon as I landed on Chinese soil and got to work, things started falling into place immediately.

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Things really fell into place

I could never have foreseen all the awesome adventures and musical collaborations that would ensue. The hospitality of everyone along our way was immense and genuine. Without the help and generosity of our Chinese hosts along the way, this project would have not been possible. I feel truly blessed to have been able to conceive of this project, bring it to fruition, and execute it the way we did. I am extremely thankful to all of the friends and family that helped me get it off the ground, into orbit, and see it through. It is truly a project that has taken a village to create! Ben has done an excellent job of filming and photographing the adventures, recording the music, and being a friend and travel partner. It’s hard to think of this project happening without him. My brother Ryan has been an huge part of the making the performances fun, and despite being dropped into a completely unfamiliar environment, has performed really well in the shows, recordings, and travels.   Banjo Earth: China is only the first installment in what is hopefully a long running series. I can see this project carrying over into countries all over the world, spreading that Banjo Love to the farthest corners of the planet. I’m really excited to see how this album and movie turn out, and even more excited about the possibilities for Banjo Earth in the future.

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What a journey!

With all of these thoughts swirling around in my mind, we welcome a friend into town today. I met a lovely lady in LiJiang, about two weeks ago, who lives near Shanghai. She has decided to come spend the day with us, and grace us with her vivacious spirit. She shows up in a sparkling purple dress and fedora hat, and as soon as I see her, I know we are in for a fun evening. Her name is Weng Liang Liang, or Fiona for short, and her energy lights up the city. She lives in Hangzhou, and catches a 40 minute bullet train to Shanghai. I greet her at the subway stop near our place, and we go to where everyone is chilling at the coffee shop, getting some internet work done.

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Liang Liang lights up Shanghai

After catching up, singing a song or two, and sharing some laughts, we head over to our new Airbnb spot for the evening to check in. As we arrive, everything goes smoothly until we find there is no key in the locked box. I send the homeowner a message, and 45 minutes later he shows up with the key. This could seem like an inconvenience, but Liang Liang has better ideas. She has an app on her phone that is so much fun, and she loves to use. It allows you to overdub videos onto preexisting music and talking. Our first performances include “Man in the Mirror” and “Everybody Loves Christmas”. This is way too much fun, and soon, we even get caught by some old ladies staring at us from the upstairs window of a nearby apartment! I realize quickly that this is an app I have to have on my phone. I’ve seen the American version, but the Chinese version is way weirder and cooler.

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Playing and singing some tunes in the coffee shop

We get into the place, settle in with some showers and fruit, and start stepping on the town. We have vague plans to find some food and visit the Pudong district, which is the financial section of Shanghai where all of the crazy and tall buildings reside, the most exciting being the purple space needle that dominates the skyline. After a few bites at Granny’s Kitchen, we catch the subway and head across the river. Aw we come out of the underground, the towers and funky shapes of Shanghai’s skyline take you by surprise. Not only is the space needle hovering over you, but close by is the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world. It twists and turns up into the sky farther than any building I’ve ever seen.  We find our way to the space needle, get our tickets to go inside, and up we go. It is such a futuristic and funky looking building that I feel like I’m in a completely different world.

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The Oriental Pearl Tower

Once we get to the top and look out across this beautiful city, my heart sings a tune. Shanghai is vast, colorful, and alive. We walk around in a complete circle around the tower, catching an amazing view in every direction. There is even a walkway that is built out of glass that you can walk along, and look down some 300 meters straight to the ground. At first, it can give you pause to be suspended so high, by just a plate of glass, but soon I find my feet and Liang Liang are dancing to our own music above the city lights. The open air draft adds a nice touch to the environment, and gives one the feeling that they are suspended in the middle of the sky, which, in effect, is the truth.

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Looking out over the Huangpu River

After enjoying the needle so, we are all a bit tired, and head for home. We stop by to get some snacks and drinks for the house. Some sake, beer, fruit, meats, cheeses, and caramel candies fill the table. From there on we enjoy the evening, and each other’s company. We play and listen to some music, talk about life, laugh, and even make some more videos on Liang Liang’s phone. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the last evening of this epic Banjo Earth adventure. The Love is real. Keep making wonderful things in the world, and realize your dreams. Peace through Music. Community through Creation. Until next time, Andy

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The Love is real

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 26 – “China Cat” (blog)

We muster ourselves together for yet another day of Banjo Earth amazingness. The work doesn’t stop, nor does the fun. We are leaving the Kung Fu house today and heading back into the hutongs where we lived during our first Beijing stay. So, we make some coffee, eat some toast, pack, and say goodbye to our hosts who are now our friends. We have a lot of stuff to carry now, as our load has increased over our time here. New instruments, microphone stands, and gifts for our friends back home have been added. Fortunately, as soon as we walk out of the alley, I “ni hao” us a taxi, who quickly stops, and is willing to take us to our destination. We load down the car and set out for new dwellings. I have lined up for us a small room with 6 bunk beds for the night. There is no bathroom, except for the public restroom nearby, and no kitchen. This room is for sleeping only. It is located back in a very narrow alley, whose neighbors include really old Chinese folks and families living in very tight quarters. The lady who runs the little grocery store nearby has her sights on creating this room as an AirBnb destination. However, she has a bit of a learning curve given her hosting skills and lack of bedding. But we are giving her a head start.

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Our hutong penthouse suite

We get the key, drop off our stuff, and head out into the town. Ben and I have a recording session set up with YuMiao, a professional Guzheng player who lives in North Beijing. We set out for her apartment where we will set up our portable movie and music studio, and hopefully create some magic. She greets us at the subway stop by her house, where I am sitting playing banjo and waiting for her arrival. She is a petite, unassuming young woman with a warm and beautiful smile. We greet her, chat for a minute, and walk back to her apartment.

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Meeting YuMiao and her warm smile

I’ve got my usual banjo set up going where I just carry it over my shoulder like a bluegrass mariachi rather than carrying it in its case. This arrangement never fails to create situations where people are curious to hear this strange and shiny instrument. On the way into her apartment, an old man asks for a song, so of course I oblige, and we have an impromptu performance for him and his friends on the front porch. After getting the thumbs up approval, we continue on to her place, about 20 floors up in one of the thousands of high rise Beijing apartment buildings.

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Another impromptu banjo performance

YuMiao has very modern and nice apartment. She seems to be doing well with her work as a professional musician. It is just two rooms, one bedroom, one living room, a small kitchen, and a bathroom, but she is very neat and clean, and creates a lot of space with her Spartan existence. She just got a new espresso machine, a rare luxury in China, and offers us a latte on our arrival.

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YuMiao’s simple living style

She is really sweet, kind, smart, funny, and speaks English very well. But once she gets the Guzheng out and starts playing, we become speechless. The way she plays is so fluid and graceful, and she combines a very traditional Chinese sound with a willingness and ability to stretch out and improvise freely. After we tune up, she begins playing some tracks for a Grateful Dead song that will be on the album called “China Cat Sunflower”. She does a few tasteful tracks, then I ask her to do one super weird one, perfect for the Grateful Dead vibe. Of course she obliges, and performs some rather strange sounds. Perfect!

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YuMiao and her Guzheng

After tracking, we jam a little with the guzheng and banjo. Freestyling a bit, doing some Chinese music I’ve composed, and playing a little bluegrass. The two instruments sound really wonderful together, and I can envision one day doing a whole duet cd with her; just the banjo and guzheng. This session is the epitome of Banjo Earth. Through this project we are meeting wonderful people, amazing musicians, and creating sounds across cultures and boundaries that are new, old, and deep. We get to share our traditions, respect them in their history and beauty, then break from them in fun ways; laughing the whole time. YuMiao is a consummate musician, a very sweet girl, and I’m really proud to have her as part of the project.

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YuMiao adding her phenomenal playing to “China Cat Sunflower”

We say our goodbyes to her, then set out on our journey back to inner Beijing. It’s been another full day on the Banjo Earth, so we are pretty happy and worn out. I want to share this Sichuan restaurant that we discovered earlier in the trip with my Brother, so we stop in for a bite. The food is delicious as always, and the company is nice as well.

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One of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted

I find a little coffee shop after dinner to catch up on the blog. If two days go by, and I haven’t written, things start slipping from my memory rather quickly. So, I’ve made it a point not to get too far behind. After catching up, I feel much better, and am ready for a good night’s sleep in our tight hutong quarters. But, alas, with the combination of snoring, and having to crawl out of bed and running to the next alleyway for restroom access, sleep is shoddy. I do catch a few winks however, and go to sleep excited about our last day in Beijing tomorrow.

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Beijing hutong wall art

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 22 – “Look Both Ways” (blog)

Beijing –

The “kung fu” house, as I call it, sleeps really well. It has a soft, gigantic bed, and is really quiet. I awake very rested and excited about being back in Beijing. This place is starting to feel like my home. But, when you are on the road, anywhere you stay longer than two days feels like home. So, I head out to the studio to try to get our session changed to tomorrow. The studio is very nice, and let’s me change the time, but asks for payment up front this go around. Fair enough. Afterwards, I stroll the city a bit, then head back to the house for recording. It is quiet enough and spacious enough to set up the gear and get some really good sounds. After working for hours on one banjo solo for one song. I’m ready for a break.

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The “Kung Fu houe” courtyard

Ben and I head out for dinner, where we have rice, duck, broccoli with mushrooms, and meatball soup. It is a cold Beijing day, and the warm food heats our soul. We enjoy the meal, and take a walk afterward. They have a saying in China that goes something like “If you walk a thousand steps after every meal, you will live to be 100 years old”. That’s probably true if you aren’t walking in Beijing! The traffic here is unpredictable, and they definitely don’t follow the pedestrian first rule like they do in the States. That is the first thing I tell fellow travelers here. Don’t expect the car to stop when you are crossing the street.

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Look both ways!

After our return home, we dip into the recordings to begin mixing the record. I’m really happy with how the music is coming about. It is a great mixture of American, Chinese, and original music. The Mongolian throat singing and horse-head fiddle sound awesome, and the Chinese songs we are working on are taking shape nicely. We have about 5 more days to get this record in the bag, and there is still a long way to go. So, we hit the bed early and prepared ourselves for some new exciting adventures.

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Beijing tire art